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“It’s about inviting people to bring their whole selves to work” - Poppy Jaman, CEO

“It’s about inviting people to bring their whole selves to work” - Poppy Jaman, CEO
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Poppy Jaman, CEO of the CMHA, reflects on how her experiences as a young woman, show that creating mentally healthy workplace cultures is about more than preventing mental illness. It’s also about releasing potential.

Poppy Jaman has worked with the City Mental Health Alliance (CMHA),  the community for mentally healthy businesses,   since its inception in 2012 and became CEO in 2015.  Here she reflects on how her experiences as a young woman, show that creating mentally healthy cultures is about more than preventing mental illness. It’s also about releasing potential.

When did you first experience mental ill-health?

“If I zoom back, it started when I was in my teens. I was the daughter of a British Bangladeshi migrant family, I was raised amongst social norms, where girls were not to be seen or heard. That was my cultural framework at home, while at school I constantly felt like an outsider. My sense of belonging wasn’t really fostered in any which place, and I suppose that was when my mental health difficulty started.

“Fast forward to age 20, sitting on the floor of my high rise flat with my eight-month-old daughter. With no job, on benefits, not having much hope for a positive future and then having this thing called post-natal depression, which I didn’t understand. I thought that the world would be a better place without me. But, when I watched my baby coming towards me in her walker, I felt hopeful, and I realised I needed to create a different future. I knew I needed purpose, healthy relationships, independence, routine and an income to lift me out of this.”

How do you feel, when you reflect on that experience now?

“If I stand outside of myself and look at that journey, it’s incredibly powerful. I was sitting there feeling hopeless, and thinking about suicide, and now – at 44 – I’m sitting here a proud mother and CEO of the CMHA; the community for mentally healthy businesses. I’m glad I’m here. Every time we lose someone to suicide, we lose something in the world. There is no price that we can put on the loss that comes from not addressing mental health issues early.”

What drives your work?

“I’m being driven by the ambition to get this vital conversation into early careers, amongst young people, in businesses, at universities, at kitchen tables. That’s the change that’s got to happen before we can feel the dial on this has shifted and we are in a world that fully accepts mental health as a common and normal human condition. I absolutely believe it is possible. When I set up my previous organisation, Mental Health First Aid England, my personal vision was that by the time my children go to work, they should be offered mental health first aid training alongside compulsory first aid training. I was delighted when my eldest told me that this happened for her, not at work but at collage. Anything is possible if there is collective will to change.”

How far do you think we have come, with mental health in the workplace?

“In the UK we’ve laid the foundations. The social sector and forward thinking businesses within the CMHA membership, have  raised the profile of mental health, and leaders are talking about it. We know in all walks of our lives that one in four of us will experience poor mental health.

“On top of that, the pandemic has put health on the agenda in every boardroom and the ‘how are you’ question has become a workplace question. In the past, business leaders have asked me what does ‘how are you?’ have to do with performance? I believe human connection is crucial for building trust and that is important for creating resilient teams. How do you get the best out of people if you don’t know what’s going on for them?

“We’ve made huge strides. When the CMHA was set up in the UK ten years ago, we could not imagine that we would have three chapters set up in other countries by now, and another five or six in the pipeline. It’s incredible. Businesses have moved from doing some ‘wellbeing stuff’ at key hook dates – such as World Mental Health Day – to thinking about how they build a future that is sustainable when it comes to health.”

What should businesses strive for with regards to workplace mental health? 

“It’s about creating mentally healthy cultures. When you do that it’s not just about people being able to speak up when they’re not feeling ok. It’s not just about being an ally and calling out behaviour that might not align with the values of positive mental health. It’s also about inviting people to bring their whole selves to work. When they do that, they bring their creativity and they bring new ideas, and that’s when people and businesses flourish.

“When we create environments that grow talent, that allow people to be themselves, we have no idea what could be created in the world. And that includes the unseen workforce; the person who opens the door for you as your come in, the person who cleans your office. If you nurture everyone within an organisation, we’re really going to get some amazing magic happening.”