Working 9 to 5: Poppy Jaman on mental health and the work–life balance

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  • Posted:Thursday 31 January 2019

A podcast about big ideas in health and care. We talk with experts from The King’s Fund and beyond about the NHS, social care, and all things health policy and leadership. New episodes monthly.

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What should employers be doing to keep us well? And what language should we use when we talk about mental health? Poppy Jaman OBE, Chief Executive of City Mental Health Alliance, chats with Helen McKenna about mental health in the workplace, and shares her advice for future leaders.

Helen McKenna and Poppy Jaman OBE

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If you or a loved one require advice, information or support on any mental health issues, the charities Mind and Rethink have lots of resources on their websites and also have a helpline if you need to speak to someone. 

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  • HM: Helen McKenna
  • PJ: Poppy Jaman

HM:    Hello and welcome to the King's Fund podcast where we talk about the big issues and ideas in health and care. I'm Helen McKenna, I'm a senior fellow in policy and communications here at the King's Fund. Today I'm honoured to be joined by Poppy Jaman, cofounder and chief executive of City Mental Health Alliance and previously the founding chief executive of Mental Health First Aid England and also currently a non-executive director at Public Health England. Poppy, welcome to the King's Fund podcast.

PJ:    Hi Helen, thank you very much for the welcome. 

HM:    So in a minute we're going to get on to questions around your leadership style and also your work on mental health in the workplace, but first, to kick off, you may have seen in the news recently that the Wellcome Trust has decided to trial having a four day working week. If you had an extra day each week to spend having fun and if money was no object, what would you do? 

PJ:    That's a great question. So my passion and hobby is I'm a sari enthusiast so I have the most amazing and enormous collection of saris that go back to my teenage days when my mum started buying me them and -

HM:    Nice.

PJ:    - in the last year or two I've really got into handloom saris, so actually holding up the artisan community in Bangladesh, in India, the village community who create saris using traditional methods. Now I will only buy saris from the communities and know that actually what the print is and how they created the dye etc. So I would probably grow my sari collection twofold and be really skint. If I had another day that's what I would do and I just … and I love wearing them and I'd … so I'm part of 100,000 women who are professional women who are all going back to the sari worldwide. So we've got a group where we connect with each other and share the last time we wore a sari at a conference or a work thing.

HM:    Nice.

PJ:    So moving back to … I guess a lot of us Asian women in the professional world sort of did the whole we need to assimilate, so adopted the trousers and the skirt and the suits in order to fit in, and actually we're now going back to let's bring back the sari to work and do what our mothers and grandmothers did, wore them when they did everything.

HM:    Yes. 

PJ:    From wallpapering in my mother's case to my grandmother gardening and growing things. So that's what I'd do. 

HM:    That sounds fantastic. So let's go into a little bit around what you're doing now. Can you tell us a bit about your career so far? How did you get to where you are today? 

PJ:    My mental health career started as a community development worker in Portsmouth working in a local authority which became a primary care trust. So I was working for the NHS. Then I was working for the Department of Health where I was leading on race equality and mental health. So that was my real first big programme of work and introduction to driving change through businesses. So business transformation, organisational transformation through change. Then I had the enormous privilege of taking Mental Health First Aid, which we founded and created within an organisation called the National Institute for Mental Health in England, which was sat within the Department of Health, and I had the opportunity to take that out of DH and set it up as a social enterprise. So then I had a ten year experience of the third sector and being a social entrepreneur and actually working out how we navigate that world and bridge being a very social purpose driven company and business. So that was really pioneering and really fun and then I left that organisation last May, but while I was within City Mental Health Alliance six years ago I got involved with a number of corporate leaders, business leaders in the financial and professional services sector, who wanted to address the issue of mental health stress in the city amongst its employees and I help set up the City Mental Health Alliance and now I lead that organisation. So I feel like I've had the enormous privilege of working in the statutory sector, the third sector and now with a lot of corporate organisations and globally increasingly as well over the last few years. So the range has been good. 

HM:    Yes, massive range it feels like - 

PJ:    Yes, but there's …

HM:    - and I guess it means you can bring so much knowledge and expertise from those sectors in to bear on the new ones that you join.

PJ:    - and it's the leading mental health training organisation in England. It's a real success story but the success comes from the fact that the people that got behind Mental Health First Aid and bought the services; there's statutory sector, voluntary sector, Mind, something like 60% of local Minds deliver Mental Health First Aid, that's amazing.

HM:    Yes. 

PJ:    So that's a great partnership but it's also good working together. Then you've got businesses like EY, PWC, Deloittes the big four rolling out Mental Health First Aid. So I think the benefit of having worked in different sectors for me but with a single purpose, mental health, has meant that I can look at things from different angles and I love that.
HM:    Yes, and just in terms of the city now you're working with City Mental Health Alliance, do you feel having worked across different sectors that the city has a particular … or has come from a place where it has a particular problem in terms of employees being able to talk about mental health or do you think this problem is actually much more widespread across all sectors and people generally struggle? 

PJ:    Yes, I think the problem is a global problem.

HM:    Yes.

PJ:    Every 40 seconds somebody dies by suicide somewhere in the world. In the next 20 years mental ill health or mental health issues is going to be the biggest cause of disability worldwide. So we've got an issue around mental health and mental illness that's a global agenda and then it presents itself in every part of society whether it's me as a parent, whether it's me as a colleague, whether it's me as just a member of my community. If I look at the world through the mental health lens there's a lot of work to do -

HM:    Yes.

PJ:    - and I think with the City Mental Health Alliance, I mean it's a fantastic organisation driving change and leading change in the workplace and the purpose came from we have got a lot of stress in the city. We have got people that have died by suicide and we want to address this but we don't know how to address it, and in the beginning, in the early days when we started six years ago, there was literally nobody that was an employee of the city that was willing to come forward and tell their story.

HM:    How important do you think it is for senior leaders who've had personal experience of their own mental health issues to share their stories with staff? 

PJ:    I think it's really important to lead by example and everybody has got a story. So whether your story is one like Brain Heyworth who's the vice chair of the City Mental Health Alliance or Pete Rodgers who's the founding Chairman of City Mental Health Alliance, one of their own personal experiences of mental health issues, whether it's that or whether it's actually we know someone or I have no personal experience but I know that actually I need to openly, as a leader, talk about mental health and wellbeing being integral to the values of my business because we are here taking the duty of care for our people beyond the minimum that we can do. Actually we want to attract, retain and grow talent because businesses are made up of people and in order to do that I need to be publically saying as a leader that this mental health and wellbeing is good for business. So I think it's critical that leaders step up and step into this space and tell the story of mental health being a positive thing for the business and also being educated enough to understand that we all have mental health -

HM:    Yes. 

PJ:    - just like we all have physical health. Mental illness is something that we may or may not get and we can do things to prevent it, support people that are going through it and help people recover. We can do that. 

HM:    But it's a part of everyday life and it shouldn't -

PJ:    Yes.

HM:    - be ignored just the same as other bits of life.

PJ:    Yes.

HM:    Yes.

PJ:    Yes, absolutely.

HM:    So you've talked about your career so far and it sounds like you started in mental health, can you tell me why mental health? 

PJ:    Yes, do you know, it was a bit of an accident. I didn't ever leave school and think I'm going to work in mental health, but I was always curious as to emotions, emotional reactions, how people behave, mood and I think that stems very much back to my own childhood. So I would say that members of my family, close members of my family, have had significant mental health issues and actually from an early age I … there were long periods of time where I had caring responsibilities as a result of mental health issues in the family. Then I myself in my early 20s was depressed, was diagnosed with depression and anxiety and it came in the form of postnatal depression, but actually looking back it probably started much earlier and it would have been a direct result of adverse childhood events which we know -

HM:    Yes.    

PJ:    - is synonymous with mental health, is a good predictor for mental health issues. So I think … you know that whole so you don't know why you're doing things but reflection is a … hindsight is a great thing. So I think actually my personal experiences was probably … was a big driver in how I've ended up working in mental health. The lack of education and understanding and knowledge I experienced, 20 years ago now, created a passion for educating so that I guess we disrupted the system. The whole mental health … I really see Mental Health First Aid and the City Mental Health Alliance coming along and disrupting the system. Let me just explain what I mean by that. So before Mental Health First Aid came along, all the language around mental health was mental illness orientated and it was very clinical and it was very jargonistic and I remember in the early days of reading stuff and thinking I've no idea what any of this means let alone being able to then use documents to then talk to my family about it. Being a bilingual family and my parents would … particularly my mum would have needed it explaining in Bengali, it was just ... it was difficult. So I think those things, those experiences changed to a driver for creating change. So when Mental Health First Aid came along and started to educate anybody and everybody in mental health, people were like, "Is this safe?" and interestingly it was the clinicians actually that were quite protective of this space because obviously here's an organisation claiming that we're going to teach just the average person to have a mental health conversation and signpost -

HM:    Yes.

PJ:    - I mean is that dangerous? Where's the clinical evidence for it?

HM:    But the counterfactual there's no conversation (laughter).

PJ:    Yes, yes, and at times I doubted, at times it did make me go, god, am I … are we doing the right thing? Is it safe? Are we going to trigger people? But my instincts were everybody should be able to have a conversation about mental health, right? Everybody should be able to do that and that's all we're doing -

HM:    Yes.

PJ:    - and here we are Mental Health First Aid being a leading organisation in the country and in fact there was a parliamentary debate on first aid for mental health becoming mandatory alongside first aid for physical health, which I'm chuffed to bits with because that piece of work started a number of years ago and it was a real proud moment to see Simon Blake, the CEO of Mental Health First Aid, on TV talking about it. It was like, wow, look at how far we've come. So we've disrupted the system and we've actually changed -

HM:    Yes.

PJ:    - how …

HM:    And potentially made it status quo -

PJ:    Yes, yes.

HM:    - disrupted the system to make it part of the -

PJ:    Yes, yes.

HM:    - system, which is, yes -

PJ:    Which is amazing.

HM:    - amazing.

PJ:    Amazing. Yes, absolutely.

HM:    Yes. So people talk a lot about this concept of parity of esteem between mental and physical health. Where do you think we are on the journey towards achieving that? Are we close?

PJ:    So first of all I've got to say parity of esteem, so I look at mental health now as a global issue and parity of esteem, that term, doesn't really mean anything outside of the UK and it goes back to 2011 when the previous government released the mental health report 'no health without mental health' that's where it was first cited. So I think, as I said to you earlier, language is really important. So we need to be making sure that we're using language like equality for mental health. Let's just really talk about what it is as opposed to these terms. So that's my little rant about parity of esteem, I'll park that now. So …

HM:    So on progress towards equality -

PJ:    Yes, so progress -

HM:    - for mental health.

PJ:    - towards equality for mental health, so let me just put myself … so I'm … I've already shared that I've had my own experience of mental health issues, but my youngest daughter who's 18 has also in the last year got a diagnosis of anxiety. So if I put myself in the lived experienced hat and look at it through the lens of somebody that's experienced mental health issues and also the mother of somebody that's got a diagnosis of anxiety, what do I worry about? So I worry when she approaches the working world, will her opportunities be equal to her peers? What will workplaces look like for her and will her workplace be a place which adds to her stresses or will it be a place that actually creates an environment where she will be able to flourish?

HM:    Yes, you've worked for many years now around the role of employers in mental health, what's your view on the role of employers and health more broadly and what they should be doing in order to keep us well? Is that … should that be a big part of what an employer does? 

PJ:    Yes, absolutely. We spend a lot of time at work and I think if you look at what the younger generation want long gone is that kind of I go to work I leave my life at the door, I earn income, I provide for my family.

HM:    The nine to five.

PJ:    Yes, the nine to five and also … and then I go on holiday a couple of times a week and that's … a year and that's a family … that's the family time. Actually we want a more integrated life. We're calling for men to be more part of the family life. Men want to do that so we're seeing a societal shift and workplaces need to accommodate that and I think they are. I think they're beginning to create that change, but I think we've still got long working hours culture in some sectors, we're still not seeing the fact that productivity, working longer and harder, isn't equal to being productive. Actually it's quite the reverse, if you look after people and nurture people they'll give their best while they're at work and we want people to bring their best thinking to work. So I think business … successful businesses are going to have to be agile, family friendly, caring, responsibility friendly and so going back to your … where we started, leadership, if the leader goes home at six o'clock then it almost gives everybody in that culture to go home. So I think workplaces have to adapt and evolve -

HM:    Yes.

PJ:    - because otherwise they're not going to have the talent that they need and we don’t need to be in an office to do most jobs in the western world -

HM:    Yes.

PJ:    - anymore.

HM:    So you touched on leadership just then and that is something I really want to talk to you about because obviously you've achieved huge amounts in your career, how would you describe your leadership style and what has shaped it? 

PJ:    I never set out to be a leader, is the first thing that I would say, because, on a subconscious level, when I looked around me as a young woman people that look like me weren't in leadership positions.

HM:    Yes. 

PJ:    Short Bangladeshi women are a rare find in the leadership circuits in the UK and in London. So I would say that my leadership style is very much around developing a network, supporting people to progress. So I think it's closely aligned to servant leadership -

HM:    Okay.

PJ:    - but I also take a lot of pride in leading by example, so living and breathing what I am talking about, but I enjoy setting and facilitating and creating the space for people to step in and build, that's what I like to do.

HM:    That sounds like a facilitative empowering -

PJ:    Yes.

HM:    - leadership style, and how do you look after yourself as a leader because I know you're a senior leader, you're also a mother and I'm sure you have other personal commitments. How do you fit all those in and keep yourself well? 

PJ:    Yes, so I wouldn't say that I'm the best example of keeping myself well over the years and I think one of the things that I really recognise is that work has been an integral part of my recovery journey. Work has given me purpose, it's given me financial health in order to be able to look after my family as the -

HM:    Yes.    

PJ:    - person that has always been the main income … the person that pays the mortgage and the bills for the majority of my career. So I think financial health is critical, but work has also given me my networks and where I draw my energy from and particularly in the early days of mental health issues I really turned to work for structure as well. So when you approach a job and work with that level of dependency on it for your health and wellbeing, as I've got older, it's certainly I've had to really take a hard look at myself and go, "Right, what else are you doing?" because you probably don't need work to be such a big part of your health and wellbeing. So what do I do? I do hot yoga once a week, I do weight bearing exercises a couple of times a week, I actively seek time out to see my friends and it's very well known for me to post random postcards in the post to my mates just because I've thought about them. So connecting and staying connected -

HM:    Yes. 

PJ:    - to people. Once a year I'll always do a weekend or something with my daughters, particularly as they've got older that's been really important. We just go away and we have us time. So my personal relationships are really important to me, staying connected and then exercise and health is really important to me. Downtimes.

HM:    Yes. 

PJ:    Yes, and consciously doing that.

HM:    But it sounds like work is also a really important part of your identity.

PJ:    Yes.

HM:    Yes. 

PJ:    Yes, it is and I do worry about … I'm already worried about retirement and what that's going to look like because actually it's purpose more than work, because my jobs I'm so lucky that I've chosen jobs or fallen into jobs that have got so much purpose.

HM:    Well it's aligned with your values -

PJ:    Yes.

HM:    - and you're driving those forward.

PJ:    Yes, yes.

HM:    So they're kind of in some ways -

PJ:    Yes.

HM:    - inextricable purpose.

PJ:    Yes. So it doesn't feel like work if that makes sense. So…

HM:    Which is the best kind of job to have.

PJ:    Yes, absolutely I feel very lucky. So actually I need to … that's probably why I'm building up the sari network, that's what I'm going to do next.

HM:    For retirement.

PJ:    Yes, yes (laughter). 

HM:    Okay, and tell me who or what has been the greatest influence on your career? 

PJ:    I think I couldn't say that there was any one person. There have been a number of people. So for me, I've had a number of mentors over my career and they've usually come in the form of bosses or chief executives of the organisations that I worked with. So when I was in Portsmouth and thinking about going for the race equality job in London and national and it was going to be a regional job based in I think it was Guildford at the time, the chief executive of the then Portsmouth … NHS Portsmouth Primary Care Trust, Sheila Clark had a chat with me and was like, "Well of course you should do this," and I was a bit like, "Well I don't have any qualifications." Then my next boss Judy really supported me and the chief executive or the director of the organisation supported me to go and do an MBA and build up my qualifications and their words were, "You're really good," and at the time I was overseeing a massive budget in a regional programme, "You're really good but your CV doesn't reflect that." I'd left school with just … well I say some very good GCSEs but I didn't do A levels, I didn't do -

HM:    Yes.

PJ:    - a first degree. So it's been people like that at different points in my career who have nudged me forward and gone, "Of course you can." So I've just had a collection of amazing people that have looked after me and I think we need … we all need those and I think being a BAME woman, the disadvantages are stacked up against you so we need people and leaders to actually level the playing field -

HM:    Yes.

PJ:    - and it's not about giving me something more than somebody else, it's about recognising the fact that I need something different. 

HM:    Yes. 

PJ:    I would have never thought about going on a leadership programme or doing an MBA because that was never in my frame of reference because there were no role models.

HM:    People that you could look up to -

PJ:    Yes, yes -

HM:    - that looked or felt like you.

PJ:    - it wasn't my pathway. I was supposed to be a married woman and a housewife nurturing a family, that's how my family brought me up I wasn't brought up to be a global leader on mental health. So it was people in my career that went, "Yes, of course you can and that's what you need to do," and no one person but a collection of people that I will always hold gratitude for in my heart. 

HM:    You've talked about feeling different and feeling disadvantaged as you were starting out and you've mentioned earlier on about the kind of feeling that you didn't fit in, trying to I guess conform with the right clothing and now you're wearing saris and enjoying that and that kind of being a trajectory of change for you. I guess my question for you would be what advice would you give to young women … young BAME women who are starting out who may feel like you did when you were starting out? What would you tell them to inspire and encourage them now? 

PJ:    A couple of things. So first of all I would say, this was a great bit of advice that was given to me many years ago, if you look at a job description and you can do 60% of it, you need to go for it because actually the other 40% is the bit that you have the discussion at interview in your application form about the growth. Why would you do a job that you can already do? Where's the learning in that? We know that we need to be motivated by development -

HM:    Yes. 

PJ:    - and actually BAME women will … I know many women and friends who have got three/four degrees because they want to continue to build their academic qualifications because they want to be perfect on paper and actually that's not true. So the second thing linked to that is when you think you need another degree or another qualification just pause and think about it and think about going on a leadership programme. I've been very lucky to experience, I think I've done two maybe three, but I've also designed a couple and they are amazing because actually you get to have an insight in your personality and how you're presenting -

HM:    Yes.

PJ:    - and how you're connecting in a way that you never would. So get yourself on a good leadership programme and not another degree unless of course that's exactly … you want to do a degree and it's an area of interest, but it's not … career progression is about sometimes we get stuck -

HM:    Yes.

PJ:    - with our own self stigma and we need…

HM:    And we need unlocking, yes.

PJ:    Absolutely. And then the third thing I … is mentors and coaches. We often think that actually we need a mentoring scheme that we need to go on and it's a formal thing and it's within our business and we meet with a mentor every month. They're great, but actually I think what's more great is developing a network of people that you respect, elders, youngers, different fields, sit down and run it like a project. Make a list of the people that you respect and that you want to learn from and the authors that inspire you, connect with them through social media, invite people out for a cup of tea, seek their advice and manage those relationships. Some of the people that I look up to I might only see once a year but I manage those networks and that sounds calculated but it's not, it's because I really respect their work and I'm learning -

HM:    Yes, yes. 

PJ:    - from them. So mentoring can be a very informal but a very fruitful way of getting you connected to the places and the spaces that you want to connect with, and managing your networks is an art, so get good at it.

HM:    So that sounds like invaluable advice Poppy and you touched on leadership courses, I think I'm duty bound to say that the King's Fund offers a whole range of leadership courses that are available on our website for more details, so please take a look. On that note Poppy, with such fantastic advice to people starting out on their career, I'd like to thank you for joining us.

PJ:    Thank you very much for having me. It's been a lot of fun.

HM:    Thank you. Well that's it from us. You can find the show notes for this episode and all our previous episodes at Thanks for listening and thanks to our podcast team. I'm Helen McKenna and thanks as always to our producers Ian Ford and Sarah Murphy. If you enjoyed this episode please subscribe, rate and review us. We'd really love to know what you think and what you'd like to hear more about. So please tell us by leaving a review on iTunes or get in touch either on Twitter @thekingsfund or my account @helenamacarena. Hope you can join us next time.