‘It is normal and human to talk about mental health in the workplace’

Ruth Cooper-Dickson, Chief Executive Officer, CHAMPS Consult

  • Tell us a bit about yourself and your professional journey. What led to CHAMPS Consulting?

CHAMPS was born out of my own lived experience of mental ill-health. I was diagnosed back in 2015 with two anxiety disorders, Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Panic Disorder. I had suffered from panic attacks for the last 19 years in the corporate world, but I had never spoken about it or had them checked out.

I genuinely thought it was something wrong with me or I was weak. There was a lot of shame and embarrassment around me having them and back then nobody really spoke about mental health.

I had worked in the corporate world, in industries like Aerospace, Investment Banking and Wealth Management, in the operations side of the business for a large part of my career, I tended to work in strategic change or business improvement which meant there was always a thread of people in the work I delivered or the projects I managed.

I was not in HR or Learning & Development but I did work alongside those departments, then I moved from broader talent projects to focusing on Diversity and Inclusion. It was in this role where I went through my own difficult life experience of a relationship breakdown and went through a divorce.

As a senior leader, I threw myself into work to distract me from what was happening in my personal life and as a result, became extremely burnt-out. It was at work I had what I call a very public ‘meltdown’ which was a serious panic attack. The aftermath of this left me very fragile and it has taken years of recovery. It was around the time I returned to work on a phased approach that I noticed how people did not know how to have a conversation about why I was absent from work, but when I did share the reason why I had been absent it started a conversation.

That was where CHAMPS started, from me wanting to make it ‘normal’ and human to have those conversations in the workplace the same way we would do for physical ill-health, but also have the space to talk about when things were tough or difficult, at both home or work, not just when things were positive and going great.

  • What is the consultancy’s mission and core values?

CHAMPS has always been about creating Mentally Wealthy organisations, to ingrain a culture of positive Mental Wealth in the very fabric of the organisation. We are humanistic in our approach and we are also very real when it comes to the challenges an organisation faces. We focus on the people and the business together, for it to be a success they must go hand-in-hand. Our values are honesty, kindness and a teamwork approach. Our clients are part of the CHAMPS family and we see ourselves as a respected partner in those conversations.

  • “Making your organization mentally wealthy”. What is the key message behind this?

CHAMPS has a model called MWEALTH which stands for Mindful, Wholesome Foods, Engage, Activity, Learning, Tune Out and Help Others, these are cornerstone key habits that we know are scientifically proven to boost a persons wellbeing, however, an organisation has to go far beyond that.

If there’s one thing we have learnt from the Covid-19 global pandemic, is that no business can do without its healthy and happy team, as your employees are the beating heart of your organisation. Therefore leaders need to be able to create a culture in which team members – and therefore productivity and performance – can really flourish. What we have seen a lot, during the pandemic, is people languishing.

Languishing is the forgotten middle child of mental health, it is not having a clinical diagnosis of mental ill-health but it is the absence of wellbeing. Leaders need to recognise how to get the best from their people, when they are flourishing but also when they may be struggling and how you keep their performance to an optimum that still works for them and enabling them to still be motivated until they are back thriving.

The key message is, that at CHAMPS we help forward-thinking teams and leaders turn mental wellbeing into their biggest asset at work.

  • Why is the employee’s wellbeing important for a business? How can an organization incorporate policies that safeguard mental health and promote wellbeing in the workplace?

There are so many statistics out there now and evidence-based reports that demonstrate the ROI when it comes to the impact that healthy, happy and productive employees have on your bottom line. Of course, if people are thriving, they are in the flow they are doing their best work, they find meaning and purpose in their contribution, they are satisfied. This pays dividends when it comes to the output, the way they collaborate as a team, how they go the extra mile with customers and clients and the innovation and creativity is high. Who would not want that as a leader of a business?

Policies are important, whether they are health and wellbeing policies, inclusion policies, or operations policies, such as flexible working. But, here is the rub, policies are only as good as the managers who live and breathe those policies. That they are interwoven in how business is done, how employees engage in the unspoken contract with their manager which is all about the culture of the organisation.

You could have the most brilliant wellbeing policy but if the culture does not live and breath it, understand it, enforce it, then it is not impactful at all. In the same vein, it is worth highlighting where organisations have an Employee Assistance Provision (EAP) or access to a Mental Health app and believe that is enough to support employees. Apps, EAP provisions like policies are only part of the infrastructure when it comes to supporting employees workplace wellbeing.

  • In your opinion, how will Covid-19 impact mental health in legal workplaces?

I think organisations across all industries are facing the same problems right now in terms of how the Covid-19 global pandemic has impacted mental health. People are languishing, they are fatigued and exhausted. They have had enough! Some individuals have realised during the pandemic that their business does not in fact care about their wellbeing at all, so we are seeing globally a shift in talent moving, Gallup has coined it the ‘talent tsunami’.

Some individuals are still very much experiencing feelings of anxiety, we have seen in the first global academic study of the impact of Covid-19 on mental health is a 25% increase in clinical depression and anxiety disorders. Our people have been through a lot with living through a period of anxiety, loneliness, isolation & disruption, let alone grappling with job loss, bereavement or illness.

If you are a legal workplace, that is looking to implement some form of hybrid working, this will also challenge employees yet again and raise more uncertainty and anxious thoughts. You also run the risk of continued burnout with the “always-on” culture we have already witnessed over the last 18 months with some employees stating that they are “living at work, not working to live”.

Leaders now need to get smarter, to look at those wellbeing hotspots which will be evident across the entire employee lifecycle. This is not a mental health issue, it is about understanding the bigger cultural systemic issues which impact individual’s mental health, from there ensuring those preventative, supportive, recovery measures are in place and easily accessible if needed.

  • What do you consider as a sign that a person’s wellbeing is at risk?

There are so many signs and symptoms we can recognise in someone, sometimes they are small and subtle and will only be picked up by those who know us very well, who see us all of the time. We spend, on average, 90,000 hours of our life at work (I know it is a lot!) so our colleagues are often best placed to spot when we are not doing okay! The signs can be everything such as physical e.g. appearance, tiredness, headaches, upset stomachs, to psychological or emotional signs, such as a change of moods, being more tearful or irritable.

More often it is more that we recognise a change in a colleague’s behaviour at work, something that appears not right for them, such as they make silly mistakes that they wouldn’t usually do, they might withdraw from social chat, they could appear to be online all of the time, they keep checking in about work and appear over-anxious.

We should all be self-aware to know our own red flags. I know mine, from the tension headaches to losing my appetite when I’m under pressure and I am more direct and question my team which is when my anxiety shows up. I can now call it out myself, but I have created a culture whereby my team can feel safe to be open and direct with me and check in if they believe something is wrong if I have not spotted it in myself. Checking in with your colleagues is about being a good human, caring and compassionate. It is a brave step to be an authentic leader and part of that is about sharing some of those vulnerabilities when needed, it permits people to do the same.

  • What is strong in your self-care toolkit? How do you make time for this?

I am not sure if it is a self-care toolkit, it is more of a self-care arsenal!! It has everything in there and the list has got longer in the pandemic because some of my staples, such as going to the gym, I could not do with lockdowns, which is when I got into sea swimming (all year round, the cold-water is so good for your Mental Wealth). I love running and boxing, any form of boosting happy hormones.

Now the cinema is open again, I love big action and sci-fi movies, anything that takes me off to a distant realm, pure escapism. I read feminist Greek mythology, I also love fantasy fiction. One aspect for me is my morning routine, as an early bird, I have cultivated a routine that mixes up positive affirmations, meditation, yoga, movement, journaling and just anything that makes me feel good, even dancing around the kitchen!!

I encourage all of my team to create space for their self-care. Strategic self-care is about boundaries, so on a Sunday I block out time for the week, I want time to exercise, time to spend outdoors, social time and then everything else fits around that. CHAMPS has successfully worked a 4-day week for the last 3 years so that is boundary time to either catch up on your own projects or admin, no meetings, calls or emails allowed. Ideally, it is time to pursue those fun passions which help me and the team to flourish and thrive.