How do you create safe spaces where employees can be open about their mental health? With head of social impact Chloe Davies

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We speak exclusively to a leader who has done this: Chloe Davies, head of social impact at creative agency Lucky Generals

‘Pale, stale and male’. These are the criticisms that have often been levelled at the advertising industry over the last few years, as the corporate world has woken up to the importance of diversity and inclusion – especially in a sector which is meant to appeal to all types of customers through its storytelling.

But some of the industry are leading the way in changing culture, such as agency Lucky Generals. This purpose-led creative outfit hired Chloe Davies in September as its first ever ‘head of social impact’.

Chloe is passionate about creating work environments where employees can be their whole selves, believing this is the way to happiness, productivity and, so, the best work.

As well as being a volunteer for causes close to her heart like UK Black Pride and the London Queer Fashion Show, she is also vocal about her personal, daily mental health struggles. Her own experience, and empathy for that of others, led her to take up the role of Mental Health First Aid England Ambassador, too.

While there is a lot of theory around the need to be open about mental health at work, in practice it can be extremely challenging to create a culture and physical environment where employees feel safe psychologically. That’s why we reached out to Chloe and quizzed her on the practicalities of doing this and what’s she’s learnt so far, in her new role, about creating these spaces.

What do you do in this role?

My job is multi-faceted but the first pillar of my role, alongside the founders and our MD Cressida Holmes-Smith, is to help build on an inclusive culture from within.

I’m very much about belonging. So, how do we, along with our Diversity Equality & Inclusion initiatives, build that culture? How do we talk with, and to, each other? How do we help make our education and learning more rich, through different training opportunities?

We have our ‘Marching Forward’ initiative, which is all about DE&I. Within that, there are a number of work streams that we have now looking to health and wellbeing, looking at things like how do we talk to each other internally, via channels like the ‘MF Club’ and our newsletter.

I oversee all this from an internal perspective on a day-to-day basis for our 90 plus employees in London and New York.

What advice do you have on creating spaces where people feel they can show up as themselves?

The only way that you can create a space where people can fully feel like they can show up with each other is you have to understand what that lived experience is for each and every person in the agency.

And we’re all completely different. Some of us are parents. Some of us are parents of neurodiverse children. Some of us are LGBT people of colour. It’s not one size fits all.

You have to be open. You have to constantly be a space of learning where people continue to evolve.

Yes, these conversations can be uncomfortable and a bit hard. But if you are the one to take the first step, or create a space where people can take that step, it makes everything else you do more rich, because it’s honest. It has integrity.

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One thing that I hope that stays from the pandemic is the transparency and reduced fear to be vulnerable and show up.

In a practical sense, where can companies start on this path?

I wouldn’t say our model would fit somebody else’s. You know your own house.

You can share best practices with each other, but you have to create some form of structure that allows that 360 communication between your employees, at all levels, to talk about what matters. To share where they’re at. To share what they bring to the table in your business and then what more they want to bring. This all comes from the vision and mission of your business.

You also have to accept that if you are going to grow, that framework will always continue to evolve. And again that’s uncomfortable, so it’s about just being comfortable with being uncomfortable.

As you’ve said, every company is different so they have to find the framework that works for them. But what kind of initiatives have worked at Lucky Generals?

There was already a pretty robust framework with Marching Forward.

What I’ve been doing in the last six months, and looking ahead to 2022, is giving the agency a foundation of support and re-energising that by giving my focus to that whole area across all levels. It’s about: how do we continue to build for the next decade?

‘Initiatives’ are great but they have got to go somewhere. They have to be sustainable and embedded into everything your organisation is about, your vision and mission. And, for the most part, when companies think about initiatives, they don’t really think about the long term.

It’s been about building bonds and breaking bread with every single person in the agency to get to know them and what makes them tick.

What does that actually look like in practice?

Sitting with new people, having lunch together, making sure that I make time to check in around the office each day I’m in. It’s simple, but really effective. Creating bonds and connections. It’s more entertaining to do this when working from home, I think everyone has now met both my sons, caught glimpses of the inside of my house and continue to see that we’re all the same, just humans, regardless of position!

Is there anything else that you do to create that safe space, where people can speak up?

I just try to show up as ‘me’ who I am outside of work is very much who I am inside the agency, showing up as my whole self.

*Trigger Warning*

I had a really bad experience last year coming back from The Fashion Awards, as I came out of my home station there were a group of TFL (Transport for London) workers, one of them shouted “nice dress, monkey!” and everyone started laughing. When I asked someone for help, I was ignored and the person I went to looked through me like I didn’t exist.

I reported it and it is an ongoing investigation with the British Transport Police, but the positive I chose to make of it was  my decision to tell all my colleagues in the agency what had happened. Firstly for my own psychological security as I knew that I was impacted by it but couldn’t determine how that would play out over the coming days so it was important to me to help keep myself safe at work by letting them know. I also know that part of my role gives me the ability to impact change from a senior level and I wanted to make something positive out of it. As the custodians of people’s stories, we have a duty of care to make sure we tell them authentically and with integrity. In sharing my lived experience and in this case an act of racism, I was able to make it a teachable moment.

It actually created a beautiful moment for us to bond and build some really strong foundations across the whole agency. People shared truths that they hadn’t shared with anybody else that they finally felt comfortable and able to share.

So, bad things will continue to happen to all of us, unfortunately, but there is healing and there is power in sharing that with other people and not having to deal with it on your own.

Why do you think it’s important that more leaders like yourself do come out and talk?

If we don’t show each other the fullness of ourselves as people, how the hell are we going to get anything done?

And just because somebody might call me a leader does not make me any different from anybody else who is at any different level to myself.

As someone who has a responsibility for other people, I also have an opportunity… to make sure that those people can be the best that they possibly can be. And, as leaders, that has to come from you. You have to set that tone.

What are your hopes for the future in your role?

I’m hopeful. Very hopeful.

In a year’s time, I hope that we have been part of the change within advertising and that we have made an impact. For me, that is what growth looks like. But we are, by far, not done yet and are just getting started.

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About the Author

Suzy Bashford is a freelance journalist, podcaster and workshop facilitator.

She is passionate about destigmatising mental health by creating a more honest, helpful narrative around it, and related topics like emotional intelligence, stress management and empathy. She also believes in the power of creativity and nature to improve our wellbeing, which she covers regularly in articles for the likes of Psychologies magazine and her own podcast, Big Juicy Creative.

When she’s not writing or podcasting, you’ll probably find her dipping in a cold loch, hiking with her dog or biking the mountain trails in the awesome Cairngorms National Park, where she lives.

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