Exclusive Interview – Poppy Jaman OBE, CEO City Mental Health Alliance
For our women’s health month edition, I had the privilege to interview Poppy Jaman OBE, one of the UK’s most influential leaders in workplace mental health. She spoke from her home office in Sussex in the UK. It doubles as her display room for her impressive collection of sarees, which she proudly turned her camera toward to show me on our Zoom call. They reminded me of a spring garden, with all variety of bright, eye-catching colors. It was a fitting start to my conversation with this multifaceted, dynamic CEO which includes her top tips for other leaders challenged to balance work, motherhood and their own wellbeing, as well on what’s fundamental for businesses to create mentally healthy work cultures.
What do you think are the biggest challenges working women face when it comes to looking after their overall health and wellbeing? And what advice would you offer young women with ambitions to one day be a CEO, on finding a balance between ambition, success and self-care?
Women are often raised to put everyone else before them.
The inequality that still exists in society makes us feel guilty if we don’t conform to this norm. The tone set from a young age which then permeates into our adulthood when we are in professional roles.
We are socially wired to put our families, teams, colleagues first ahead of ourselves. I’ve learnt the hard way, that you can’t drink water from an empty cup. Since my thirties I’ve made a point to have time for myself, to ensure my own wellbeing.
My advice to working women is to consider your self-care through a male lens. Ask yourself what would you advise your best friend? Apply self-compassion, no one else can do that for you. We teach people how to treat us, and we do that by showing them how we treat ourselves.
As a working mom and business leader, you juggle a lot of demands and priorities. What are some of the ways you look after your own mental health and wellbeing?
I was first diagnosed with postnatal depression in my twenties and I’ve lived with depression and anxiety since. I promote and protect my mental health by practicing the Five Ways to Wellbeing. If I don’t apply at least one of the Five Ways every day, I know I’m risking a deterioration of my mental health.
Staying active physically is key for me. Jogging, walking, getting my steps in and yoga.
Yoga helps me to take notice. As does being in nature. Taking notice for me is as much about being present as it is about spirituality, feeling connected to my environment, to my community and the world I live in. It’s the world we can’t write down or take pictures of. I also love climbing mountains
And work is certainly part of my wellbeing toolkit, it has always given me a sense of purpose and a community: connection.
Giving is about a sense of responsibility to lead by example for the young women in my life. We need to raise girls with wings. I often ask younger women in my life to teach me skills, like asking my niece to teach me dances on TikTok, which was fun too! It’s important girls are practiced at being leaders.
In terms of learning, I’m involved with developing an arts project with the Midlands Art Centre. It’s about bringing the stories of weavers making sarees (traditional women’s garments from the Indian subcontinent) to life. I was born in Bangladesh. I came to the UK when I was 8 months old.
This project signifies for me the power of Asian women in sarees countering the norm of assimilation by choosing not to always adjust to the majority culture. It’s about taking pride in being different. It’s about the journey women take to become comfortable in our own skin. Authenticity and congruence are fundamental for wellbeing. Denying parts of our identity can be hugely detrimental to our health.
I’m part of a global network of women around the world that wear sarees to work; for some that work is mountaineering! It inspires me to bring color to my life. Much of my color has been overshadowed by my work in business, as a CEO.
Behind every saree there are many stories of women that are never told. I want to learn their stories, and make sure they’re told.
As an Asian young woman, I desired to fit in so never wore anything that linked me to my heritage or culture. I felt I needed to be a chameleon to be seen. To be accepted.
Women in sarees, through western stereotypes, are seen as meek, lacking confidence, passive. They’re not associated with power or leadership, or with CEO’s.
Over the next ten years of my career, I want to bring even more congruence to my life. I set a goal in therapy a while back to blur the identity boundaries I had placed in my life; to diminish the different versions of me. To be my whole self.
These days I almost always wear a saree at public events and conferences and I will draw attention to the weave, the dye and share its beauty and its story. It’s empowering and fun!
What are some lessons you think the business community can learn from the coronavirus pandemic?
I think we can learn from the origins of the City Mental Health Alliance. It emerged out of the 2008 financial crisis. City businesses were experiencing increased rates of stress and this raised attention to mental health at work and how workplaces can support their employees.
The current health pandemic is raising the question of value amongst business leaders. Where could we be if we create a triple bottom line; putting people, planet and profit in that order?
The 50 businesses in our membership across the UK, Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore–including multinationals like: Deloitte, Allen & Overy, PwC, Oliver Wyman, Linklaters, Morgan Stanley–are all saying staff mental health and wellbeing is amongst their top three recovery and revival priorities.
If our global members speak about putting mental health of staff first, we can use it as a footprint to raise awareness and change the way mental health is seen globally. Imagine the impact it can have.
What are three core messages you’d relay to employers starting their journey in supporting mental health and wellbeing in their workplaces—especially at this moment in history?
- Leadership embracing this agenda is critical. Including being open themselves about their experiences of the full spectrum of mental health; stress to flourishing.
- Making this a business issue, not an HR issue. Mental health of people needs to be a business objective, it needs to be focused on what can be changed and impact.
- This agenda must be communicated through multiple channels across the business. Recognize up front that your strategy will take 18 months to three years to land within a business.
On a final note, I’d like to know what’s most meaningful to you about the work you do? What keeps you motivated to continue leading others in this space?
The power of the personal difference I can make in people’s lives. Whether it’s a chief exec who I’m speaking to or a someone at the Brighton Women’s Centre (a homeless charity where I volunteer), I love seeing light bulbs going on. When people realize there’s no health without mental health.
Poppy Jaman OBE is a global ambassador for mental health in the workplace. A social entrepreneur and CEO of the City Mental Health Alliance CiC. Poppy founded Mental Health First Aid England CiC. She has served two terms on the Board of Public Health England. Poppy was instrumental in the creation of the NHS’s Every Mind Matters platform and was named by the Secretary of State in Parliament as one of England’s mental health experts. In the 2018 New Year’s Honours, Poppy was awarded an OBE in recognition of her services to people with mental health issues and in the same year she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Gloucestershire. In 2019 Poppy won Woman Of The Year at the GG2 Culture & Diversity Leadership Awards and was named as a Game Changer in the FT women of 2019 list.
Poppy Jaman on Twitter: @poppyjaman
About the author
Heather Kelly is the founder of Aura Wellbeing, a consultancy providing workplace wellness strategy, coaching and training services to employers. She’s also Content Director for Make a Difference Summit US and Online Editor for Make a Difference News. Heather’s worked for the UK’s largest mental health charity, Mind where she led the development and operation of the Workplace Wellbeing Index. In her earlier career she worked as a photographer, a journalist and a senior manager in the insurance industry. She’s passionate about inspiring more empathy and awareness in workplaces about mental health and in her spare time Heather teaches photography to teens as part of a charity projects in London and Spain, she’s an avid runner and experimental chef for recipes promoting healthy minds.