• Sunday, May 28, 2023


EXCLUSIVE: “Create mentally healthy workplaces,” says Poppy Jaman

By: Sarwar Alam

Expert explains how south Asian culture can hinder recovery

by Barnie Choudhury

One of the country’s leading experts on mental health is urging companies to recognise the important of mental wellbeing in the workplace.

Poppy Jaman, chief executive of the City Mental Health Alliance, made the call during the Ramniklal Solanki Pioneers event, organised by the Asian Media Group, owners of Eastern Eye, and the University of Southampton’s India Centre.

She revealed to the global audience how she suffered from depression after being forced into marriage when she was 17.

“Our vision is creating mentally healthy workplaces, and inspiring health creation,” she told a global audience. “I feel very strongly that workplaces need to get this right because my recovery would not have happened.

“If I didn’t have a job that fostered my strengthened my identity beyond the diagnosis, beyond being a Bengali girl, beyond being a brown woman.”

Poppy Jaman has won numerous accolades for her work on mental health

Jaman founded Mental Health First Aid (MHFA), a small government project, which in 2017 was recognised by the FT as one of the fastest growing small medium enterprises in Europe.

Today, she is able to influence big FTSE companies to change the way they tackle mental health challenges among their workforces.

“We’re in the financial services sector in London, in Hong Kong, Australia, Singapore,” said Jaman. “We’re developing chapters in the US, India, Portugal and New Zealand.

“These are all massive financial institutions. HSBC is a member. Goldman Sachs is a member. Lloyds Banking Group is a member, and their CEOs, and their leaders, and their boards have made mental health a priority.

“And they are baking in the well-being of their people into their business strategy. So they’ve moved it from being an HR thing, to actually, if we want to create prosperous businesses that are that are forward thinking, that are attracting the right talent, that are building businesses, that are responsible citizens within the ecosystem they sit in, we have to demonstrate and be able to hold ourselves to account when it comes to the mental health of our people, what does that look like?”

She told the virtual audience that companies know it makes business sense to look after their staff.

To do so, they need to implement three things.

“Make sure that you are running campaigns that are 18 months to three years long on mental health,” Jaman advised. “It could start with something that is palatable like eating healthily, exercising, sleeping, all of those things that every single one of us can relate to that help build resilience and mental well-being.”

The second goal is to train leaders to have the skills to tackle mental health challenges.

“Line managers, 70 per cent of them think that the mental health and well-being of their teams is their responsibility, [but] 30 per cent have only ever had any training.

“So, let’s skill up managers to do their jobs really well. But not just managers, your chief executive, your board need to be able to go this is why we’re doing this.”

The final pillar is to make sure the idea is sustainable.

“How do you make sure that mental health and well-being is a boardroom agenda?” Jaman asked.

“What I can tell you is that many of our businesses that we’re working with have put it on their risk register. They’ve come up with mitigating actions, and then they have resourced it.”

She said that the boards which make the decisions must lead, must measure and plough resources into mental well-being.

“I just say to businesses and organisations, lead with business acumen. You’re all experts in your field, just apply your business acumen to solving this problem. And you will notice a benefit in everything that you’re doing.”

What is remarkable about Jaman’s work is that the bosses of FTSE 100 companies are breaking taboos.

They are sharing personal own stories of being vulnerable caused by work-related stress.

Suddenly, it has become OK to admit you need help, without anyone thinking you are weak.

“Leadership vulnerability matters. If you, as the chief exec of Lloyds Banking Group or HSBC or London Stock Exchange, you share what you have experienced, and then talk about how you have supported yourself and how this is personal to you, you’ll give permission to all of your people within your organisation to speak up,” explained Jaman.

“When everybody speaks up, you do two things. You create psychological safety because people don’t worry about the fear.

“They don’t have a fear of the consequences on their careers because the CEO is talking about it. And they don’t have a fear of futility that if I say something, nothing’s gonna happen anyway, so what’s the point?”

In the early days of her campaign for changing attitude, Jaman said people admitted their problems behind closed doors. Today it is more open.

That “psychological safety” is an essential and powerful tool in changing culture, she continued.

“Creating psychological safety means that people call out bad behaviour. It’s about innovation.

“People then bring great ideas on solving this together, and when you speak like that people are like, ‘oh, of course, that makes sense, if I give, this much is going to have that much difference. So, I’ll have a go, and I’ll take a risk.”

But there remains a big problem among south Asian communities where mental illness has one word – paagal – madness.

Jaman contends that only by “opening up” would south Asians be able to confront challenges they have been ignoring and hiding because of community stigma and shame.

She urged all communities to face their struggles head on, especially because the pandemic had made things worse.

“Yesterday I was talking to my auntie about it, and between us, we counted nine people that had died in our extended family,” said Jaman. “She personally had lost three people in her immediate circle, and she was in a really bad way.

“It has had a disproportionate impact on our communities, and when you look at all of that, how do we respond to that? How do we stay well to respond to that?

“The pandemic has put in another layer of stressors that we need to address. So, staying well and developing your well-being toolkit is really crucial.”

That “toolkit”, Jaman said, meant we could help ourselves by understanding the triggers which set off mental health issues.

If we listed them, we could recognise the signs and deal with issues before they took hold.

This was especially important for young people.

“More than 80,000 more young people were referred to NHS services for mental health struggles during 2020, which was 28 per cent more from the same period the previous year

“That’s our kids. That’s our grandkids. That’s our cousins. We need to get this in our homes, and we need to talk about it, and Asian communities have to step in and talk about this and normalise it, because it is normal.”

Micro aggression, racism, and mental health

“We talk about microaggressions being experienced our in society, and I can give you examples. In the last three years, when I was going to conferences as a keynote speaker, in the cloakroom, I’ve had white men hand me their coat, because they thought I was staff. My family are in hospitality, I’ve got complete respect for that space, so it’s not about the role. It is the fact that it didn’t register that I could be keynote speaker, so microaggression.

“I imagine that people from black and brown communities have to ask ourselves, did we have that experience because of the colour of my skin? And that’s a question when you’re living with that on a day-to-day basis, whether it’s at the supermarket and somebody doesn’t put the change back in your hand. Or whether it’s on the street and somebody looks you up and down and doesn’t smile back, because you’ve said good morning. Or whether it’s accessing health care, and somebody just looked at you and gone, well, you’re from a black community, and you probably eat too much sugar.

“Actually, that’s just a given that this is what your life is going to be like. We have to check in and go, is this just a normal reaction I’m having, or is my gut play on override today, because I’ve got cumulative multiple stressors going on, and actually, I’m struggling to see the world in a different way to my lived experience?”

The need for equality

“Actually, microaggressions for women like me started in our families, when we were told, you’re not going to be in the first sitting of dinner, you’ve got to be there doing the dishes afterwards. That’s the role that you need to play. And again, I haven’t got an issue with doing the dishes and making the beds. It’s who else isn’t doing it. So, that’s the equity piece, that’s the equality piece.

“I am incredibly loved by my family, and I’m incredibly cherished by my family. So, it’s not about love. It’s probably more about respect, and it’s probably more about equity. It’s also the role that we’re supposed to create and provide. So, being a homemaker and being a great daughter-in-law is such an honourable place to be, but should that come at the expense of our education? Should that come at the expense of our economic freedom? I don’t think so.

“That’s what keeps men and women in very different places in our culture. Little things, like, my brother shouldn’t do the housework, I should do the housework. Who’s making the beds in the morning? Well, actually, that’s the girl’s job. If you kick back against that, back then, it was seen as being rebellious and being seen and being heard in a space that you’re not supposed to be in, why can’t you just conform?”

Forced marriage pain

I had forced marriage at the age of 17. For years, I described it as arranged because I was trying really hard to be diplomatic and make sure that I didn’t bring reputational harm or hurt my parents. But some years into describing it as an arranged marriage, I changed my mind, and I decided it wasn’t arranged because I didn’t consent to the marriage, I was forced to agree to get married.

“That decision, then led to significant mental health struggles. And I felt if I didn’t call it out for what it was, then I wasn’t creating psychological safety. My community for other men and women to also call out their experiences and validate it, and I had a responsibility to do that. I was an incredibly rebellious teenager, and one of the things that my family decided was to try and contain me and help me see what the right way of being was, [was] to take me to Bangladesh and get me married. So that’s what happened.

“I found myself in Bangladesh, and actually one of my coping mechanisms was self-harming. Self-harming is a mechanism, a tool, if you want to call it that, that people use to cope. I felt quite numb, and if I was self-harming, cutting, then I was able to feel something. That was what I was doing to support myself. I was doing quite a lot of reading, and I was doing quite a lot of cleaning. I remember those three things and routine and structure in my day while I was in Bangladesh became very crucial. I also became very much into my faith. So, you know, I became a practising Muslim during that period, so praying five times a day.

“I’m not a practising Muslim now, but if I think about this, for my 17-year-old self, what I was doing is finding ways to connect with spirituality to give me a sense of grounding. I imagine lots of people will be able to relate to that.”

Eastern Eye

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