Managing Mental Health When Working for a Mission

Talking about Self-Awareness and Anxiety (with Hello Monday’s Jessi Hempel)

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I’m Morra Aarons-Mele, and this is The Anxious Achiever. We look at stories from business leaders who have dealt with anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges, how they fell down, how they picked themselves up, and how they hope workplaces can change in the future.

How are you? No, I mean it. Really, how are you? Today’s guest, Poppy Jaman OBE, will tell us how she taught a bunch of high-price lawyers to revolutionize their leadership style, simply by asking that question in a different way. Poppy is so thoughtful and so much fun. It’s because she understands what makes her stressed, and she takes her self-care seriously. It’s also because she is deeply mission-driven. But, she’s learned to manage her boundaries and have fun along the way.

I wanted to explore the ways mission-driven work can create specific emotional challenges with Poppy and ask what it’s like to devote your career to mission-driven work while caring for your mental health.

The pressure to succeed in our careers affects so many of us and can contribute to anxiety. We work long hours to eventually win awards, get promotions, make more money, or become a recognized expert or well-known force in our industry. But of course, we work so hard for something deeper to accomplish our mission. And nowhere is that more clear than in the nonprofit world, a place where success may not always come with all the accolades and bonuses, and success may not even come at all if the problems you’re tackling are just too complicated for one person, or one organization, to fix.

Poppy Jaman OBE… this means the queen honored her… was the founding CEO of Mental Health First Aid England. She’s now program director for the City Mental Health Alliance, a network of thought leaders from London-based organizations, committed to improving and raising awareness of mental health in the workplace. And she’s been fighting for much of her career to increase awareness in this space.

So Poppy, tell us a little bit about the organization that you run now.

POPPY JAMAN OBE: So, I’m the chief executive of a social enterprise called the City Mental Health Alliance. We’re in three countries, and our vision is to create mentally healthy workplaces and inspire health creation. And that last bit is the most important bit to me, which is, how do we ensure that workplaces are healthy places… are places where we come to, to feel great about ourselves?

MORRA AARONS-MELE: One of the things I love about your approach, Poppy, is that you do frame mental health from a positive perspective. I actually, I had a quote… you said, “I’m not mentally unwell anymore, but I want to maintain positive mental health. And I want to prevent myself from becoming unwell again.” And we’ll talk a little bit about your preventative routine later, but I love the idea of walking into work to feel good. I also find it a little bit fanciful… given the places I’ve worked. So, what does a mentally healthy office look like?

POPPY JAMAN OBE: For me, it’s a culture. So, it’s a culture where you are able to bring your whole self to work. Often, when we go to work… and I think we’ve all been in … Most of us, I think, have had experiences of being in jobs where you walk in through the front door, leaving a part of yourself at the front door. And sometimes, that’s appropriate. But quite a lot of the time, the part that we leave behind is something that we’re embarrassed of, or ashamed of, or actually isn’t going to fit into that culture. So, it’s better to suppress it, hide it, and not bring it to the fore. I just feel that when you’re segmenting yourself in that way … and actually work is a significant part of most of our lives. We will spend more time at work than we will at home. Creating a culture where all of us can be our whole selves, if we choose, is really important in the workplace.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: But where’s the line? I mean, here’s where the rubber meets the road for me. Of course, we want to bring our whole selves to work. But to me, that’s taken on almost a stock phrase status because there is a line, right? You need boundaries at work, especially if you’re in a position of authority or if you’re trying to make it at work. Nobody wants to be a mess. Because sometimes our whole selves are messy. They’re really messy. What’s the line?

POPPY JAMAN OBE: What I’m not saying is that you should be coming to work and being best mates with every single person. Cause that’s just not, that’s just not possible-

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Or cry, you know, if you’re a crier like me.

POPPY JAMAN OBE: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, let me give you an example of what it is about. I’m from a British-Bangladeshi, Muslim culture and family background, and being married more than once in my community is a huge stigma, and I’m on my third marriage. So actually, I’ve been in places, and particularly in family settings and community settings and weddings, where I’ve hidden that part of me. And I’ve got kids from two different marriages, and the reason why I’m expected to hide that in those scenarios is that there’s shame attached to that. As a woman, I should be feeling ashamed for the different sexual partners, the different relationships I’ve been in. So in certain circumstances, I am expected to hide that. And actually as I’ve got older, I’ve chosen to hide that, to protect… I don’t know, maybe all the family members. But when I was a younger person, a younger woman, that was definitely something that I was made to feel ashamed of.

And actually, it was one of the things that contributed to my mental health issues. It’s the whole point of stigma, isn’t it? So if depression and anxiety, which are common human experiences … One in four of us are going to experience a common mental health issue. And after this pandemic, I would imagine that one in one of us would have struggled with our mental health issues over the next year. So if we have that as the data and the statistics, we shouldn’t really be feeling ashamed of being poorly… and should mental health issues be associated with weakness so that we can’t be in our body with our experiences because we’re at work? Because the consequence of that is that we don’t come to work. We avoid places that are going to make us feel uncomfortable, which in itself has a huge detrimental effect.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: How do you manage employee reviews, end-of-year reviews, and disciplinary or coaching issues with staff? What advice can you give listeners about how to lead with empathy… with the goal of creating that mentally healthy workplace?

POPPY JAMAN OBE: I think there’s two things I want to say on that. And the first thing is I would use the word compassion more than empathy, more because empathy almost implies that you carry something for somebody else.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: And also that you might be codependent, which, of course, I am because I take on everyone’s pain. But yes, many of us, yes, very good point.

POPPY JAMAN OBE: Exactly. So actually, instead of empathy, let’s apply compassion.

In answer to your question, when I set up Mental Health First Aid, and we started getting bigger, one of the things I put in, which is common to many organizations, is one-to-ones with your line manager. So every month, everybody had to have a one-to-one with their line manager. But traditionally, those one-to-ones are set up for, “let’s talk about your job, your work, your targets, and your projects.”

But the first question I put in on the one-to-ones was, “How are you?” And it’s fascinating because when I asked colleagues that… so when new employees were coming up, and they’ve never had that experience of being asked, “How are you?” in a one-to-one … it was just a structure that was standard across the organization. Initially, it used to really throw people. People were a bit like, “Well, you know, I’m fine.” And I’m like, “No, no, no.” Because there’s no point in us discussing your projects, your targets, and the business objectives if you are not in a great place… or a good place, because we’re just not going to get the best. You’re not going to be able to do the best that you want to do. So, that was my very practical way of applying that.

Now, when I started working with city firms, and this was probably… let me think, about seven years ago… I was in a meeting, and there were a number of law firms and professional services sector corporates in the room, and we were discussing one-to-ones. And I shared exactly what I’ve just shared with you. And you could literally… the breath got taken out of the room.

I didn’t realize why. And I said, “Is that wrong? What’s the problem here?” And when we explored it, someone eventually went, “Can you imagine in that law firm, a partner asking their team members ‘how are you?’… there’d be litigation.” There’d be all these signs of, “What are we going to do? If they say that they’re suicidal.” By asking, “How are you?” are we actually making ourselves… are we then responsible? Do you know what I mean?

Liability, yeah. And I was like, “Wow, you guys… this is just a human conversation.” But what’s really interesting is five or six years on, two of those same organizations have implemented a different performance management system. And in the one-to-one, the number one question is, “How are you?”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: You know, I did read on your Wikipedia page, and it says that as a child, you wanted to become an electrical engineer. Now, you’re not an electrical engineer. What happened? How did you become involved in mental health?

POPPY JAMAN OBE: So, I grew up in a very, very working class home. My granddad came to Portsmouth when he was a young man. And then my dad joined him when he was only a child. My mom and I joined my dad in the UK when I was a baby. So, I grew up and was raised by a couple who were struggling themselves. They didn’t have a big community around them. My mom’s first language definitely was not English. My dad was working around the clock to make ends meet here and support his family back home. So, we grew up in the mid-eighties when racism was really high. And I grew up in Portsmouth, the city known for rating higher in its racial incidents.

So, it was a difficult upbringing. And then there was this… me in my teens, very ambitious. I wanted to travel the world. I didn’t want to have children. I wanted to work in engineering, which was a male-dominated… and still is very much, a male-dominated industry. And I think that was probably in my youth.

I was an excellent science student. So, I think all of those things just led me to feel like I wanted to not be in the life that I had grown up in. I had visions of not being in that town and not being in my family settings. But I also knew that an arranged marriage was the way that my life was going to happen, because there was no other cultural framework within my family.

Just before I started college, I wasn’t behaving in the way that my parents wanted me to behave. So, I was taken to Bangladesh, and I was forced to marry.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: How old were you?

POPPY JAMAN OBE: I was 17 at the time. So, I did that marriage for about seven or eight years, but that’s where the engineering dream went out the window. Because actually once I was married, there was no opportunity for education. Actually, I think by that time, my mental health issues were already there. So, I don’t think I was in a place to completely engage with life in the way that I had prior.

So then what happened was, I had my first daughter, and after I had her, actually, that’s when I got my diagnosis of postnatal depression. But if you listen to my story, it probably started long before then. Here I was, I think I was 20 with a baby, with depression in a marriage that I didn’t want to be in.

And you know, it wasn’t a violent marriage. It was just a marriage. It was just that I’d never chosen him, and he hadn’t chosen me. And here we were, two people with a baby trying to try to make it work. As time went on, the less we had in common.

So then depression hit. And actually that’s when I realized how little services and education were there for people that were going through mental health difficulties. Everything felt quite scary because I had no idea what was happening to me. I had my family trying to work out what was going on. There was no mental health literacy in culturally accessible language context, et cetera. When I started therapy, the therapist didn’t really understand the cultural nuances that I was going through. I didn’t understand what was going on. So what was brilliant was, I decided that I was going to get a job, and that was going to be the thing that helped me set a routine and get financial health, or be independent financially. And actually, it was the best decision I made because it wasn’t medication or therapeutic services that supported me. It was going to a place of work that gave me meaning and purpose and identity and financial health.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s so interesting. Maybe that explains your affinity for focusing on the workplace, right?


MORRA AARONS-MELE: Because work saved you in a way.

POPPY JAMAN OBE: Yeah, absolutely. And do you know, I’ve only recently made those connections… because when you go through and think, “How did this journey of workplace… Why is it such a…?” And I think it is that. It was meaningful. Having meaning and purpose in the form of work absolutely saved me, Morra.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: What did your depression… I mean, I know it was a while ago, but what did it feel like to have postnatal depression? What did you feel when you woke up in the morning? Do you remember?

POPPY JAMAN OBE: Yeah, so actually, that was the first instance. So since then, I periodically have flares of depression – more depression than anxiety. The way that I feel when I get depressed is that I stop eating, and I just lose my appetite. And I think I find it difficult to swallow. So, something happens to my voice, which essentially means my throat. So, I start to close in, I think, and I think the emotional closing-in represents itself in not being able to eat, not being able to swallow. So, that’s definitely a sign for me. I lose my appetite, I lose sleep. So, I start to stay up later and later and wake up even earlier. I get very irritable, so I start micromanaging.

So, I recognize that when I’m working with my colleagues. At the moment, I’m like, “Yeah, great. You know, just let me know what you’re doing.” Whereas when I’m, when I’m in that space, I’ll be sending two or three emails. I’ll be calling people going, “When’s that document … ?”

So yeah, I’ll micromanage, which, I think, is really important to notice, bearing in mind that I’m an ambassador for mental health in the workplace, if I’m actually leading a team and people are feeling pressured by me.

And it’s not … it’s not me in my authentic place. It’s me unwell. I get a locked jaw, so I start to get a jaw-ache. So, my symptoms are physical, emotional, behavioral… and I think when I was in the darkest place, I just had no hope, Morra.

So, I couldn’t see what the purpose of each day was. And actually, if I didn’t have a baby, I don’t know that I would have bothered to get up. So, the fact that I had responsibility for a young child really helped me get up and do something… because I had a role to play. But I felt no emotional connection… and that is really hard when you’re a new mother, and everybody around you is looking, like, so loved up. And you’re looking at this beautiful human being and not feeling anything. I just felt numb.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Why do you think that people find the combination of mental health and the workplace so scary?

POPPY JAMAN OBE: I think there’s lots of different reasons. So, one of them is that there is this idea that if you have a mental health issue, then you are somehow weak. And with that comes judgment, doesn’t it? So, if you’re a high-profile CEO in a top bank, you’re expected to be the characteristics that we associate with that. But we don’t associate weakness with that. We don’t associate incompetence or lack of productivity with that. And when we talk about mental health issues, the images that conjure up in our minds because of the way society has set us up is someone that is unworthy, that someone’s not capable. And it’s far, far from the truth.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Right? And what’s amazing to me is when you were talking about how you felt faking it around the baby is how many leaders I’ve spoken to… and I’ve experienced this myself, who are in their “dream job” and yet feel everyday like they’re faking it, like they are putting on a face about “being a leader” and yet come home and feel so empty inside. I want to ask you, Poppy, while I’ve got you … listeners have come in asking about what it’s like to have anxiety or depression or struggle with your mental health when you work in a caring field or when you work in mission-driven work… either at a not-for-profit organization or if you’re a caregiver. I’d love to drill down a little bit because you have such a unique vantage point of being a professional workplace observer, but also having run many social mission organizations, how do you address mentally healthy work differently when it’s a nonprofit organization or a mission-driven organization? And are there certain pitfalls that people should think about when they’re leading those organizations?

POPPY JAMAN OBE: Yes, absolutely. And I think when you look at our NHS (National Health Service), for example, and when you look at the data of the people in the care industry that are experiencing a common mental health issue, who often will not go and seek support, it’s not about the shame. It’s about this idea that you should be extra strong because you’re designed to do this job. And so, there’s almost this kind of, “I’m the doctor, I’m the nurse, I’m the caregiver … This is my job, and I cannot.” So, the self-judgment that comes with that and the self-standards that come with that are really interesting.

So, I think that for people that aren’t in the sector that you just described, there’s a slightly different risk, which has to do with … You give so much of yourself, and it’s not just work. It’s your life. And you carry this enormous responsibility that only you’ve given it to yourself. It’s completely self-indulgent on some level. You’ve decided that you’re on this mission, and you’re going to solve this world problem, and it’s not work. You’re going to live your life trying to achieve it.

So, where is the break in that then? When do you have friendship time? When do you have social time? And I’ve been very conscious of that. So, my work has revolved… My first big career was race equality and mental health. And I created Mental Health First Aid, and it’s a social enterprise, and now City Mental Health Alliance. And then underneath that, there’s been roles. And there’s always a mission in my life. I don’t know how else to be, Morra. I guess there’ll always be a mission. It’s just who I am.

But when I hang out with my mates, we don’t talk about work. And often, my friends are also my colleagues because actually when you’re living a life that’s so mission-driven, all the people that you meet are people that you want to hang onto. So, I’ve got a big network of friends. But when we’re on holiday time, when we’re on social time, we’ve naturally all evolved to protect our private time for no work conversations, no “solving the world” conversations… none of that. It’s just about fun.

When I’m with my kids and my family, I very rarely talk about work, to the point that they’re a bit like, “Oh, we saw you on that radio interview, and when were you going to tell us?” But those are my boundaries because I really want to be able to just hang out with my kids and just be Mom. It’s one of the things that I learned early on is… how do I ensure that my whole life isn’t a mission?


POPPY JAMAN OBE: Which relationships are protected? And my marriage is protected, and my kid’s relationships are protected, and my best friend relationships are protected. And when I go to the pub and things like that, in the evenings, I just will not engage in conversation. And people find that quite frustrating. But after a couple occasions, they work out that there’s no point going there.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: It’s funny because I think sometimes, also, it’s different if you’re a direct clinical caregiver, but many people who, like you, have worked at large nonprofit organizations that are very mission-driven, have created, almost, a persona for themselves that they will say to themselves, well, “I’ve given up money, maybe, that I could have earned if I were in the private sector. I’ve made this choice to live this life, and this is who I am. And therefore, I must be mentally strong as well.” Like, almost like there’s a persona that they build around themselves for living the mission.

POPPY JAMAN OBE: Yeah. So, the way I looked at that was, as a single parent, when the girls were young, with me being on my third marriage … in the first two marriages, single parenting was a big part of my parenting experience. And I remember thinking actually, I didn’t want to fall into the trap of taking part-time, reducing my hours at work, and then still doing the full-time job and not getting paid enough. So, we know all the issues of the gender pay gap in society, and I didn’t want to… Well, I couldn’t afford to. I had two, two children, and I wanted them to not have the same experience that I had had growing up in a very poor family. So actually, it was really important to me to be financially healthy.

So for me, the way I looked at that was, I have thrown my whole self into my work and my mission, and that’s very fulfilling, but it came at the expense of time with my children, and it can be expensive missing out on lots of … I see my sister-in-laws at the moment spending time with their little ones, and I don’t even remember that with the girls, and I feel really guilty, like the girls sometimes say to me, “Did we do this?” And I think on the side, I don’t remember because I wasn’t present for quite a lot of those early days. And I was battling with my mental health issues. So, I was surviving, and the girls have … don’t get me wrong … a very lovely narrative of their childhood. So, they’ve got that. We did all the things that you do.

But the way I look at it is, “How dare I? Will I get unwell?” I get very angry. And I get, “How dare I be ill? How dare I not achieve?” or, “How dare this project not go well,” because it came at the expense of being a mom.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: So, what are your tips? Especially for people listening, who … many people are experiencing acute and active anxiety for the first time, all day long … how do you keep yourself mentally well?

POPPY JAMAN OBE: So I… particularly in this current climate, I will ask myself how I am. It was one of the tricks that I learned in coaching, which was check in on yourself. Ask yourself how you are. Answer the question honestly. So… I’m feeling sad, I’m feeling ecstatic, I’m feeling angry, I’m feeling frustrated, and if you can’t answer it … because that’s the other thing that happens to me is I get in a mind block. I can’t think, which is just … it’s like I don’t know how to access my feelings. Sometimes, it can take quite a few minutes to get to the bottom of how I am.

So, name the feeling. And if I’m uncomfortable, I share that with my husband, but most of the time, I just write it down, and then I place that in the notebook, and I leave that and get on with my day.

So, listening… being a form of acceptance, which is really liberating, it’s just a version of that. It’s just practicing that on yourself. So, listening to how I’m feeling without the need to change it, without the need to judge it. Just accept and acknowledge it by writing it down. So, that’s one of the things that I do fairly regularly, and I do it to maintain my positive mental health… not to counter me getting on well, if that makes sense. It’s actually a good practice to keep me checked in. And it’s lovely to write down. I feel really happy, really chuffed that I’ve finished, whatever it is that I finished, because we don’t often celebrate ourselves.


POPPY JAMAN OBE: So that’s one of the things I do.

The other thing that I do is I have a wellbeing toolkit. So, I described to you earlier, how stress and mental health issues present themselves. Sleep, eating, irritability. So, I know what my signs are. But I don’t just reel those off. I know those because I’ve written them down. And then on the flipside of the same page, I have a wellbeing toolkit. This is the thing: create another list on the days that you feel great. Just jot down the things that make you feel great. And for me, it’s things like having a chat with one of my best friends about nothing in particular. Going out for a run is always great. Swimming, just hanging out, and winding my kids up are quite fun. Just teasing and playing silly games, being childish and playful. That excited character is only really with the girls. So, I love that time.

So, two sides of the same page… one side is your stress signature, and one side is your well-being toolkit. And different days… so the check-in that I talked about, checking in, “How am I?” If I noticed that actually for three check-ins in a row, for example, my mood has been low or it’s been a negative feeling, then I will go straight to my well-being toolkit and do one of the things that tickles my fancy.

The great thing about that approach is it takes out the decision-making process. Like, I don’t have to sit and work out what I’ve got to do, because that in itself, when you’ve got a mental health issue, you lose some of your decision-making abilities as well…

MORRA AARONS-MELE: And you’re an unreliable narrator sometimes.

POPPY JAMAN OBE: Yeah. So, I have found it’s almost ingrained in me. I don’t have to look at my piece of paper anymore. It’s almost like I know now what it is because it’s so well well-practiced. But that’s my unique way of taking care of and maintaining my mental wellness.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yeah. Well, Poppy, thank you so much. I wish you good health and lots of fun.

POPPY JAMAN OBE: Thank you and same to you, Morra. It’s been really lovely chatting.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s it for this week’s show. If you like what you’ve heard, tell a friend or rate us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you have a question or a topic that you’d like to see featured on the show, you can email or tweet me @morraam, that’s M-O-R-R-A-A-M. Many thanks to Mary Dooe, my amazing producer, and the team at Harvard Business Review. And of course, to our advertisers who keep us going and to my guests. And if you like The Anxious Achiever music, it’s by Brian Campbell at Signal Sounds NYC. From HBR presents, this is The Anxious Achiever, and I’m Morra Aaron-Mele.

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