Written by Hazel Davis


Glass Ceiling Smashers: Minding her business

Hazel Davis talks MBAs, periods and single parenting with Mental Health First Aid England CEO Poppy Jaman.

Poppy Jaman is CEO of Mental Health First Aid England, a Community Interest Company established in 2009. She’s also a co-founder of the City Mental Health Alliance and sits on the board of Public Health England as a non-executive director.

You left school at 16 and left an arranged marriage to become a single parent. Can you tell us a bit about your journey from that point to here?

At 20, I became a mum, which triggered my first diagnosis of postnatal depression. That was a very dark experience – I didn’t know what was happening to me and felt very lost. I was determined to be a great mother, but terrified of being a bad parent or losing my child. Eventually I realised that things in my life needed to change so I took a huge step and ended my marriage. Being a parent gave me enormous strength and motivation. As a single mother, the drive to provide for my daughter and ensure she had a healthy start to life was actually a key factor in my journey to recovery.  

How did you get involved with MHFA England?

In 2007 I was working for the Department of Health, responsible for promoting race equality and mental health awareness. I was asked to help explore how we could introduce good quality, evidence-based mental health training across England. We discovered Mental Health First Aid training was being rolled out in Scotland, and after some investigation decided we could adopt a similar programme in England.

“Mental health issues cost the UK economy between £70 and £100 billion each year, with 70 million working days lost due to mental illness.”

The training proved so popular that two years later I was asked to lead the development of MHFA England as a Community Interest Company – and in just shy of a decade, we’ve trained more than 165,000 people. Last month we were asked by the Prime Minister to deliver MHFA training into all secondary schools in England, a milestone that will transform young people’s access to mental health information and support. We still have a long way to go, but knowing we’ve come so far fills me with a tremendous sense of accomplishment.

Over the last 10 years I’ve seen MHFA England evolve from a central team of just two people to 25, with 1,500 instructors based all over the country and a wider community of tens of thousands of Mental Health First Aiders.

What’s changed in that time?

To some extent the myth that mental ill health is a weakness is diminishing. We’re realising we all have mental health and it’s something we shouldn’t take for granted as it is critical to our family, work, financial and community wellbeing.

I’ve also seen a huge increase in the issues our young people are facing. Transition periods – to secondary school, to university – are becoming more recognised as pressure points. Parents and carers I speak to are sometimes desperate for help and good advice on how to support their young person. I don’t think we, as a society, have fully explored yet what adjustments and support for these young people might look like.

What have been your biggest challenges?

Just shy of a decade with MHFA England, I can honestly say that my time here has probably been the best period of my professional life. It has been incredibly challenging, but we’ve worked tirelessly as a team to get to where we are now.

Poppy Jaman, CEO of Mental Health First Aid England.

One of my big challenges has been creating balance in my life. Any SME business leader will say how difficult it is to switch off when your job is your passion. But I meet this challenge head on because I am energised by my family and children. Ensuring I have quality time with my children is really important to me – they ground me, give me perspective, and inspire me to keep striving.

At work I set a fast pace, with high expectations, which can sometimes be tough on those around me. Luckily we have a dedicated and agile executive team who are willing to go the extra mile to achieve our business ambitions. During times of high intensity it is our social purpose, our team, and our community which motivate us to keep going. Employing people who are passionate and inspired by our goals, where it isn’t ‘just a job’, has been critical to the company’s success.

Can you tell us a bit more about the City Mental Health Alliance?

Our vision with the City Mental Health Alliance is to help people at all levels in the City of London talk about mental health, without fear of stigma. It’s a collaboration founded by senior leaders in City businesses who were concerned about the growing issue of mental health and decided to take action.

We want to create mentally healthy places for people to work in so we support businesses to take a leading role in developing good practice around mental health. Our member organisations work together to innovate and learn from each other.

“Neither gender can create social change on our own – diversity of thought is critical to success. ”

We also do a lot of work engaging with the media to promote positive, non-sensationalised reporting around mental health in the City.

We deliver training into such a range of organisations across sectors, from giants like EY, Channel 4 and WHSmith, to government bodies and public health services, to schools and tiny local community centres.

What they all have in common is that they have recognised that they as employers have a responsibility to their employees’ wellbeing and want to look after the people who make up their business. It’s not just on a human level – there’s a compelling business case too. Mental health issues cost the UK economy between £70 and £100 billion each year, with 70 million working days lost due to mental illness. Companies are realising that by taking simple steps to support wellbeing they can cut sickness absence, presenteeism, increase morale and productivity, all things that impact on the bottom line.

Any success stories?

What’s particularly inspiring to me at the moment is how construction companies are embracing MHFA. Construction workers are at a high risk of mental health issues as it’s a male dominated field with a lot of working long hours, away from home, in demanding environmental conditions. So it’s fantastic that construction companies such as Lendlease, Crossrail and Skanska are leading the way by ensuring their workers have access to a Mental Health First Aider who can spot signs of distress early, and signpost their colleagues to support when they need it.

You have an MBA now. How the heck did you make that happen with no higher education and how much of a challenge was it?

I never let my lack of formal education hold me back from my goals. Despite leaving school with just GCSEs, I was determined to work my way up the ladder, and while working for the Department of Health I applied for an MBA. The professor interviewing me was shocked that I didn’t have a degree, or even A levels. But I knew I was more than capable: after a lot of persuading, I was able to join and I completed it in 2009.

The MHFA board has five female members on its board. How important is this to you and what difference does it make?

Having five female directors wasn’t by design. We get on really well and we have a strong sense of trust in our team. We openly talk about women-specific issues that I think we may not have done if the group was mixed. It sounds silly but that level of openness and genuine empathy, acceptance, ‘matter-of-fact-ness’ really helps us support each other. I can get very tired at certain times of the month and I try to manage my diary around that. I don’t ever feel like I need to explain that or hide it – it just is. It’s great!

“I don’t think anyone should aspire to fit into anyone else’s shoes. We’ve all got it in us to reach our potential, whatever that may be. What we can do is draw strength from each other’s stories, especially us women.”

Our whole board including our non-executive directors has a gender balance, with our chair and vice-chair both very wise and talented men. Neither gender can create social change on our own – diversity of thought is critical to success. The more we understand how our business is perceived, experienced, implemented by different people from different walks of life, the better we are going to get at delivering meaningfully and thus create social change.

How do you look after your own mental wellbeing?

Because mental health is inextricably linked to physical health I attend a hot yoga class once a week. Another way I keep a balance is to occasionally have a secret date – with myself. I know, it probably sounds odd but it’s absolutely magic. I don’t tell anyone where I’m going and for that hour or two I am just doing something that makes me happy.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given career-wise?

Probably the most useful advice I’ve ever been given is how to find a balance between the need to be outward-looking in a fast-growing and ambitious business while managing internal systems, processes and resource. Years ago, I was frustrated with my role as everything kept changing so quickly. I was talking about it with my then line manager who told me that my job was to facilitate change – and that requires mastering the art of building, balancing and growing while constantly moving. To this day, I’m still practicing and loving the outcomes of that art.

What advice would you pass on to anyone reading your story and wondering how they can walk in your shoes?

I don’t think anyone should aspire to fit into anyone else’s shoes. We’ve all got it in us to reach our potential, whatever that may be. What we can do is draw strength from each other’s stories, especially us women. There are so many fantastic female role models in the third sector and I would suggest finding a good mentor in the field you want to work in. They can help you to hone your skills, shape your career path and introduce you to other key players. Building great relationships is critical to success.

To find out how employers can support the wellbeing of their staff and to enquire about Mental Health First Aid training, visit www.mhfaengland.org

Meet more of our Glass Ceiling Smashers here.


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Written by Hazel Davis

Hazel Davis is a freelance writer from West Yorkshire. She has two tiny children but the majority of her hours are taken up with thinking about Alec Baldwin singing sea shanties and the time someone once called her "moreishly interesting".