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Mental health – The foundation on which everything is built

A few years ago, someone wrote about me that I had grown up on a ‘tough council estate’ in Grimsby. As most people do concerning home towns they like to criticise but not hear criticism of, I bristled.

Tough to me didn’t fairly describe the childhood of love, fun and football that my Mum and Nana created for me and my three brothers. Being from a single-parent family that lived on a Northern estate didn’t make me Oliver Twist.

But the word has lingered in my head ever since because, although it doesn’t describe my childhood, it does capture something about my hometown at the time I knew it best.

In the 1970s and early ‘80s, Grimsby was beginning the painful transition from old industrial jobs to the service economy, a fitful and still incomplete process. It meant the adults in our lives had worked at sea, on docks and in factories that most of us never would.

It was the world Grayson Perry brought to life in his book The Descent of Man, reflecting on the kind of masculinity shaped by the harsh working environment of fishing trawlers, mining or steel mills.

The mental and physical toughness needed to endure labouring jobs spilled out into the wider environment, one where hardness always threatened to erupt into violence without notice. Physical intimidation, the ability to hold your beer and take or throw a punch were the real currencies, along with football. In town and with three brothers, I got plenty of experience in all of them.

Even though I effectively left that world at 18 to travel and later go to University, three decades later I realise it was many years before I really understood the imprint it had left on me, and was able to reconcile the person I grew up as with the one I wanted to be.

That conflict was almost most tangible at work. Sometimes, like when I worked as a travel sales rep drinking my way up and down the country, early experience served me well.

As my career developed, often the opposite was true. I’m not proud when I look back at my approach to early management roles – when I was confrontational and uncompromising, in a way I now know does much more to undermine success than achieve it.

We are all a constant work in progress, and it took me time to develop the side of myself that had always existed: one that enjoyed poetry, philosophy and literature; the version of me that admired people who not just worked hard, but showed curiosity, authenticity and a capacity for vulnerability.

I remember distinctly the first time I was in a meeting and responded “I don’t know” to a question that had been asked of me, instead of refusing to show weakness in public by pretending I always had the answer.

The toughness that you needed to survive in the late 1970s is an anachronism in today’s workplace. But that doesn’t mean today’s world is easy. An 18 year-old in Grimsby today faces challenges I could never have conceived of at the same age: the old certainties that were starting to erode then have crumbled still further, while ubiquitous technology is creating a confusing world that we are all still learning how to navigate.

In this environment I believe the most important trait will be not toughness, but resilience: the ability to stand up straight and face the world with our own power, vulnerable to others and true to ourselves.

The willingness to be both strong and fragile, optimistic and scared. To say I don’t know or I need help. Today I’m more convinced than ever that the foundational nature of our mental health is the fuel on which everything else will be built.

So when I met James and heard about Sanctus for the first time, four years ago, I was immediately drawn to its mission.

I knew, both from my life experience and the years spent running a business, that the conversation about mental health is one that needs to be brought into the open within the workplace.

We all have mental health, we all need to do more to nurture it, and we should all have better access to professional support. As an individual I know how important this has been to me. And as a CEO I know it makes for stronger organisations, where people can fulfil their potential as their most authentic selves, no longer checking important parts of their personality at the door to come to work.

The conversation with James that day was an eye-opener, and many more have followed with him and George in the few years since.

When a few months ago they asked if I would get involved to help Sanctus take on the world, it was the easiest and most obvious yes of my career.

Yes to getting people excited about working on their mental health, not ashamed. Yes to creating safe, non-judgmental spaces for people to talk. Yes to a future where mental health is viewed the same as physical health.  

James, George – Thanks for that invitation and the chance to be part of the team.

You can read more on the investment here.