There is a warmth about Claire Russell that instantly puts you at ease, despite being miles away from each other and meeting for the first time over Zoom, with a view of our respective living rooms and her new (sleeping) puppy.

In advance of her forthcoming CTO Craft Bytes event on 3 February 2022: Mental Health: Open Conversations to End Stigma, in line with Time to Talk Day, we’re here to talk about the buzzword of the moment – mental health. Except that it shouldn’t be a buzzword, it’s a key pillar in a person’s life and therefore in their work life.

Claire has a unique insight – she’s a leader of her own team and business, but she also gets to hold a microscope up to other businesses, helping them understand that mental health in the workplace is a serious matter. Here she explains why, if you want a productive workforce and successful company, it starts with creating a culture of honesty, openness and having each other’s backs.

2020 was very much built on surviving rather than thriving and for many, it involved simply putting one step in front of the other to get through it, rather than ‘levelling up’ at work or in business. How has your focus – both as a leader, and within your particular industry – shifted post-pandemic and going into 2022?

What we are seeing in the organisations we’re working with, is that businesses and leaders are starting to look further forward again. And it seems as though they are moving out of that. survival mode into transformation mode and saying: ‘How do we take the learnings of the last 18 months forward and what changes are we going to make?’. I’m yet to speak with a business leader who isn’t making fairly significant changes, which is exciting but also challenging in equal measure. 

As a business leader, and as somebody whose aim is to be leading the way in terms of how organisations are looking at mental health within the workplace, for us, it’s about trying to shift the emphasis when we talk about mental health away from focusing on the negative. There’s been a lot of focus on the fact that people are struggling – and they are. But what I really want to do within our business – and want other organisational leaders to do – is be thinking about how they make sure everybody within their company is supported and enabled, and empowered to thrive, whether they’ve got a mental health condition or not.

Historically, what I’ve seen too often is that mentality of just thinking about mental health as a ‘bad thing’, and I’ve seen really great people be overlooked at work and in their careers and within organisations, because of it. And because they were not receiving the support and resources they needed in order to be able to flourish in their workplace. We mustn’t continue like that. 

There’s been an unprecedented blurring of lines between professional needs and personal needs in the last 18 months, which many have welcomed. As a leader of your own team and business, have you identified new or evolving needs that will be more of a focus for you?

It reminds me of that phrase that I’ve heard bandied around for the last few years, “Bring your whole self to work”. We’ve had a real insight into people’s lives outside of the roles they do within our businesses and I’ve seen this acutely, with my team. We’ve really had no choice but to do that over the last 18 months now that everybody has been working from home and we’ve been having meetings with our team members while they’re sitting at their kitchen table and toddlers are running around in the background. 

It’s been a lesson in understanding the different lives people live. And what I’m hearing from people is that they don’t want that to be forgotten. They want the flexibility and that humaneness, and that more person-centred, compassionate approach. It’s about viewing everyone as an individual, listening to their unique needs and working with those in the context of how we collaborate in the workplace.

We all know there’s ‘good’ stress and there’s ‘bad’ stress. In your opinion, when does a healthy workplace challenge crossover to unhealthy and what can be done to mitigate that both from a leadership perspective and a cultural workplace perspective?

Yes exactly – some stresses are healthy and necessary for all of us, you know, it prevents inertia and keeps us moving, it gives us motivation – all that good stuff. It’s when we start to feel the negative impacts of stress: emotionally, physically, and when those are regularly showing up in our behaviours, and changing our actions and the way we’re interacting, then there’s something that isn’t right and needs to be looked at. 

Thinking about how I manage my own stress and then also thinking about it as a leader of a team of people, it’s really about communication. One of the things that I’m acutely aware of is that every individual has a different capacity for stress and what may seem perfectly manageable to one person is not to another, and that also, that person’s capacity can change. There may be things going on in someone’s personal life that means their stress ‘container’ is almost full and then the slightest little thing at work can take it over the edge. 

So, it’s about creating the conditions within our organisations where people feel safe and comfortable to have really honest conversations about where they’re at and what their capacity is at that point. And if they can’t deal with what they could do normally, for there to be some compassion and understanding around that from leadership and the wider team and adjustments made, if necessary.

Expanding on what you were saying, with some people juggling more than they would ever usually have to, we’re not just seeing individual burnout we’re seeing also collective burnout. What strategies would you recommend to leaders and businesses to help ensure that you know they can both tackle it before burnout happens or support those going through it at both a personal and team level?

First, acknowledging that this is not just a here-and-now problem. As leaders, we should be taking long-term approaches to how we manage stress within the workplace so that we actually manage the risks of individual and collective burnout. To do that, training needs to be provided. 

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve certainly seen an increase in awareness-raising activity, and more open dialogue and conversation on this subject within the workplace, but I’m not necessarily seeing as much investment into ongoing programmes of training and education. And that’s the second most important thing that leaders really do need to be looking at, is how can they train people properly and make sure that managers within organisations have the appropriate awareness and resources training so that they can support people. It’s not just the leadership team but anybody that’s got managerial responsibility, including line managers. How do you ensure that they can spot the signs, and that they are able to manage their teams not just from a poor performance perspective but also, with well-being in mind? This way they will be able to see when their teams are exhausted and experiencing symptoms of burnout and truly help them.

While it may not always lead to burnout, we know mental health issues can also impact things like mood, motivation and productivity. How should leaders manage that delicate situation appropriately and in a way that avoids peers being negatively impacted without singling out the person struggling or adding to the pressure? 

It’s a great question and I don’t know if there’s a simple answer to it. If the work has happened, that is – all the work has been done that’s needed to create the right sort of culture within the organisation – then you would hope that there would be a good level of awareness, the right level of communication and understanding that sometimes, some people will need more support than others. It’s about having a culture of ‘give and take’, that allows for the scenario where, right now, one person may need a bit of extra support, but that could well be another team member at another time. 

So you would hope that if that work is happening and if that sort of culture change activity is going on, then it wouldn’t be such an issue because it would be approached with that kind of attitude. But in reality, if it’s a relatively small business or a small team, or the workload is high, then when somebody takes time off or has their workload reduced for a period of time to support them through a challenging period, then it is going to impact on the other people in the team. In this situation, it will come down to open and honest conversation -not necessarily divulging anything personal or difficult for any individual – but to have open, transparent conversations with the whole team about it. This way, it becomes part of the culture of the organisation to talk about what challenges individuals and a team are experiencing and that they will be addressed openly, and in a team spirit. 

Organisations and leadership need to move away from dealing with issues behind closed doors because it prevents people from having a clear picture of what challenges people within the business might face and how to deal with them properly and supportively.

Absolutely. And finally, can you recommend a book and/or podcast in the arena of mental health that every technology leader should read/listen to?

Oh my goodness so many! And this might seem like an odd one really as it’s not really on mental health per se, but I am an enormous fan of Brene Brown. I love all of her work on courage and vulnerability; her Netflix programme The Call to Courage is absolutely brilliant. 

I wrote an article sometime last year that had a title alluding to the fact that vulnerability doesn’t belong in leadership, I wrote an article sometime last year that had a title alluding to the fact that vulnerability doesn’t belong in leadership, and of course- I meant that ironically. We don’t talk about vulnerability enough in leadership and it’s an incredibly important quality in leaders today. It takes a huge amount of courage to be vulnerable- and we need leaders who are prepared to do that.

Thank you, Claire!


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