McKinsey Health Institute

‘Be brave, not perfect,’ says mental health advocate Poppy Jaman

Poppy Jaman, CEO of the MindForward Alliance, shares her journey with mental health challenges and disorders, and discusses the importance of overcoming stigma and providing support in the workplace.

Poppy Jaman’s commitment to mental health advocacy goes well beyond the professional realm. It’s also deeply personal for her. A third-generation British Bangladeshi, Poppy has lived with depression and anxiety throughout her adult life and has experienced firsthand the mental health challenges common to those in underrepresented groups. Among her most formative life experiences, at age 17 Poppy was taken from her longtime home in the United Kingdom back to her birth country of Bangladesh to be married—an experience she believes initiated her mental health struggles.

“I found myself in a country where the language was alien, the culture was alien, and I was about to get married to a guy that I didn't know,” she recalls.

Poppy has since devoted her career (two decades and counting) to mental health advocacy, including in her current role as CEO of the MindForward Alliance. She recently sat down for a virtual conversation with McKinsey senior partner Ramesh Srinivasan, who sought mental health assistance when his daughter and son both received a cancer diagnosis (they have since died from the disease). This experience ignited Ramesh’s commitment to champion the cause of mental health support.

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During their wide-ranging discussion on mental health topics, Poppy shared that through open, honest communication, she seeks to demonstrate to others that mental health challenges do not preclude success in all walks of life—from parenting to leading in a C-suite role. “Until we get leaders to say, ‘I had a breakdown and I’m still successful,’ we are not going to change corporate culture.”

Over time Poppy has learned to recognize her “stress signature,” or her physiological responses to stress, which include neck pain, sleeplessness, and loss of appetite, among others. She encourages everyone to identify their triggers and stress signatures, and to watch for changes in their behavior so they can recognize and disrupt a downward cycle early. Heightened self-awareness combined with the right toolkit empower individuals to continually practice self-care and seek support, including professional help when needed to navigate life’s inevitable ups and downs—and avoid hitting rock bottom. They also serve as “muscle memory” that kicks in during bouts of stress, when decision-making capabilities may be compromised.

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To manage her health, Poppy has developed a personalized “well-being toolkit” that includes a range of interventions she can draw upon in times of stress. Her options include talk therapy, medication (which, she points out, is equivalent to life-supporting insulin for a diabetic), yoga, and a supportive friend network. She also proactively avoids triggers—including incessant media and social coverage of topics that could recall traumatic experiences from her past and intensify her feelings of vulnerability.

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Building on identifying stress signatures, Ramesh recommended selecting “micro-practices”—new or different routine behaviors—to improve one’s mental well-being. These practices can be around sleep, diet, exercise, music, intellectual pursuits, and team behaviors. Ramesh shared that one of his favorite micro-practices is “having a morning cup of tea with my wife while listening to Indian classical music and discussing our intentions for the day.”

“Learning research has shown that if adults can stick with a regular ritual for six to eight weeks, there is an 80 percent chance it will become a habit,” Ramesh noted.

In the workplace, Poppy cautions against a culture of “toxic perfectionism” that degrades mental health and stymies risk-taking and innovation. Instead, she advises companies, set a tone and regularly remind workers to “be brave, not perfect” for their own benefit and that of their organizations. Mental health in the workplace has evolved, they noted, with a focus on psychologically safe spaces. Workers are reporting high rates of burnout and distress symptoms, the McKinsey Health Institute found in a recent survey.

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In addition to their personal journeys, Poppy and Ramesh also discussed how personal traits such as gender, race, and culture influence mental health. “My experiences of being a Brown woman in a majority White society is that I’ve always felt like I’ve had to prove myself doubly, triple-y,” Poppy says, adding, “I’ve had to use enormous amounts of therapy and coaching in order to overcome those internal voices.”

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