” Zoom just doesn’t quite work in that context!”, Camilla Harrisson of Anomaly and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

One current focus is the process of trying to migrate meetings (especially one-to-ones) away from the screen and onto voice-only. And to encourage that behaviour we have given everyone in the company a step tracker to enable them to get out and get active during the working day — which has enormous benefits for mental and physical […]

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One current focus is the process of trying to migrate meetings (especially one-to-ones) away from the screen and onto voice-only. And to encourage that behaviour we have given everyone in the company a step tracker to enable them to get out and get active during the working day — which has enormous benefits for mental and physical health. It is, of course, possible to join a voice-only meeting while out getting some fresh air. Zoom just doesn’t quite work in that context!

As a part of my series about the “5 Ways That Businesses Can Help Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees” I had the pleasure of interviewing Camilla Harrisson.

Camilla is the London CEO of the innovative marketing firm Anomaly, and has worked in the UK advertising industry for over 20 years at household name agencies including M&C Saatchi, Wieden+Kennedy and Leo Burnett. Much of her earlier career was spent in the stressful world of pitching for new business — testament to her love of a challenge, her highly competitive nature and, arguably, mental resilience.

Camilla plays an active part in the UK ad industry, being a current member of the IPA Council and a member — and past President (2012/13) — of Women in Advertising and Communications London. She has also sat on the Corporate Development Board of the UK’s leading mental health charity, Mind.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I’d love to say it was all deeply planned, but it wasn’t. When I left school, I thought I wanted to do PR (my cousin did it, and it seemed impossibly glamorous). So I put an ad in the ‘classifieds’ section of PR Week advertising myself for a job in PR. My ad was directly underneath one for a secondhand photocopier and above one for a company that printed logos on golf balls. The ad got me a job — but it was all a bit like the 1980’s British sitcom ‘Acorn Antiques’ — comically chaotic. So I decided to get really fast at typing to get a job as an assistant somewhere more exciting. And that’s how I found myself in an advertising agency. Once I was in, I loved it. I got put into new business and was working on pitches within a year. I just absorbed everything I could. That was nearly thirty years ago. Every career decision I’ve made since then has been based on gut instinct — particularly how I’ve felt about the people I would be working with. And it’s that approach that’s got me where I am today.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

One of the things that I love and find endlessly fascinating about the industry I work in is the need to get under the skin of the issue and audience you’re trying to reach. At times it can be an incredibly humbling experience that leaves a lasting impact and makes you painfully aware of your privilege: from diving into some of the social issues our clients are tackling — discrimination, food poverty, pollution for example — to spending time with researchers and cancer patients for Cancer Research UK.

But that same need to understand one’s audience has also taken me into some strange worlds — including that of the super-rich. I remember going to Monaco for a meeting with at the home of a very wealthy brand owner — the most bizarre experience of my professional life for sure. The day was too random to piece into any kind of chronological narrative (much like an actual nightmare). A highlight was being given a pair of £500 socks to wear, to protect the ostrich leather floors. Less enjoyable was getting trapped (and very panicky) in a mirrored soundproofed restroom with a self-closing-door-with-no-handle that was so perfectly flush to the wall that it was invisible. I was basically a mime artist dong a ‘trapped in a box’ sequence for about half an hour. Other scars from the day came from the voice-activated self-playing piano that I accidentally and repeatedly set off (this was WAY before Google-assist or Alexa) and having lunch with the extremely temperamental owner and his dog — who I was instructed to ‘include in the conversation please Camilla’ and who sat next to us on chair eating and drinking what we did.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

If I had to boil it down to one thing, it’d be to figure out your own optimal way of working and try and stick to it as much as possible. Particularly now, it’s critical that companies don’t impose a single ‘solution’ across their business and that they instead encourage and support every individual to develop their own personal toolkit for how they work. We’re all different. Some of us like to get up early and get at it, others prefer to work late. Some have practical pressures, such as family commitments or home-schooling — some need to get outdoors and score some Vitamin D or endorphins to get their brain firing. Everyone is different. Working to a cadence or culture that doesn’t suit you is super-stressful. What’s more, it will exacerbate the impact of the stress that naturally occurs when work is intense. The other thing I’d suggest is to be hyper-aware of how you’re coping by checking in with someone regularly — ideally a therapist or a coach. The best way to avoid burnout is to see it coming, and the best way to thrive is to understand what works for you — and sometimes you can only see that stuff when you take the time to step back and have a good look.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

One critical key that can unlock so much is practising radical honesty as a leader, and doing everything you can to engender the same in others. I’m not just talking about honesty in moral terms here — it’s as much about being straightforward and open. The more you can lead by example and cut through the whole #LivingMyBestLife crap, the quicker you can connect with people, build trust and help them to be honest and open with you — and with each other. Not only does it make work easier, more enjoyable and more rewarding but you get to a better place quicker when everyone feels safe to have a voice, say what they really think, question things and speak up when they don’t understand. And critically it creates a culture where it’s easier to express or acknowledge the hard stuff and get into dealing with it — whether it’s collective or individual, behavioural or psychological. And there’s never been more challenging stuff to deal with than there is right now.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

There are so many life lesson quotes out there I’m beginning to feel I need a life quote about how to deal with the pressure of life quotes. But there is a beautiful piece of writing by F Scott Fitzgerald that I have repeatedly stumbled across that has never failed to touch me and jolt me out of those moments of self-pity or self-indulgence. In fact, it’s now on my kitchen wall. And this year in particular, when we’ve never felt less in control, and it feels like life is happening to you, it reminds me how much is actually in my gift.

“For what it’s worth… it’s never too late, or in my case too early, to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit. Start whenever you want. You can change or stay the same. There are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you’ve never felt before. I hope you meet people who have a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. And if you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start over again.”

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. In recent years many companies have begun offering mental health programs for their employees. For the sake of inspiring others, we would love to hear about five steps or initiatives that companies have taken to help improve or optimize their employees mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each?

At the end of last year, a new World Economic Forum-Ipsos survey confirmed what many company bosses feared: stress, anxiety and loneliness have increased among working people, a result of the ongoing toll of the COVID-19 pandemic. As presenteeism is replaced by a WFH culture, companies are grappling with how to pivot existing HR and healthcare support plans to be a better fit for the modern working environment. At Anomaly, we’ve created a new platform called Anomaly Health with three pillars of ‘wellbeing’, ‘fitness’ and ‘community’ — each designed to help our people nurture their mental and physical health and increase their sense of belonging and connectedness.

This is our number one cultural priority. A long time before COVID, we had already implemented several things — including switching healthcare providers to ensure mental health cover was included as standard. But the pandemic accelerated this focus massively.

From a wellbeing perspective, we quickly implemented (and now provide permanently) free sessions with one of two highly qualified psychologists, every week — bookable confidentially and directly by any staff member. For me, this is THE most significant thing we’ve done. It takes away those barriers (logistical, financial or simply the stigma), which often prevent people from seeking help. What’s more, I know this to be true due to the many staff members who have proactively written to me to explain the positive impact it’s had on them and thanking Anomaly for helping them take that first step. We have also provided every Anomaly employee worldwide with the Headspace Premium app and augment this with workshops addressing topics that include nutrition and stress management to talks on identity and belonging.

From a fitness perspective, we acted immediately back in April 2020 to partner with an independent gym to provide a weekly schedule of Anomaly fitness classes (ranging from hardcore HIIT to sessions designed to tackle posture and mobility). It now has an incredible following and community within the agency delivering so much more than fitness: it creates a scheduled ‘break’ in the day, a feeling of shared experience (bringing together people from right across the agency) not to mention the mental benefits of exercise. It’s proved to be incredibly powerful and important, and it’s something that will be in place forever regardless of whether we’re physically together or separate.

One current focus is the process of trying to migrate meetings (especially one-to-ones) away from the screen and onto voice-only. And to encourage that behaviour we have given everyone in the company a step tracker to enable them to get out and get active during the working day — which has enormous benefits for mental and physical health. It is, of course, possible to join a voice-only meeting while out getting some fresh air. Zoom just doesn’t quite work in that context!

And finally, like all companies right now, we’re continually finding new ways to build connection. We have a created a vibrant cultural programme which includes fortnightly speakers and inspiration sessions, through to a book club, a movie club, socials, and more. Zoom socials have their challenges for sure, and it can be easy to dismiss them, but that would be to give up on something that is, for many, a cultural lifeline. Working at making them work well is the way forward. I’m a big fan of getting learnings and inspiration of how to get better from wherever I can — be that from internal suggestions, or externally from my broader network.

I know we’re not alone in taking these kinds of steps. And I hope we can, as an industry all share more of what we’re doing with the ambition that every pound / dollar / euro our industry has historically spent on the ‘perks’ of the old working world — from free breakfasts to drinks fridges and table tennis tables, to pizzas, to taxis — now gets invested where it’s actually needed and valued most: maintaining and nurturing health and wellbeing of each individual.

From your experience or research, what are different steps that each of us as individuals, as a community and as a society, can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling stressed, depressed, anxious and having other mental health issues ? Can you explain?

I work in an industry that’s all about communicating. And about shaping perceptions — whether on behalf of brands or issues. So you might imagine our sector is at the forefront of tackling the stigmas around mental health at work and driving change at pace. But you’d be wrong. Like other industries, we have pockets of excellence, but it’s simply not deemed a priority for many businesses. The heartening news is that the pandemic experience is already starting to change that. But as ever, it will be a journey. But by doing all we can as leaders to make good mental health a mainstream issue for business, we can set the path for achieving change. I firmly believe that the theory of marginal gains (as deployed by Dave Brailsford for British Cycling) can work equally well when applied to the issue of mental health: Small changes, consistently applied over time, can create meteoric improvements. With mental health in particular, where so much of the challenge is around normalization, we must bring it into the everyday.

Habits can play a huge role in mental wellness. What are the best strategies you would suggest to develop good healthy habits for optimal mental wellness that can replace any poor habits?

Healthy habits are undoubtedly critical to ongoing mental wellness, but damn they’re hard to form! Ultimately I think they have to start from something you enjoy.

I’ve always loved exercising, and it’s always been a big part of my life and something I’ve done around the edges of work and at weekends when I can (a few times a week). But since the pandemic it’s has become essential to me that I do some exercise every day. It’s absolutely not about ‘doing more exercise’ — if anything my sessions are shorter now and most are confined to what’s possible in my kitchen. But it’s become the time that I escape my own brain, switch off from work and invest in myself. I feel the stress evaporate and my perspective change — even if it’s just a half-hour workout. What’s more, the endorphins genuinely impact your psychological state. Whether it’s exercise, getting outdoors, meditation or something else, the key is to schedule it and then take the exact same approach to it that you would a work meeting — and by that, I mean simply show up and start. The rest will follow.

The other thing I’d suggest is to embrace the tiny things you get pleasure from and turn them into rituals that can act as breaks or even bookends to punctuate your day. As we work remotely — and will only continue to work more and more flexibly — it can be so easy to lose your sense of time and place and get consumed by, lost in and ultimately overwhelmed by work. My mid-morning walk around the block and my end-of-play-G&T (full disclosure: some days it’s alcohol-free but the ritual is what’s important to me) are just two of the consistent beats to my day that have taken on disproportionate importance when it comes to my own mental health.

Do you use any meditation, breathing or mind-calming practices that promote your mental wellbeing? We’d love to hear about all of them. How have they impacted your own life?

I have tried meditation — and I know how many people swear by it — but I haven’t been able to really get on board with it so far. I’m very restless and impatient which doesn’t help (to give you an idea, according to my friends, animal-wise I am most like a squirrel). By I’ve found my best form of meditation recently and it comes from indoor cycling. About a year ago, I visited the gym near me. Many of their Ride classes are actually billed as ‘meditative’: rather than sprints and drills, these are longer endurance classes where you just lock in and lose yourself in amazing music. I’ve become totally hooked and find a state of mental release in these sessions I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced before — and I’m pretty sure no squirrel has ever achieved.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

I confess that I don’t read much these days. I was a total book-addict as a child, but these days the only time I pick up a book is on a sunlounger — and chances of getting on one of those any time soon are zero. But I’ve always been obsessed with crime — both fiction and non-fiction. I read every Agatha Christie book and all of the Sherlock Holmes books multiple times when I was younger — I loved the clues and the piecing together of evidence. So much so that I thought I wanted to be a police detective or a forensic investigator. And still now, that is my absolute go-to genre. I can’t say whether those books impacted me, but I even to this day search for ‘clues’ and ‘tells’ — whether that’s in the words people choose or the body language they exhibit. I once met the Head of Hostage & Crisis Negotiation from the UK Metropolitan Police. He told me how, when people start talking, they reveal fragments of themselves in little language clues. It’s fascinating. I also have a photographic memory which means I revisit things visually sometimes. Inside my brain, even what appears to be a simple work meeting can often look like the evidence board in a police investigation as I piece together what might be going on beneath the surface. (I’m immediately regretting sharing this is as it’s going to totally freak out everyone I work with.)

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

It would be a movement that encouraged people to just say out loud the good thought they’re having in their head. There is a lot of crap out there right now, and all the negative news and noise is understandably making people feel rubbish. Even more rubbish than they might already be feeling, which isn’t that great for many people anyway. Often I have found myself in conversation or just observing someone and thinking something about them that they’d probably be really chuffed to hear, but for some reason (it’s not the right time, I’m being WAY too British, etc.) I don’t say it out loud to them. I’m now making a conscious effort to say the thing — whatever it is — and it’s wonderful. It feels fantastic to tell someone something nice, and it feels great to hear. In fact, hearing the things that others see or value in you can significantly impact how you see and value yourself. So that’s my movement. Easy. Free. Just. Say. The.Thing.

What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?


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