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    A conversation with… Vanessa Whitman

    The lawyer and mental health ambassador on destigmatising mental illness in the workplace and the power of storytelling

    What is your professional background?

    I am a partner in the finance disputes team at CMS [international law firm], which means that I handle all kinds of different financial disputes, but in particular, litigation and pre-litigation disputes for banks, fintechs and crypto companies. I’m also currently working on a follow-on case from Britain’s largest mortgage fraud, which I worked on as a newly qualified solicitor and now as a fairly new partner. That’s how I make money, but I also have a mental health role at the firm. I head up our employee network for mental health and wellbeing and have long been a campaigner for destigmatising mental health and raising awareness of mental wellbeing issues.


    Why did you become interested in mental health in relation to the workplace?

    My interest in mental health stems from my family history. My family has been very heavily impacted by mental illness. My mum had bipolar disorder and she died by suicide when I was 16. She was only 34 years old. Her brother – my uncle – also died by suicide just a couple of years ago. It’s something that has always been a very big part of my life and has obviously had an enormous impact on me personally. I come from a working-class background – no one in my family had worked in the City before or had a profession – so coming into the City was quite a stark contrast and different to the world I’d grown up in. I noticed quite quickly that there were lots of people around me who I could see were struggling with their mental health, but it was manifesting quite differently. In the City there were behaviours which were very unhealthy but disguised by bravado. This is going back to the mid- to late-2000s, where there was a very macho “stress” culture which was almost celebrated and revered, but I could see that these people actually weren’t very well. It was almost like it was acceptable to talk about “stress” because that was connected to working too hard, but we still weren’t in a place where we were able to talk about mental illness. Even as a trainee, I started running awareness-raising campaigns and getting speakers in to talk about the impact of stress on long-term mental health. So, it’s just gone from there really.


    When was this?

    I started my training contract in 2006, qualified in 2008 and have been at CMS ever since. We used to do “dress down” days, back when you had to wear a suit every day in a law firm, so once a month we would have these days to raise money for a charity. I remember organising one of these days for a depression charity and I had this conversation with a much older and more senior colleague who really challenged me on whether it was appropriate to raise money for a depression charity. He questioned if it was even a real thing. That has always stuck with me because, obviously, I have seen the very serious impacts and consequences of mental illness. But he had no qualms about expressing that view back then and I don’t think you get that now. I think we’ve moved on a long way now.


    How has the stigma surrounding mental health and illness changed in recent years?

    I think there’s been enormous change over the span of my career, but there’s definitely still a stigma. Nobody bats an eyelid if someone calls in sick because they’ve got a migraine or the flu. But very rarely does someone call up and say, ‘I’m really anxious today, I’ve just had a panic attack,’ or ‘I’m feeling suicidal and I can’t turn my computer on this morning’. Yet we know there are people who are going through that and we know those symptoms and experiences are not uncommon, but we’re not talking about it in the same way we do with physical illnesses. And I know that there’s still a stigma because we describe our colleagues who talk about their mental health as “brave” and “courageous”, and it wouldn’t be brave or courageous if there wasn’t still a stigma. We’ve still got a way to go, but it’s definitely much, much better than it was. We’ve come a really long way with some illnesses such as “depression” and “anxiety disorders”, which are becoming easier to talk about, but it’s still much harder to talk about paranoia, or schizophrenia or other personality disorders or addiction. It’s a spectrum and there are still some very heavily stigmatised illnesses and experiences.

    As a company it’s so important to make space culturally in your firm to talk about mental health and to be open.

    Do you think it’s a lack of education and misinformation about these kinds of disorders?

    Yes, there’s still a lot of unpacking of old damage done by the media and the portrayals of people who are schizophrenic, for example. I think, as a society, we still suffer quite a lot from that and it takes a long time to undo the damage. I’ve spoken to people who have been diagnosed, as adults, with things such as borderline personality disorder or schizophrenia, who are petrified about what that means because they don’t recognise themselves in the label that they’ve been given. They associate it with something terrible they saw or read 20 years ago.


    Let’s talk about the This is Me campaign and the video CMS made back in 2018…

    I love this campaign. I think This is Me is a brilliant tool. Back in late 2017, shortly after the This is Me campaign really kicked off with The Lord Mayor’s Appeal, I attended a breakfast briefing at Mansion House. They showed a video that another firm had produced and it was so impactful that I immediately made a promise to myself that I was going to go straight back to my office and get to work on creating our own. The campaign is a really simple concept and it’s just about storytelling. It’s about being honest and sharing mental health experiences to take the stigma out of it and to normalise it. For CMS, it was about demonstrating that mental health is something that everybody has, and everyone experiences to some degree. And it was about showing that you can still be a successful partner or manager at a law firm. It shouldn’t be something to be ashamed of or hidden away. I knew that the concept would work because I know that when I talk about my family – and I have always been very open about my personal experiences – I almost always get people telling me their story in return. I went straight back to my desk and fired off some emails to senior stakeholders at the firm about making our own film. Everyone was massively supportive, but I was asked to present it to the board so that we had support at the very highest level. That was petrifying because I was not a partner at that stage, I was a senior associate, and it was very intimidating! But they were all amazing and supportive. I managed to find 11 colleagues who were willing to take part, from partners, associates, business supoort to trainees. We launched it in Mental Health Awareness Week 2018 and I’ve never experienced anything like it. We had a couple of hundred people in the room and the film playing on this big screen. I was sat at the front because I was introducing it, and I could see people crying, which was completely bizarre because lawyers rarely show that kind of emotion! I could see the immediate impact that it had in that room and I can still feel it in our culture now.


    So now there’s this whole network of people who talk about these issues, which is brilliant because without that film those people wouldn’t have been connected with each other. It was a really powerful thing to do and I’m really proud of it. Because it had such an amazing impact internally, we then launched it externally in October of that year for World Mental Health Day and it was the most successful LinkedIn post that our firm has ever put out. We were supposed to make our second film in March 2020, but of course that didn’t happen thanks to lockdown! But because we haven’t been able to make more films, we have released written stories on a rolling basis. I think we’ve had about 25 other colleagues share written stories that have been posted on our intranet and emailed around internally. They cover a whole spectrum of really difficult topics such as surviving suicide attempts, the impact of baby loss and PTSD. It’s had an amazing impact on our culture and literacy in terms of talking about these topics and making our firm an inclusive place because it makes people feel able to be their whole selves at work.

    Lawyer and mental health ambassador Vanessa Whitman, photographed at The Royal Exchange


    What impact do you think the pandemic has had on office workers in terms of their mental health, and what do you think the long-term implications will be?

    It’s such a broad topic and it’s difficult to separate out the impact of the pandemic on mental health generally and the impact on office workers whose lives have been disrupted. It’s been really tough – lockdown and remote working – on certain groups of people. We found that people who were living on their own found the whole experience incredibly isolating because going into work was where they got most of that social interaction. It was also hard on people who didn’t have the physical or mental space to work from home. Having young children around was really tough. I was homeschooling a lot, and it was my first year of partnership. I was suddenly a primary school teacher (a job I am totally unqualified for) and it was hideous. But this has been an opportunity to prove that remote or flexible working can work. People have gained a lot of extra time from not having to commute every day. The ability to have breakfast with your family before you start work or being able to do the school run or using that extra time to exercise – there have been many positive habits that people have picked up from having that extra time in their day. But it’s really an individual experience. Going forward, I don’t think we’ll ever go back to working 5 days a week in the office, I think that’s a thing of the past. Flexibility is going to be a positive thing overall, but we need to be careful to avoid the pitfalls of prejudging people who are choosing to not be present in the office. On the whole I think it will make workplaces more inclusive because it will make it easier for people who have other demands on their time, or caring responsibilities or who find office life overwhelming from a mental health perspective.


    What kind of services and strategies do you think businesses will implement to prioritise their employees’ mental wellbeing?

    Firstly, I hope that businesses really will prioritise mental health and wellbeing. I think that they’d be foolish not to because it’s clear now that it’s so important to our working population and it makes a massive difference to productivity. I think we’ll see more firms offering counselling and access to psychological therapies. But more important and perhaps simpler than that is making sure that, as a company, you’re making space culturally in your firm to talk about these topics and to be open. That’s almost the cheapest and easiest thing to do ­– although cultural change takes time. Taking part in things such as the This Is Me campaign or raising awareness is hugely valuable and using things such as the Mental Health First Aid network or the Wellbeing Ambassador Network is really important. You can’t look at many positives in a pandemic which has done so much damage, but I think there are some good things that have come out of it and the acceleration of our ability to talk about and listen when it comes to mental health is huge.

    There’s nothing better than being in the City on a crisp winter’s morning

    Personally, how do you maintain a healthy work-life balance?

    Having young children means that the question is taken out of my hands because I can’t negotiate with my 5 year old if she wants my attention! It’s almost impossible to be constantly thinking about work when you’re absorbed with kids. Before I had children I found the whole work-life balance harder because the reasons to stop working felt selfish and indulgent. If you have family demands, that takes the challenge away because you simply have to deal with it. Having said that, I do try to practice what I preach. I’ll go running a couple of times a week which has become my “me time” because I’m on my own and I can’t look at my emails or deal with kids while I’m running. That’s something I re-started over lockdown and managed to maintain and that’s been a big sanity saver for me. Physical exercise has such an enormous impact on your mental wellbeing. It has a knock-on effect on so many other things such as how well you sleep and what you eat. I find myself processing thoughts when I’m running, it’s quite a mindful thing to do once you get past the first painful couple of kilometres!


    Finally, what do you like about working in the City?

    I love being in the City. There’s nothing better than being in the City on a crisp, bright winter’s morning or a hot summer’s day; there’s such a buzz. It’s something I’ve really missed over the past couple of years. In terms of favourite places, there are a few parks that I go to on my lunch break that help me stay centered if I’m having a stressful day and need some fresh air. I love Postman’s Park which is close to St Paul’s, and St Dunstan in the East. It feels like you’re stepping into a different world.



    Vanessa Whitman is a partner in the finance disputes team at CMS London. She is also the firm’s Mental Health Champion, a wellbeing ambassador, and partner chair of CMS Inclusion Networks’ Mental Health and Wellbeing Committee. You can watch the film made by Vanessa and the CMS team here, and learn more about the This is Me campaign here.


    A Conversation With… is a monthly series that invites today’s leading minds to discuss current topics, exchange points of view and explore new ideas with The Royal Exchange.

    Vanessa was photographed at The Royal Exchange by Tami Aftab