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Solent 250 webinar: Dame Kelly Holmes on mental health and wellbeing

By Dan Teuton
16 September 2020

Legendary Double Olympic Champion, multiple global medalist and award-winning athlete Dame Kelly Holmes hosted an inspiring virtual Solent 250 webinar on mental health. As well as talking candidly about her personal experience in elite sport and the British Army, she also discussed an employee-focused mental health app she helped create for businesses.Kelly-Holmes-webinarOver 150 business owners, managers and HR specialists from Solent 250 companies logged in to the online webinar, hosted by Solent 250 sponsors CMA Recruitment Group, HSBC, Irwin Mitchell and RSM.

Sharon Murphy, senior corporate relationship director at HSBC, began the session by pointing out that we have yet to see parity in approaches to mental and physical health. She highlighted Office for National Statistics figures showing mental health issues account for 12.7% of sick days, which adds up to some 17.5 million lost working days.

“But there is so much we can do to support employees,” she said. “So, I’m delighted that Dame Kelly is sharing her experiences with us and talking about some of the actions we can all take to address mental health issues.”

How do you feel?

Dame Kelly began with a simple enough question: “How are you?” she asked, pointing out that most of us probably replied: “Okay”.

“It’s easy to brush things under the carpet,” she noted. “The true answer is more likely to be a mixture of okay, sad, angry, happy, motivated and so on.”

She added: “It doesn’t matter who you are or what your background is – one in six of us will be diagnosed with a mental health issue. If you can get ahead of a situation as it arises, and if a company can support employees in an holistic way, then everyone benefits.”

It’s also important to remember that mental health isn’t just about when things go wrong – there’s a positive dimension to consider. “People who are really positive and driven benefit from being kept inspired and motivated,” she said.

That's why businesses need to learn how best to listen to, and empathise with, employees on an individual basis.

Fast track to pressure

Dame Kelly had a passion for athletics from childhood. In the Army, she rose to the rank of sergeant during a 10-year military career, where she was a physical training instructor. She then left the Army to pursue her dream, winning double Olympic gold at the Athens games in 2004. “Sport made me feel good about myself because I was good at it,” she said.

Being goal-oriented gave her purpose and positivity. “You constantly push yourself to better your performance by setting goals and aspirations. You give it everything in terms of your mind, focus and body. My whole life as an athlete was about one goal: to win gold.”

Her journey to Olympic track stardom may have been stellar but it came at a price to her mental health. Her well-documented journey to athletics’ highest level had its lows, notably through injury, health problems and other setbacks. These contributed to mental health breakdowns.

Time to talk

“When I talked about my first breakdown, people were aghast. But back then, you didn’t discuss mental health – even my family didn’t know. I became a self-harmer but no-one knew what I was going through. You can have a smile on your face but feel crushed inside.”

As well as family support, part of the solution for Dame Kelly came through talking to her support team of physiotherapists, nutritionists and training partners who contributed to her successes.

Her personal experiences got her thinking about what else, in addition to inspiring and motivating people to take up sport, she could do to help other people improve their mental health.

“I realised that not enough was being done in the workplace to tackle mental health issues. Today, the Covid-19 pandemic has made mental health more prominent, especially as the lockdown has blurred the lines between work and home life. The pandemic has exposed the extent and depth of mental health issues,” she said.

Elf app supports businesses

How she dealt with her own challenges led Dame Kelly to develop the Employee Lifestyle and Fitness (Elf) workplace mental health app.

The app is ‘white label’, so companies can personalise it with their own logos, content and messages. The app aggregates information from 47 data points, so companies can gain a broad picture of employees’ thoughts and feelings (which are given anonymously). A handy corporate dashboard makes analysing the data easy.

Useful information for users includes content on a range of issues, including tackling stress and dealing with anxiety. Various links take you to motivational talks, videos, audio and texts.

Different ‘zones’ on the app cover fitness, motivation and nutrition, as well as a chillout zone for mindfulness and sleep issues. There’s also an SOS button for self-help advice or crisis support contact details.

Stay connected

Dame Kelly wrapped up her presentation by encouraging companies to use the Elf app to keep in contact with employees: “The app is a connectivity tool, not just for monitoring mental health and wellbeing issues, but also sharing messages across your company, for example, from HR, mental health advisers or managers.”


Here’s a selection of questions people submitted during the webinar:

Q: When you were competing, how did you keep focused and motivated between events?

A: Like in business, I had goals and strategies to achieve them. Between races, I would be developing processes for getting better or trouble-shooting injuries. You have to learn to adapt after setbacks and learn from what you have done in the past, so you can move forward.”

Q: What percentage of elite sports would you say are won or lost in the mind?

A: A lot. I’d say about 80% of winning is in your head.

Q: How many users can you have on the Elf app?

A: There is no minimum. We’ll work with any company that is interested in the app.

Q: What is the most important advice you give about tackling mental health issues?

A: First, ask for help. There is always someone there – family, friends, colleagues or helplines. Second, keep heathy. Be active. Help yourself to be happy about yourself.

Q: What steps can employers and line managers take to encourage conversations with employees about mental health?

A: There is a lot you can do, like having dedicated people who are an initial point of contact for employees. Mental health first aiders are great – I’m one. The training helps you identify colleagues you think aren’t acting in their normal way and who might appreciate your support.

Q: What advice do you have for employers on how best to support staff returning to the workplace after the pandemic lockdown?

A: Covid-19 has given people and businesses the chance to look at their situation and ask if it is time to make fundamental changes. Businesses need to give employees choices. Some are scared to return, some can’t wait to be back, so employers should be taking the return to work slowly to get it right.

Details of the next webinar will be available soon