Mental Health Awareness Week 2021: An interview with Tara Dillon, CEO

The pledge is a way for employers to take clear action to show their commitment to employee mental health and work towards meeting the government-backed framework for employers. With mental health becoming increasingly important, especially in the last year, CIMSPA is pleased to back a forward thinking pledge for the workplace.

Named so because the characteristics of 'good work' can help prevent new mental health problems developing, it also indicates clear support for those with mental health conditions to do well at work and thrive.

In this blog, our communications team spoke with Tara Dillon (CEO, CIMSPA) about Mental Health Awareness Week and how CIMSPA has managed mental health in the workplace.

Could you briefly outline your role and why you're taking action on mental health in the workplace?

“I run CIMSPA, the sport and physical activity sector’s chartered professional body. We’re specifically focused on people, and therefore people are my passion. I have a team of 45 people who I care about very much. In our workplace alone, I'm aware that around 25% of our team have or do suffer with mental health challenges. And to that end, we committed a long time ago to making sure that people are able to talk or share if they feel comfortable to do so. We've got Mental Health First Aiders in every department and employee benefits that allow our staff to speak anonymously to trained counsellors with Able Futures when they need to.

“We take engagement surveys every six to seven weeks to know how they feel about their workplace, their workload and their colleagues. It allows us to put interventions and support in place.

“When Workforce Mental Wealth approached us to sign the Good Work Pledge, for me, it was an easy decision to make to understand the scope and extent of how people not only coped during the last year, but generally, to help us identify where we can add value and support to employers and their teams to be as well as they possibly can be. We have become one of the first early adopters of the Good Work Pledge. What I like about it is that Workplace Mental Wealth has made it very quick and easy to sign. It's like a very simple assessment to gain your understanding as an employer of whether or not you do enough, and then to support you to encourage mental health awareness in the workplace. But also they then can direct you to resources and areas for improvement.

“We’ve also partnered with Mind, the leading mental health charity in the UK. We have access to support services, advice and guidance for us as an employer, and for our employees.”

What are your future ambitions and goals for mental health in the workplace? And how is CIMSPA preparing for new mental health challenges in the future?

“We're surrounded by partners who can provide support. We're not an expert in mental health, we just want to raise awareness. And make sure the mental health agenda is understood, it's prevalent, and it's not ignored.

“From a sort of commercial perspective, it's good for business, it's good that you recognise it. We recently supported Workplace Mental Wealth in conducting a survey of the leisure and fitness workforce. 69% said they have experienced mental health challenges at some stage and 53% in the last year reported they were experiencing high levels of mental health problems. As a sector we can’t ignore this. “In the future we will leverage our partnerships, particularly with Mind (and others), to make sure that we make available support mechanisms, interventions, advice or guidance to everybody who might need to access it. We will expand on that, and then work with our employer partners to improve their mental health awareness.

“Mental health is complex. It always strikes me as very odd that when we speak about health and sickness we tend to focus on the physical symptoms, but for years mental health has been shown to decrease productivity and lead to poor performance.

“There needs to be more support out there for people to access. For instance, men seem to struggle more with sharing their mental health concerns. In the mental health survey, we were struggling to get men to complete it when we pushed it out on social media to drive numbers up.

“To reiterate, our future plans will be to collect information and make sure that we help fill those gaps with support that we have from our partners.”

Do you think there’s a lack of mental health awareness in the sport and physical activity sector?

“I think that was probably true a few years ago, but I see a really healthy shift in sport and physical activity. General awareness is much, much better than it was. Workforce Mental Wealth says everybody has physical health and mental health. We aim to make our physical health strong, but it should be the case for mental health too.

“Everybody has mental health and we are on a spectrum that is no different to the spectrum you are on for your physical health. Anybody should be able to go and get treatment for mental health in the same way they could get treatment and support for physical health. There needs to be a fundamental cultural shift across society. Ultimately, that's our job, as a people focused organisation for the entire sector – to make sure that there is an increase in awareness and that there is a high availability of support.”

What one piece of advice would you recommend to others currently thinking about mental health awareness in the workplace?

“Make sure there is a cultural shift to make good on your promise. Don't pay lip service to it, don’t just tick boxes. For example we've created a policy that enshrines our values in actions that employees know about. We’re quite open as an organisation. For instance, we have an unlimited annual leave policy and very little in the way of a rigid, bureaucratic HR policy. We treat all of our employees with the utmost respect and access to paid-for services they can use whenever they want. We also never stand still and are constantly changing.

“The output from this is, by and large, a very happy team. We're not suggesting people don't suffer from mental health challenges. But in terms of productivity and support and confidence we have that in abundance.

“Culturally, we're not scared of talking about it. We're not scared of providing support. We don't run away from the subject, we walk towards it and we embrace it.”

“We consistently ask our employees about work-life balance and how people want to work, etc.”

What can be done to ensure mental health awareness goes beyond Covid-19?

“It's a cultural thing again, isn't it? I can’t stress this enough: mental health isn’t a new thing. What the pandemic has done has exacerbated the situation. But even if the pandemic has raised awareness of mental health, then mental health awareness needs to continue.

“It's the understanding, it's the deep dive, it's speaking to your colleagues and understanding the extent and scope of it. It’s really meaning it when you apply change and support, and knowing that it doesn't stop there.”

“You should have mechanisms in place to constantly check and review how your team is feeling.

“The other thing as well, which we're really keen to get right, is that the support we provide is completely anonymous. It's there for the individual, it's not there for us, we haven't got a sort of ‘Big Brother’ lens on this. It's just available, and it's a really, really good investment.

“Whilst the survey seemed to show that more senior positions tended to suffer less with mental health issues, I think that there are issues across the board. I speak to colleagues in the sector, and they really have struggled, particularly in the last year, including myself. People seem to think leadership is really, really strong, and therefore we would/could never suffer with mental health issues. I know I have struggled sometimes in the last year and I have this job. Sometimes I think there's a fear of sort of admitting that and we've got to break that down somehow. Everybody has something. If you looked at it as a spectrum, I suspect everybody would say they’re somewhere on it. Getting my own work life balance can sometimes become a real challenge for me, but knowing that I can address that through the support and the open culture we’ve cultivated at work is so important.

“If you're an employee and you are back to work in a leisure centre or delivering coaching, I would imagine people feel quite exposed to Covid-19. You perhaps feel like you have to go back to work because if you don't, you won’t get paid and furloughs have since been lifted. I can imagine people do feel quite vulnerable. The sector needs to be acutely aware of that. It’s a big ask.

“We shut the office two weeks before everybody else because we wanted to look after our employees wellbeing. This thinking needs to carry on after the pandemic, and we are constantly planning how best to return to work in the office. Our internal surveys have found that many employees want flexible work, largely to look after their own mental health and reduce the stress of commuting, etc. Right now, we’re predicted to reopen by September but we’re willing to push that back if the situation deteriorates and if that happens we will prioritise our employee’s mental wellbeing above all else.”

Do you feel there has been a shift in awareness towards mental health in the sport and physical activity sector more widely?

“There is a mutual understanding and awareness, post-coronavirus, that has increased everyone’s recognition of mental health. From my own experience, at CIMSPA, we have a very supportive Board of Trustees. I meet with my Chair every Friday and the meeting starts with ‘how are you doing?’, not ‘what are you doing?’. Marc Woods has been great throughout the pandemic by checking in with myself and the senior leadership team. But he’s been this way through his time as the Board Chair.

“I thought I understood my own stress limits, but during this period I realised that I’ve never experienced this level of stress before. This made me consider others in my position across the sector, and the workforce in general. Last year, when the pandemic hit, I reached out to industry peers. There's a handful of people in organisations like ukactive and Sport England who I sent a text to encouraging them to get some rest, because at the start of the pandemic, we worked for eight weeks straight without a break, and they were long days. It wasn’t good for my mental health, and I knew everybody else was perhaps in the same boat.

"Coronavirus was a total upheaval for the sector and, as the professional body, we need to focus on all people in our sector – even those in senior leadership positions. I think this understanding is representative of a greater connection to mental health awareness, from personal relationships, to those at organisational levels."

How can people get involved with the Good Work Pledge?

"It's the most simple thing. Click on the link and fill in the form to get started. It takes minutes. We are absolutely committed to supporting employers and their employees to implement better policies, awareness and culture of mental health in our sector. The pledge has been purposely developed to be a simple and straightforward way of doing this. Once you have signed up and paid you will be given a guide and diagnostics tool to work with your team to implement a mental health approach that works.

"It will send a positive message to your team, and if you're CEO, please get around to doing it. The message you will be sending to employees will be really, really positive. It will show you care."

The Good Work Pledge

As the sector’s professional body we’re happy to support the Good Work Pledge. It’s good for businesses, for the sector workforce and for the customers we serve.

Others can take the pledge too. Taking the pledge includes:

  • An action plan guide
  • A diagnostic tool
  • Use of The Good Work Pledge logo to show your commitment
  • A listing on Workplace Mental Wealth’s website as a pledge signatory

You'll be making a public statement about your positive intentions around your employee's mental wellbeing. You’ll be more likely to take action and get noticed for showing leadership.


The Chartered Institute for the Management of Sport and Physical Activity

CIMSPA’s work enhances the career opportunities and professional development of the workforce operating in sport, fitness, exercise, leisure, gyms, coaching, outdoor exercise, health and wellbeing. We achieve this through sector-wide engagement, membership, networking, events, directories and professional standards.


Incorporated by Royal Charter Charity registration number 1144545

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