Conversations on Mental Health

#TimeToTalk: encouraging conversations on mental health in (and out of) the workplace

January 29, 2020
February 10, 2020

Hi everyone, I’m Hannah, Chief People Officer (amongst other things) at Cambridge Cancer Genomics. In this blog post I’m going to talk about the ways in which I try to encourage talking about mental health in the workplace, through my personal experience of building a team.

My background is science: I have a PhD in the mechanistic link between type 2 diabetes and large bowel cancer. Before that, I did a Masters of Pharmacology, with a year in industry at MedImmune in Cambridge, where I met John, our CEO. I got asked to join as the first full time hire here in August 2017, and I’ve never looked back.

The task of building team from scratch fell on my shoulders. Although this was initially quite daunting, as I was directly responsible for how the company would shape itself and grow, it was incredibly exciting too! I have since found 36 lovely humans to work in some capacity for and it’s not going to slow down anytime soon. We are always looking for talent to grow our team!

Team is our most important asset. Team is the reason our science base is strong, the reason our software is so slick, the reason our pipeline is so functional and the reason our roadmap is so well planned out. We even have a song about Team!

When I started building the team at I immediately became aware of the responsibilities of looking after the workforce in a start-up: a high pressure, ever changing, and often stressful environment. Whilst we can choose candidates with experience in similar environments, or can ask for evidence of having built up resilience over time, ultimately our hiring processes ensure that a diverse range of people walk through the door, each with their own struggles and response to the mental stresses of a modern workplace.

So how do we protect and support those that make it through our selection process from mental health struggles during their time with us and in their future? Below are the steps we have taken to make CCG a great place to work and to encourage conversation around mental health.

At CCG, we begin every day with a short meeting called a stand up. I run the business development (BD) team stand up, which I curated after some iterating (my inner scientist still loves a good experiment). I hope to normalise talking about mental health within the company by making it part of our day-to-day check-ins. We talk about the following in our stand ups:

  1. Capacity / stress measurement. This enables colleagues to be honest with how they are feeling about work today and what you can expect from them today. Some examples are “I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed with work, I can’t help with anyone else’s queries today, save them for tomorrow”, “I’m feeling great today, I can help with extra work if needed” or “I’ve got a bit of a headache, but I should be okay soon”. It’s not perfect yet — so any suggestions are most welcome!
  2. A triumph / thing that made us happy in the last 24 hours. It can be personal or professional. Some examples are “I’m proud of Joan for taking a screening call yesterday”, “My new mattress arrived and I had a great sleep”, “I launched our blog”. The purpose of this point is to remind the team of the amazing things Team CCG do every day.
  3. Progress on our goal(s) for the week. We set these on Monday. This helps to focus us on small achievable goals, as often you can feel like you are working on huge projects that don’t move quickly. If someone has the same goal for multiple weeks it allows us to talk more about why that is and give assistance if needed. Likewise if someone achieves their goal before the week is up we can balance team workload and priorities.
  4. Any blockers. We love fixing problems immediately, this allows team members to understand if their workflow is holding up others and to help out their colleagues! Some examples are “I just don’t have enough time”, “I need to ask you a few clarification questions” and “Can you send me that document you mentioned would be useful?”. This part helps us to get things off our chest which are blocking us.

By routinely sharing these 4 things, I hope to build stronger team connections, personally as well as professionally.

I then regularly (and personally) check-in with each member of Team Initial check-ins take place to understand what the team member is feeling about working at and how we can help them to settle in, what support they need, and whether the experience is matching their expectations. This helps me to create a process which gets better each time a new member joins us. These don’t stop once a new employee is on boarded, regular check-ins ensures the work is the right kind of challenging and that they feel valued. I’m also keen to make sure we help as much as possible with personal goals such as the BD team members learning to code, or the software team learning more AI. Plus, being a start-up, things change often: I make sure everyone is okay when this happens and that every level of the organisation in on the same page.

I believe it is important to have multiple options to access advice when it is needed. So, in addition to one-on-one check-ins, we have a #support channel in Slack (the app we use for internal communications). I share resources such as those from MHFA England and it’s a place for team members to ask for advice from the wider team or talk about their worries.

We are all aware of the stereotypes night owl and early lark. Our core working hours try to reflect this to allow our team to work at the best times for them. As a start-up we benefit from having the entire team in the office at the same time so we can solve problems quickly. But, that only works if those humans can function at that point. Our core working hours are ~10.00–15.30. Team know which times they are happiest at work, and they have the freedom to choose. They can also work from home if they want to bash out some code or a blog post or research a topic. We also have dedicated mental health days available to take, on top of sick days. So if you’re not feeling like coming to work, or think coming to work won’t help, then you are free to choose to stay at home and recover in the way you know best.

We have also recently moved office space, and it’s SO awesome, if I say so myself. The hours of building IKEA furniture were very much worth it! Team love it! We know how important an office environment is and so we found a space which has mostly windows for the outer walls, which helps the team get as much natural light as possible. We have lots of plants dotted around. We have great large desk spaces where we feel comfortable to work. But, if you feel like a change in work space, we have co-working space and multiple meeting rooms. We have bean bags and hanging chairs to relax and read in. We can play Mario Kart when we need a break or to bond with the team. We have snacks, snacks and more snacks. We can write our triumphs on our whiteboard wall for the team to remember. We hope that this office space helps Team to feel as comfortable and safe as possible at work.

Cementing all these workplace systems together are our two mental health first aiders (MHFAs). One is myself and the other is Belle. We share the responsibilities of this role so that neither of us feels the pressure of keeping an eye on the entire team and, to remind each other that we are not counsellors…MHFAs also need a support system! Our role is to notice changes in behaviour and offer additional support and signposting towards help should anyone need or request it. I first heard about MHFAs from another attendee of a managing mental health in the workplace course run by Mind, which is also a great one to attend! On my MHFA course I learnt a lot. I learnt it’s okay to ask someone if they are okay, it’s okay to not be okay and it’s time to talk more. I am now much more confident in talking about mental health and promoting mental wellness. I would wholeheartedly recommend this course to anyone, it is also extremely useful outside of the workplace.

All of these processes contribute to our workplace culture, which is the most important thing in a start-up. Team respect everyone’s opinions, solve problems quickly and, most of all, work as a team. We hope that this creates a safe environment for employees to be authentic at work, and therefore more comfortable to talk and to share their worries.

I really enjoy looking after Team! I am super proud of the company we have built and what we have achieved together over the past 18 months! The next challenge is to maintain the culture and support systems as we grow. I’m looking forward to continuing to elevate the importance of talking about mental health in the workplace and in life! If you’d like to chat about anything in this article or have any tips you’d like to share… please reach out!

This article is inspired by #TimeToTalk Day, a day to start conversations around mental health. For more information and resources, go to

  • Written by Hannah Thompson, Chief Product and People Officer at
  • Edited by Belle Taylor, Strategic Communications and Partnerships Manager at
  • Thanks to Harry Clifford for valuable thoughts on drafts of this post

References consulted:

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