Google's Nishma Robb: for 20 years I felt I was going to be found out

Creating the work environment in which people who are struggling with their mental health and wellbeing feel able to talk about it should be a top priority for businesses, four marketing and media agency leaders have said.

Panel on wellbeing (L-R): Greaves, Eyre, Krichefski, Robb and Evans
Panel on wellbeing (L-R): Greaves, Eyre, Krichefski, Robb and Evans

Speaking at an Advertising Week Europe panel, Google marketing director Nishma Robb discussed the extent to which her professional life had been impacted by imposter syndrome. a phenomenon in which people struggle to credit themselves for their achievements and fear being exposed as a fraud.

"I have been working for about 25 years and for about 20 I carried a secret with me – that through all the success and achievements I had, I simply felt I was going to be found out," Robb said, adding that it was only when she learned the term "imposter syndrome" about five years ago that she started to understand what the issue was.

"I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunities I’ve had, but I never really recognised ability," she continued. "And that’s a really dangerous quality – as a leader, how you manage teams when you have that can be really dangerous – from being terrible at delegation, to driving your team incredibly hard.

"What we see now is the long term impact of that challenge can lead to depression, to a really crippling lack of self-esteem."

Robb was taking part in a panel discussion about the participants’ "elephant in the room" – the issues we should be talking about more, but don’t.

Insomnia

She was joined by Direct Line Group’s marketing director Mark Evans, MediaCom UK chief executive Josh Krichefski, and Rachel Eyre, head of marketing propositions at Sainsbury’s. It was moderated by Marketing Society chief executive Gemma Greaves.

Krichefski revealed that his own affliction was insomnia, which he began to experience 15 years ago after a relationship breakup.

"I quite quickly got over the breakup, but I never got over the insomnia," he said. "I’ve always had it and it’s very much triggered by stress at work. I don't generally sleep badly at the weekend – usually just if I’ve had a very stressful day."

Being able to manage the problem meant focusing on perspective, Krichefski said – a part of which, for him, is meditation. "It isn’t always closing your eyes and finding a meditative state – it can just be clearing your mind," he explained. "What meditation really does is takes you away from thinking about yourself, and that’s the thing that often creates the most amount of stress."

The support network

While it was hugely challenging for an individual experience mental health problems, Eyre said, it was also important for companies to be aware that such a situation could also be challenging for the people around them.

"I feel quite nervous admitting that for fear of looking unsympathetic or self-involved," she said. "But this isn’t starting from a place of not caring – it’s the opposite.

"It’s symbiotic: if people in the office who are the support network of people who are struggling don’t feel equipped or confident to have the conversations with their colleagues, it will be ever harder for those colleagues to admit that they’re struggling, so the cycle continues."

This was particularly true for line managers, Eyre added, who may have to manage people through things like performance management processes, restructures or redundancy processes.

"As the line manager, the stakes feel so high," she said. "The fear of getting it wrong can be really debilitating. It’s really important to feel comfortable to put up your hand and say: 'I need support too.'" That means both practical support, like training, and emotional support, she said.

As a leader, Evans said the challenge was shifting mental health and wellbeing from "an issue that’s over there" to a "conversation for me".

A recent survey of Evans’ team had revealed that despite the businesses scoring highly as an employer in a number of ways, far more of his staff had experienced things like depression, anxiety, grief and panic attacks than he had realised.

Leaders needed to be asking, "what am I doing personally to take ownership for the mental health and wellbeing for my direct reports?," Evans argued – "otherwise it will just remain chat".