Workplace wellbeing story: Ian Braid Founder of DOCIAsport

We love working with brands that share the same values about creating a healthy working culture. A shared value that may have a corporate strategy but, like our own founders journey through adversity, often has a very human story behind it. These are the stories that inspire change. That’s why we’ve decided to share them.

First up, we have Ian Braid with his wellbeing story. A man with significant experience in sports leadership and previously CEO of the British Athletes Commission, who has gone on a journey of discovery. Eventually leading him to launch DOCIAsport – a collaborative partnership service to National Governing Bodies (NGBs) of sport and other stakeholders in the sport sector. An initiative that offers independent advice, support and guidance on all aspects of Duty of Care in sport.

Discovering the very real impact of burnout

Ian’s story was brought to our attention when he published a blog post on MHFA England’s website about his journey from being overworked and burnt out to finding his way and founding DOCIAsport. In it he describes the day everything changed for him just over a year ago. When he came back from a 3-hour bike ride to tell his family to their surprise that he was going to the doctors because he had finally accepted that he was ill, he says:

“I was signed off within 5 mins of a phone call and my journey from the bottom of the dark valley I’d fallen into had begun. It’s been a long way back.”

Well, we loved the blog but we wanted to know more. More about the working environment that led him to that point, his new project DOCIAsport and, most importantly, about his dog Fred. We like Fred.

Before you realised you were unwell, what did a typical working day look like?

There was no such thing as a typical day except that they were always full on and consistently 10 hours plus. As I led the British Athletes Commission (the members’ association for 1,500 high performance Olympic and Paralympic athletes in over 40 sports) they didn’t understand the concept of “weekends” so I was permanently “on call” to offer advice support and guidance.

The other thing that was typical was that I found very little time to set my own daily agenda or a to do list. As it was normally the case when an athlete reached out that there was inevitably very little time to find a resolution. So, things got dropped and stockpiled which added to the pressure.

All that said, I regarded it as a privilege to do the job and to have the trust and confidence of so many talented yet vulnerable young people. And with that came great responsibility not only to the athlete(s) concerned but also to protect the BAC and its reputation and its position in performance sport.

Were there annual surveys at your workplace?

There was an annual athlete survey conducted by UK Sport but it couldn’t be trusted as the answers were often not a true reflection of how athletes felt about their programmes. They were asked to complete a survey by the same organisation that was funding them so either didn’t complete the survey or gave answers that were “safe”.

Why do you think so many of us feel the need to overwork?

In my case, it was because of lack of support and resource. As the profile and reputation of the British Athletes Commission grew it was getting more contact and with more serious matters, not just individual grievances. If I didn’t try and stay on top of my work and the need to offer advice to the athletes, then I felt like I was letting the membership down. I therefore worked harder (and harder) not smarter. And in the end I was trying to pour from an empty jug. I had nothing else to give.

What were the main symptoms that caused you to realise you were burnt out?

I was asked by my son whether I thought I was working too hard and my answer to him was I didn’t know how to relax any more. I was also having panic attacks on receipt of emails from certain people and I felt completely overwhelmed with the burden of everything. I couldn’t see any future.

Any top strategies for managing burnout in the workplace?

I left my job because of my health and because the BAC was becoming too synonymous with me it needed someone else to take it on. Not everyone can do that but I had a long hard think about my values and what really mattered to me and have made sure that what I am doing is more aligned. I make sure I take short breaks and am not chained to my desk all day every day. I have completely separated my work and home life and I make sure when I do take breaks as much as possible I go outside. Exercise is very important to me too.  

Tell us more about your diagnosis? What does it all mean?

I scored 20/21 in a General Anxiety Disorder questionnaire and 22/27 in a Personal Health Questionnaire. The scores speak for themselves I was very poorly. I never felt suicidal but I did go cycling up a lot of hills near me to make myself hurt. I was put on antidepressants but the more I think about the fact that my condition was situational I think changing things around me and having psychotherapy with Bev really helped. When I first went to Bev it was a crisis and I expected her to give me the answers but she took me past the crisis and into understanding why it had happened. The answers were within me and she helped me to bring them out.  

Tell us more about your DOCIAsport project…

As I got better I realised that what I had done – or tried to do – for athlete welfare wasn’t an end in itself and was more a means to an end. I still had work to do. I had the privilege of working very closely with Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson in compiling her report for the government into Duty of Care in sport and therefore understood the need for improvement across the sector. I was signed off work for a month last year and when I went back to work I spoke openly about my mental illness and found that it was a serious problem for many administrators, coaches and (match) officials as well as athletes. So I decided to do something about it and set up my company DOCIAsport (Duty Of Care In Action) to help deliver effective, sustainable duty of care, to address mental health in sport and to help advise and support the next generation of leaders in sport.

Any key successes or achievements you would like to share?

I have been interviewed /quoted regularly on the radio and social media about mental health in sport which I am pleased about as a start up. I am also undertaking a very comprehensive survey of mental health in sport in collaboration with Edge Hill University.

I have also given my presentation on Mental Health in sport to the UK Coaching conference, the Northern Ireland Sports Forum, and the Psychology Division of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Scientists. As CEO of the BAC I led the winning (opposing) team debating the motion “This house would boycott the Sochi Olympics” at the Cambridge Union.

My story is about the loneliness of being a CEO – that happened to be in sport – so it is applicable to any business really. With that in mind I am delivering talks with a leading provider of Employee Assistance Programmes and their clients to raise the profile of what support is available and how to apply a duty of care to oneself – learning from my mistakes.                 

Tell us more about your dog Fred. We like Fred…

I could write a book about Fred – and maybe I will one day! When he first arrived as a puppy the house was giddy, joyous and full of laughter. My wife and children were super excited, but I felt none of it. I had chaos in my head and I felt I walked into chaos every time I went through the front door. The only place I had stability was home and then Fred arrived to create more chaos there. The children kept encouraging me to get to know Fred and spend time with him but I had to admit I didn’t know how to, which in reflection was ludicrous.

But gradually through just living in the moment and being a (daft) dog, Fred made me smile and then laugh again. I also used visualisation techniques to imagine Fred carrying my anxieties away on his back when I was having bad panic attacks and couldn’t sleep.

I talk a lot about setting up two companies last year. The first formally and appropriately done through Companies House etc, which of course is DOCIAsport. The second is informal and that’s “Ian Ltd”. I am the Chair and MD and have only one non executive director; Fred the NED. We have daily “board meetings” better known as walks where I bring all my worries of the day and Fred always brings his standing item. Best captured in this graphic summarising our board meetings (below).

I honestly don’t know what I would do without Fred now. When I was ill I felt I’d lost all my anchor points. My family (I’d withdrawn from them) my self-esteem (I felt I’d let all the athletes and my family down) and my sense of purpose (I’d left my job that I was passionate about and couldn’t see what next). Gradually they all came back and Fred had a huge part to play in that.

He is becoming very popular in the sports sector and is in demand to appear with me when I do my presentations. At one talk I did a member of the audience put a hashtag on Twitter #everyoneneedsaFred – I couldn’t agree more.  And one more pic of Fred as a puppy for good measure…

Any tips for anyone reading this struggling with anxiety in the workplace?

I am reading a book by Johann Hari called “Lost Connections” – which for me were the anchor points. It looks into the causes of depression and offers potential non-pharmaceutical solutions. I have found this incredibly useful as I look not only for answers but also ways to minimise the risk of a relapse.

During my illness I was also introduced to the founders of Moodbeam, a piece of wearable tech that helps record mood over time in real time. The data gathered highlights both trends and specific causes of mood – happy or sad – over time on a calendar so interventions or decisions can be made based on longitudinal trends over time.

I spoke recently to an athlete that I helped when he was very poorly due to brain injuries he’d sustained whilst competing. This reaction to his illness was similar to mine, that sense of being overwhelmed, frozen waiting for the inevitable to happen like a rabbit caught in headlights. Someone said to him “you can’t steer a parked car”. This means move do something – ring a helpline, talk to a friend, read a book, get a dog! Once you start to do something the solutions will come.

What do you think employers can do to better support employees with their mental health at work?

This to me is all about creating a genuine, sustainable culture through good communication and actions. It’s not putting notices on boards or in the toilets. It’s about understanding people, giving them a voice perhaps through an employee feedback survey like WeThrive offer and then acting on the results. Creating a sense of ownership top down to make sure actions and behaviours align with the survey results.

I am a big fan of mental health first aiders and they should be appropriately selected and empowered to act having been given the same “status” as physical first aiders.

Employers should look at their whistleblowing and complaints policies and procedures. Those coming forward should be properly listened to and have the confidence to speak out e.g. about perceived bullying without fear of recrimination. This remains an issue in sport.

And lastly with tongue firmly in cheek employers should allow dogs in the workplace. #everyoneneedsaFred.  

That’s it. You can find out more about Ian’s story you can read the original blog on the MHFA website here or check out DOCIAsport’s website. If Ian’s story and Fred’s cute little face doesn’t inspire you, we don’t know what will. We look forward to sharing another guest interview very soon.

If you enjoyed this you might also want to check out our recent blog on the current state of wellbeing in the workplace.