Talking work and wellbeing with Rosie Tressler, CEO of Student Minds

This week I spoke to the interesting and admirable Rosie Tressler, CEO of Student Minds. We chatted about work, leadership, mental health and self-care. I hope you enjoy the interview.

Molly: For any readers who aren’t familiar with the organisation, what is Student Minds?

Rosie: Student Minds is the UK’s student mental health charity. We work to empower students and members of the university community to look after their own mental health, support others and create change. In the years to come, we are hoping to create a thriving higher education community.

Molly: What led you to work at Student Minds?

Rosie: From an early age, my parents encouraged my sense of care and interest in social inequalities. I used to be one of those kids who would want to debate social issues in class. Later, I studied English and History at the University of Nottingham, which gave me a good grounding in thinking about other people’s perspectives and problems. I became really involved with the Students’ Union, first as the Women’s Officer and then as the Equal Opportunities and Welfare Officer. I was also involved with student radio and theatre. I suppose my positive time at university made me want to ensure that other students had a good experience. Through my SU roles, I learned how significant student mental health is. At the time, mental health was recognised as an issue but it wasn’t as high profile as it is now. When I joined Student Minds, we were just a team of three people who saw that there was so much potential to do more in this area. I’m really motivated by young people being part of the solution. All of those things came together and I’ve stayed with Student Minds since!

Molly: That’s so interesting. I also studied English and History and really value that experience. Are there any projects you’ve worked on that you’re particularly proud of? If so, why are they significant?

Rosie: Right now, we’re involved with Universities UK, supporting institutions to take a whole university approach to wellbeing. It’s the first major strategic programme of its kind. We’re a key third sector partner and we make sure that the student voice is prioritised. I’m proud of our student-led networks and pleased that we can contribute in this way. When I first joined Student Minds, we wanted to move from smaller piecemeal work to influencing structural change, so I’m excited to see how the sector develops in the next few years.

I’m also proud of the work our team carries out day to day. The Look After your Mate campaign, which equips students to support friends with mental health difficulties, grew from an idea into a resource, then a workshop. Today it’s a programme delivered by around 70 universities. We listened to what students and university staff were saying at the time and now we’re seeing hundreds of students benefitting each year. Students will take those skills with them throughout their lives, which is exciting. I suppose it’s this combination of strategy and grassroots action that makes me want to go to work.

Molly: Those are both really positive initiatives. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned since beginning your career?

Rosie: Oh, I have so many. As a mental health charity worker, I really emphasise the importance of looking after yourself. Working in this field has given me a lot of literacy around the issue, but it can still be challenging to apply it to my own life. There have definitely been ups and downs. I’ve probably done too many things for the past few years, so I’m finding a balance that suits me. I find mentoring and other support helpful. Much of my focus is on supporting others, but I need that too, especially when leading an organisation.

Communication skills are vital as well. When I joined Student Minds, I learned about so many communication and listening models. I realised I wasn’t always good at being present. Becoming more self aware about my own communication styles helped me to identify when I can or should be more extroverted and when to step back. We need these skills all the time – at committee meetings or during a one to one. Your communication and listening skills can really change how you approach things. That’s one area in which I think I’ve changed quite a lot as a person.

Molly: Yes, energy management and effective communication can make such a difference to our experiences and team dynamics. What has (or hasn’t) surprised you about being a young charity CEO?

Rosie: I was quite nervous about how people might respond to me in my new role – even the CEO title can bring up different references and judgements. Still, people – including mentors – are generally very encouraging, supportive and willing to help. I had to get over the mentality that I was taking up their time and understand that I don’t need to be a finished product. The more Chief Executives I meet, the more I realise that, even if you’ve been in a field for thirty years, there will always be new challenges. I recently took part in the GSK and King’s Fund leadership programme, which highlighted this. Digital strategy is already built into Student Minds’ approach, but older or different organisations are having to really adapt. I think the social sector benefits from lots of perspectives and we need to learn from each other.

Molly: We’re all works in progress! I think those new challenges keep work interesting. What advice would you give to other women considering leadership positions?

Rosie: Confidence is key. Go for it, stay focused, keep doing what you’re doing and be yourself. You may see other people in these roles and think they’re really inspiring. It’s easy to put people on a pedestal, even though they’re just humans working on their stuff! Don’t be put off by intimidating examples. If you can, follow the things you care about, which could mean volunteering on the side of a day job you’re less passionate about. It’s definitely a privilege to be in a position to make those choices about work.

I think people do best when they’re using their strengths, so use mentors and talk to your peers. Meeting with other women in senior roles has been invaluable for me. No matter what level you’re at, those insights can help you worry less about what other people are doing. It seems as though many people are concerned with whether they should change jobs or feel like they have to move around all the time. Having the space to talk with someone who isn’t judging you can help you to stay focused and settled. What do you want to do? What’s important to you? What do you value?

I’d also suggest reading and absorbing different leadership books, which has helped me a lot. A few years ago, another female Chief Executive kept telling me to read and I’ve now turned into that person! I particularly appreciate books by other women, like Brené Brown.

Molly: Those are such valuable points. Do you have any role models or people whose approaches to work and life you admire? If so, why do you admire them?

Rosie: Yes, there are people in the sector I look up to. Poppy Jaman, CEO of Mental Health First Aid England, recently saw I had a lot on my plate and took me for a coffee. I really admire people making time for others. If someone needs to talk, I’m never too busy. I admire my parents for their work ethic and for putting their kids first. I’m also constantly inspired by my friends who are teachers. They have to balance so many demands within a school and always come up with new ideas. More widely, I admire women in leadership roles and MPs like Stella Creasy. They have so much to deal with, especially on Twitter, and I like seeing them use their personalities and humour to deal with that.

Molly: That’s a great answer. Is self-care important to you? Why?

Rosie: Yes, but it probably took working in a mental health charity for a couple of years for self-care to seep into my life. Anyone at Student Minds would say that self-care is our bread and butter – it’s what we really value. We’re trying to spread the message that we all have mental health and there are steps you can take, whether you’re experiencing difficulties or you’re just not enjoying life as much as you’d like to. There are simple things we can all do to improve our wellbeing.

Molly: I agree. What practical steps do you take to look after yourself?

Rosie: Self-care involves being aware of what I need and not doing things out of obligation. I prioritise spending quality time with friends and family because I want to be there and want to engage. I think about where my energy’s at and like to take breaks and long lunches. Our team always takes an hour for lunch and we aim to make it a relaxing experience.

Self-reflective exercises can be useful, even when they’re challenging. Sometimes if I have a lot of worries, I need to step back, get my post-it notes out and think about solutions. I try to focus on simple joys, like eating well, and the occasional luxury. Soon I’m going on a spa trip with my mum. I’m excited to relax and not move for two days!

I suppose a key element of self-care is building in respite. Scheduling your weeks and not packing them in, for example. A lot people go through a post-university pressure to do everything and prove themselves. I think it’s important to understand your motivations when that happens. Why have you booked to go somewhere every weekend? Are you putting too much pressure on yourself? You can’t be everything to everyone and it’s okay to say that you need a break.

Molly: Definitely. What’s inspiring you at the moment?

Rosie: Lots of stuff! The book I keep recommending is The Chimp Paradox by Professor Steve Peters. I’ve read a lot of mental health books and this one particularly resonated with me. I think people will find the model beneficial because it can help you to become kinder to yourself. I won’t go too far into the metaphor, but it’s useful to recognise when your chimp is overactive.

I’ve been watching documentaries on Netflix, like Minimalism and Happy. I’m really interested in narrative – how to make an issue compelling for an audience. I’d love to be involved with a documentary one day.

I’ve also been inspired by recent campaigns encouraging young people to vote and the way organisations have reacted to the snap General Election. It’s a confusing time, so it’s important to support people to feel empowered. I get a similar uplifting buzz from Campaign Bootcamp.  It’s amazing to see people who have overcome challenges becoming so dedicated to social change.

Molly: Interesting! I like the Minimalists’ approach. And yes, Bite the Ballot and Campaign Bootcamp are doing great work. Finally, apart from the spa weekend, what are you looking forward to?

Rosie: This summer I’m visiting Canada and Australia thanks to a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust scholarship. I’m going to research preventative mental health interventions for university students. I’ll be seeing how student-led programmes work in Canada and looking at how services are structured differently in Australia. I’m especially interested in supporting the transition from school to university.

The scheme funds people to travel and bring knowledge from other cultures back to the UK. 2018 applications are open at the moment. I’ve never travelled alone, so I’m excited and nervous about stepping outside of my comfort zone. It will be good to meet people, see great places, get outside and have time to let new ideas sink in. Student Minds is going global!

Molly: That’s exciting. I hope it’s a great experience. Thanks so much for your time, Rosie.

End of interview.

If you’d like to get involved with Student Minds, visit their website. You can read more leadership tips from Rosie here.