adidas Canada president: ‘What mental health means to me’

'A refugee, being raised by a single parent, coming to terms with my sexuality – all helped me become a better leader'

adidas Canada president: ‘What mental health means to me’

Talking openly about mental health struggles shouldn’t be perceived as a weakness – it’s just part of our everyday reality. That’s according to adidas Canada president Alim Dhanji (pictured above). In a recent interview with HRD, Dhanji revealed his own relationship with mental health – and how embracing adversities ultimately made him who he is today.

“Unfortunately, it's still taboo to talk openly about mental health as it's perceived to be a weakness. In reality, I believe everyone is constantly dealing with their mental health just as they are with their physical health,” Dhanji says. “Be it biological factors, family history, trauma, life experiences – many factors can influence mental health. It’s a very natural part of going through different phases of our lives.

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“Personally, as a refugee to Canada, being raised by a single parent, coming to terms with my sexuality, loss of a loved one, economic challenges and sometimes placing too much pressure on myself to achieve higher highs has impacted my mental health in different ways, manifesting in depression and anxiety,” he says. “These same adversities have helped me become a better person and leader. Overcoming the impact of these experiences is a work in progress and can, at times, impact my mental wellbeing. I've found it helpful to have someone to talk with – and more importantly, having fitness as part of my daily rituals has helped significantly and improved sleep quality which is also very important. By investing time in myself, I am much more capable of giving more to others.”

Having begun his career in HR, Dhanji is uniquely positioned as a president, in that he understands the importance of having that wellbeing support in an organisation. Dhanji started at adidas as senior vice president of global talent, leading the team in succession planning, talent management, leadership development, performance, learning, operating model, organisational design and development across 55 counties. Now, as president, he knows all too well the impact poor mental health can have on individuals and the company’s culture at large.

“Mental health, to me, is about balancing our psychological, emotional and social wellbeing which influences how we feel, think and act,” Dhanji says. “When my mental health is in check, I’m better prepared to handle stress, how I interact with others, I work more productively and focus clearly on my choices and decision making. When my mental health is compromised, I know I'm not operating at my fullest potential.”

In Australia, we’re sitting at the precipice of a mental health crisis. The latest Microsoft Work Trend Index found that Australian employees are suffering from a higher-than-usual level of burnout. The data highlighted that 62% of Australian workers reported being burned out at work, compared to the global average of 48% of employees. What’s more, 66% of Australian managers claim to be struggling with their mental health, compared to 53% of their global counterparts. Employers need to model behaviour that demonstrates it’s okay not to be okay – and that starts with the CEO.

“As a leader, it's critical to be in tune with how the team is feeling,” Dhanji says. “I do this through spontaneous coffee chats 1:1 and with groups of people across levels, sentiment surveys and having listening sessions where I promote psychological safety to create space for others to share. I'm also quite open –  perhaps role modelling vulnerabilities about what's worrying me and how I'm dealing with it. This helps garner trust, empathy and relatability. It normalises awareness of and open dialogue about mental health. I’m fortunate to have caring colleagues who are there to help each other but it starts with creating space for mental health.”

At adidas, they offer a range of support programs, including access to employee assistance programs (EAP), mental health employee resource groups (ERG's) to help create awareness and provide peer support. Hosting educational events, sport and fitness are a core part of their culture.

“We promote participation through organised team sports, yoga sessions, access to a gym,” Dhanji says. “We’re fortunate at adidas by having access to work with professional athletes. For World Mental Health Day this month, we heard from five of our pro athletes on how they manage mental health. These points of inspiration really do help to normalize the topic and promote a more proactive approach to mental health. We can learn so much about mental health from high-performing athletes.”

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It's all well and good promoting these mental health initiatives, but if your employees aren’t accessing them then what’s the point? Research from Edith Cowan University found that 32% of employees are “too busy” to seek support for their mental health – with 23% adding that they don’t feel comfortable speaking about their own issues. This is where compassionate leadership comes in – after all, if you’re willing to be open about your own mental health it shows employees that they can be too. This culture of openness needs to come from the C-suite – something Dhanji is extremely passionate about.

“I would encourage leaders to provide space for discussion about mental health, ensure your culture promotes more proactive measures to improve mental health be it flexible work hours, ERG's, fitness and mindfulness,” Dhanji says. “Balance performance and health of the organisation – focusing on the emotional well-being of the team is just as important if not a fundamental requisite to delivering on financial performance.

“Depending on personal style, being a role model through transparency and vulnerability about your own ways of balancing mental health goes a long way to make it okay not to be okay all the time,” he says. “This is especially important given the impact of the pandemic, economic uncertainty, geo-politics, changing nature of work. There is no shortage of pressure points that impact the wellbeing of people.”

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