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Creating space for mental fitness with Fika

Andrew King
7 Jan 2022
10 min read
Creating space for mental fitness with Fika

For this episode, we had the pleasure of inviting Nick Bennett, CEO of Fika, a mental fitness platform which provides mental fitness skills development courses for education, healthcare and corporate workplaces. Nick spoke with podcast host Helen Woodward about mental wellbeing in schools, the origins of Fika, and the way in which modern society perceives mental and physical fitness.

You can subscribe and listen to the episode in full above, and we’ve provided a transcript below!

Helen Woodward: Nick, it's great to have you on today. Thanks so much for joining us on 10 with Zen.

Nick Bennett: Absolute pleasure, Helen. Thank you very much for inviting me to talk with you today.

Helen: So first of all, can you tell us about Fika mental fitness, why it started and what it is exactly?

Nick: Sure. Of course, Fika started from a mental health crisis, actually. I lost my best friend of 35 years to suicide, and that was a turning point for me in my life where I decided to try and understand mental health. I think like a lot of people in our country, we see – and I saw at the time – mental health as an illness, quite frankly. A place for problems and a place for help. And what I decided to do was to do something about that, do something about the problems that happened between me and Ben, my best friend, and how I didn't feel equipped to help him. And really just trying to understand what's gone wrong in our culture. Why don't we recognise things like mental education and mental fitness? That was really the early beginnings, and I co-founded Fika with my co-founder, Gareth Fryer, who is a two-time cancer survivor, who also suffered a huge mental health burnout. So we came together and decided to do something about preventing mental health decline.

We're quite accustomed with treating mental health, which is basically treating mental illness or the decline of mental health. What we are not good at, and we haven't really innovated and looked at, is how do we prevent mental health decline in the first place? You know, and for us, one of the things that we looked at very early on was just a simple analogy between physical health and mental health. If you look at physical health, track it back, 50 or 60 years ago, we didn't have physical fitness. Running was a hippie sport, if at all, you know? Way before the Jane Fonda era and Arnie in the gym, there was no mainstream physical fitness at all – we didn't have that. But what we recognised I think, as a culture, was that we were facing major human crises in health, and that was around you know, heart attacks, obesity and poor physical health. And I think we recognise that you couldn't people that problem. You couldn't staff the hospitals enough, you couldn't put enough St John’s ambulances at the bottom of the hill, if you like.

We decided, well, we need to educate people, we need to, we need to bring physical education into curricula so that we can bring literacy into physical health, and then create an attractive outcome area called fitness so that people want to practice that literacy and look after and maintain their own physical health. That's physical fitness. And then we looked down at mental health, and we thought, where's the education? Where's the fitness? It's just totally absent. And that was really the kernel of Fika, and why Gareth and I started it. we're now a team of over 20 scientists and technologists, and we've created a data-science-driven platform that delivers a formal training programme of mental fitness. Fundamentally, we're trying to change culture, we're trying to celebrate the other side of mental health, and we're trying to encourage all of the people in the organisations that we work with – we work with over 100 organisations in the UK, that's across education, healthcare and corporate – to take formal training in mental fitness really seriously, because it's a duty of care, we believe. Much like the education that has been missed, for everyone, it’s a duty of care for every organisation to bring some basic training in to help people maintain the mental fitness levels.

Helen: This is really helpful to understand and I fully get your point about mental fitness and the correlation between mental fitness and physical fitness and where the emphasis has been over the years. So I want to ask you about how you know that what you've put in place is evidence based and grounded and is going to work.

Nick: Well, something that we decided to invest in very early on is making sure that we were evidence based from the start. We have a science team that's run by Dr. Fran who’s our head of psychology, Dr. Zoe who's our head of data and research, and Dr. Amanda who's our head of behavioural psychology, and in 2019 we undertook a randomised control trial where we looked at individuals coming into an organisation, so a transition period. We're really interested in transition periods because we recognise from secondary data and research papers that during a transition period, our mental health goes into decline. And that's pretty common in education, but it's common in the workplace as well: joining a new business or becoming a line manager, you go into a similar decline as you do when you go from sixth form into college or into university. And so we prepared a randomised control trial, and it was run independently from us, and it looked at individuals joining an organisation. What we found was the control group declined in key measures. So the measures that we were tracking were self efficacy, positive emotion, life satisfaction, and negative effects. And we found that in the control group, all of those measures declined over a six week period. In the Fika group, we gave them the Fika programmes to use, our five minute exercises, because our programmes are created out of five minutes micro-learning exercises, and we saw an incline in all of those measures across the Fika group. So for us, that was a landmark scientific discovery, because not only did we prevent the decline of mental health, but we increased performance. And we like to talk about that as day-one duty of care. So instead of waiting for week six, for the decline to have happened and help to be asked for – or not as the case may be – we can get ahead of that and put a formal course into your induction programme, so that everyone is expected to do an induction in mental fitness, and in doing that prevent some of those lines of decline and increase performance. And we've kept doing research ever since.

Helen: So let me ask you about who you're working with, because at Zen we work predominantly with schools and some school-based Teacher Training providers, one of the things I'm aware of when I look at my social feed is just how many teachers in particular are reporting, really quite publicly, ‘I'm feeling really stressed, I've been doing this for six years, and I've thrown the towel in today, I can't do any more.’ I mean, this is every day, I'm seeing this. So who are you working with? And how can Fika mental fitness help some of those groups like schools, and teachers who are in their training year. And I'm thinking about students who are over 16. What can you offer, and how do people work with you?

Nick: So our platform runs with a b2b [business to business] licence. So organisations purchase a licence, and then it's available for all of their population, so it's available either for their staff or for their learner populations. We started in the higher education sector. So we worked with a number of universities across the UK, then through a partnership with NCFE, we have moved into the further education sector, and work with around 90 education institutions across staff, learner and student bodies. We've also started working with the NHS recently, so supporting nurses and staff in the NHS. And we also work with corporates, that's just employees in the workplace. So we've done an awful lot of work with employees in education settings, and we've expanded that out to offer our services to corporates and their employees. And I think, talking to the point that you started with that, along with this great resignation that we're seeing, which I think is partly potentially due to our collective contemplation during lockdown, and everyone's had a lot of time to think about where they're putting their value and their time. We've seen a lot of resignations from some of the big consultancies, where I think people have decided ‘I want more for my life than whatever work I was doing’. And in some part, that behavioural change comes from having time to contemplate and decide to do something different. So being sort of taken out of your busy cycle, but I think what we've also seen is that people are recognising that they're really stressed, that work is really stressful. Perhaps one of the positives that hopefully we're all going to come out from this pandemic era is recognising that mental challenges are really high at work.

If we look at some market data, there was some data published by the BITC, it was published in a Deloitte article, and this data showed that the issues that contribute to most mental health decline at work are pressure for deadlines, and workload, and basically business as usual. And what I think we're having to recognise now, is that business as usual, is really tough. We're faced with multiple and frequent mental challenges. And what we don't do is provide any support or training in advance of that. Now, I'll give you an analogy that we often use, which is, let's just say, Helen, that you you're running an organisation, let's say you're running a major school group, and you've got 1000 teachers across the country, let's say, and you decided that in a month's time you're going to send them all on a 5k run. Don't tell me you wouldn't give them some training! Don't tell me you wouldn't plan ahead and say ‘look, you've got it. You've got a physical challenge coming up. 5k. Right. It's not that challenging, but it's, you know…’ What you would do is you'd probably let everybody know that there's going to be some training available, you would help encourage people to train and you would do that because you know that by providing the training in advance, they'll perform better, and you’ll offset risk of injury, and everyone will have a much better chance of succeeding. And yet you think about things like coming back after the pandemic, returning to education settings – what an incredibly hard mental challenge that was for everybody. And yet, we don't provide any training in advance of that. This isn't me pointing fingers at anybody, this is saying that culturally, for some reason, we've just missed it. We've just decided physical challenges, they need preparation for,we're all aware of the benefits. And therefore we just go for it, we train and we encourage it, we make it a positive area of growth. We need to do the same thing for mental health, we need to recognise we all face these challenges. And if we are the duty of care owners of an organisation, with an education institution or workplace, we need to recognise that actually, it's our duty of care to provide some training to prevent that decline of mental health.

Helen: I really like that, and I really like that idea of ‘if you were preparing people for a 5k’. Let me ask you, while we're talking about the kind of difference between physical fitness and mental fitness, something I really wanted to ask you about is injury time. Because sometimes we pick up a physical injury, and I have this conversation with my physio and she goes, ‘Now, Helen, I have overpacers and underpacers, which one are you? Because actually at the moment we're not training, we're in remedial recovery.’ So we have this discussion about what I'm allowed to do and what I'm not. But I want to ask you this, about our mental health as well. And I'm asking you from Manchester, where we're still in the inquiry following the arena bombing, for instance, which left a lot of people with physical injuries, but also a lot of people with post traumatic stress – workers as well as people that attended the concert. So, we understand very acutely that sometimes we experience injury to our mental health, sometimes on a collective level. So is Fika still relevant and helpful, then, or are there some things that are counter-indicated whilst you're in recovery?

Nick: Yeah, I mean, it's an interesting question. And it surrounds a really challenging area for our culture, which is, bringing people back to health, or good health, shall we say when their health has really suffered. That's not an area that we focus on at Fika. So typically, we like to think of what we do as a prevention service – let's just take the physical fitness analogy or the physical health analogy – we see ourselves much more like a gym. You would go to Fika ahead of events, or just part of your everyday life, ‘training for life’ we call it, and you would build up your mental muscles, essentially, because the seven skills of mental fitness that we train people in, we like to think about them as mental muscles in some way. Like your confidence, your focus, your positivity and your motivation. We sometimes use the analogy that they’re mental muscles, and through five minute brief exercises, you can basically exercise those muscles and gain more mental fitness, which in a way, tops up your mental health. That means that when you do hit a psychological downturn, let's say, you hit a difficult time, you've not only built that positivity into your approach, but you've got skills that you can reuse, and you recognise that by doing those techniques, you can increase your overall sense of management of your mental health.

Helen: Got it. And that's really helpful. So I can go to the gym, but if I'm injured, I need to go and get some physio, so that I understand what I need to do to get to get right again.

Nick: Exactly, exactly.

Helen: So we can't depend on Fika to do everything. Fika is, as you say, like a mental fitness gym. But actually, when we have some trauma or some kind of injury, we still need to get the additional professional support to help us through that time. But we go into it probably from a better place, from what the research is showing you?

Nick: Yeah, you’ve put it really well, Helen. One of the things that we sometimes talk about internally, because we've got a lot of interest in mental fitness literature, is that bias that we see in our culture which is a negativity bias. If you talk about mental health to people, generally they think that's a negative. When you talk about physical health, generally people think that's positive! So there is a real negativity bias, and we see that in research as well. We've seen many papers which talk about a study on mental health. And when you read through it, it's talking about high levels of depression, anxiety – it’s a study of mental illness, not mental health!

Helen: Absolutely, I'm hearing you. Let me ask you one final question, because this podcast will go out to thousands of school leaders – have you got one message that you'd like to give school leaders?

Nick: I'm going to break it into two parts. The first one is just to say thank you to the school leaders who have been through an incredibly challenging time and continued with their incredibly rewarding careers which are to further the education of our nation. So firstly, a massive heartfelt thanks to them. I’m a parent of a young daughter and two much older children who've already been through the education system. So thank you as a parent, and on behalf of the country. And then I think the other message that I think I would like to put out to school leaders across the country is really to think about preventing the decline of mental health, and think about the duty of care that we all have in the area to think about mental education as an important part of the curriculum. Because I think it's time that we start thinking about these skills as being as important as Maths and English.

Helen: Thank you so much. That's a great message. And it's been brilliant to talk with you today. So thank you so much, Nick, for joining us on 10 with Zen!

Nick: Absolute pleasure.

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