Stories of Hope: Gavin Sherratt from Mashbo

“It was amazing how people’s walls quickly crumbled. At that point we were able to find ways to help one another.”

In this week’s Story of Hope we talk to Gavin Sherratt, Managing Director of software development consultancy Mashbo. Mashbo has worked alongside Chasing the Stigma since its inception, building the Hub of Hope from a simple database to the life-saving and life changing that it is now.
We find out what drives Gavin’s passion for tech for good and why he thinks mental health in the workplace needs to be an everyday topic.

Can you tell us a little bit about what you do and your journey to this point?

“I was a designer before I moved into working as a developer. The first website I ever designed, as a student at Liverpool John Moores University, was for the DJ Paul Oakenfold. I was in university one day one of my tutors asked if anyone had any experience in designing web sites and knew anything about dance music. I was a fan of dance music, but had never designed a website. I decided to volunteer and quickly decided that digital was the world for me.

“I’ve always enjoyed what I do, but my journey hasn’t been plain sailing. Working in big digital agencies the pressure was immense. Long hours, very little support, crazy deadlines and quite often toxic environments to work in. A few years ago a statistic was published saying that 92% of people working in an agency environment said they had suffered with poor mental health. It was no surprise and I was no different.

“That was part of the reason I decided to go freelance and then eventually set up my own company with my business partners. I wanted something different, for me and for others who loved the industry and wanted to work in it, but not at the expense of their mental health.”

What are the main problems in the industry, in terms of mental health?

“It’s the long-worn trope of agency culture. The ‘go hard or go home’ and ‘LET’S EFFING DO IT’ mentality means that so many of the things that contribute to poor mental health – stress, pressure, anxiety, heavy workload, long hours and poor sleep – are seen as intrinsically interlinked with being effective and successful in the agency environment. For too long it seemed like you could only be a tech business leader if you had that attitude. While I want to motivate my team and peers, I knew there had to be another way.

“There was also a huge taboo about saying that you were struggling. That business might have been tough. I knew so many people around me were portraying an image that business was booming, when they were really struggling. No one was reaching out for help, or support. No one was admitting “actually things are really shit”, not even when the financial crisis in 2008 hit. Everyone was just silently drowning.

“In terms of senior level there is often huge pressure on the business to deliver and that stress can trickle down. It’s a real balancing act to create an environment that promotes good mental health in employees, but also allows the business to survive and thrive.

“Attitudes did seem to shift somewhat at the height of the pandemic, but I do think as businesses struggle to survive the mounting pressure may start to see some taking a backward step and we do need to take action to prevent that from happening.”

How has your own mental health been affected by working in the industry?

“As someone who has always struggled with anxiety, stepping into the role of business leader is tough. As Mashbo grew, I found myself as a figurehead, being invited to speak at events and represent the company and even the industry. Speaking in public wasn’t something I felt comfortable doing. In fact it was frequently terrifying.

“After a while, I just started saying that. And when business wasn’t great, I started just saying that too, I reached out to industry peers and asked for help. While some people were taken aback, it was amazing how people’s walls quickly crumbled. At that point we were able to find ways to help one another.”

How did you get involved with Chasing the Stigma?

“We were introduced to Jake and he had this amazing idea. A resource that could help people find support for mental health concerns when and where they needed it. So many of our team at the time had lived experience of poor mental health, either directly or through loved ones who were struggling. We knew there was a need for it, we had the technical skills to make it happen and we also had experience working on some fantastic projects that might not have been big money-makers, but made a difference to people’s lives, such working with Alder Hey CAMHS (Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services) to create the Fresh CAMHS website in collaboration with young people from Alder Hey CAMHS.

“We knew that with the right tech behind it, it could be an incredible force for good, so we got behind it and behind Jake. For a long time we worked on a pro bono basis but as we were able to secure funding, the charity became a formal client.”

You said that in creating Mashbo, you wanted to do something different in terms of working environments in the industry. How do you make sure mental health is addressed in your workplace?

“Well, obviously we’re all Ambassador of Hope trained! At Mashbo, we have long advocated the need for employees’ mental health to be considered as seriously as their physical health. We’ve also spoken openly about our own personal experiences to show how people with mental health issues can still be strong and effective leaders.
“When we established Mashbo, it made sense to us to weave good mental health support into the fabric of our business. Straight conversations, honesty and leading by example have been our most effective approaches in opening the dialogue about mental health issues.
“You can have the most robust mental health programme in the world, but how can employees open up if they never hear senior people doing so? We make a point of talking about it openly, whether our mental health is good or when we are struggling. It’s important to say that we haven’t always got it right, but because the dialogue is there, it means we’ve been able to learn and improve.”

What do you think needs to happen in the industry more widely to help improve mental health?

“Agency leaders need to be more thoughtful and empathetic in managing and motivating teams. Creating a culture in your agency is great, but not if it’s based on worker-hostile practices such as excessive overtime or unrealistic deadlines. Ultimately this just hurts performance, morale and – most importantly – the individuals in our care.

What advice do you have for junior staff in the industry and also for business leaders struggling to balance the pressures of running a business and looking after employee’s mental health – particularly as we emerge from the pandemic?

I think for both, it’s to be brave and be honest with those around you. Find the thing that you enjoy to take yourself out of the situation. That small break can make a massive difference. I personally invest in having better rest and exercise which can change the way that I view a problem. 

“Burnout is a big issue and I’ve done that to myself on several occasions which has resulted in a deeper hole for me to mentally climb out of, making me physically and emotionally knackered. But just having a tea break or breakfast or lunch with somebody can be refreshing and can put some perspective.”

If you, today, could speak to yourself at your lowest point, what would you tell yourself?

“Things change with actions, they don’t change by themselves but with the help of others the problem/issue/feeling isn’t as big. Be comfortable sharing good and bad things as others will help and others can share in your success.”

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