Mental Health Mood Management People

TALKING TO: JAMES ROUTLEDGE – SANCTUS The UK's first mental health gym on the high street


By Margaret Nicholls

Sanctus founder James Routledge explains why he is on a mission to make it cool to talk about mental health…

Starting your own business can be an emotional rollercoaster, switching from feverish highs to lows filled with terror and fear of failure. Pressure comes from all directions and the responsibility can be overwhelming. It’s not surprising that many entrepreneurs find that it takes its toll on their mental health.

This is a feeling that James Routledge, 25, knows only too well. ‘When starting a company you are under immense pressure from shareholders, employees, customers, even from friends and family who might not understand what you are doing,’ he says.

James dropped out of university to work on his start-up and received backing to the tune of $1 million. The pressure to succeed was enormous. Like many entrepreneurs, he pushed himself, worked longer and longer hours, and the lines between work and leisure became blurred. The knowledge that 90 per cent of start-ups fail only added to the burden.

‘I didn’t realise how consumed by it I had been until I came out of it,’ James explains. ‘As I was winding the company down I was hit with stress, anxiety and panic attacks.’

James’s experience led him to found Sanctus, with a mission to build a support network for people who are struggling. He wanted to establish the UK’s first mental health gym on the high street. The company only launched in May 2016 but they are already achieving this ambition at their premises on Shoreditch High Street in East London.

Sanctus runs several monthly coaching groups, where people can share their experiences and support each other. In business, there is a pressure to keep up a positive façade, even when things aren’t going well. ‘During the group sessions, people can allow themselves to be vulnerable,’ James says. There is a maximum of eight per session and the same people are in each group, so they can relax and be honest about their problems.

The organisation also holds regular talks, which are an informal way to discuss mental health and try to break the silence surrounding the subject. ‘It’s a big step for people to come in and start sharing,’ says James. ‘Attending a talk can often be the first stage.’

The power of real stories

Sanctus is encouraging more people to tell their stories on the website, anonymously in the journal section or openly. Penny Roberts, Director of Operations at Onfido, shared her experiences of depression recently. ‘Last year I went through a massive personal upheaval that nearly paralysed me,’ she wrote. ‘I was grieving for a broken marriage and selling my home — losing the life I’d spent my adult years building. I was feeling totally ashamed of how things had turned out for me at the age of 29 and hiding how I truly felt.’

Penny had just started a new job and confided in her employers, who were supportive. ‘They listened, were accommodating and genuinely cared. I believe that if you don’t own your vulnerability in every area of your life then you won’t build your resilience and support network.’

A culture of silence

Despite efforts to de-stigmatise mental health problems in the UK workplace, the issue is still something most people are afraid to talk about for fear of being seen as a failure. A recent survey by Business in the Community (BITC) revealed that three in four employees had experienced symptoms of poor mental health yet only 11 per cent of workers had discussed the issue with their manager. The report concluded that there was still a pervasive culture of silence.

The BITC says that employers need to recognise the scale of the problem and take steps to equip their managers with the tools to support workers who need it.

Fortunately, things are beginning to change, especially in technology companies. Sanctus is working with several businesses to promote openness about mental health within their organisations.

Mental health coaching at work

‘The response has been really positive,’ James says. ‘We do an introductory workshop which is aimed at making it ok to talk about mental health at work. We also offer one-to-one coaching sessions for individual staff. Some big tech start-ups have already signed up, including The Sunshine Company, Lost My name and Carwow.’

Companies that care about the health and wellbeing of their workforce are realising that such measures have a positive effect on performance and productivity.

According to the latest figures from the Labour Force Survey, in 2015/16, stress accounted for 35 per cent of all work-related ill health cases and for 45 per cent of all working days lost due to ill health.

In the light of these statistics, surely it makes good business sense to encourage a culture of openness that helps employees with a mental health issue to stay in work.

For further information about Sanctus go to