The Mindful Leader: Chris Freel

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Who are you and what is your role?

I’m Chris Freel and I’m the CEO of UnLtd.

Time in the industry?

I’ve just ticked over 20 years. My first role was as a Freelance Reviewer at Blackbook Publishing (writing reviews of pubs and clubs in the West Midlands of England).

What does being mentally healthy mean to you?

It means looking after your whole self.

What is a time when you realized your mental health has impacted your work or home life?

All of the time, but if we are focusing on a pivotal moment of where it negatively impacted then I guess it is this. I lost my mum when I was 20 years old and it was a huge blow to me. My dad had died when I was 13 and I had no direct siblings. My mum was everything to me and I suddenly felt very alone.

I thought I was fine – I thought it was my job to look after everybody else in the family, so I ‘carried on as normal’. However, my version of normal was far from it. I was drinking often and socializing all the time to avoid having to confront the grief.

This impacted all elements of my life. I put on weight, I had massive highs and lows, mood swings, I missed appointments, lectures, days of work and adapted to a way of life that hid my grief pretty much on and off all the way through my twenties. I managed this way of life, but it was not sustainable and came to a climax in my late twenties.

How did this manifest itself?

I felt a growing sense of anxiety that resulted in more time off work and eventually my relationship broke down and I knew that I needed to change something.

How did you overcome that? Who helped you and how?

I quit my job and took time out. I went travelling for a year and reset my priorities in life. I re-prioritized my health, career focus and outlook on life. I wanted to make a success of my life. Until that point, I had been in self-destruct mode.

My parents didn’t live beyond 40 and I had convinced myself (with no logic) that I was on the same track. I had no regard for life and was not appreciative of what it had to offer and what I could contribute to the world.

Seeing the world opened my eyes to new things and gave me time to work out that I wanted to make a positive impact. Shortly after I got back from travelling, I was also very lucky to meet my wife, which led me to Australia. Carly has always been a huge support to me.

What do you do now to practice better mental health?

I talk about things a lot more, with my partner, colleagues and friends. I take time for myself to rest, think and recharge. I have a therapist that I visit as and when I feel the need. And I have two little boys that give me perspective and purpose. I also try and run regularly as that really helps me to achieve clarity.

What are the three things companies should do to create a mentally healthy workplace?

  1. Provide a supportive and open environment.
  2. Increase awareness around mental health.
  3. Ensure workplace flexibility for people.

What are you doing at your own company?

In the UnLtd team, we have a very flexible approach to fitting individuals’ life and work requirements together (remote working, flexible hours) and we have a great team culture of honesty, hard work, fun and a shared purpose.

Having a purpose and being surrounded by passionate people who share that purpose can be really important to our wellbeing.

On an industry level, following the launch of the Mentally Healthy study last year, we’ve set up a Mentally Healthy Change Group with representation across the industry.

This very passionate and driven group is working on various projects from creating industry standards, sharing stories to help smash the stigma (exactly what this feature is all about), education across all levels and providing practical tools and resources to help all of us in our industry be more mentally healthy.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in the industry?

A good friend of mine and a very inspiring character has a line that he says to the young people he works with: “Two eyes, two ears, one mouth”. It really resonates with me. Watch and listen to what’s around you, soak it all in and absorb. And look after yourself and each other.

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