This superstar female is trying to make mental health an everyday conversation
On World Mental Health Day we talk to Michelle Morgan, Founder of Pjoys, an innovative new brand using the joy of art and the comfort of PJs to share helpful and hopeful stories on mental health. Michelle is an award-winning founder of 5 purpose-led businesses and winner of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year award. She came up with the idea for Pjoys after experiencing first hand what it’s like to mentally burn out and sink into anxiety and depression. During her recovery, the pyjamas that had held her back became her inspiration.
Did you have a female role model or someone you admired as a kid?
Not really. If I was pushed, I would say Cagney and Lacey – a female cop US drama. They were inspirational characters; a single woman and a wife and mother.
How do you think your early years have influenced what you do today?
If you’d asked me a few years ago I’d say they didn’t influence me at all. But now I know they did. There are so many clues. From failing my exams – I wasn’t academic and I got chucked out of college. To my parents splitting up and my dad leaving. We are reunited now but I wasn’t in contact with him for a long time. The impact my mum had on me was huge, getting me into volunteering early on. From the age of 15 I was helping Barnardo’s.
Looking at myself now, I am driven by purpose and making a difference. There are different parts of my life that have brought out the need to prove myself. It was my wilderness years where I came to find out what I enjoyed, realising I was quite good at advertising, as well as volunteering. I have taken some strange steps and funny jobs, for example, working for a careers service in Brighton. But these are all clues in my drive to help people and exercise my creativity. When I got into agency land and met Sam Conniff Allende, we wanted to save the world through marketing and we set up Livity to do this.
You’re the epitome of a successful entrepreneur. First, setting up the very successful youth marketing agency Livity, to more recently taking your Mental Health First Aid programmes into organisations. And now Pjoys. But it has come at a price - your mental health. What happened and how did you deal with the struggle?
Entrepreneurship has always appealed to me and has ultimately shaped me. It gives me the freedom to feel like I can race along and make a difference. At Livity, we were trying to prove a model not proven – of giving equal focus to purpose and profit, for the benefit of young people. We started up a challenger agency in our 20s and we didn’t have much experience. I spent 15 years in the day to day of Livity which were fun but it came at a cost. A year into it I met my husband and 2 years later I had a baby, juggling work and motherhood. I reached physical and mental burnout at the end of 2016 - from intense years at Livity and pressure I put on myself in the years previous.
I work hard on not working hard. It’s a daily discipline. When things are on a roll I have created businesses I’m passionate about but this means I also have to be mindful of spotting signs and symptoms of working too hard. Thought patterns, brain fog, forgetfulness. They’re all signs I’m squeezing too much in and not being kind to myself.
We’re really excited about the Pjoys concept. What’s your ambition for the brand as it starts to take off?
It depends what day you ask me! I’m trying to live by the mantra of ‘slowly and joyfully’, which means one day at a time. I haven’t done anything in the right order. I’m trying to set up a product business, which is different to what I know. I have gone into it wanting to enjoy it. I came out of my burnout, depression and anxiety and I took time to recover. When I teach mental health first aid, recovery looks like different things to different people. I still have a vulnerability to depression and anxiety because I throw myself into startups and purpose led businesses, which do require that extra mile and risk of burnout. On ambitious days I want Pjoys to be the Patagonia of pyjamas - from the get go Patagonia thought about ethics, sustainability, the ability to campaign and be joyful. Through Pjoys, I want us to celebrate art at a global level where we all (if possible) can be joyful and have a sense of purpose and meaning but that is not draining us of the planet’s resources. And most importantly create a brand and business that is helping to make mental health an everyday conversation.
Pjoys has been going for 4 months completely organically, with crowdfunding behind us. We’ve seen how by wearing Pjoys and talking about mental health, people have opened up about their mental health in return. Things have started to happen quickly, with Fenwick agreeing to be a key partner and our first retailer relationship in the lead up to World Mental Health Day and an amazing 5 days of showing at London Fashion Week.
Are businesses doing enough to support good mental health of staff?
There is a big sea change - businesses are starting to do more. I am a proud ambassador for MHFA England and we’re seeing that growth in support is not slowing down. A lot of this has coincided with Prince Harry and other high profile people being brave enough to speak out. When I was in the middle of my mental health crisis, I felt like I was getting all these messages on the radio / TV talking about the stigma of mental health. The idea was helping me with the recovery.
But there is still a long way to go and many businesses are still behind the curve, whilst lots are engaging rapidly and for the right reasons. It’s time for businesses to embrace both the ‘moral imperative and commercial advantage’ of talking about mental health more easily and openly. If you can’t do it from a moral perspective then do it from a commercial point of view. The majority of people who experience poor mental health haven’t sought help and they’re showing up at work. There is a cost to business as well as their own health, of course. But what people don’t realise is that looking after our employees’ mental health is big in business benefits. The things that make us vulnerable to mental health also make us superstars.
If we know that white middle class men in their 40s and 50s are the highest contingent taking their own lives, we need to focus on the underlying reasons and take the whole group in helping them talk more. We could help reduce suicides and at a macro level address the male dominant streak - without the act of talking being perceived as ‘feminine’.
Do you have a piece of advice for those looking to start a business?
Without a doubt; make it something you love. It’s an often given answer for a reason - you will have to put your heart and soul into it. Doing it slowly and joyfully might make the journey more enjoyable and protect you and other people along the way. When we go more slowly things happen that wouldn’t have happened if we were racing. We’re the lean bit of a lean startup - we’re not going as fast as we could. Sometimes this means we have to ask for forgiveness, such as delays on deliveries, because getting it right and without causing damage to people and planet is critical to us. We’ve also been able to make improvements to our supply chain by going slower. We like our intention: to be able to be thoughtful about our supply chain, from our banking to our fabric suppliers, to our artists. We’ve been given a BCorp pending status because of these steps.
I would also say, don’t dismiss the idea of a side hustle. Give it a new name if that makes it easier to embrace or play with. It’s a great way to have a go before having to give up all your security of income. And test it out. Ask your employer if you can do 4 days a week, which could bring in loads of benefits to their business. You’re no less of an entrepreneur by doing it in baby steps. The harsh reality of running a business is that you’re not going to be brilliant at everything and you won’t be able to do it all, so get people in to help you wherever you can.
How do you keep learning more while on the job?
By putting myself into a sector and type of business I’ve never done before! I could just be a consultant and deliver training (and have a lot more time to myself) but I love making these businesses that feel bigger than me. Even though Pjoys is still very little, we are touching so many lives. I don’t mean to sound trite but the evidence is there that talking about mental health removes the stigma and people are more likely to get better more quickly. There’s something exciting about making pj’s with beautiful artistry and receiving messages from customers of how they’re changing their lives. One woman who was suffering from postnatal depression told us she could have done with some Pjoys 2 years ago. We hope we open up thousands more conversations like this.
What have been the essential factors that have enabled you to get to where you are today that you think you'd struggle without?
The things that make me vulnerable to poor mental health are the same things that have made me successful. It’s a combination of risk and protective factors that influence mental health. I look at using a similar formula when looking at my own success and the motivators. Failing academically at school and taking a long time to find something I liked doing and was good at doing held me back. But my patience and determination - the things that make me me - helped to motivate me and find the creative world and eventually Livity, which straddled purpose and creativity.
What do you think is missing from businesses in building true diversity?
It takes a lot of effort and commitment to make an organisation diverse from a process, operational, cultural and leadership place. Livity was always a champion of diversity but sometimes, without intention, we’d enter the office and wonder where did everyone go? Business is business. But actually it’s not rocket science. It goes back to that commercial advantage, which is just as relevant to diversity as it is for mental health. Why aren’t businesses spending time and effort towards this? We know that diverse teams make better work. If you look at Pjoys we have a bias toward women. You might say it’s good but it’s still a bias. We must address this across our network and supply chain so it evens out. It’s not easy. And we’ll remain conscious of it as we build the business and try to address it.
Who's a woman to watch or someone you admire in 2019?
Watch out for MadC, who is one of our artists. Her name is Claudia but called herself MadC when she became an artist to stay ungendered. She’s German, a mum of 2 and she inspires me. She didn’t use the colour pink in her artwork in the first 5 years because she thought it would open up judgement about her gender. She moves around the world with her family and is so strong and tiny at the same time.