Founder of Champion Health Harry Bliss tells Jill Theobald how he has built up his workplace wellbeing platform to build up awareness of physical and mental health issues – and society’s resilience.
In June last year Steve Manley, MD of Universal Office Products and former Sheffield Chamber of Commerce president, emailed me and unLTD’s Dan Laver to ‘e-introduce’ a young businessperson Steve predicted was the ‘next big thing in Sheffield’.
“I really think you guys should interview Harry Bliss of Champion Health,” said Steve. “Out of the young entrepreneurs I met during my time as president, Harry was head and shoulders above!
“He has an amazing story, and his mission-led organisation is around workplace health.”
Steve’s email inspired us to write an Introducing feature for our July magazine – where he turned the spotlight onto Harry and showcased his mission and the company ethos.
Next big thing indeed – less than 18 months later and I am interviewing Harry for our cover story due to the enormous success of his mission-led business and its impact on raising awareness of health issues, and support, in the workplace.
Sheffield born and bred, Harry went to King Edward VII School which he credits for his outlook and perspective from a young age.
“The reason why King Edwards was so good for me was because it was so diverse,” said Harry. “I came from a different background to a lot of other people, and you learn a lot about how to communicate with people from different backgrounds, races and religions.
“That was really where I learnt a lot of the skills I have now taken into business.”
Initially Harry wanted to go into teaching.
“That’s where I thought I could have the biggest impact. I spoke to all my teaching friends, and they said, ‘It’s long hours and the impact that you could have could be greater elsewhere’.
“So that’s when I thought ‘I’m going to go and play cricket for a year in New Zealand and try and make it as a cricketer!’ That was always my dream – I loved to play cricket and football.
“I went to New Zealand and found out I wasn’t good enough to play professional cricket! But I had an amazing time, that cliche of learning a lot about myself, and loved my time out there.
“I was thinking I don’t want to spend £27,000 for three years on a degree that means nothing to me. So, what is going to be a job, first of all, but a role where there is going to be impact, more importantly.
“I went into the area of clinical exercise and people with health conditions – how can we support them with physical activity interventions?
“We know physical activity can be just as effective at treating moderate to severe depressive symptoms as it is giving people antidepressant medication, for example. So that was my route in, and my lecturers were incredible. I couldn’t praise the university enough, at Leeds Beckett, and I kept the relationships with them.”
And it was a tutor who first opened Harry’s eyes to mental health – and its impact.
“In my first year of uni, I was really struggling, and nobody knew. I was the best actor. I was putting on a brave face, I was going out more than ever and I was cracking jokes – not very funny ones, I must admit!
“But I was in a really dark place, and it was my tutor, Dr Andy Daly-Smith (reader in children’s physical activity and health at University of Bradford), who said ‘Harry, you don’t seem quite right’. I did the classic male thing of ‘I’m alright’, but he said, ‘There’s something not quite right here’ and I just broke down.
“That lead to me realising there are so many people struggling, and I was one of those without really realising. He listened to me, supported me, signposted me and I’ve lived with positive mental wellbeing ever since.
“But I was on the brink of dropping out of university and I wouldn’t have founded Champion Health. Who knows what I would have gone into if I didn’t get just that one person to listen and support me?”
After university, Harry went to work for the largest wellbeing provider in the UK which he thought was ‘a great opportunity’.
“Very quickly I realised, although they are the leading provider, wellbeing wasn’t inclusive. It wasn’t accessible to different ethnicities, different genders, all the way through to disability or ability. It wasn’t engaging and that’s really the core of it – we need to engage those who are hard to reach, they’re the people we need to support.
“I left this organisation to found Champion Health a year in, and my vision was to make things more inclusive, accessible and engaging by bringing in all areas of wellbeing into one unified place. We had a really strong team, because I kept the relationships with my academics.
“We have academics from the University of Sheffield all the way through to world-leading professors of neuroscience, and they joined this journey. I can’t thank them enough because I had zero pounds in my pocket and I said ‘Look, I’ve got this mission, this vision – do you want to be a part of it? I can’t pay you anything, I’m not paying myself’ and they said, ‘Absolutely’.”
Champion Health’s Workplace Wellbeing Platform covers all areas of employee health from productivity to parenting including financial wellbeing, sleep, neurodiversity, energy levels, exercise, nutrition, leadership, and communication.
“We had a team of volunteers basically, but these were world-leading people who said, ‘I want to be a part of this, I believe in what you’re doing’.
“But while we had this great team on the wellbeing front, we didn’t have a very strong team on the business side. I was 23 at the time and young and squeaky voiced!
“I approached a friend of mine who was a global director of one of the largest wealth management companies in the world. James was extremely successful and not just in the workplace. He had an amazing partner and two children, and I coached his kids at cricket.
“He had raised over £750,000 for charity and really, we wouldn’t be working with the NHS through to global brands if it wasn’t for my friend. He turned into a mentor – one of those people who find the time to invest into you.
“James lived with positive mental wellbeing throughout his life, and he was thriving, had great work, a great community of friends and tragically six months into Champion’s journey, my friend and mentor ended up taking his own life following a two-week bout of stress.
“That’s when it shook me – we wouldn’t be doing the work we are and I wouldn’t have, probably, put the same effort into this business. It turned from something I wanted to work on, to something I needed to work on – there was a different fire in my belly from that point onwards.
“And that’s what we have always kept in mind – that impact of why we do what we do, and our focus is how we can support people, like James, whilst they’re well to continue to thrive personally and professionally.
“But also, how can we get to people, like James, if they are struggling, faster and earlier than before, to be able to prevent these issues from occurring. That is really the premise – we look at all areas of wellbeing from musculoskeletal issues to the menopause through to men’s health and smashing the stigma.”
And smashing that stigma is more important than ever because of the pandemic.
“What the data’s showing is mental health problems statistically are becoming more prevalent, and it is getting worse. However, you could flip it and say it’s a really positive thing people are now recognising they are struggling.
“The stigma is eroding, and they go to their GP to get support and a diagnosis. So the numbers will rise because increasing numbers are accessing help which we know is hugely important.”
But it’s a hugely important issue for businesses, too.
“In the last five years I’ve seen a huge change. I’ve seen employers themselves, in the last two years, really realise what it’s like for their employees, whether it’s working from home, feeling isolated, or anxious and that experience has led to them becoming more empathetic and compassionate leaders.
“The other thing is employees are now just leaving if they are not being treated right – ‘The Great Resignation’ is happening. It is a massive issue for businesses if they truly believe their people are the most important asset – which they always are, even if you are a digital company like Facebook, it’s the people creating that technology.
“We need those people to be thriving and leaders are starting to realise that now, from a business angle and a legal one, not just a moral one. I wish everyone DID view it from a moral angle, but from a business point of view, we need to be doing everything we can to retain the best talent we’ve got, and to recruit as well. To nurture an inclusive organisation that prioritises wellbeing and performance because those two things are intrinsically linked.
“Organisations prioritising wellbeing have got competitive advantage and they’re the companies that, if I wasn’t running Champion, I would be working for and would go above and beyond for. An employer that’s going to support me, be compassionate, empathetic, and they’re the organisations people with talent are choosing to work for.”
And what about plans for the future?
“I’ve not shared this with too many people so this can be exclusive for unLTD! We are about to launch friends and family access whereby every employee, at no extra cost, can share the platform with three friends and family members and that’s just one way we’re extending our impact.
“In the next two years I’d love to start Champion Student where we can support college and university students through the transitions that I didn’t have support with. We know students have a hugely hard time when it comes to their mental health.
“And we are looking at Champion Kids in the future as well, and what better partner than Twinkl to help us go global with that? Supporting children in building resilience and mental toughness going forwards, so we can have a society in the future that talks about mental health and can open up.”
‘Another true inspiration in my life’
“My mum, Ros, was the first person to give me confidence. She started her business, Rosalind Watchorn Solicitors in Sheffield – which is still running to this day – 27 and a half years ago.
“She already had two kids, she had me in her womb, wriggling around and being a nuisance – and I’m a nuisance in a different way now!
“My mum started up her own law firm because she wanted to do things differently – as a female founder back then it was unheard of in the legal sector.
“She was extremely bold and brave as the main earner in the family, going from a secure job to where she’s doing everything on her own – holding down meetings whilst breast-feeding at the table, and doing wills and probate.
“My mum really is the inspiration behind me having the confidence to go ‘this is what I’m going to do’.”