By Olivia Sharp (Fenton). Published on 30 March 2017
The conversation about mental health and wellbeing at work is increasing in importance and profile: estimates show that 1 in 4 adults are suffering from mental ill health at any one time. A recent study by the Institute of Directors found that the majority of their members would direct employees seeking help to their GP, but with the mental health charity Mind recently publishing concerns about the lack of GP training in this area, the pressure is on employers to tackle this wide-reaching issue.
Geoff McDonald is Executive Director of Open Minds Health, an organisation inspiring businesses to address workplace mental wellbeing culture. Open Minds Health provide a whole-organisational approach that enables businesses to address the underlying, root cause of poor employee wellbeing and benefit from increased employee engagement, productivity, retention and morale. He also co-leads Minds@Work, a network which aims to break the stigma of depression and anxiety in the working world.
Associate Partner Olivia Fenton met with Geoff, previously Global VP of HR at Unilever, to understand more about his personal experiences, and to seek out his views on what businesses could be doing to improve employee wellbeing and business performance.
OF: Geoff, your work at Minds@Work and Open Minds Health has been shaped by your personal experiences. Could you tell me more about this?
GM: I’m doing all this, quite simply, because I lost a very good friend of mine to suicide in 2012, and that’s really unfair. He was someone who was suffering and didn’t feel that he could ask for help and get some support. Had he been suffering from a physical illness, he would have asked for, and got, some help. This is my real driver. I knew the night I heard about his death, that stigma had killed him. It also links back to my own experiences in 2008, although I took a completely opposite position. I didn’t know I was sick, but my panic attack forced me to consult a doctor, who diagnosed me with anxiety fuelled depression. I decided that I wasn’t going to be burdened by that stigma, and I was open with my colleagues, friends and family and got all the love, hope and support I needed to get better. So, in 2012, I was alive and flourishing, and suddenly he was dead.
OF: You said you didn’t know you were ill until you had a panic attack in 2008, which you describe as feeling like you were having a heart attack. How common is it, do you think, not to know you are suffering from a mental illness?
GM: Very, very common. Maybe nine out of ten people who talk to me about their experiences just didn’t know they were ill until some kind of pivotal moment or form of breakdown showed them there was something wrong. People commonly try to work through it alone, but that’s when it gets really dangerous. The longer you leave a mental health problem the more likely you are to try to take your own life. Suicide statistics suggest to me that people either don’t feel able to ask for help, don’t know where to go for help, or simply don’t realise they are seriously ill before it’s too late. Once you know you are ill, and have accepted a diagnosis, the biggest barrier to overcome then is stigma.
I have heard of many cases of people being dismissed for underperformance when in actuality this is being caused by an illness – but they simply don’t feel they can talk about it. This is completely unfair.
OF: Many organisations want to improve the wellbeing of their employees, particularly in the mental health space, but may not know where to start. What practical steps can organisations take to safeguard or improve wellbeing?
GM: For me there are three areas of focus:
1 – Tailored expectations: Organisations need to rethink what they expect of people, which is very easy to say but really hard in today’s efficiency-driven world where the pressure is on to do more with less. We should think and talk about emotional health in the way we do physical health, educating everyone about what anxiety and depression really is, in the same way we’ve invested in educating people around physical safety. In my experience, performance management systems focus on skills, knowledge, behaviours and experience, but we don’t talk about individual energy as a critically important driver of performance. This kind of conversation verges on getting personal, but now the line between home and work line is so blurred, we are expected to be 24/7, and things are shifting.
2 – Encourage people to talk: Everyone should be talking more, communicating and campaigning, which will begin to normalise the situation. This is not just the role of HR: all line managers should be upskilled and able to spot the symptoms, provide the necessary signposting and support to people, encouraging them to take time off, get help, and reintegrate them back in to the business, if that’s what is required. HR should be playing a far more proactive role in advocating for wellbeing and the energy of employees as a critical component of performance. They should be encouraging development conversations where the energy of employees is as important in contributing to performance as their skills, knowledge and experience. Some line managers do it really well and have good emotional intelligence but this is really left to chance in too many cases.
3 – Promote healthy practice in the workplace: Finally, organisations should consider how they can encourage employees to undertake certain mental health practices, for example promoting quiet rooms, yoga, mindfulness – but lots of organisations do this first without taking the time to fully explain why, and it becomes a tickbox exercise, rather than truly impactful activity.
OF: You talk about having to work to keep yourself healthy – what works for you?
GM: Well, what works for me won’t necessarily work for everyone. I make sure I get a good combination of recovery time, cognitive behavioural therapy and exercise, and I continue to take small dose of medication. There are a number of elements: firstly, from a physical health perspective, I’m very careful about nutrition, especially sugar which leads to high anxiety. I work hard at my sleep, and am learning to take more recovery moments during the course of my day. Secondly, protecting my emotional health by exercising self-compassion, and being selfish about doing what makes me happy. Thirdly, practising mindfulness in a simple way: taking an extra two minutes in the shower, looking out of the window on the train. I haven’t got the patience for long mindfulness sessions! Finally, I have a real purpose in my life now, so all this combined keeps me healthy.
OF: You call your experience a breakthrough, rather than a breakdown?
GM: Yes, I believe I am a better person having experienced it. I long for the day when we as HR practitioners, and managers, see the positives in people who have suffered from depression or anxiety. Through the recruitment and selection process this can be a black marker, but there are real positives in these kind of experiences. I’ve become more empathetic, a much better listener, and more compassionate. I’ve got myself through a significant challenge in my life and work hard to keep myself well. Overall I think I’m a much better human, and more attentive to people around me – I’d love to have more people with these kind of benefits in my team and organisations. We should be advocating for difference, and having meaningful conversations with those around us.
To read more about Minds@work click here, and Open Minds Health click here.
Full IoD report
BITC report – Recent survey on mental health at work
Information: ‘Mind’, the mental health charity
The mind stat re Gps Mind, ‘Better equipped, better care’, 2016