The Kamwell Interview | Geoff McDonald

25Oct 17

This month we were pleased to interview Geoff McDonald, former Global VP HR of Unilever, now highly regarded advocate, campaigner and consultant on mental health in the workplace.

KW: You’ve campaigned tirelessly to tackle the stigma that surrounds mental illness. Where do you think this stigma comes from and why is it only associated with mental, as opposed to physical illness.

GM: Firstly, we have a narrative around mental health which is very negative. There is on the other hand a really positive narrative around physical health – we are bombarded with inspirational and aspirational images about the pursuit of physical health. But when it comes to mental health, all the images that we see are very negative…people with their hands in their heads, black and white photographs and so on. This includes the language we use. When I use the words ‘mental health’, people will automatically assume something negative…they will think of illness…they will think of depression, anxiety, bipolar. But when I use the words physical health they don’t immediately think of cancer and diabetes or any other physical illness. So, the way we talk about mental health is very negative, and unfortunately it’s not seen as part of everyday life to keep our mind healthy. In fact, there is a complete lack of understanding around how we can keep a healthy mind.

“Unfortunately it’s not part of our every day life to keep our minds healthy”

There is a real lack of understanding around mental health and this ignorance goes as far back as our childhood and school days – kids are taught about physical health but never about mental health, they are taught about looking after their bodies, but never their minds. Even doctors when they study they do, relatively speaking, very little in the area of mental health. In part, this is because the science and research behind how the brain functions and emotions is still in its infancy.

Another factor is that there aren’t enough courageous people talking about their mental health in the way they might talk about their physical health. The more we talk about it, the more it is normalised and we realise that there are so many people out there that do get ill.

And let me point out, there should be no stigma around mental health – what we are talking about is mental ILL health.  I’m so careful now…if it’s a condition like depression or anxiety I will say ‘mental ill health’. But I’m trying to talk more carefully about mental health and be more inspirational and aspirational. We all have mental health, like we have physical health.

KW: What is the biggest impact of stigma in terms of an individual’s ability to cope with a mental health concern?

GM: Stigma has a very negative impact on a person dealing with mental ill health, often leading to them feeling embarrassed about the fact that they are suffering from an illness relating to their mind. They often feel that they will be judged as being weak and not able to cope. I think they fear that people will not really be able to empathise or be compassionate because they lack insight and understanding. I think that someone suffering with mental illness might fear that they might be seen to be using their mental illness as an excuse, because it’s not visible. I think there is a sense of shame. All this means they don’t reach out for help, they don’t reach out for support.  The worst case scenario is that they feel there is a complete loss of hope and no way out. People in this situation might take their own lives as a last resort.

KW: Do you think that, when an actor or footballer speaks openly about mental illness, it helps the, say, mid-level manager at a tech firm feel that they too should be able to do so? 

GM: I have a saying: every story that gets told is like a lifeboat that gets sent out to the ocean where people who are suffering in silence can just cling onto that lifeboat and feel a normal. So irrespective of who tells their story, I think those stories are wonderful in helping to normalise mental illness. And if it’s a public figure then it means more people will hear the story because their profile means it’ll get into the press, onto TV etc. So I think on a level of principle, it’s a wonderful thing.

“Every story that gets told is like a lifeboat that people who are suffering in silence can cling on to”

The problem that I have right now is that there aren’t enough people in the workplace also telling their stories. So one of the things that I have been campaigning for is to try to get more and more influential, high profile leaders in the workplace to tell their stories. The most powerful lever in breaking stigma is to get influential people within an organisation to tell their stories. And the story doesn’t have to be one of your own suffering, it could be the story of what it’s like to be the father of a daughter who suffers from General Anxiety Disorder or the daughter of a mother who suffers from depression.

KW: In terms of mental health in the workplace, there is a lot of focus on helping individuals address their own situation, but what about the people you just mentioned, who might be caring for a partner, parent or child dealing with serious mental health concerns – what can be put in place to support people in such a situation?

GM: There is a huge need still to provide training and support for people who are caring for someone who is suffering from a mental ill health condition. I do think that some of the work that organisations are doing that might not necessarily be focussed on carers, will be indirectly helping them too. For example, when they address the ignorance and the stigma, when they educate their employees about mental illness…symptoms, how to open up a conversation with somebody, what support is out there etc., carers are helped too because everyone is being upskilled and ignorance is being addressed. But there is still a lot of work to be done in this space.

KW: What about mental health in the younger generation, would this be a sensible place to invest time/resources/expertise, so that by the time they enter the workplace they are equipped with the tools, resilience and attitude to tackle the issues we’re facing around MH?

GM: There is a lot of ad hoc stuff going on and there are some schools that are doing some amazing work in trying to educate kids around mental health and emotions. But it’s only the more progressive schools that are looking at this. And I don’t think teachers are skilled to be able to teach this stuff, it hasn’t been embedded into the curriculum or as part of the teaching qualification. And I think we do have to start in the primary schools, from the age of 6 or 7 and start teaching children about their emotions and about their mental health. All teachers should have some sort of training in this whole area.

“What about teaching people to be resourceful rather than resilient?”

But I want to come back to the issue of narrative here. You used the word ‘resilience’….are we going to teach kids to be resilient, are we teaching them to be tough and to have this hard outer shell, if something happens to you then you have to be resilient and tough and get up and keep going? What about teaching people to be resourceful rather than resilient. What are the amazing resources that are out there? Whether that’s about a mindfulness app, or going for a run, or yoga or recovery. What are those resources that exist out there that we have to start drawing on to maintain our energy and to keep ourselves well, rather than “I want to make you resilient”. I’m trying to shift the word from ‘resilience to ‘energy’ when talking to businesses. I don’t want to make people resilient, I want to make people energised, and the only way you get that is to look after your wellbeing.

Here we are trying to break the stigma and people aren’t strong or weak…people are just human beings and we all have mental and physical health and sh*t happens to us sometimes, things happen, it’s not that I’m strong or weak, it’s just that I’m a human being and these things happen. So let’s talk about being resourceful and building energy, rather than making people resilient.

KW: You were able to speak openly when you experienced mental ill health which, at the time, must have been really hard – not only because it’s harder to be honest when you’re in the middle of a breakdown but also because 10 years ago the stigma around mental health was even more prevalent than it is now. What do you think gave you the strength and ability to talk to your friends, family and – most admirably – your employer?  

GM: When I became ill, I had no idea what was going on with me. I had to go to the doctor to be told what was wrong with me. I didn’t talk about emotions and what was going on in my mind, especially being a male. I’ve got friends who didn’t realise they were ill until their PA stuck them in an ambulance and sent them to The Priory!

“People say to me that my seniority within Unilever made a difference because I didn’t have to worry about my career but that’s a load of rubbish”

I was lucky – first of all my character is such that I wear my heart on my sleeve and so it’s easy to see when something is wrong with me, I find it difficult to hide things. I think the other thing was…I got a diagnosis…this made it easier to talk. I had a diagnosis, I was ill, I could tell people that. If I hadn’t had that panic attack I probably would have just carried on with these very high levels of anxiety and stress. But in some ways I was lucky that I had that moment and that made me think I should seek help. That freed me to feel more comfortable to talk about the fact that I had been diagnosed as being ill. But I was lucky, I worked for a company that was caring, had a boss who had experience of friends with depression – he really understood it and didn’t have any preconceived ideas. People say to me that my seniority within Unilever made a difference because I didn’t have to worry about my career but that’s a load of rubbish. I speak to so many senior people who won’t talk about their stories because they think it makes them vulnerable or that they might lose respect or – worse – lose their job.

KW: Finally, what would be your main takeaways, tips or advice for an organisation that wants to address and prioritise mental wellbeing in the workplace?

GM: Organisations need to recognise that the most important driver of performance is energy. It’s not people’s skills, it’s not their knowledge, it’s not their behaviours, it’s whether they have the capacity to take on challenges, weather the storms, and just have this amazing energy or human capacity to get things done. I think organisations have to become far more overt about energy as a driver of performance. And therefore they should invest in the energy of their people just like they invest in training and giving people skills and knowledge to do their job. Organisations need to start thinking about what it takes to create an environment of energy and they need to become more accountable about providing those resources. When organisations do that, they can then start to build energy into all the development conversations that they have with their people. Today we can actually assess energy through scientific diagnoses, just like I would do a skills or behavioural assessment.

And organisations can educate people about the resources they are offering to maintain the energy of their people. What that starts to drive is individual accountability for energy. Wellbeing equals energy and I don’t think that individuals in organisations today are being held accountable for their wellbeing, for their energy. That’s why attendance at wellbeing weeks is often low. If somebody didn’t have a certain skill for their job, they would be sent on a training course and if they then didn’t go on the training course and improve their performance they would run the risk of being fired or asked to do another job. I think we have to get to that same level of accountability for energy and wellbeing.

“It’s dual accountability here….individuals and organisations”

A line manager might say to someone in their team that they’d like to see them with more energy – and this might mean taking more recovery breaks, not sitting at their desk at lunchtime, going home at 5pm so they can be with their family etc. If in a year’s time that team member’s energy is still very low and they have done nothing about it then they should run the risk of being told they are in the wrong job. Only a quarter of a workforce takes up all the things that their employer is providing in terms of wellbeing. Why? Because they are not being held accountable. It’s dual accountability here….individuals and organisations.

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The Kamwell Interview | Tim Wright, Firstbeat UK

17Sep 17

This month we are delighted to have interviewed Tim Wright, Commercial Director of Firstbeat UK. We talked to Tim about all things wellbeing, heard his fascinating stance on the topic of stress and discussed the future of wearable technology in the wellbeing sphere.

KW: After almost 20 years in the industry, we are interested to hear how you would define the term ‘wellbeing’.

TW: Wellbeing, to me, means taking a holistic, 360 degree view of your lifestyle. I like to think of this in terms of four pillars: movement/exercise/mobility; mind/psychological; nutrition; and restoration/sleep/recovery. All these areas play a role in our wellbeing and should be looked at together.

 KW: The topic of employee wellbeing, seems to be making its way into mainstream knowledge via some high profile press coverage, where do you see this specific field going in the coming years?

TW: Over the years I have seen many different approaches to wellbeing and I now see us moving more towards an integrated wellness proposition that takes the four pillars into account. I think we will increasingly utilise data to make strategic wellness decisions and to measure the effectiveness of interventions.

KW: Ok, with that in mind, what do you think it takes to be successful within the wellbeing industry?

TW: I think those who have been successful in the wellbeing industry understand that we’re not looking for a panacea, a magic pill, a quick fix…rather we need to think about incremental changes on a frequent basis over a realistic period of time. 

“Selling something based on risk…that’s not interesting”

KW: Thinking about Firstbeat’s success…90% of those who have undertaken the Lifestyle Assessment would recommend it – that’s great feedback. What do you think this can be attributed to?

TW: The Firstbeat Lifestyle Assessment is only as good as the person who is delivering the coaching. It is the human element that enables us to help people make changes that other technology cannot. This, combined with the quality of our data, makes for a powerful approach. People get a deeper understanding of what is going on in their body and how their environment is affecting them. This means they can change things. I also think that if you sell something based on risks, for example: the chance of getting heart disease, it’s not that interesting. But if the premise is to get more energy, have more vitality, have better resilience…people want to buy into that.

KW: Is there a danger with wearable tech that data is seen as more important than a person’s account of their wellbeing?

TW: Data shouldn’t be looked at in isolation. The Firstbeat Lifestyle Assessment is a coaching tool. Part of the assessment is a wellness questionnaire to get an idea of a person’s perception of their wellness – this can be very aligned to their physiology, or very far away from it. As humans we have a good instinct of what’s working and what isn’t but we aren’t always 100% right. So I think data supplements a personal account, rather than replaces it.

KW: Progress within the world of wellness technology seems to be very fast, with the explosion of artificial intelligence, virtual reality….how will Firstbeat continue to innovate?

TW: The strength of our offering is around the analytics, the customer journey, the data and the reports. There will be technology that comes and goes…trends that come and go, but we’ve stood the test of time and I feel we’re in a good place. We’re not a self-monitoring device such as Fitbit or Jawbone, we’re a coaching device…it’s different. But competitors enhance your product so we’d encourage more competitors!

“Stress is not necessarily a bad thing”

KW: Part of what Firstbeat focusses on is identifying aspects of a person’s lifestyle that cause stress – what effect do you think stress is having on today’s society.

TW: Firstly, stress is not always
a bad thing….it is a normal physiological response and there are a lot of misconceptions about what it is. Acute stress can make you perform well and within a healthy overall lifestyle it’s not necessarily a problem. The issues come when you have chronic stress imbalanced with poor recovery. From my perspective, I want to teach people that a stressful event is manageable and not damaging, especially if over a 24 hr period you’re getting great sleep, great recovery. That’s what’s more important.

KW: On the topic of lifestyle and stress, can you tell us what you do to ensure your optimum health and wellbeing?

“I turn my phone off at 19:30”

TW: Understanding what triggers responses from a physiological point of view has dictated what my behaviours are. I’ve learned many things as a result of doing the Firstbeat Lifestyle Assessment is. A big one is how precious sleep is – that’s where we refuel the tank. I have worked hard on my sleep environment…light, temperature, humidity. I turn off my phone at 19:30 so I don’t get any blue light in the evenings. I also don’t work after this point. I don’t eat meat in the evenings because it affects my quality of sleep – this is something the Lifestyle Assessment uncovered. I need to do more higher intensity exercise and I have found that this is most effective in the morning – it can affect my sleep in the evenings. I tend to make sure that I incorporate social aspects into the week – catching up with an old friend, reaching out to my social circle, doing something that is completely changing my mind-set. And I make sure I have plenty of cuddles with my wife and son because that instils the best parasympathetic response!

Tim Wright

Tim Wright

 

The Emma Edit | Part 2: Doing good does you good

31Jul 17

|The Emma Edit | Kamwell’s Emma James explores a new wellbeing topic every month|

My road to volunteering

In my final year as a psychology student at Sussex University I moved into a little flat in the centre of Brighton with two friends. We hadn’t lived there long when I bumped into our only neighbour in the hallway, an elderly lady called Edith with a dog whose name I’ve relegated to the inaccessible parts of my memory. We got talking and I immediately warmed to her. She was slow and quiet but had a glint in her eye that spoke of a prior life filled with adventure. In the weeks that followed we had many more hallway chats and it wasn’t long before we established a weekly tea date at her flat. I soon discovered that, bar a son who lived ‘up North’ and her canine companion, Edith was completely alone and had regularly gone for weeks without meaningful human interaction.

Edith’s charming nature, stories about a bygone era and penchant for chocolate covered biscuits led me to spend many hours curled up in one of her armchairs. We became friends. And when I moved to London the following year, we kept in touch. I’d call her every now and again and send the odd letter. But the inevitable day came when I received a call from her son, informing me that Edith had died. This news weighed heavy on my heart. Her son went on to tell me that Edith had kept a daily journal (unbeknown to me) and that my visits featured in many entries. He said that she wrote about me as someone who had kept loneliness and sadness at bay and given a little silver lining to her existence. He read me a few excerpts from her diary that moved me to tears, words that I will never forget.

After Edith’s death, I felt a growing sense of unease about the situation she (and so many others) faced as she grew old. It seemed so utterly wrong. Loneliness is a heavy burden for anyone to carry, let alone someone nearing the end of their life, when energy and resources to undo one’s situation are limited.  For most of us, going weeks without meaningful human interaction is unimaginable. Yet, amongst the elderly, loneliness is an epidemic which is having a catastrophic effect on wellbeing in later life.

My discontent soon reached a tipping point and I decided to turn my frustration into action. Not knowing where to start, I Googled ‘combat loneliness in the elderly’ and was heartened by the results. Amongst many initiatives,  Age UK’s befriending scheme, where volunteers are paired with an elderly person to visit regularly over a set period of time, immediately caught my eye. Within a couple of weeks I was sitting at my local Age UK office, signing up to be a befriender. I have been volunteering in this capacity for three years and find it to be a source of great joy in my life.

Why doing good does you good?

Countless studies have identified a link between doing good and feeling good. Volunteering has been found to promote better mental and physical health and increase a sense of purpose and feelings of happiness. An extensive research project on the topic found that altruistic attitudes, volunteering, and informal helping behaviours make unique contributions to the maintenance of life satisfaction. The Mental Health Foundation made ‘doing good’ the focus of a recent mental health awareness campaign and published research that linked helping others to a reduction in stress, improved emotional wellbeing and a reduction in negative feelings. 94% of respondents in a United Health Group study reported that volunteering had improved their mood and helped take their mind off their own problems.

Doing good, as part of a wellbeing strategy

With the impressive effect it has on wellbeing, it is no surprise that volunteering is increasingly making its way onto employee wellbeing agendas. ‘Better Relationships’ is a scheme run by Barclays that encourages their employees to volunteer their time and skills though regular giving opportunities and matched fundraising, as well as an annual Make A Difference Day. Waitrose donate 75,000 paid hours a year for staff to give their time and skills to local communities. Employees at Salesforce are given 7 paid volunteering days per financial year, donated to a cause of their choosing.

Employers that encourage their people to volunteer and, most importantly, put the infrastructure in place to make this possible, have seen impressive results in terms of employee satisfaction, loyalty and pride in their employer, reinforcing the business case for including volunteering in a wellbeing strategy.

Useful links

National Council for Voluntary Organisations

GOV.UK – volunteering information

Londoners can find their local volunteering centre here

If befriending sounds like something you’d like to look into, I would recommend checking out Age UK.

Photo by Lukas Budimaier on Unsplash

Men’s health: Cracking this tough challenge

18Aug 16

Shocking statistics surround men’s health and employers have an important role to play

Men are more likely than women to smoke, drink too much or take too little exercise. They’re also prone to bottle up stress — all of which contributes to the fact that one in five men in the UK die before they’re 65. So while Men’s Health Week (13-19 June) might sound like just another marketing wheeze, there’s a string of serious issues here related to gender clichés about how men should behave.

Workplaces are central to the male sense of identity. Men are twice as likely to be in full-time work — and employment plays a huge part in both their daily routines and their sense of who they are.

This year’s focus for Men’s Health Week is the impact of stress on wellbeing and getting men to think about how they’re feeling. It’s time to challenge the male stereotype of being the hardworking, uncomplaining rock. The shocking facts are that suicide continues to be the leading cause of death for men under 35 and that 76% of people who take their own lives in the UK are male.

The NHS has struggled with the issue for many years. Women aged 20-40 visit their GP twice as often, and are also twice as ‘literate’ about health issues. Men are much less likely to ask for professional help when it comes to psychological problems (only 36% of those who received therapy in 2015 were men).

Given the high priority that men tend to give to work, HR departments have the chance to help break down barriers and engage men in thinking and talking about their health. First of all, organisations have a responsibility to get beyond one-size-fits-all health and wellbeing initiatives. It’s too easy to introduce schemes that everyone agrees are a ‘good thing,’ without ever touching on the health issues actually being faced by individuals. Are more salads and fruit in staff canteens, jogging groups and yoga ever going to do the trick?

A male-friendly health improvement service starts with evidence-based and relevant information. Abstract language around feeling good and being healthier looks good, but men want real facts and practical advice, e.g. how do you know if you have a drink problem? How much exercise is enough? How can you manage anger and beat stress?

Information on the main health issues faced by men needs to be pushed out; male employees should not have to look for it themselves. Effective methods might include rolling screensaver info on desktops, and poster campaigns with key data and support for the next steps to be taken on male cancers, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and mental health.

Employers need to make health support as accessible as possible. There are companies delivering tailored health screenings at low-cost within workplaces which don’t involve the fuss of appointments and taking time out. You can also look at ways of working with the NHS to deliver health checks in-house — helping to target hard-to-reach groups.

Women can feel more comfortable with women-only groups for some activities, and it’s the same for men. It’s worth running specific health Q&A sessions and campaigns for men to kickstart conversations, and thinking about how to use male role models from the organisation.

There’s also the issue of tone. Anything related to health and wellbeing can come across as po-faced, so comedy can be the way to crack through resistance to being part of any ’worthy’ corporate schemes. Some firms are starting to get comedians in to front men’s health workshops.

All the jokes about testicle checks will be worth it if HR can find better ways to overcome one of the biggest — and least discussed — barriers to getting the most from employee health and wellbeing investment.

As also published in HR Magazine