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The Kamwell Interview: Geoff McDonald

Kamwell interviews 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.