This article was originally published in the online magazine Self.ly – The Leadership Issue in April 2020. You can download a pdf version of this article here.
“You can’t be concerned about the health of your people if you’re not concerned about your own health.” If we accept that the most important driver of individual, team and organizational performance is people’s “energy”, then why aren’t organizations actively making it a strategic priority and investing in the health of their workforce, asks Geoff McDonald.
In a world of increasing demands and complexity, every organization across every industry needs to be more conscious and strategic about how its people manage their self-care and health to ensure they are fuelled for sustainable performance. That’s the view of mental health consultant and advocate, Geoff McDonald, who is on a mission to position health and wellbeing as a potent performance lever.
“We need to move away from the negative cost implications of poor health and look at the upside of a more engaged, energetic, positive, vibrant workforce. Creating healthy work environments can be a real competitive advantage: it will position your organization as an employer of choice and you’ll win more business because your people are fuelled for growth – not to mention the moral imperative of it simply being the right thing to do.
“I ask companies: ‘If the energy and health of your people have the biggest impact on their performance, then why wouldn’t it be a strategic priority to elevate health and wellbeing.’ Their reaction is often, ‘Well, we never thought of it like that’ or ‘We don’t know how to go about making that a reality.’ But we need to start thinking this way and very few CEOs and senior leaders have moved beyond providing ad hoc wellness options and benefits to truly driving cultures of regular renewal and transforming the way people work.”
This transformation starts with buy-in and role modelling from senior leadership. “Until we can get senior leaders to care for themselves, they can’t actually care for anybody else working for them. You can’t be concerned about the health of your people if you’re not concerned about your own health. You can’t model self-care if you don’t actively care for yourself and demonstrate those behaviours.”
A crucible moment
Geoff’s own mental health journey began on January 26, 2008, when he woke up with a panic attack. He recalls the day vividly as it was his daughter’s 13th birthday. “I couldn’t even participate in that milestone right of passage – becoming a teenager – and that resulted in me having to take three months off work to recover from anxiety-fuelled depression. The only thing that kept me alive during that time was my ability to talk openly about my illness; I was determined not to be burdened by stigma and, even in those darkest moments, just knowing how much I was loved by so many people was what kept me going: two daughters, a wife, colleagues and friends who loved and cared for me deeply.”
He gained hope from a friend he met regularly who had undergone a breakdown two years previously and ended up in the Priory. “I used to meet him every ten days and he gave me so much hope that I could get better. A combination of knowing I was loved, a sense of hope that I would make a full recovery, medication and cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), and slowly beginning to do my exercise again, those were the levers I pulled to take a degree of accountability for myself to get better.
“After three months, I slowly integrated back into work. I was in Unilever at the time, doing a global HR role. Then I had a relapse in 2010, but nothing as bad as the first episode; I was still able to go to work. In 2012, I lost a good friend to suicide. It was such a shock; he was the most energetic, fun-loving person and now he was gone. The difference between me back in 2012 and him was I was able to talk openly about my illness but there was no way he could talk about how he was feeling and instead he died.”
Unfortunately, there is still a culture of silence surrounding mental health – in people’s everyday lives, in communities, and in the workplace. Too often, we are not prepared to deal with this frequently “invisible” and often-ignored challenge. Despite the enormous social burden, mental disorders continue to be driven into the shadows by stigma, prejudice and the fear of disclosure because a job may be lost, social standing ruined, or simply because health and social support services are not available or are out of reach.
“I’m not saying had he been able to talk, he would definitely be here today. But even if there is a tiny chance that he would be here today, well that’s worth fighting for; that’s worth trying to create environments where people can have that one conversation. It could just save a life. That night, I wrote to Alastair Campbell (former Downing Street Director of Communications and spokesperson for the Labour Party) and within ten minutes, he responded to my email. We met up a week later and he introduced me to people who allowed me to begin a journey filled with a deep sense of purpose, which was to create workplaces all over the world where people feel they genuinely have the choice to ask for help if they’re suffering from a common form of mental ill-health. I co-led some of that work in Unilever for about 18 months as a pilot and saw some amazing results. Then, in the middle of 2014, I decided to take those learnings, and my own story and experience out into the world and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last five years.”
Geoff’s biggest regret is that it took a crucible moment to start looking after his own health. “I used to be good at certain things like physical health. I exercised a lot; I used to watch what I ate. My sleep probably wasn’t very good but I couldn’t spell the word recovery. I never, ever took time out simply to recover on a daily basis. I’m not talking about sleep as most of us don’t get eight hours, but that vital process of building in recovery time every two hours of the day.”
Self-care is now critically important to Geoff and it’s a lesson he wished he learned sooner. “I go and stand in the sun for five minutes and just be in the moment; that’s the physical health element. I also do stuff to look after my emotional health: the importance of connection to a sense of purpose, connection to nature, connection to community and friends, building and maintaining those relationships, managing my financial health which is such an important element of our emotional health.
“For my mental health, I employ mechanisms like mindfulness. I swim a lot; that’s my mindfulness, swimming up and down the pool and thinking only about my next stroke. I’m completely in the moment for 40 minutes while I’m swimming. I have a far more holistic view of what health is all about and how important it is, and it is a real priority now. In the past, other things were a priority; everything else used to get in the way of me maintaining good health: in particular, taking time out to recover. I didn’t know any of these tools and techniques to look after my physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health and how intertwined they all are. My nutrition and my gut health has become very important as there is a very strong link between your gut and your emotional and mental health and your concentration and your cognitive ability.
“At the end of the day, I wouldn’t wish my experience on my worst enemy. I wish it hadn’t taken an episode like that to prioritize my health because there’s nothing more important.”
Making the business case for health
Performance = (Skills + Knowledge + Behaviour) x Energy
Managers are fond of the maxim “Our employees are our most important asset.” Yet beneath the rhetoric, too many executives still regard – and manage – employees as costs. “We need to shift that mindset to a performance mindset. We already know from the research that healthy, happy workers are more productive; they are more engaged; they make better decisions; they’re more creative and they’re more loyal.
“We spend billions on health and safety but it all goes to safety; we take real accountability for keeping people physically safe at work but why don’t we care for their mental and emotional safety. If organizations want to become more human-centric, they need to invest the resources both at an organizational and an individual level where people are taking care of themselves holistically – their physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health – and preventing ill health in the first place.”
Geoff would like to see a performance management equation where performance equals skills, knowledge, behavior and energy. “If energy is zero then performance is zero. I’m not sure that we’ve overtly made that link for senior leaders. We also need to show leadership the ill effects of unhealthy, unenergized people, and what that is doing to performance.”
There is a great deal of organization accountability to ensure we keep people safe at work because legislation demands that we do. However, as organizational behaviour expert Jeffrey Pfeffer would assert, we just don’t care about the health of our employees. In the absence of legislation, there is no need to enhance the lives and health of people at work and organizations take no accountability to try to achieve this.
“We’ve got to accept that the workplace is demanding and stressful but organizations have to put the resources in place to enhance people’s health and energy, and hold people accountable to take care of their own health. We know what it takes to be healthy and energized and we can measure it. If we say that you also need to be healthy that means that I (as a line manager) will have to take more care of your health. That means I’m going to have to give you development opportunities that are going to contribute to you maintaining good health so that would be the individual accountability piece.
“I would love to see us having development plans with individuals where their plans are not just about skills, knowledge, and behaviour but also their wellbeing. So why not have a wellbeing plan that I would discuss twice a year and have those conversations. People challenge me and they say that health is a private thing; but if you smoke and you’re grossly overweight, you’re going to have less energy and you’re not going to be able to perform at your best. We want you to perform at your best. As a line manager, I can recognize these symptoms of poor mental and emotional health and it’s ok for me to have a coffee with you and discuss that. It means I am caring for you. Why can’t I have a conversation about your physical health? They are not separate.”
Mental health still a stigma
Anti-stigma campaigns and the growing profile of mental health issues in recent years appear to have gone some way to changing views and dispelling misconceptions about mental illness. But with nine in ten people (87%) with mental health problems still experiencing stigma and discrimination,1 there may still be some way to go in changing public attitudes.
“We have to be very careful that we don’t get blind-sided by some of the significant progress we’re seeing in some organizations and the fact that we have celebrities and sportspeople talking about mental health. There are still millions of people in small to medium enterprises (SME) that have no resources, and they don’t even know where to start removing the stigma of mental ill-health. I’ve been on this journey for nearly seven years and, in larger organizations, we’re beginning to make progress. When I started, people would ask ‘Why should we be looking at peoples’ mental health.’ Now it’s: ‘What can we do to prevent it or spot the signs.’ So it’s more about the what today rather than the why in larger workplaces. But it’s still a significant issue in many organizations”.
The Mental Health at Work Report, compiled by Business in the Community, found that 9% of employees who presented with symptoms of poor mental health experienced “disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal”. “Those people were fired because of their performance, but when you dug into their performance more and why it was poor, they were suffering from a mental ill-health condition – but they couldn’t disclose it and that number should be zero. No one should be asked to leave their organization or dismissed because they are ill. You wouldn’t do it if they had cancer, so why would you do it if someone is suffering from a mental ill-health condition. This is a silent epidemic that is sweeping the whole world. There are pockets of progress but in Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa this topic is still completely taboo.”
1. Time to Change (2008). Stigma shout: service user and carer experiences of stigma and discrimination. London: Time to Change.
Geoff’s advice on self-care
“There are 24 hours in a day and we can find one hour to look after ourselves: self-care or self-compassion as I call it. No one ever taught me the concept of self-compassion; they taught me self-esteem but what about teaching children the importance of self-compassion and taking time out to just be compassionate towards yourself? I was never taught to give myself me-time. I thought that was selfish and I think the work that Self.ly does is so important to shift that mindset. One hour could absolutely help you survive better in these stressful and often toxic work environments. There’s a wonderful book by Rangan Chatterjee called the 4 Pillar Plan, simple basic practical things but, when practiced, are so effective. I read that book at the age of 36 but imagine if I had read that at university and learned about all aspects of looking after my health. It may have saved me a world of pain.”
How to follow The 4 Pillar Plan
There are four main elements to The 4 Pillar Plan: Relax, Eat, Move and Sleep. For each pillar, I have set out five interventions, summarised below.
I would much rather you score two in every pillar, giving you a total score of eight, rather than five out of five in two separate pillars, giving you a total score of ten. The numerical score might be smaller, but the balance would be greater, and that’s the real point. For most of my patients, most of the time, scoring three in each pillar, resulting in a total score of 12, seems to be about right.
It is simply impossible, however, for me to say what will be the right amount for you. Some of you will need to do more, some can get away with less.
It is also possible to take each pillar in isolation. You may feel, for example, that your diet and exercise are already under control, whereas your sleep needs more attention. Achieving balance is what will lead to the biggest improvements and, most importantly, the sustainable ones. This is designed to be a whole-life plan rather than a quick-fix gimmick.
As you move from two interventions to four, from four to eight and from eight to 18, you are building fantastically strong foundations, becoming more resilient and more able to bounce back when life does throw you its inevitable curveballs. These small changes become your new habits and these new habits become your health.
If ten minutes of meditation is too hard, start with one minute. If cutting out sugar is too daunting, start somewhere else. The key to this plan is balance across all four pillars. Above all, enjoy. It’s a recipe for a longer, healthier and happier life. And you only have the one.
- Me-time every day
- Weekly screen-free sabbath
- Keep a gratitude journal
- A daily practice of stillness
- Eat one meal per day around a table – without an e-device
- De-normalize sugar (and retrain your taste buds)
- Eat five different coloured vegetables every day
- Eat all of your food within a 12-hour window
- Drink eight glasses of water per day
- Un-process your diet by avoiding any food product that contains more than five ingredients
- Walk at least 10,000 steps per day
- Do a form of strength training twice a week
- Do a form of high-intensity interval training twice a week
- Make a habit of exercise snacking
- Do daily glute exercises to help warm them up
- Create an environment of absolute darkness
- Spend at least 20 minutes outside every morning
- Create a bedtime routine
- Manage your commotion
- Enjoy your caffeine before noon
Source: The 4 Pillar Plan, Dr Rangan Chatterjee
On the stigma of mental health, especially for men
“I was born and raised in South Africa, in an era when men didn’t talk about their problems. It took me ages to accept that my breakdown was mental rather than physical. It just didn’t sit with my idea of the man I was. There’s still a masculine, romanticized, stoic image of what a leader should be, and stigma has helped keep mental ill-health hidden in men for years. Men are very good at putting on a game face and are fearful of being judged as weak, and they are less in touch with their feelings or that something may be awry. For many, the only time they realize they are ill is when they are in an ambulance.”
On having time to self-care
“I am a fan of the four-day week at a conceptual level, and we have to work on the practicalities of that – giving people that time to recover and to attend to their health. We already do it with athletes, why not employees?”
On supporting positive mental health
“It starts with building that emotional literacy and normalcy around discussing mental health and emotions. Wellbeing training – both mental and physical – should be in every school and on every curriculum, teaching children to look after their health. Paula Talman of www.ispacewellbeing.com has developed a curriculum where the kids in school have half an hour daily to learn about their health. But we also need to ask how we, as parents, can make our kids feel fantastic – and bolster their self-worth so they are not negatively impacted by the ills of social media and we don’t tie our entire identity to achievement.”