Geoff McDonald knows that depression and anxiety can strike anyone at any time.
He was a high-flying businessman when it happened to him – on the day of his daughter’s 13th birthday – and the shock of it and the subsequent loss of a friend to depression-related suicide set him on a new path in life, to spread the word throughout workplaces that people need to talk much more about mental health.
In the middle of the night before his daughter became a teenager, Geoff woke startled and terrified in the throes of a huge panic attack – something he had never experienced before.
Before a doctor had diagnosed anxiety-fuelled depression 12 hours later, Geoff had convinced himself that he was having a heart attack or throat cancer and so began a period of catastrophising over the most insignificant issues in his life.
As a father of two with a fulfilling career as a Vice President at global company Unilever, he had never really considered depression. He certainly did not think he would fall victim to it.
But on leaving his doctor’s surgery with his new diagnosis – and a new future of dealing with it to consider – Geoff, who lives in Surrey, England, decided he needed to tell people about the condition that had gripped him so mercilessly. He vowed to use his professional human resources skills to speak about mental illness and be an advocate for why it urgently needed to be addressed in the workplace.
It was a decision he says that “saved his life”. “The reason why that decision saved my life was because in talking about my illness, what I got in return from everybody I spoke to was an unbelievable sense of how much I was loved,” he says.
“And, do you know, during those dark days and weeks, when I was recovering from my illness, the only thing that kept me alive was knowing how much I was loved.”
Over the next three months, therapy, medication and exercise helped him get better and return to work. He also took inspiration from a close friend who had suffered similar mental health problems and was on the road to recovery. “He gave me hope I could get through this,” says Geoff.
A few years later, a friend of his, who Geoff describes as “such a wonderful human being”, died by suicide. “He was such a bundle of energy and joy – the brighter the light, the darker the shadow. I came to the realisation that stigma had just killed my friend – and that can’t be fair. It can’t be fair that we live in the 21st century, the modern world, where we can’t talk about mental illness.”
Geoff then knew he must take forward his ambition to launch a global movement to create workplaces where no-one would feel unable to ask for help if they had a mental health condition.
He co-founded Minds@Work, which aims “to inspire and empower individuals to break the stigma of mental ill health in their own organisations”.
As a speaker and a business transformation consultant, Geoff is engaging with leaders to inspire them to embrace mental health issues, explain how a sense of purpose is critical to mental wellbeing, empower organisations to put purpose at their core and play a positive role in the world.
“My life today is so purposeful,” he says. “I want to create a world where everybody in every workplace all over the world feels that they genuinely have the choice to put their hand up and ask for help if they are suffering from a mental illness – depression, anxiety, bipolar.
“People across the work can do that with physical illness, so why not mental illness.”
Geoff stresses the importance of maintaining well-being – physically, emotionally and mentally – on an individual level but also strives to ensure that workplaces have the processes in place to help people achieve that.
He is urging leaders to tell their own mental health story in order to inspire others to open up about their own problems and says that the billions of pounds poured into health and safety now some of it needs to be spent on health, not just safety – into resources that will enhance employee health.
He says legislation across the world has led to workplaces being much safer for employees and now that needs to be done in health, especially in mental and emotional health. And he says if not legislation, why not offer tax incentives to those organisations that are contributing to enhancing the health of their people. “I would prefer this to legislation,” Geoff says.
“At school, at university and in organisations, all we are interested in is our physical health. But we now know it is so important to maintain our emotional health – and how we manage our feelings,” he says.
Geoff advocates workplaces helping employees to exercise mental fitness, improving their mental health through techniques such as meditation, mindfulness and yoga. And he says employers can inspire mental fitness in their workforce – and also giving them a purpose and meaning in their lives – which will be good for both the individual and the organisation.
“You can either wait for the legislation to come along for this, and I’m sure it will come along, or you can be on the front foot with this, go out there and say, hey, we really are going to invest in the health of our people, because we have done it with safety.”
Geoff says that doing so will boost the energy and productivity of individuals, so also giving organisations a competitive advantage over those companies who are not investing in workplace health.
Geoff believes energised, healthy employees perform better, and we need to offer resources for individuals to enhance their health, just like we do regarding skills, behaviour and experience.
He says: “If energy is the most important driver of individual performance, we so often hear leaders talk about the need for passionate, energised employees, yet we do nothing to enhance their energy, or invest in resources to do so.
“Individuals also then need to be accountable in maintaining their health and energy should an organisation be investing in the appropriate resources. So in future, let’s ensure employees have wellbeing as part of their development, and not just the traditional development plans that focus on skills, knowledge and behaviours.”
He praises recent awareness campaigns in the UK, Australia and Canada which are are now turning the tide on the stigma of mental health and says that leaders of companies he now talks to want to know not why they should invest in this area, but how they can do it. “I’m encouraging leaders to start a conversation about mental health. If we can get the conversation going, anything is possible.”
Geoff says there are three tangible things companies can do to break down this stigma within their organisation. The first is education and training, for example a 90-minute session telling people what depression actually is.
The second is the sharing of stories between individuals in workplaces to raise the level of awareness and compassion for mental health problems.
And the third is support when people do feel they can raise their hand and ask for help.
He adds: “If organisations can get this right. If we as individuals can get this right. If we take a much more holistic view of looking after ourselves and seeing mental health as an advantage and as something that gives you energy you have the capacity and the passion to change the world.”