Why leaders need to deal with mental health issues head on

CEOs are human beings. When you know it’s the right thing to do and you have a commercial argument to back it up they’ll want to do something about it. (Geoff McDonald, former Global VP of HR, Marketing, Communications, Water & Talent, Unilever.)

Most of us know someone or have personally dealt with depression or anxiety at work but it’s not something that we tend to talk about. Typically it’s a topic that is addressed (if at all) under the radar outside the office.

We might like to think we can compartmentalise our lives into separate personal and business camps but the fact is we bring our personal life to work and our work life home.  Sharing a mental health problem is still considered to be taboo. It’s a stigma that can cause significant barriers to treatment.  

This often leads to dire consequences both for the individuals affected and the company that employs them.  In the U.S.A. alone a million people miss work daily because of stress. That’s over 300 million lost workdays a year.   So if you are a CEO or a senior leader what are the benefits of doing something about this issue? This was the underlying question I had for Geoff McDonald.  He is the former Global VP of HR, Marketing, Communications, Water & Talent at Unilever.

With a title like that, at a global corporation with a  £50billion turnover across 90 countries, one can imagine the sort of pressure Geoff was under.   In his corporate career he was always ‘on’, flying around the globe, joining incessant meetings, and constantly checking e-mail.  Back then he dealt with it by (over) exercising his body.  It simply wasn’t sustainable.  As he says “If you don’t oil a machine it falls over”.  

One night in 2008 after enjoying significant success for over 20 years in a company he loved, Geoff had a panic attack.  It was the start of a 3 month decline into a depression that came out of nowhere.  Thanks to his boss, his business partner and CEO, he got all the medical and other support required.  Geoff returned to work equipped with the self-management tools he needed. He felt fortunate to have worked for a company in which wellbeing was prioritised. Sadly, four years later one of his good friends’ died by suicide out of the blue.

Geoff concluded that the fear of admitting anything was wrong had literally killed him.   He asked himself how many lives were being ruined as a result of not breaking the mental health stigma.   It was life changing.  Today his mission is to let people in the working world know that they have a choice and that they can put their hands up for help. After his friend died, Geoff entered a period of advocacy and campaigning at a national level.  

This role was completely aligned with Unilever’s sense of purpose which is to improve the health and wellbeing of a billion people in the world. Then, one day in February 2013, it dawned on him that the billion people included 170,000 Unilever employees.  He had been so focused on the outside world he had forgotten that he had the  leverage to help address this issue directly inside his company.Unilever is a company that truly understands the meaning of the word ‘care’.   It is in the company’s DNA.  

In the late 1800ies Lord Lever wanted to make cleanliness commonplace by bringing joy and hope to peoples’ lives with the launch of Sunlight soap in Manchester.  However, it is one thing to get personal support for a mental health condition at work.   It is another to turn it into an advocacy programme to break the stigma of depression and anxiety across a massive organisation.

I asked Geoff how he approached it and what he was up against.He told me that back in 2008 Unilever had been pretty cutting edge on the mental health front.   There were employee assistance programmes, on-site cognitive behavioural therapists, occupational therapists and helplines to the Samaritans. Yet despite all the well intended offerings hardly anyone took advantage of them.  Why? Because they were fearful of becoming identified with a mental health issue.

Geoff was convinced that the stigma had to be addressed directly by senior leaders and influential people at Unilever.  He believed that this would be the only way to transform fear and entropy into genuine engagement and positivity at work.  A few of his colleagues had known about what had happened to him but it was not common knowledge. He decided to share his story across the company. Geoff was acutely aware that 50% of long term absence at work is depression or anxiety related.   

He knew he needed to convince the executive board that this was not just a personal mission but a commercial imperative.  So he looked at the absentee data at Unilever between 2009-2013.   He found that it was either flatlining or increasing.  Geoff used this data to make the case and co led an initiative with the then VP HR UK, Tim Munden and sponsored the initiative across the Head Office site in London. Paul Polman the Unilever CEO was very supportive.  As he says, “CEOs are human beings.  When you know that it’s the right thing to do and you have a commercial argument to back it up they’ll want to do something about it.”   

Who wouldn’t want to retain and motivate great people for the financial and cultural health of the company? Spearheaded by Geoff and Tim, Unilever launched a UK wide education and training programme across the company.  Critical to its success at the outset was the direct involvement of senior and influential leaders in sharing their personal experiences. Geoff will never forget the first time he shared his story on a webx call.  After about 15 minutes three other people started to share their stories of how they too had been impacted by depression and anxiety. 

One of them was a very sr. vice president and another a secretary.  Geoff emphasises the fact that the sharing of stories does not have to be about lived experiences.  It can be just as powerful when someone senior talks about a loved one who is suffering from a mental health condition.   When a chief scientist at Unilever wrote a blog about being the father of a daughter suffering an anxiety disorder everyone in Research & Development knew that they could ask for help if necessary. Shift managers at factory sites who people couldn’t imagine being depressed or anxiety ridden started to say that they were.  

It was transformational. Eight months after kick-off at the Head Office alone, (the site personally sponsored by Geoff) there was a 6-8x fold increase in the number of people asking for help.   Unilever started to improve engagement scores in response to questions such as ‘do you believe Unilever is seriously addressing the stigma of depression and anxiety at work?’.  Both engagement and employee retention scores increased.  

When corporate wellbeing becomes a successful performance metric it enhances not just productivity.  It makes a company a more attractive and meaningful place to work. When I asked Geoff what stops CEO’s from linking purpose to wellness his response was swift:‘absolute ignorance about the drivers of our wellbeing’. While David Cameron was prime minister Geoff met with him and 15 other CEO’s to discuss the role of leaders in breaking the mental health stigma. He remembers saying something on the lines of “I don’t think there is one single person sitting around this cabinet table who has not been touched by depression or anxiety.  It’s either been a lived experience or a parent, a son, a daughter, or a close friend. I bet that every single one of you gave that person love and support to help them get better. Why can’t you do the same for the people you work with? Your success depends on them!.”

There was a deathly hush and David Cameron asked ‘are we 5 years from Utopia or 3 or in the dark ages?”  Everyone present agreed that they were in the dark ages. They got involved with Heads Together, the charity co-founded by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry to help end the stigma around mental health.  They also got involved with the charity Mind which started to develop a wellbeing index. Geoff works directly with both.

While national advocacy is very important, there’s a key problem that Geoff believes is really not being addressed.  Many companies have introduced the concept of health and wellbeing but it is typically handled via some form of training programme.  It is certainly helpful to be able to take mindfulness, exercise, nutrition or meditation courses but the root cause of this problem cannot be solved with a tick box approach. In Geoff’s experience nobody talks about the issue of ‘over exercising’ or the critical importance of recovery.   

The wellbeing drivers used by the Warwick Institute (physical, emotional, mental, meaning and purpose) are rarely addressed holistically from the top down.   People learn about the importance of ‘self-esteem’ but not about ‘self-compassion’.    Performance management systems are generally focused on managing skills.  As Geoff says when was the last time you heard someone say “let’s talk about how you are doing as a person”.   

He mentioned a study of CEOs by a former employee of Blackstone Venture Capitalists who had successfully turned businesses around.  There were 4 key things they do well:

  1. make tough strategic choices
  2. execute ruthlessly
  3. make tough people decisions – particularly in the most leveraged jobs
  4. brought energy to their organisation

As Geoff says, a company cannot claim a high level of wellbeing without energy.  I agree whole heartedly.  With all the downsizing, re-engineering and often appalling lack of internal communications I have witnessed in large organisations it is easy to understand the correlation between the levels of anxiety and depression and entropy.  I asked Geoff what are the key things a company can do to help break the stigma.  His basic approach is to:

  1. Encourage senior and influential people to tell their stories
  2. Build leadership commitment to address the issue
  3. Partner with your key stakeholders to develop a holistic approach
  4. Build awareness and training across employees, including leadership at highest levels.
  5. Ensure the environment/culture will support the approach to help reduce mental illness

The first step involves working with the senior leadership team to move from awareness and understanding to becoming genuinely engaged and acting as advocates in addressing mental hygiene.  He says there’s no point in having brown bag lunches to hold meaningful conversations if influential people aren’t prepared to show up. It is essential that leaders role model compassion and vulnerability to help dissipate the anxiety around sharing mental health issues.  

Geoff left Unilever in 2014 to put his experience to work for CEOs and senior leaders. He and his co founder Georgie Mack launched the network http://www.mindsatworkmovement.comto that end. 
Today he is a sought after speaker, inspiring and provoking organizations to put purpose and wellbeing at the centre of everything they do.  He is grateful to people like Alastair Campbell, Stephen Fry, Ruby Wax and Johnny Wilkinson for speaking publically about their mental health challenges in public.  

There are indeed some great resources available today.  Yet, the stigma continues, particularly in the corporate world.  Leaders need to make this personal and hands-on.  Geoff’s motto is simple and instructive:“There’s no point in helping people break the stigma without telling them what to do.  Yet, there’s no point telling them what to do with a stigma!” 

© Copyright Margaret O’Keeffe, 2019, All rights reserved   

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