Let's break the silence and stop the stigma

Written by
Geoff McDonald

30 Jul 2018

30 Jul 2018 • by Geoff McDonald

After experiencing debilitating anxiety-fuelled depression, former Unilever VP for HR, Geoff McDonald, is on a mission to normalise mental illness in the workplace.

In January 2008, I woke with a panic attack so severe I thought I was having a heart attack and was going to die. I went to the doctor the next day, who diagnosed me with anxiety-fuelled depression. It came out of nowhere and completely floored me. I’d been running two marathons a year, holding down a demanding job, travelling the world. My understanding of the word ‘depression’, up until that point, had been when Arsenal failed to win a league title for yet another year.

Rejecting stigma

When I walked out of the doctor’s surgery that January day, I made a decision that I now credit with saving my life. I decided I was not going to be burdened by the stigma that is linked to having depression and anxiety. So I told my wife, my two daughters, my friends and my employer what was wrong.

And, guess what? In return, I got all the love and support I needed to get better – and I got better. It was realising how much I was loved that kept me alive. Imagine if I hadn’t known or felt that sense of love, and instead had chosen to suffer in silence?

I now have a very simple purpose in life. I want to create workplaces all over the world where employees feel they genuinely have the choice to put up their hand if they are suffering from anxiety or depression. I want them to know they have that choice, just as they would if they were suffering from a physical illness. It’s the 21st century after all.

A combination of medication, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), slowly getting back on my bike and some wonderful peer support from a good friend, who instilled hope in me, enabled me to return to work after three months. I had a minor relapse in 2010, but it wasn’t as bad; I now knew how to manage it – my career and life continued on track and I learn everyday how to live and maintain my recovery from anxiety-fuelled depression.

What might have befallen me had I kept quiet, as many still do, became painfully clear two years later, in October 2012, when a banker friend, working in the City, committed suicide: the brighter the light, the darker the shadow. My friend’s passing was a complete shock to my system.

I lay in bed that night and came to a simple conclusion – stigma had killed my friend, and I had to do something about that.

Normalising mental health

Breaking that silence has become something of a singular mission – not because I want to ‘out’ individuals, but because I believe that the stigma around mental illness can only be tackled when those in the most senior roles in workplaces are prepared to own it themselves and invest in ‘normalising mental health’ through education/training and many other interventions.

Since leaving Unilever in mid- 2014, I have devoted my time and efforts to addressing the stigma around mental ill health and encouraging others to talk about their associations with it. Each of us has a story and each story told is like sending a lifeboat out into the ocean; those suffering in silence cling to the lifeboat and realise they are normal.

Organisations need to be challenged to make health and wellbeing a strategic priority – we have spent millions, if not billions, creating safe workplaces, the time has come to focus on creating healthy workplaces. Healthy, energised people lead to more engaged employees, more engaged employees can ‘move mountains’ and therefore enhance the performance of the business.

We all know the power ‘energy’ has in enhancing performance so when will we realise that organisations today, do the opposite – they drain every bit of energy out of people. Instead they could be so purposeful and energising, leading to enhanced performance. Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, in his recent book Dying for a Paycheck, provides ample evidence of the draining effect organisations are having on people and their lives.

The time has come for us to speak out about what Professor Pfeffer calls the “inconvenient truth” in organisations – in other words social pollution – and devote our time, energy, resources and investments to creating workplaces that are healthy at all levels – physical, emotional, mental and purposeful.

We ignore this call to action at our peril!

To read a summary of Geoff's session with Alastair Campbell from this year's Future Talent Conference, click here. You can also watch the session in full, here