In Conversation: The Importance of Emotional Health at Work

We all have emotional health, and whichever context we’re in, whether it’s personal or professional, we need to look after our emotional health to thrive. Geoff McDonald is a former Vice President for Human Resources for Unilever. He gave up this role when he lost a close friend to suicide, and became a global advocate and campaigner for good mental health in the workplace. Here he speaks to Emotional Health at Work Development Lead, Rebecca Durrant, about why emotional health is so important in the workplace.

Rebecca: What do you and why do you do it?

Geoff: Let’s start with why. I lost a very good friend to suicide in 2012. He was so burdened by the stigma surrounding mental illness, and he didn’t think he could put his hand up and ask for help.  I want everybody in the workplace to feel able to put their hand up and ask for help if they’re suffering from depression or anxiety – because I know that if people were suffering from a physical illness they would put their hands up and they’d get the help and support right away.

Most of my work involves speaking and giving presentations around how we can address the stigma linked to Mental Health in the workplace.  I consult across sectors to various organisation on why they should go about addressing this particular issue.

Rebecca: What do you think biggest challenges are for employers in the current climate?

Geoff: I think the biggest challenge for an employer today is to somehow harness what I think is the most limiting resource that exists in an organisation today: the energy of people. 

I think in most workplaces today I think people are frazzled, they are very, very tired, their levels of energy and their capacity to go the extra mile is very limited. So I think that is the biggest challenge that organisations face today and because people are feeling that way therefore people are less engaged, people are less productive.

If you have a reputation of being an organisation that depletes the energy of people, then it’s not easy to attract and keep talent to work there. That’s why I think that all organisations should be addressing the whole issue of wellbeing, which is the physical, the emotional and the mental health of their employees in a far more strategic and vigorous way.

Rebecca: What impact does good workplace emotional health have on staff engagement?

Geoff: Good emotional health, what do we mean by that?  What we mean by that is that people are feeling content, feeling connected to each other, and that the emotions they get about their work are positive. When we feel all these things, that must contribute to people feeling more engaged and productive at work.  It is therefore essential that we attend to the emotional health of our teams, as well at their mental and physical health. We must help and give organisations some of the wherewithal, some of the ideas, some of the practical tools on how they can enhance the emotional health of their people which will then lead to a more energised and a more content workforce which hopefully then more driven, ambitious and wants to do more for the organisation.

Rebecca: Can good emotional health support managers and leaders too?

Geoff: Absolutely – without doubt! If we are going to create emotionally healthy organisations, we must help all of our leaders find and maintain their own emotional health. Being a leader can be an enormous emotional burden – often stressful and at times isolating.  We need to help our leaders stay well – physically, mentally and emotionally. For too long we have only looked to support physical health, such as gym memberships and bike schemes. It is now time for us to focus on mental and emotional health specifically, for our leaders and for all staff.  The research on this is so clear.

Rebecca: What do you think is the best way for organisations to support the emotional health of their staff?

Geoff: There’s a lovely metaphor that one could link to emotional and mental health and physical health and that’s the following- if I were to walk in to a Nike store what would I see?  I would see lots of merchandise that’s being sold, but plastered all over the walls I would see photographs of the most chiselled whippets, toned bodies, inspiration, aspirational pictures of people to make me think ‘wow, I’m going to buy a pair of running shoes because I want to get like that’.  When it comes to emotional, what do we see or think?  We see people with their head in their hands, we see black and white pictures, we talk about illness and difficulties. Everything is so negative around emotional and mental health.  So we need to help organisations shift the narrative to where you’ve got the same inspiration and aspirational view of mental and emotional health as we have of physical health. This means we need to take on a positive, strengths based approach to supporting the emotional health and wellbeing of everyone in our organisations. This is all possible, but we must act now. 

Geoff McDonald is a global advocate and campaigner for good mental health in the workplace. His background in teaching, HR, marketing, communications and sustainability is considerable. During his 25 years with Unilever, Geoff led leadership and talent development, organization change, capability development, with particular reference to marketing, and business transformation with purpose at its core. Under his leadership he developed Unilever’s global talent and leadership centre of expertise. Geoff is also a very active campaigner for breaking the stigma associated with mental health in the corporate world. Geoff is a Trustee for Family Links and Emotional Health at Work. Follow @geoffmcdonald1 and @rebeccadurrant0