Depression at work: what to do?
Geoff McDonald was an executive at one of the largest companies in the world and was diagnosed with depression.
This past week, the Summit of Mental Health in Organizations, promoted by Exame magazine and other entities, took place. I followed several panels and conversations, but one in particular caught my attention. It was a conversation with Geoff McDonald, a former human resources executive at Unilever, who is now a speaker on the subject of mental health in companies.
His talk was special because he spoke openly about the time in his life when he had depression. It is still quite rare to have access to testimonials from people in high hierarchical positions in companies, governments, organizations of any kind, talking about this subject.
I found the chat with Geoff McDonald so interesting that I asked to interview him. Although I am not an expert in covering the corporate world, I thought it was important to bring the subject to Respiro. Because of the pandemic, work has infiltrated all areas of our lives, especially mental health.
You can watch Geoff McDonald's lecture here:
In addition, McDonald is in close contact with companies and has a very realistic view of the need to care for the minds of employees. As he said at the Exame event, to preserve people's mental health, organizations need to understand that this is also a strategic aspect of business.
1) The beginning: a panic attack
Geoff's close relationship with mental health started when he had a panic attack:
It was what made me go to see a doctor, which led me to a diagnosis [of depression]. I felt very, very frightened. On the other hand, there was a sense of relief because I was diagnosed. There was a real fear of not knowing if I would be able to get over it. I thought, "How long is this going to last?".
And how did he, an executive at a multinational company like Unilever, feel when he learned he had depression? I was curious because when I went through the same experience I felt like a failure. As if I was not good enough to live in the adult world. McDonald looked at it differently:
In a way, I was very lucky. I had a manager and a medical director who were very compassionate, treated me with so much love, gave me so much support. And, of course, I felt that I was disappointing my team. Because I had to stay three months away from work. Who would take care of everything you were doing? I was the global head of human resources for our home care division worldwide.
2) Feeling guilt
This guilt was not limited to McDonald's professional life. He felt that he was a burden to those closest to him as well:
During my recovery, [I had] that feeling of being a burden to other people. I don't know if you experienced that. When you get sick, you become so self-centered. Every conversation with my wife, with my children, was about me, about whether I'm going to get better. And I was like, "Please, can you help me get better?".
Yes, I felt that too. I still do today. I'm afraid to tell people how I really feel because I think, deep down, they are thinking: "This guy never gets better, it's always the same conversation, what a pain!". Geoff described this very well in our conversation:
I had darker thoughts at certain times. I thought that all these people would be better off without me because I was sucking their energy every day.
Geoff's first-hand experience with depression led him to leave the corporate world to become a speaker and consultant. Today he helps companies to include mental health in their people and business management strategies. To make himself heard, he uses a broader approach:
I use the word well-being, which is a more holistic description of health. It includes your physical health, your emotional health and your mental health, as well as having a sense of purpose and meaning in life. The most limiting resource is people's energy. People are exhausted. When I was sick, I had all the knowledge, all the skills, all the experience to get the job done, but I had no energy because I was sick.
3) Mental health in large companies
He then began to question the managers of large companies as to why mental health was not on the agenda. These organizations, he says, have clear goals regarding revenue and productivity. Why not include well-being within this system of measures?
Still, it is necessary to convince these people of the importance of this matter. How to do this? For McDonald, the secret is to make the idea of well-being more concrete:
To engage leaders in this issue, storytelling is very important. You can get people in the organization to tell stories of how their lives are being drastically impacted [by mental health disorders]. How can we tell stories that will really shock people or make older people think differently?
However, we must also link this to business. For him, talking about numbers, the positive impact that dealing with the mental health of employees can generate is a powerful weapon. If a company has a difficult or toxic work environment, it may be difficult to retain people, keep them in their jobs for a long time.
There is a cost to your ability to retain talent. Every time you lose someone, you have to recruit again and it costs you money, you need to train them for the new job, which will also cost you. So I think there is also a business-based argument that can be put forward to people in more senior positions.
4) How does a company that cares for mental health look like?
And what would this company, one that actually takes workers' mental health into account, be like? What does this mean in practice? I asked. For him, one of the most important elements is to have a purpose beyond growth and profitability.
It would be a company that is offering resources like mindfulness apps, for example, to help take care of mental health, it would be a company that is offering financial education, relationship building training, because those are the two biggest drivers of emotional health. If you are feeling financially insecure, you have a bad relationship at work. Therefore, there would be investment in this type of training.
In his lecture at the Exame summit, Geoff McDonald said that the business world tends to value what can be measured. For this reason, he also recommends that companies be audited so that they have a diagnosis regarding the quality of their work environment.
[The company can do] focus groups on ways of working, internal policies, procedures that may be causing stress. And try to change some of these practices. You can also do research on the well-being of your staff. We already have indicators regarding work safety. There are now ways in which we can research an organization and get a measure of the health and well-being of its people.