Don’t love Mondays? Why nurturing your team’s wellbeing is good for business

Too many people today are diminished by the work they do, says Geoff McDonald, former Global Vice-President of HR at Unilever. Speaking at Henley Africa’s monthly 3rd Wednesday alumni networking event, he urged participants to interrogate what drives health in the workplace – emotional and psychological – because it is a critical enabler of performance. The bad news is, it will take more than putting free cupcakes in the canteen to cultivate it.

We live in a world where billions of people in workplaces are struggling in silence. They feel ashamed to talk about their emotional struggles, they fear that it might impact their career or that others will think less of them, believe that they are weak, or that they ‘can’t take the heat in the kitchen’.

“How can that be when all of us are mental? And by that I mean we all have cognitive abilities, when we are all physical, and emotional.” This is the question that was posed by Geoff McDonald, former Global Vice-President of HR at Unilever, and the keynote speaker at Henley Africa’s monthly 3rd Wednesdays alumni networking event held on 20 September 2023.

McDonald was at the top of his game when depression struck in 2008. He had worked for Unilever for 25 years, much of that time at a senior level, looking after the company’s HR function of the home care division across the world.

“I had a panic attack that came out of nowhere. I’d never experienced anything like it and thought I was having a heart attack,” he says. The next day, paralysed by anxiety, he was unable to get out of bed. A visit to the doctor delivered a diagnosis of anxiety-fuelled depression.

For three months McDonald was unable to work. He was crippled by anxiety that affected his cognitive abilities, “I was unable to concentrate, make decisions, or recall things I had just read. In my darkest moments I felt that life wasn’t worth living but, thanks to the love and compassion of my family, friends and co-workers, I eventually pulled through.”

A mountain to climb

McDonald’s illness ignited in him a deep desire to make a difference in the world by addressing mental health and general wellbeing in workplaces, championing purpose-driven organisations, and challenging them on why they don’t see the wellbeing of their people as a strategic imperative, and a competitive advantage.

While still at Unilever he co-led a project addressing stigma within the UK arm of the business. “It was a resounding success and off the back of that project I decided to leave the company and go out into the world to share what I had learnt.”

That was nine years ago. Today McDonald is a campaigner and activist who has consulted to businesses around the world on issues of mental health and employee wellbeing, which he believes is a strategic imperative and offers organisations a competitive advantage.

“One of the most limiting resources that I see in workplaces today, irrespective of the sector or the part of the world I am working in, is the energy of people. People are frazzled. They can’t wait for a Friday afternoon, and they don’t love a Monday morning,” he says.

“The energy of our people, and of our leaders, is the most critical enabler of performance at an individual level. You can have all the experience, knowledge and skills in the world but it’s the people who bring energy, passion and a can-do attitude who perform. Working in a team brimming with energy makes you feel like you could climb Everest.”

Despite what some executives may believe, wellbeing is not a fluffy issue, he insists. “None of us can be energized or feel a sense of purpose and meaning if we are not healthy, physically, emotionally and mentally. This is my provocation to CEOs, CFOs and heads of HR: the energy, and therefore the wellbeing of people, is the most critical enabler of performance so why isn’t it a strategic imperative?”

Interrogate what drives wellbeing

If organisations want to make wellbeing a strategic imperative they need to interrogate the factors that drive it and the organisational factors that influence it. “What sort of language do we want to use? What sort of education and advancement can we offer our people? What perks and programmes do we have in place that foster wellbeing? Do our tools, technologies, systems and processes affect wellbeing negatively, or positively?”

A wellness week isn’t enough if you “flog your staff to death” for the rest of the year, says McDonald. That’s no different to implementing a strategically important system because it can drive efficiencies, and then scrapping it after a week and going back to the old system.

“Today at most workplaces I visit people’s lives are diminished by going to work. This is so sad because work gives us a sense of purpose, a routine; it gives us an opportunity to build relationships, and that in itself is good for our emotional health, says McDonald. “Imagine an employee value proposition which says ‘come and work for our company because we will enhance your life and make it better’?

“Maybe Monday’s wouldn’t be so bad if you could work in a place like that.”

Didn’t know about this event? If you are a graduate of Henley and would like to join our alumni community, please get in touch <>

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