Thriving Minds – Trailblazing Mental Health in the Workplace

Caylee O’Neill | Image Courtesy of Caylee O’Neill

BY GAYLE JO CARTER November 11th, 2019

No one knows better than Caylee O’Neill what it’s like to struggle with mental health issues. After ignoring the trauma of her abusive childhood for far too long, O’Neill came to a sink or swim moment while out on maternity leave with no work to distract her. Choosing to swim, she finally acknowledged, recognized, and sought help for her challenges. With that decision, O’Neill chose to not only transform her own life but to slowly share her diagnosis of PTSD, General Anxiety Disorder, and postnatal depression with her colleagues. From that public disclosure, O’Neill began her journey to become a mental health advocate in her workplace.

Today O’Neill, a Knowledge Manager on the Customer Experience Transformation team at AkzoNobel, is the co-lead on the company’s business well-being plan, Thrive. As co-lead, she takes responsibility for the “Thriving Minds” part of that which impacts 3,500 employees and strives to raise awareness and tackle the stigma around mental health. At Aspire’s Trailblazing Leadership Conference, December 12th and 13th in London, O’Neill will talk on ‘Thriving Minds – By saying nothing, you are part of the problem’.

In a recent interview, we asked her to share her strategies, tips and lessons learned through her experiences. Excerpts below.

Q. What’s the first step for people who struggle with their mental health at work?

Speak up. Tell someone that you’re struggling or not feeling your best. You could tell a friend, a colleague, your human resources team, there may be an Employee Assistance Program you can talk to, or you can tell your doctor. Just tell someone. The situation is unlikely to improve on its own. It’s okay to have a little help, and the earlier you do it, the easier it is and could prevent you from getting to crisis point.

In the UK, lots of NHS trusts have online referral programs where you can ask for help without having to physically sit in front of someone, so check out your local services too. It’s not always easy to start talking though. So if you find that you are physically struggling to say the words, or you’re scared of what might come out if you start, try writing it down. No one needs to see what you have written, you can destroy it after. Writing can be helpful for framing your thoughts, and it is helpful to have some notes written down if you are going to speak to a manager or a doctor as they will help you keep the conversation on track so that you get everything you need to out, and if you get overwhelmed or find it hard to say the words you can ask them to read your notes. I found talking almost impossible to begin with. The words wouldn’t come out of my mouth, so I had to write it. It was the only way to get what was going on in my brain out, and once it was out, I could then start the dialogue. They may not be able to fix the problem, or help you take action straight away, but sometimes just having someone listen and care can make all the difference.

Q. You advise women to speak up and take action on issues that are important to them in the workplace, what are the strategies to do that?

1. Take time to reflect on the issue. When you’re passionate about something, it’s really easy to get swept away in an emotional connection and you want to jump straight to solutions. Taking time to step back and look at the topic from all angles is essential. Ask yourself ‘Why is this important to me?’ and then ask yourself ‘Why it’s important for the business?’, and again for ‘Why is it important to the people who work there?’ Those things may not be the same, and although there’s likely to be some overlap it’s important for you to know the differences. When people get passionate about something but have no clear message or call to action the naysayers can be quick to dismiss what they’re saying, so getting sight of the “whys” will really help you crystalize your message and be really clear about what changes you need to make in a business environment.

2. Find Allies. Talk to other people. The action I’ve taken in AkzoNobel stemmed from my own personal experience and passion, but I did not do it alone. I’m a firm believer that if I think there’s a need for a meaningful change, then there are probably others who are feeling that way too. I usually look out for other people who share that same ‘Wouldn’t it better if?’ attitude. These are the people who know something’s not quite right, and who are also willing to work to sort it out. They don’t even have to have the exact same opinion as you. The real magic often happens when you are working with people with different viewpoints. It might take a while to work out who “your people” are. They’ll come forward in different ways and the cues can be subtle. Sometimes it’s just chance conversation with somebody who shares your goal in the office kitchen (or after a little Dutch courage at a work party); perhaps you’ll spot ‘the someone’ who regularly comments or likes similar things on internal social media platforms, other times it’ll be during a deep conversation. Once you work out who they are and start a conversation with them, you can start working together and looking for more allies.

3. Research. It’s really important that you research and learn about the topic you’re passionate about. Dogged determination and a strong personal experience story is certainly a great fuel and can get you noticed, but what then? There has to be something to back you up, and evidence or research can be helpful for this. Start by validating what you already know and build up from there.

4. Talk to experts. Mental health is an incredibly complex topic, and good intentions must be underpinned by knowledge and expertise so that changes are made with everyone’s safety in mind. If changes aren’t made in a controlled way you risk causing more harm than good. Seeking the guidance of experts is also important to fill any gaps in knowledge, spot risks and generally check you’re on the right track. If you don’t know where to turn for expert advice in your business, try connecting with people externally. LinkedIn groups or networking sessions can be amazing for this, and specialist charities and non-profits may also let you draw on them for information, and some will even help you assess your plans so that you can confidently go back to your business and say ‘This is what we need to do, and here’s why’.

5. Know your audience. When you’re trying to make a change in a workplace it’s good to spend some time trying to understand the needs and micro-cultures within the teams that you’re working with. Lasting changes stem from strong relationships, so if you don’t yet know what makes a team tick, find out. Stakeholder mapping will help you identify where you’re likely to find supporters, and also where you’re likely to encounter barriers or conflicting priorities. You’ll also be able to find out who your influencers are. This is really useful for helping tailor conversations so that they’re relevant to the people you’re talking to. When people feel like they’re heard it increased the chances of them buying into the vision of the future that you’re painting. Just remember to check in with your stakeholder map as you’re going through the changes. Things change all the time.

6. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare. A piece of advice that was given to me was to prepare twice as hard for conversations where you think you’ll have barriers than you would normally, but also make sure you celebrate every win. Even the small ones.

7. Don’t be afraid to get knocked down. Change rarely comes easily, so always look for alternatives, compromises or opportunities to try something different. Despite best laid plans, success may not come in the way you initially thought it might, so it’s important to be flexible, and keep sight of the overall vision. You might not get there how you thought you would, but you won’t get there at all if you stop trying. So if you get knocked down, take time to recover, remind yourself of why it’s important and then get back up to go again.

Caylee O'Neill | Image Courtesy of Caylee O'Neill

Q. What was your biggest obstacle and what tools did you use to overcome?

The biggest obstacle with setting up Thrive was (and continues to be) encouraging colleagues to view looking after their own well-being and the well-being of others as part of their day to day and not just an extra thing to do.

People commonly mistake workplace well-being for being about yoga, mindfulness, training courses and fancy expensive activities. Those things certainly have their place, but it’s also about the low key stuff like consciously taking a moment to check in with the people around you, asking if they’re okay, really listening to the response & helping where you can.

Corporate mindset has traditionally been to take care of customers and numbers first, and as ROI on anything people related can be hard to quantify it becomes challenging to show the value of changing that mindset. But as Einstein said best: ‘Sometimes the things that count the most can’t be counted.’ and I think he was on to something. You only have to think about how you perform at work when you’re feeling good, to when you’re not to see there’s a glimmer of truth in there.

We’ve put things in place in the business to try and make well-being part of our “business as usual”. Making it’s a strategic priority so that it shares space with all of our other vital business activities has been a great move for us. This means that well-being is discussed regularly by all teams in the business, it’s on the agenda in our board room every month, is discussed in depth in our annual business review. This really helps get conversation flowing.

Q. Even with that, are there still naysayers and those who don’t think mental health is and should be an issue to prioritize? How do you convince them?

Make a connection. It’s deep rooted in society that mental health isn’t something you should talk about it – but yet 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health illness in their lifetime. Even with those odds the stigma about mental health is strong. Fear of stigma is powerful so it’s understandable that there will be some hesitance about whether discussing mental health at work is the right thing. That’s why we are working with teams up and down the business to raise awareness, challenge stigma and dispel myths. Relationships are key to this.

We have recruited a team of nearly 140 mental health advocates who are the voice of well-being in their teams across the UK and Ireland, and that number is still rising. Their role is to help keep well-being on the agenda locally, cascade awareness raising messages, promote preventative measures & to feedback in any ideas or challenges they come across on the way. They know their teams far better than I do, and their insight shapes what we do as a business so they are an incredibly important team.

Many of our advocates have bravely chosen to share why mental well-being is important to them with their teams in a safe way to help strengthen the connection, and 15 other people have shared their experiences nationally. When shared safely stories help break silence and increase understanding and empathy. If you’re sitting on the fence about a topic, having someone you know unexpectedly speak up about why it’s important to them can be a game changer. The impact of hearing from someone you know is far greater than reading about anonymous people on the internet or in the news ever can be.

There will always be people who don’t quite get it, and that’s okay. But if you can find just one person in your business who is willing to share their experience or vulnerability with other people and you can give them a platform to do it in a way that is relevant to your business, then the chances are other people will resonate with what they’re saying and people who are on the fence will feel motivated to support, even if silent to begin with.

Q. You trailblazed ‘Thriving Minds’ within your company, what is most important when starting down this path of trailblazing something new?

Be bold. Change is often really uncomfortable for people but just because something is uncomfortable doesn’t stop it being the right thing to do. Pushing boundaries is exciting, but you can also feel very exposed. This makes it quite daunting. I almost backed out of launching the Thrive plan a lot.
Be confident. Knowing that you’ve done your groundwork can really help you come across more confidently. Once you’re really clear about why you need to make a change and can back that up it’s harder to get shaken.
Be you. People buy from people they trust and believe in. Bring your authentic self to the party whenever you can.
Practice self-care. The path to change is rarely smooth, and challenges can sap a lot of energy and feel demotivating at times. It’s important to look after yourself and do nice things for you so that you bolster your own resilience. For me spending time with my family or singing in a choir picks me up. But self-care looks different for different people, so find what you love and make it work for you.

Q. What does being a Trailblazing Leadership mean to you?

I’m proud of the work that I’ve done to spark change in my organization. What started out as just an email has grown rapidly, and that’s a testament to the incredible people who’ve joined the movement along the way. I feel really privileged to have had so many people listen to me, and then volunteer themselves to join in. I could not do what I do if it was not for them.

Leading a big diverse group of people through change is incredible, but it’s also challenging and when it gets tough, I can get distracted from the “why”. Over the last few years I’ve received messages from people in the business who I’ve never met telling me a little something about how I’ve impacted them. Those messages are precious. They remind me that as a leader it’s not about me. It’s about us all.

Q. What’s next for you?

Personally, I’m taking each day as it comes. I’ve never been one for setting lots of long-term goals as my life has a funny way of changing course and throwing up different opportunities. For the business however we have lots of exciting plans coming up over the next 12 months, including piloting a mental health first aider program and connecting more with our global team to help encourage better mental well-being across beyond the U.K.

*Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.


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