Geoff McDonald Imagines the Ultimate Mentally Healthy Workplace of the Future

After experiencing his own mental health struggles and losing a close friend to suicide, Geoff McDonald, former Global VP of HR at Unilever, found purpose by dedicating his life to stamping out mental health stigma in the workplace through his charity Minds@Work.

25.01.2021 | by Kezia Parkins
Geoff McDonald, co-founder at Minds@Work
Geoff McDonald, co-founder at Minds@Work

After having a mental breakdown and losing a close friend to suicide, former Global VP of HR at Unilever, Geoff McDonald found his true purpose—addressing the stigma of mental health in the workplace.

Geoff says that talking about his anxiety and depression with friends, loved ones and colleagues saved his life. Now, Minds@Work the charity that he co-founded is helping workplaces become safer spaces to have mental health conversations by stamping out stigma.

Up until the pandemic, the charity was very London-centric, as it runs in-person events to help equip people to go back into their workplaces and have conversations around mental health. However, throughout 2020, they had to adapt to become almost entirely virtual to get their message out, which has helped to expand Minds@Work’s reach.

“We are seeing people who have never really suffered with their mental health starting to experience depression and anxiety, topics that have been much more common in the last few years but not understood by everyone. Now, all of a sudden, everyone seems to get it.”

“That’s why, in many ways, I think the pandemic has democratised the conversation worldwide and made it a lot easier to have because we’re all in this together, and not all of us are feeling ok all the time. All over the world, we are seeing people more anxious and stressed, taking more time off and it’s all because of COVID-19.”

For now, Minds@Work’s focus is on the SME community, startups and scale-ups, as they often don’t have the resources available to uphold mentally healthy workplaces.


We asked Geoff what the optimum mentally healthy workplace would look like…


A workplace that has truly addressed the stigma surrounding mental health

“They would have spent a good couple of years campaigning and educating all employees around mental health. Senior leaders and influential people around the organisation will have made a commitment to being vulnerable and sharing their stories. There would be good support resources in place to enable line managers to be confident and able to have difficult conversations with junior members of staff about any mental health struggles they may have. The company would have invested hugely in creating that safe place to talk.”


The right resources available

“The company’s main investment focus should be on enhancing people’s well-being in its totality and view the health of its employees as a strategic priority. A mentally and physically healthy workforce is as important as having an efficient IT system— health is a key enabler of performance.

The workplace would have resources available to their employees that they can use to enhance all aspects of their health—not just a ride-to-work scheme and gym membership but also resources like financial education and training because that has a huge impact on your emotional health. Resources on how to use apps for mindfulness. Training on relationship building and how to maintain good relationships in the workplace…”


Creating a lasting sense of purpose

“They would have invested in creating a greater sense of purpose for their workers beyond profit, profitability and growth and fostered an environment and a culture where people feel like they can thrive and blossom. How? By creating structures such as bi-annual development meetings in which employees can see and discuss their progression and review how they wish to grow within the organisation.

Part of employees’ development goals should include targets for maintaining good mental and physical health by making use of the company’s resources and by setting up healthy structures and support systems outside of work.

The company will also roll out regular focus groups and surveys on the ways of working and some of the procedures and policies that might be contributing to employees’ work-related stress that could result in them getting ill and becoming less productive.”


What barriers must workplaces overcome to get there?

Geoff believes that the main barrier to mentally healthy workplaces is fear on all sides:

“Bringing up mental illness at work largely falls on the shoulders of the individual, and it can be a terrifyingly vulnerable conversation to have. Especially if that individual’s workplace has not shown that they are doing the work to address the stigma. It can be incredibly hard to open that conversation, which often brings on feelings of shame and embarrassment.

Particularly if you are someone like my friend who ended his life—someone who people would never think would suffer from something like depression or anxiety. Some people by nature are more withdrawn but then somebody who is energetic and passionate—it’s not part of their persona,

That feeling of being an imposter and not really being what everyone thinks of you can be what stops someone from sharing their experience.”

“The brighter the lights the darker the shadow,” Carl Jung

“Then there is fear from the employer. Some think that having the mental health conversation is like opening a can of worms. Especially if they don’t feel equipped and skilled enough to be able to have it with an employee in a serious situation. Perhaps an employee is suicidal… the employer might be terrified to say the wrong thing that could lead to a tragic outcome.

Even for conversations around depression and anxiety, line managers are not counsellors and not normally educated on these topics. The not knowing leaves you paralysed and you do nothing.

Then I think there is a little bit of cynicism or the fear that if you start talking about mental health, that everyone’s hands will go up and people are going to start ‘pulling sickies’ or taking time off work or use it as an excuse as to why they’re not performing as well as they could be.

If this is an employer’s concern, then I tell them to look at what’s wrong with the organisation. If people dislike coming to work with you enough to invent a mental illness, then there’s something seriously wrong with the workplace.

I often tell companies that if a flower doesn’t bloom, 90 percent of the time there’s nothing wrong with the flower but rather the environment in which it is trying to grow.

Organisations must look at themselves first if business is going badly rather than passing the blame.”


Geoff’s tips for young employees

Geoff believes that young people are much more comfortable to discuss mental health struggles than older generations but advises that they “suss it out!”

“What has that organisation been doing to address the stigma of mental ill-health? What is the view of the CEO? How does the HR team function? Have they made efforts to really begin to address stigma and create a psychologically safe place to work? If they haven’t and there’s no evidence that they’ve made those efforts, then I wouldn’t be encouraging a young person to be raising or talking about it to an employer. I would rather they spoke to a friend, partner or parents. They should definitely go and talk about how they are feeling, but I would be wary of raising it in a psychologically unsafe workplace.”


See Geoff McDonald in conversation with Angel Business Club below, where he discusses his journey to inspire mental wellbeing in the workplace in a post-Covid world.

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