Breaking the Silence; Reducing the Stigma

April 2018

On the 8th of February, Soma Analytics hosted Geoff McDonald, who candidly shared both his personal experiences with mental ill health, as well as the consequential journey of HR Innovation that he architected and lead at Unilever.

This month, an intimate group of HR Innovators, wellbeing leaders, CEOs and executives came together to discover more about ‘Breaking the Silence: Reducing the Stigma’ from the inspiring and engaging speaker, David Beeney. Those who were unable to get tickets can watch the highlights video below:

David kicked off the presentation at the beginning of his own journey, describing his first experience with anxiety. When he was 24 he suffered an unexpected panic attack while he was asked to sit in on an interview and present the company’s training plan on his first day of work. He went so far as to admit this was undeniably “the worst day of my life”.

David is a qualified Mental Health Counsellor and has been able to trace the origins back to an off hand statement made by his mother when he was helping her prepare for a presentation at work. She said that she would always become so nervous half way through the presentation that she would be ‘struggling to breathe’. He remembers this statement overwhelming his 9 year old self. It created a phobia, a little voice in his head poking at him as he became nervous: “you’re struggling to breathe”. He couldn’t believe he had never been told, or told anyone, it was simply “just about being breathless”, as this simple insight would have been an enormous help.


Masking Mental Ill Health In The Workplace

David described the way in which his career took off despite his battle with anxiety. Humour and interactivity made his training style and public speaking unique, and his focus on others promoted career development in those he worked with. However, David went on to explain that only 18 months ago it suddenly occurred to him that each of the idiosyncrasies that had propelled his career forward had actually been tactics subconsciously used to mask an anxiety disorder. Encouraging interactivity and focus on others lifted the pressure and attention off himself, despite also enabling him to facilitate others careers! Even humour acted as a shield, protecting him from people noticing the underlying anxiety. To demonstrate this, David shared a photo of himself from days after his first panic attacks, pretending to walk out of a swimming pool while wearing a dry suit. This sense of humour distracted others from an internal struggle with anxious thoughts.

From this personal experience, David realised how easy it was to suppress these forms of distress in the workplace. Whether it is someone who appears happy and upbeat, or quiet and calm, the internal conversation people are having with themselves can be difficult to accurately pick up on. The example provided was footage of News anchor Dan Harris having a panic attack in front of millions of people. Although externally unclear why he cuts his news reading short, he explained afterwards that he was suffering from an internal panic attack. This highlights how the way we look on the outside can be so far from how we internally feel. Mental health is often suppressed because it can feel humiliating to admit to. The danger of this fear of judgement is increasingly coming to light as statistics reveal that 84 men are dying from suicide each week, often feeling unable to speak out.

David then shared some insightful and personal learnings from dealing with mental ill health in the workplace

  • It is ok to not be ok. However, telling yourself this, and believing it, takes self-compassion and self-acceptance
  • Sharing your vulnerabilities inspires others
  • Allowing yourself to feel low is a relief, this calming effect can even reduce the chances that you will end up slipping into an anxiety attack!
  • Carry a bouncy ball around in your pocket! This can serve as a small and constant reminder that you can and will bounce back just as easily as it does. David carries around a handful of bouncy balls in his pockets to hand out to audience members as a way of reminding themselves that they can bounce back. Just the action of bouncing a ball is very powerful as it acts as a simple physical action to re-wire thinking.


Mental Ill Health In The Media

David connected the masking and unpredictability of mental ill health to well loved public figures. Some of the most successful and comical celebrities such as Robin Williams and Stephen Fry are also the ones who have suffered the most with mental health. Their charisma can often hide their silent battle.
Despite this growing public presence, such as the royals speaking up, mental health continues to lack the media presence and inspirational figures that the physical health industry boasts. Even a quick google image search of these terms immediately brings to light the clashing negative and positive stereotypes we hold. This has to change as a part of a movement towards breaking stigma, and will facilitate perceptions of mental health aligning with the more positive perceptions of physical health. David wants to take action, and proposed strategies which will push forward the movement towards this.


The Four Key Strategies to Break Workplace Stigma

  • The tone has to be set from the top of the organisation
  • Education of Line Managers: they don’t need to know about mental health, they are not a counsellors. Instead, it is important to feel comfortable asking if someone is ok, and if not, know how to direct them towards the right sort of help.
  • Talk about mental health in the same way we talk about physical health, 1 in 1 of us have mental health after all! David specifically mentioned that if you break a leg you will probably receive a hero’s welcome when you return to work in a cast. In contrast, if you take time off work due to feeling stressed, people might hide away from you unsure about how to ask how you are.
  • Change the language we use, for example ‘energy’ rather than ‘mental health’. This makes it easy to initiate a supportive and productive conversation. People are more comfortable opening up about their energy levels than their mental health!


At the end of the presentation the audience’s shared impression was clear. Everyone was left feeling touched by David’s talk, as well as energised by his skilled storytelling and zest. His energy and openness in sharing his very personal story was inspiring, especially considering the fact that he only found the confidence to start sharing in the last year. It brought to light that anyone can find themselves in this situation, and like a frog in boiling water might wait until it is too late to realise how bad they are and/or seek help. The worst thing that David ever thought about was crashing his car to avoid a meeting he didn’t want to go to. It could have been a lot worse. Through following his advice, hopefully more people will feel free to speak up, seek out help, and be supported in the workplace.

David’s work as founder of Breaking the Silence has seen him listed in the top 101 influencers globally in improving employee engagement.


The Icebreaker: ‘Let’s Break the Silence’
At the end of the presentation, guests had a chance to network, share learnings, and reflect together on what they or those around them could do to support positive change. The traditional Soma icebreakers were distributed, asking the HR Innovator Network to accurately guess the percentage of people who report experiencing stigma or discrimination as a result of their mental health. The answer was 87%. They were also asked ‘What percentage of people would still feel uncomfortable telling a line manager they were feeling stressed?’ For which the answer was 47%.


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