Mental Health and Wellbeing: A Competitive Advantage

March 2018

Soma Analytics’ goal is to drive forward and inspire tech driven resilience and wellbeing in the workplace. Attendees come to our events to network and contribute to a growing effort to improve workplace mental health, and break down any associated stigma.


The last event of this kind was in December, when Soma Analytics hosted Heather Kelly, the Workplace Wellbeing Index manager at Mind. This provided an insightful look into “Mental Health in the Workplace”.

At this month’s event, a passionate and engaged collective of HR and wellbeing leaders were inspired by a compelling story of HR innovation told by Geoff McDonald. The topic of a competitive advantage developed by improving employee performance through wellbeing inspired and energised the audience. Those that were unable to attend can watch the highlights video of the evening below:



Geoff kicked off the evening by sharing his personal story of experiencing physical symptoms of poor mental health in the workplace.  


On the 25th of January 2008 Geoff awoke unable to breathe. Assuming he must be about to have a heart attack and preparing for the worst, he was surprised to come through and later realise he had experienced a panic attack. A doctors appointment brought to light a collection of symptoms he had been overlooking. Low energy and motivation, rumination and frequent thoughts of taking his own life had become a part of his routine.


He certainly hadn’t been perceiving these as an illness in the same way that he had always perceived any physical ailment.


Case Study: The impact of HR Innovation within Unilever

With his own experience as motivation, and realising the vital importance of being able to speak up and stop these issues before it was too late, Geoff wanted to increase the awareness of wellbeing and mental health and took to talking across news and media platforms such as the BBC, and working at a societal level.  


He then realised that in his own long-term and well respected job at Unilever, he had a unique opportunity to impact the normalisation of mental ill health within his own company. Using this and his own personal story, he embarked on a journey of breaking down stigma and moving HR innovation forward. 


Geoff spent 25 years at Unilever, using the final 5 years to re-discover purpose and architect change. This ultimately resulted in an improvement in performance.

How do we Turn Mental Health into an Advantage?

Geoff’s central aim is to move towards a corporate world in which each person in every type of workplace feels that they have the choice to ask for help and communicate freely about their experiences with mental illness.


At the moment, this ease of communication exists globally for physical illness. To make this synonymous with mental illness the stigma must be broken down.


The corporate world is where most of the stigma towards mental ill health exists. However, mental ill health manifesting itself in presenteeism and absenteeism is costing the corporate world billions. It is in any organisations interest to be competitive, and by engaging in preventative techniques and speaking up about mental health they can experience the sort of performance advantages that Unilever did.


The 4 Levels of Wellbeing Resources

  • Physical
  • Emotional
  • Mental
  • Purpose and meaning


The employee performance is influenced by all of these wellbeing levels, despite companies and society focusing on physical health. The exposure afforded to fit models and athletes across advertising and the media builds a positive image of the possibilities of physical fitness. In contrast, mental health tends to be perceived negatively, with a lack of positive ‘role models’ acting as symbols of healthy recovery and hope.


This narrative must shift.


Whilst recovering, Geoff was lucky enough to personally know a man who had recovered from mental illness and was able to meet with him every two weeks. This provided him with a vital and tangible source of hope. Future wellbeing initiatives must think about manifesting hope.


Geoff suggests that some initial steps towards positive change should involve training employees about the very basics of mental first aid.


Furthermore, the corporate responsibility and effort to create physically safe work environments is well supported by legislation. A similar effort should be made to track the emotional impact of the workplace, and conduct mental health risk assessments. As it stands, there is not enough accountability for employee wellbeing.


Preventative techniques might be able to better strengthen mental health across a workforce rather than waiting for individuals to fall sick and then intervening.


But most importantly, brave CEOs and heads of HR will be an essential component in bringing about change.


The Triangle of Needs and Self-Compassion


The evening’s energised discussion highlighted…


The triangle of needs: Physical, mental, emotional and purposeful ‘needs’ are in flux. They support one another rather than being distinct. For employee performance to thrive, all must be supported. Since mental health resources are not supported, this can threaten all other levels.



Geoff’s emphasis on self-compassion was linked by a guest to a previous Soma event ‘Mindfulness at Work: Strategies to Reduce Stress and Burnout’, in which Juliet Adams described the way in which activity in the fear processing regions of the brain decreases when individuals are practicing compassionate mindfulness. This shrinking of fear is what society, and each of us in society, is so in need of when we think about mental health.


After Geoff’s talk the Soma ‘Icebreaker’ was introduced, this time focussing on what the gold standard of mental health and wellbeing supporting the workplace looks like.


HR innovators were asked for their thoughts on workplace mental health environments and support. Specifically, what does ‘good’ look like, what does ‘ok’ look like, what is the ‘minimum’ standard required and where would their own company rank.



Key Takeaways


  • There is a building passion and interest in breaking down stigma and making real change amongst the leading thinkers in this field
  • Our personal resources allow us to cope with demands, enabling our performance as an employee to thrive – but this resulting ‘capacity’ is not being measured and supported appropriately by companies
  • The social perceptions of physical and mental health are vastly different. Future innovation must ensure hope and possibility are frequent components of mental health strategy.


Soma Analytics was delighted to host such a fantastic event. The networking and discussions that followed were packed full of motivated and inspired ideas.


Would you like to attend our future networking events?


At each of our events, we aim to host a variety of founders, CEOs, and HR and wellbeing executives, all with a shared interest in applying analytics and digital technology to help people be their best selves at work. If you meet this criteria and are interested in attending future events then please register your interest below:


Register Interest to join the Soma Community to beat stress at work


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Would you like to learn more about Kelaa Mental Resilience?

Kelaa aims to create a bridge between businesses and their employees, helping them to work together to tackle stress and increase mental resilience, productivity and engagement.



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