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The mental health pandemic: the importance of joy at work

We had a pandemic well before COVID, says Dalia Feldheim. But it’s not too late to reverse it.


7 min read

Editor’s note: As COVID-19 brings mental health into sharp focus for us all, we present a series of thought-provoking expert opinions on the state of mental wellbeing at work. Read more here.

Dalia is Founder of Flow Leadership Consultancy, an international keynote speaker, executive coach and organisational consultant, with a vast 20-year corporate experience working with companies on a variety of topics from marketing, business and people development/culture, and happiness in the workplace. Her clients include internal work for P&G and Electrolux as well as Cathay Pacific, LinkedIn and Netflix. 

Please tell us a little about your background and about Flow Leadership Consultancy. 

After spending 20 years in the corporate world at Procter and Gamble and, most recently, as CMO Asia, I decided to focus my second career on helping individuals and companies find purpose and joy at work. That’s when I founded Flow Leadership Consultancy.

What was the catalyst for your own involvement in wellbeing/mental health in the workplace? 

My first 17 years at P&G I was in a total state of flow. I had managers who believed in me and I loved what I was doing so much that I often lost myself in action. I remember I would tell my husband at 7pm that I am finishing soon and then suddenly it was midnight. I was in the zone and I delivered the moon.

Early in my career I was in a meeting with my General Manager because one of my launches hit a wall. I was so angry and frustrated that suddenly I started to tear up. My boss, looked at me, offered me a tissue box and then said something I will forever remember. He said, ‘Dalia don’t you ever be embarrassed for crying in the office again – it’s a sign of your passion and passion is your super power! And if you ever work for someone that doesn’t appreciate it, walk away – they don’t deserve you!’ I was so inspired – and for the next 17 years my career just went from strength-to-strength.

But it wasn’t until I reached the lowest point of my career that I realised what he meant.

I left P&G and became CMO of another large company. I loved the culture and the people, but two months into my role, I got a new boss – he and I were like fire and water. I was all about people and creativity. He was all about numbers and ROI – most days it felt like ROI or you die! 

One day I was summoned into his office. He was berating me like crazy – now I love tough love – but there was no love in this feedback.

I was holding it in but then he started berating my team and that’s when I became a lioness because I know how hard they worked. A tear appeared in my eye.

My boss smiled at me and offered me a box of tissues and, for a moment, I had this warm fuzzy feeling remembering my first boss.

But then I noticed something almost evil in his smile – as he turned around the tissue box, I couldn’t believe my eyes – there was a sticker he had prepared in advance, which read – Dalia’s tissue box.

I was shattered. I stayed for three years – but slowly he managed to get to me and I lost my spark. I was depressed and burnt out. When I left, I decided to turn my pain into purpose, and work with companies to avoid burn out.

We had a pandemic well before COVID – it’s called the mental health pandemic. One in four experience work related deep anxiety. 85% of employees are unhappy at work.

Why do you think mental health has suddenly become the key topic when it comes to people talking about wellbeing? 

We had a pandemic well before COVID – it’s called the mental health pandemic. One in four experience work related deep anxiety. 85% of employees are unhappy at work – and even worse, 20% are so unhappy they are hostile.

The current leadership style, that may have been right for the 80s industrial efficiencies, has failed. It’s affecting the bottom line – there’s an estimate of $7 trillion in stress related disease.

COVID made it clear that command and control leaders cannot operate and it’s time for a new type of leadership – more compassionate.

The good news is that empathy and compassion can be taught. We can spend a fraction of the trillions spent on disease in prevention, teaching individuals to build resilience and helping leaders develop the most important skill for the 21st century – compassion.

Is poor mental health on the rise – or is it awareness of the subject that is growing? Has the stigma once associated with mental health issues disappeared?  

Both. I think the stresses of modern life and the digital transformation have increased overload of information and stress – stress is not an issue per se – it is the lack of recovery. People don’t take proper vacations, don’t sleep properly and the result is chronic anxiety. Awareness is growing and this is good, but the stigma is still here. Emotions are still seen as being soft. It is the opposite – being soft and vulnerable is the real strength! 

Do you think we are heading for what some members of the press are calling a ‘mental health tsunami’? 

Definitely. A leader who is not spending ample time on driving their team’s mental health is not really leading.

But, being the optimist that I am, and after spending the last three years studying positive psychology, I am encouraged by the fact that mental health is reversible – there are over 35 proven positive psychology interventions. People can teach themselves to be more resilient and happy.

Data shows that the cost of the mental health crisis is $7 trillion and may reach £35 trillion by 2030. Spend 1% on providing resilience training to every single employee – and we can reverse this tsunami. 

Do you have any tips for our readers when it comes to helping themselves deal with their own mental health? 

The key is: don’t suppress, express. Research by John Sarno shows stress suppressed will find a way to come out as disease.

All active coping strategies are more effective than passive strategies like suppression or, worse, passive aggressiveness.

Talk about it, journal it and, ideally, deal with the source of stress directly.

Do you find that the attitude towards and approach to mental health in the workplace changes radically between different countries/continents/parts of the world?  

I am pleased to see some markets – US/UK/Australia – invest in increasing awareness to mental health – understanding the importance of investing in mental wellness as prevention.

Having worked in Asia for the past 10 years, I find Asian cultures like Japan, China and Singapore to be more results vs people driven as well as more stoic when it comes to expressing emotions – especially negative ones.

What should employers be doing to ensure that their people have the best possible support when it comes to their mental health?

Every company must invest in resilience training – in my programmes, I have shown that as little as six two-hour sessions equip employees with simple strategies to take control of their own happiness, from focusing on one’s strengths to practicing mindfulness and gratitude.

Each company should also have a Chief Happiness Officer or Chief People Office, with people dedicated to help with mental health issues.

Finally, I believe positive psychology workshops, like the ones I include in my resilience training, should be part of all leadership training of young managers. They need to understand that, as they are promoted to people leaders, they no longer manage the business but manage the people who manage the business – and that is a completely different skill set, which can and must be taught!

While a manager is not a parent, a manager can set the tone when it comes to helping people take the time to recover. Don’t send emails late at night or over weekend and help employees take REAL vacations.

How can the physical workplace help with regards to helping people cope with mental health issues? 

Physical state of being is a key pillar of my five-point resilience model. I summarise the research of the likes of Dan Butner and the blue zones in the acronym BETR ME…

The workplace should encourage breaks so that you can breathe. Go and take a walk after lunch, have a green terrace etc.

There is so much data on the link between food and stress. Workplaces should ensure that there is wholesome nourishing food available.

We have lost touch with touch, replacing a real human connection with a touchscreen. We need to keep cultural sensitivities in mind – a good handshake or tap on the back (or COVID-appropriate equivalent acknowledgement) goes a long way for building employee confidence.

The first is sleep. While a manager is not a parent, a manager can set the tone when it comes to helping people take the time to recover. Don’t send emails late at night or over the weekend and help employees take REAL vacations.

They say ‘sitting is the new smoking’. As much as possible, managers should encourage some movement during the day, walking meetings, sports classes over lunch, standing desks and others. My first manager even got the whole office to run a marathon or half-marathon together.

In today’s world, it is about managing energy, not time. A good manager knows to manage their own energy and that of their teams to ensure they ‘sharpen the saw’ and can be more resilient and effective at work.

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