09/24/2014 11:05 am ET Updated Nov 24, 2014

Ignoring Well-Being Is Costing Us

Gary John Norman via Getty Images

I want you to picture a moment. It's midnight on Jan. 26, 2008, and I wake up with a panic attack. Never, ever happened to me in my life before. Some of you may have experienced a panic attack and know what that feels like: Am I going to die? I can't breathe. I turn to my wife, wake her up and say, "I think I'm having a heart attack." I get out of bed, walk around the room, eventually calm down, and then get back into bed, absolutely perplexed and confused as to what has happened to me.

The morning arrives, and I decide to go to the doctor. The doctor asks me some questions, and those questions are:

Have you lost the will to live?

The answer: "Yes."

Have you lost your appetite?

The answer: "Yes."

Have you been on your bike recently?

"I can't get on a bicycle." (I'm a keen cyclist.)

Have you have suicidal thoughts?

"Yes, I have."

What is your sleep like?

"I wake up at 2:30 every morning and ruminate over the same issue for hours and hours and hours."

Geoff, you're ill.

"What? Ill with what?"

You're ill with depression or maybe a form of anxiety.

I go home, tell my wife what the doctor has said, phone my boss and tell him that I'm depressed. I phone some friends. This illness has struck me. I cant believe it! Why, how, could I not have anticipated this? Someone who has always had a zest for life -- energetic, enthusiastic, run over 40 marathons, a number of triathlons, half Iron Man, Ultra Cycling events and an amazing and successful career with Unilever, is now suffering from depression and anxiety.

I make a decision not to be embarrassed about my condition (which in hindsight literally saves my life), and instead I seek the support of others. My ability to talk about my illness and acceptance thereof is the major contributor to my recovery and return to good health.

After three months, as a result of a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy, medication, and probably the most important thing for me, talking to a friend who had been desperately ill, gives me hope that I can get better. In the darkest moments, I see a glimmer of light by talking to him and develop a belief that I can get better. I do just that and slowly reintegrate myself back into work.

A year later a good friend gets ill, walks to the top a building and jumps off. The difference between him and me was that I could speak about my condition; he couldn't, and so he took his life. It was that moment that catalyzed me into wanting to give back to all of those people suffering in silence out there! I realize the only way to do this is to address the stigma associated with mental health.

We live in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world today, a corporate world where more is expected for less, where technology has driven a 24/7 lifestyle and an expectation to be "always on," and a more competitive world in which conditions are not going to get any easier. It is for these very reasons that we need to turn our attention to addressing the well-being of the people who work for us. Ignoring well-being is costing us. Society has not recognized the prevalence of mental ill health, says U.K. Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies. Her annual report in 2014 said:

... mental illness led to the loss of 70 million working days last year -- up 24 percent since 2009 ... Overall, mental illness costs the U.K. economy between £70bn and £100bn in lost productivity.

Corporations have for many years been good citizens in helping to address the physical health of their employees. The time has now come to give the mental well-being of their employees the same level of investment priority. This not only makes good business sense, but more importantly, it is the right thing to do.

Every "cloud has a silver lining." Who would have thought that during my darkest days, such an amazing and purposeful opportunity would arise for me to contribute to addressing and enhancing the well-being of others? I hope this blog will provide some inspiration to leaders in the corporate world to open up about their own experiences and thus help normalize the condition, such that individuals and organizations can truly THRIVE in this VUCA world!


Have a story about depression that you'd like to share? Email, or give us a call at (860) 348-3376, and you can record your story in your own words. Please be sure to include your name and phone number.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.