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13 May, 2014

The panel: Don de Silva, Geoff McDonald, Rohan Narse and Graham Watts
The panel: Don de Silva, Geoff McDonald, Rohan Narse and Graham Watts
Despite the tube strike on 29 April, a packed audience attended a forum on mindfulness and sustainable change. Representatives from business and the voluntary sector highlighted the threats posed by mental ill health to British society.

The forum was organised by the Initiatives of Change UK’s Sustainable Communities programme. The panellists were: Geoff McDonald, Global VP HR, Marketing & Communications, Sustainability at Unilever; Graham Watts, Global Director of Education and Training at the Hawn Foundation; and Rohan Narse, former Goldman Sachs investment banker, entrepreneur and now an author and mindfulness practitioner.

Geoff McDonald, Global VP HR, Marketing & Communications, Sustainability at Unilever
Geoff McDonald, Global VP HR, Marketing & Communications, Sustainability at Unilever
'Depression and anxiety is the biggest cause of absenteeism in the workplace today', declared McDonald. A study by the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development revealed that ‘mental health issues are costing Britain £70bn a year’. According to the UK’s Mental Health Foundation ‘One in four people will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year’.

Refreshingly candid, the Unilever Vice President shared his own struggle with the ‘black dog’. Six years ago, after a panic attack, he was diagnosed with depression: 'I ran 40 marathons in my life and lived life to the full. I have been with Unilever for 26 years. Something’s happened. I’m sick. Through the support of others, and my ability to talk about my illness I get help, I get support and, in fact I feel courageous. After three months as a result of a combination of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, medication and probably the most important thing for me: talking to a friend who had been desperately ill, two years before I got sick. Talking to that guy every day and seeing he was better gave me hope that I could get better.'

He continued: 'We live in a world, in the corporate world today, where we are going to expect leaders to perform in a VUCA world - it’s volatile, it’s uncertain, it’s ambiguous and it’s chaotic and it’s not going to get any easier. If we are expecting our business to operate within that context and at a time where we are expecting people to do more with less, we'd better begin to address the mental well-being of our people. Because for years we’ve addressed the physical well-being.'

McDonald has championed an innovative pilot scheme at Unilever in the UK addressing the mental health of its employees, with strong focus on breaking the stigma associated with depression and anxiety. He boldly appealed that we 'break the stigma and use leaders to be role models and talk about their own illness.'

Graham Watts, Global Director of Education and Training at the Hawn Foundation
Graham Watts, Global Director of Education and Training at the Hawn Foundation
Graham Watts, Global Director of Education & Training at The Hawn Foundation, shared his perspectives on mindfulness and its applicability in education. He also spoke about the recent developments in neuroscience that support mindfulness as a way of enabling well-being.

As an educator with 22 years of teaching experience working with students of varied social and economic backgrounds, in the UK and New Zealand, Watts noticed how his students were coming to school with ‘pent-up’ emotions.

He said: 'One of the things that concerned me, time and time again, was the levels of stress and anxiety, the pent-up frustration, the anger and the upset that I saw amongst some of my students. It could be amongst any age group, it could be boys, girls, it was a universal concern. Often those pent-up emotions were obstacles, challenges in the way of them being effective thinkers and learners.'

A good turn out, despite the tube strike
A good turn out, despite the tube strike
Watts observed that mental health was a cause for concern in both comprehensive and private schools: 'I realised that children even with very privileged backgrounds in terms of monetary awareness, have stresses, pressures, come to school angry and upset. In all cases, those feelings for all children can become an obstacle for effective thinking and learning. It can disrupt their well-being and their interaction with their peers.'

Watts stated that by equipping students with MindUP™ techniques, strategies and understanding – based on neuroscience, positive psychology, social and emotional literacy and mindfulness practice – students were better able to regulate their emotions. They chose positivity and resilience in the face of current challenges as well as those to come.

Watts was the first educator to pilot MindUP™ in the UK, when Founder Goldie Hawn expanded her Foundation to serve schools in the UK. MindUP™ is the signature programme of The Hawn Foundation globally.

He said: 'With its promising outcomes in UK schools so far, we will see MindUP™ being rolled out to an additional 50 schools this July. It is crucial that educational institutions not only focus on academic excellence and physical well-being, as important as these are, but that children’s social and emotional well-being are equally addressed, producing long-term, sustainable life changes.'

Rohan Narse, former Goldman Sachs investment banker
Rohan Narse, former Goldman Sachs investment banker
Former Goldman Sachs investment banker, Rohan Narse took the audience on a journey, sharing his story that began as a child in India, in an environment that was emotionally, financially and physically very tough. His determination to not stop at any external limitation by excelling in studies and being physically and mentally tough, led him to organisations such as the Tata Group in India and later KPMG and Goldman Sachs in London. 
While there was material success, Narse's health and relationships suffered. The compromises made to remain 'ahead of the pack', to the level of even setting up his own investment advisory firm, were all too self-evident. It was then that he initially explored the world of meditation, driven by a desire to find peace and balance in his life. It wasn’t until a near fatal car crash late one night, where his BMW – a metaphor of his childhood dream of prosperity – lay in a crushed heap. While he was alive and unhurt, he witnessed a deep state of stillness in that very moment. The near-constant state of unease and focus on dealing with his 'life issues' for that extended moment gave way to a sense of wonder and an experiential knowing of deep stillness. 

Narse then set out on a personal quest to re-discover that stillness within that led him to many an Eastern and Western path of self-inquiry. His guided session that evening was a taster in being mindful, feeling connected and enabling sustainable change. 

The evening was a taster in mindfulness
The evening was a taster in mindfulness
Following the collective mindfulness experience, pertinent questions were raised by members of the audience to the panel during the question and answer session. An audience member asked: 'If you could ask anything of us or offer one tip or piece of advice for the people here to spread further well-being, what might that be?' Rohan succinctly shared: 'Be goalless, enjoy what you do and remember to breathe. That’s a good place to start'. Simple, powerful and yet a somewhat unconventional advice in today’s goal-driven, fast-paced world.

Don de Silva, Head of Programme Administration & Communities at Initiatives of Change UK, who chaired the forum, observed: 'Change starts with oneself. But that sets you on a journey. There is a link between personal change and community and global change.'

Report by Yasmine Kamel, Researcher, IofC UK Sustainable Communities Programme

Photos by Jonty Herman

Download in PDF a transcript of the occasion

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