Mindful Connections: Individual Responsibility & Effective Leadership in Mental Health with Petra Velzeboer
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“Psychological safety effectively is trust.” In honor of World Mental Health Day, we invite you to listen to the latest episode of The Safety Guru featuring Petra Velzeboer, renowned mental health expert and TEDx speaker. You won’t want to miss this episode as Petra shares her expertise and advice on creating mindful connections through effective leadership, the importance of vulnerability, and beneficial strategies to approach mental health with a preventive mindset in the workplace. Tune in!
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Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and well-being of their people first. Great companies ubiquitously have safe yet productive operations. For those companies, safety is an investment, not a cost for the C-suite. It’s a real topic of daily focus. This is The Safety Guru with your host, Eric Michrowski, a globally recognized ops and safety guru, public speaker, and author. Are you ready to leave a safety legacy? Your legacy success story begins now.
Hi, and welcome to The Safety Guru. I’m really excited to have with me, Petra Velzeboer. She’s a mental health expert, a TEDx speaker, and author of Begin with You. Petra, welcome to the show.
Thanks so much for having me.
We’re recording this; obviously, this World Mental Health Day that’s coming on to us. First, I want to hear your story. You have a lot of experience in the mental health space. You’ve committed yourself to doing a lot of work to help organizations create an environment that’s safe from a psychological standpoint. Tell me a little bit about your story.
Sure, thank you. Well, I guess I grew up in a really toxic environment, right? So, I grew up in a religious cult, which is a little bit extreme for some. But interestingly, and I’ll go into why these matters to me, it’s interesting how many similarities there are between that environment that I fought my way out of and the corporate world and the toxicity that I see there. So that, I guess, informs some of my approach. I guess part of my story is that, like many of us in the mental health space, I found myself in a time where I was struggling. So, I had finally left the cult and some of that buildup of stress and toxicity that I didn’t know how to process or let go of or any of those things. And it stacked up and affected me as I left in the form of depression, anxiety, and severe addiction. And so, the first steps of learning were to how do I sort myself out and develop good mental health. And over time, I qualified as a therapist. I now run my business, as you said, and support businesses to have that awareness both individually, so individual responsibility for our own wellbeing and mental health, but also organizational, that collective responsibility for safety, psychologically to support teams.
There’s a little hint of my perspective.
Absolutely. Tell me a little bit about some of the skills that are needed to create an environment that fosters mental health or good mental health in the workplace.
I think the first thing is always self-awareness, right? Because we can’t quite tell other people what to do or how to approach this topic if we’re not quite aware of ourselves, our own triggers, our own mental health, and the things that help us to build trust. So psychological safety effectively is trust, right? When we trust each other, we’re comfortable talking about mistakes or collaborating on projects and being vulnerable. And there’s loads of evidence, as I’m sure many listeners are aware of. When we put ourselves out of their vulnerability and create that trust, we actually create more innovation and better products. We sustain success longer term. But the actual day-to-day work of it is tricky if you don’t understand it or know yourself. And so that means if I’m going to talk to a team member, I’m going to want to know, am I exhausted or not my best self or unable to maybe build trust? Am I blaming? Am I not leading, by example, myself? And those are the small daily actions and skills that then trickle down and give others permission to put themselves out there as well.
And to organizations that are wanting to drive improvements from a cultural standpoint. Here, for example, in Australia, there’s a lot of focus lately around legislation around psychosocial risk as an example to create safer environments for workers both physically but also emotionally and mentally in terms of the workplace. Tell me about some of the things that organizations can do to embrace and drive that change. Because the self-awareness, I think, is essential, but that starts with a leader, a few leaders. How do you drive that environment?
Sure. I love the psychosocial risk because it does break down against management level, senior leadership level. What are the things that we need to look out for in order to support safety? If we think of safety just in construction type industries or anything like that, if we don’t trust and we can’t say, Hey, I’m having a bad day, I’m not my best self, we’ve got one of our facilitators, actually, who shot a stungun through his own hand, not because safety wasn’t in place as far as precautions, but because health wasn’t in place as far as looking after his brain and his mindset and being comfortable to say something. And so, these are small examples of the impact. But what organizations can do is firstly open up the conversation, right? There’s a great book by Amy Edmondson called The Fearless Organization that gives some great tips and tools for how to get started. But it really does start with open conversations as a team. So, we want to learn some of the tactics, but really, we’re living in a world that’s reactive. We’re firefighting. We’re in a rush, we’re in survival mode. And so, the first step is to take that step back and actually go, Actually, if we connect as a team and we discuss psychological safety where we think it’s going well, and the areas where perhaps it isn’t, we then now have a baseline to collaborate on this topic.
I’ve worked in companies where some departments say they have psychological safety and others don’t. So, it can be one organization but have pockets that feel different depending on the manager and how things are run, perhaps culturally in the country they’re in. There are many factors.
I know one of the pieces I was watching was one of your talks, and you mentioned a lot of organizations you go in when you approach them and say, what are you doing around mental health? They’ll talk about helplines, things of that nature. Why is that insufficient?
It’s a very reactive way of approaching things, and it actually perpetuates stigma, I think, because if it’s saying, Let’s talk about mental health, and then all we talk about is poor mental health, depression, suicide, help lines, and nobody wants to be part of that club. It’s only the ones who are really in a really severe chaos space that will be calling those helplines, but nobody’s going to put their hand up and say, I’m in crisis in that situation. But we want to come from a preventative approach. So, 10, 20, 30 steps before somebody are in that crisis space where they may need the helpline, what’s the culture? What’s the trust? How can we openly talk about mental health, well-being, and performance, and all of these things long before it gets to any crisis point? And people want to be part of a club that is performing and doing well and is successful. So, my work is about tying those things together, performance and well-being, being intrinsic to each other in order to lead successful lives. But in my book, I highlight what does success mean to you. It’s not just the classic. Did I get a promotion?
It’s like, am I connected with my kids? Do I get to have the holidays or the downtime that I like? But also, if you’re ambitious like me, do I have a healthy body and a healthy mind and friendships and networks to enable me to enjoy that journey and not get to the top of the mountain completely fried or burnt out like many people are, forgetting what it’s all about in the first place. And I know one of the things as well you talk about is the changing workplace. And obviously, a lot of people now we’ve worked in a hybrid environment or remote environment. How does that impact a mentally safe, healthy environment?
I think it’s about change. And so, hybrid work is one part of that change. But in a post-pandemic world, there’s been so much uncertainty, so much change, and that is making many people sit firmly in that survival mode for much longer than really our bodies are set out to sit in that space. Really, you want survival mode to be like that immediate fight or flight reaction because I need to decide to stay safe. But these days, you get a notification on your phone, and your body doesn’t know the difference between a real threat or a perceived threat. So, our nervous system spikes as if something terrible is going on. Now, remote work can have a negative effect on some people’s mental health, but I’m hesitant to say that that’s the problem, right? I’m a fully remote team, and we discuss mental health all the time, and people feel more connected than ever. And part of that is to do with flexibility, autonomy, and trust. So, when you have flexibility, autonomy, and trust, then people feel like they can work wherever they can be their best selves, right? And so, if that means coming in to have some face-to-face time or working from home, I mean, it really works for us, right?
And it’s the healthiest way that we can work as a team. What’s interesting is the number of policies popping up, right? So, our hybrid or remote work policy, as if there’s like, we must maybe control the masses a little bit and have a very fixed view of what this needs to look like, as if any of us have been in this situation before and can claim that the exact three-two ratio or two-three ratio is the way we’ll be the most productive, right? I want more leaders to be open and collaborative with their people. So, with my team, we will have discussions about how we work, not just what we do. When do you work at your best self? Is it the morning? Is it at home? What are the conditions that enable you to feel your best? So having those conversations enables you to understand your team, for people to know what flexibility actually means for your industry, because sometimes there’s loads of assumptions going on, and people get nervous when they don’t quite understand what’s expected. But also, managers saying, hey, we’re going to try this thing two days in or whatever it might be.
Let’s discuss if it’s working for us or if we need to change it. That’s more of a collaborative way to build psychological safety through a process rather than acting like. We’re top-down. We know exactly how this should go. And if you don’t comply, it’s your fault. You’re burnt out. You need to leave, that thing. The flip side is, for some people, a lack of connection and belonging, and that isolation piece we’re seeing, affects mental health negatively in lots of ways as well. And one of the themes I often hear in the hybrid environment is people challenged with a disconnect from work. In a workplace, you would work, say, nine to five or whatever hours you worked, and you went home, and it was easier to create that separation. And even as people have moved to more hybrid environments or continue in a virtual environment, it’s how do I drive that disconnect to be able to separate?
It’s creating boundaries, right? Right. And in the past, it feels like the boundaries were more fixed by your role, right? Everyone leaves at this time. I can see them leaving, and I walk out. I have the train ride or drive or whatever it might be to listen to music or read my book or scroll or whatever it is, and it creates that buffer. But these days, first of all, it’s harder to maintain habits because two days you’re in the office, a couple of days your home. So, your routine might be different on different days. And so, for many people, it’s hard to have that consistency. But these days, we need to take more ownership of our own boundaries, right? Because your laptops are at home, you could be working on your phone. You could be doing these things. So, it takes that self-awareness and ownership to go. This is the boundary I will now take responsibility for. So, I work at home. At the end of my day, I will probably go for a walk so that I can before my kids are around and I have to do any of that. So that’s me creating my own buffer or boundary to top and tail the day.
Everybody’s different. Our well-being tools and plans can change. That’s totally fine. But it takes this little moment of reflection to go, how do I feel? What’s good for me? And is the technology addiction or work addiction catching up with me somehow? And are there things that organizations can do to help people to essentially drive that separation, those boundaries, essentially?
Two key things. So one is, again, having explicit conversations about expectations, right? Because when there’s confusion and maybe the more junior people feel nervous about asking, right? That what they do is they watch people. So, this is the other piece. Are your managers and leaders leading by example? And that doesn’t mean everyone has to finish at 5:00, right? Because sometimes they might start later, they might have a project on. But it does mean openly talking about what we do to invest in our well-being. And that’s like a question we ask each other openly in my team. It’s like, what are you doing today to invest in your well-being? Or how are you going to close your day off? We have those challenges and open conversations, and it might be different, right? We’ve got some of the team who have kids and might pick them up and then work later. That’s totally fine. But we have had the conversation, so there are no whispers of, oh, that person’s not around. We get what their routine is because we’ve openly talked about it. So managers and leaders leading by example is not just saying, I’m going to switch off, and that’s one part of it, but it’s also, I’ve got this real important meeting, and when that’s finished because it’s really stressful, I’m going to make sure I hit the gym, or I call someone, or it’s like, how are we managing our stresses throughout the day effectively? That’s the important piece.
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Very interesting and really good points on this one. We touched a little bit on psychological safety in Amy Edmondson’s work. You touched on mental health in the workplace. In my opinion, they’re not necessarily the same thing because psychological safety, at least the way I interpret it from reading Amy’s work, is more, do I feel comfortable speaking up, raising issues? But it doesn’t necessarily… It’s a key component, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a workplace that fosters healthy mental well-being. How do you draw that delineation? Because I’ve seen in some organizations where they confuse both and say, I’m dealing with psychological safety. Therefore, I’m addressing the mental well-being of my workforce. Key component, but not necessarily complete cause and effect.
That’s amazing that you’ve divided it in that way because you can be psychologically safe in a blinkered workplace. We talked about when we failed, like, hey, we’re all iterating a project. This didn’t work, but this did work, and we feel comfortable talking in the work context. If you think of maybe some of the tech companies out there, lots of introverts statistically, lots of men statistically, let’s make this product better. So maybe purpose-driven is something that really helps that side of things, but they would never say, How’s your mental health today? Or what have you done to invest in yourself? Or any of that language. So, for me, that’s about practicing bravery. It’s the same concept because it’s building trust, but people are less practiced in using those skills that Amy Edmondson talks about and moving them into a space about the person, so the individual, not just the collective task. And so, for me, it’s about the same ideas, leading by example, trust, bravery, these sorts of things, but then talking about the human that is connected to the project, right? What are you really passionate about? What lights you up?
Questions like this. And you can do this in either formal or informal ways. In my team, we’ll do the top-of-A-team meeting once a week. We’ll take turns, and somebody will ask a question like that. What’s the biggest challenge you’re facing, personally or professionally? And somebody might say, oh, to be honest, this thing’s going on. Or what’s one thing you’re grateful for? Or what’s the best holiday you ever had? Whatever. It’s just little things that can be playful, serious, or deep that help us get to know the person, which enhances the trust and safety of the work and the purpose on that side. But it also means you have built the building blocks that if someone is struggling, and we know that countless people are experiencing burnout, the suicides are high, depression, anxiety, these sorts of things. You now have the foundation where you can actually talk about these things. But there’s a misconception. Many managers don’t want to ask these questions for a few reasons. One is that they think immediately that that person needs time off. What if everybody has time off and duvet days because everyone’s like, oh, not feeling well?
But actually, the opposite is often true, that people are not looking for time off. When you’re coming from a prevention perspective, right? It’s actually like, oh, the fact that I could say it has given me some relief. And then my questions as a leader might be, what’s one small thing you can do to manage your mental health or to tackle that situation? And how can I help? Often, they’ll say, oh, it was just the fact that I was able to say it, and thanks for your support. Then, of course, you do have helplines in places that can add value. Then the other fear that managers have is they won’t know the answer, right? They won’t know how to fix the thing that the person comes with. I’m going through a divorce, my kid’s struggling, or I’m experiencing depression. And as you probably know, you don’t actually need to fix it, right? The thing that supports this is listening and creating that safe space. And then, I would follow that with empowering personal solutions. So, it doesn’t, actually… So just some of the training we do is relieving some of those pressures that we imagine bridging some of the skills for psychological safety into the well-being mental health arena.
So, tell me a little bit about your book. Begin with you. And then I’d love to hear afterward a little bit about some of the work that you do in terms of the interventions with organizations to help foster the right environment.
Sure. Thanks so much. So, my book came out in the early stages of this year. It’s called Begin with You. It’s a business book, but published by Cogon Page, and it has a bit more of my story. So, if you were intrigued by the like, oh, Cult-Life, who is this person? I certainly go deep into some of that and also the connections that I make from that personal experience and then the studies that I’ve done on the world of the workplace, but also, I call it groupthink, right? So, you’ll be familiar with that phrasing. Even in the wellbeing space, we’ve got all these influencers telling you every step plan to be your best and the framework for whatever. My challenge to people is to learn to think for themselves. In a world of information overload, how can we actually take that minute to reflect and go, what does my body need? Because it will be different from someone else. We’re almost in the stage of frantically trying to do well-being. If I meditate, if I have a cold shower, if I journal, if I practice gratitude, if I climb a mountain, all the things.
It’s like this competitive well-being. And I’d like people to… So that’s what the book is about, challenging the concept of what this means and refocusing on whatever success means to you and building that narrative. So that’s a little bit about that. And, of course, it informs the work that I do, which is around helping businesses from a couple of levels. So, one is their strategy. So, what’s your strategic approach around well-being? And how does it link to your diversity agenda, your health and safety agenda? Because we’re seeing lots of silos, especially in bigger businesses, right? Where well-being is like over there. But then all these other components are in different silos, not really coordinating, or they don’t have a shared comms plan. So, they’re almost competing for, no, I need this date for my awareness day, or I need to put on my talk. And we want people to coordinate because that’s when you can all be successful together. And so that’s around helping wellbeing leads as well, evidence the return on investment of what they’re doing, because it can be a little bit throw things at the wall and see what sticks. And so, from that information, when we can assess where a business is at, our job is to then advise them on that step-by-step plan, offer leadership training, and virtual sessions in person.
And we like the real in-person stuff or virtual, but as in live, because it just fosters connection and belonging, which we think is really important to well-being in the workplace.
The point of coordination, I think, is incredibly important because often safety is an example, which is a topic we touch on in this podcast the most, is physical safety. But it’s intrinsically linked to mental health and well-being because if you’re not fully there, your headspace is not in the work in front of you, you’re more likely to get injured. And if you’re not connected to the work or understanding the things that are impacting them today, you’re more likely to see somebody actually get physically injured as well. But again, as you said, it tends to be wellbeing, done somewhere in HR, safety, done somewhere in the safety organization, as opposed to trying to connect those dots.
Well, even worse than that, I’ve seen HR maybe be mostly female-led, and then the front-line staff perhaps being mostly male or have a different demographic. It’s like listening to your people and communicating messages that… Because I’ve literally seen posters that were purple and flowers and pink and yoga poses, and you’re just not reaching the demographic and the language that’s going to make sense to them. It’s like these little tweaks to help it feel real. Do you want to spend time with your family? What’s the legacy you want to leave? What do you want to be proud of? The financial cost of living crisis is impacting people. How do we make it real? I’m hearing a lot of like, oh, we’ve got these old school people in our industry, or we’ve got people who just don’t get it. I love getting in a room with people who just don’t get it because you will very quickly find that if you talk about your own struggles and then you open up a floor that normalizes this and isn’t just like, hey, are you crazy? There’s so much stigma. They’re just normal. Hey, we’ve all been through a pandemic.
We’ve all been through the cost of living or whatever challenges. Very quickly, those people who just don’t get it will start opening up about the stuff going on for them. Now we’ve got a connection point to build from.
Absolutely. Petra, thank you very much for sharing your story and for talking about your book, Begin with You. If somebody wants to get in touch with you, what’s the best way to do that?
Linkedin is where I am the most active and put out loads of free content and resources, but my website as well, petravelzeboer.com, you can see everything that we do and reach me there as well.
Excellent. Thank you so much.
Thanks so much.
Thank you for listening to The Safety Guru on C-Suite Radio. Leave a legacy. Distinguish yourself from the past. Grow your success. Capture the hearts and minds of your teams. Elevate your safety. Like every successful athlete, top leaders continuously invest in their safety leadership with an expert coach to boost safety performance. Begin your journey at execsafetycoach.com. Come back in two weeks for the next episode with your host, Eric Michrowski. This podcast is powered by Propulo Consulting.
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ABOUT THE GUEST
Petra Velzeboer is a renowned mental health expert, TEDx speaker, and CEO of mental health consultancy PVL. Her captivating story of being raised in a cult, paired with her down-to-earth nature and unique perspective on the world of work, helps her to relate to audiences on a level that few therapists can. Petra’s unique approach to the future of work sets human capital at the forefront of innovation for any company.
For more information: https://www.petravelzeboer.com/
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