Mental Wellbeing: A Call to Action for Leaders with Michael Weston
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Michael Weston’s moving message is sure to make you reflect on what’s most important in life. He recounts his story of working in a demanding role in the mining industry that ultimately took its toll on his mental health. What started as a normal day in 2013 quickly turned into an unnerving experience for him and his family. Michael was preparing for his commute to work that morning and was found lying unconscious on the driveway several minutes later. Following his successful recovery, Michael has made it his mission to coach leaders and team members on the importance of prioritizing mental health and well-being. This Mental Health Awareness Month, Michael is highlighting his insightful advice when it comes to actively caring and listening, looking out for your team members, and striking a healthy work/life balance.
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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 wellbeing 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. Today, I’m very excited to bring Michael Weston to the show. This month marks a mental health awareness month in the USA. And so, this brings me to Michael’s story, which is an incredibly powerful story that I think every listener needs to listen to. He’s from Perth, Western Australia, public speaker, advocate for mental health, and previously was in senior roles within the mining industry until his life changed forever. Michael, welcome to the show. Really excited to have you with me.
Hi, Eric. Thanks for letting me join you today. Really looking forward to our chat.
Absolutely. Let’s start with your story because when you shared it initially with me, it was very powerful, really hit home. So, tell me a little bit about your story.
Sure. So just for the people that are listing 55 years of age, living in Perth, Western Australia at present, I have been happily married for 55 years. Not 55 years. I’ve been happily married for 30 years this year, three adult kids, a couple of grandkids. So, life is pretty good these days. But my career background, I worked with Rio Tinto in the iron ore sector, in mining in what’s called the Pilbara region in WA. The Pilbara is about 1600 km north of Perth, quite an arid area, very dry and hot around the 40s to 50 pluses, but a beautiful part of the world, lot of red Earth and fantastic landscapes. So, I was working with Rio Tinto for 16 years. It was a great career that I had with them. My last role with them. Before leaving the business in 2015, I was a maintenance Superintendent in a place called Damper on the coast in the Pilbara, and I was overlooking probably about 200 staff. 30 to 60 contractors would come and go every week because I was a maintenance shut overlooking two ports in Dampier. And I suppose responsibility, accountability. We’re looking after the maintenance week to week teams like fixed plant workshop, light vehicle, heavy vehicle workshops, the crane engine transport teams, and also conveyors so quite a diverse group and geographically sparse over those two ports.
So that’s a little bit of my background anyway, who I am and where I came from.
So, what happened there’s a very impactful moment. Tell me a little bit about that day and how it changed in terms of your life and the flow on effects.
Yeah, sure. I suppose the role I was in was considered back then; it was considered a burnout role. It was a very front line, was always go, go, highly remindful, demanding, highly stressful, because, you know, maintenance, shuts. We’ve all got Gantt charts and we’re on a time restraint. Yeah. And safety obviously is paramount, so you’ve got to deliver on time and obviously in a safe way. So, you had a lot of stress and demand on your shoulders, but mainly the people and the time, I suppose. But unfortunately, as leaders for me, myself, is we get caught up in this vortex of work and we just tend to just work and we forget about looking after ourselves and everything else around us, including family, friends. So, for me, I was on a slow spiral, I suppose, just starting to become exhausted. And that was clear on the day that I woke up on the 19 April 2013. And what I’m about to share with your viewers, your listeners today are I don’t actually remember anything of this day. I have no recollection of this day. So, my wife tells me we wake up like any other day.
We’d wake up at 430 every morning, jump in the shower, throw the high vis, close on. We’d chat around the kitchen table having cup, tea, bit of toast, talking about the day ahead for both of us, what the kids were up to, what sport was going on, and most importantly, what fish we were going to catch on the weekend. But my wife says, I suppose my characteristics and mannerisms quite changed that morning because I was very much a Habitat type of person and I was very non coherent, if you like, just nodding and saying nothing. But she just put that in the back of the brains trust, if you like, and thought, okay, we’ll just put that in the back and see how the morning goes. But when I went to brush my teeth and come back and kiss my wife goodbye, she could see something was different in me again and she actually asked a question, Are you okay? The reason why I’m asking is because normally in the morning I can’t shut you up and you’re just quiet as a mouse and there’s something about you that your persona. I don’t know, there’s something different.
And my message to her was, I don’t know what it is, but I feel nervous under my skin. And for her, those words were unlike me and thought, okay, so nervous on his skin. What does that look like? What do you mean? I said, I actually don’t know. She goes, “well, I’m really worried about your driving to work. I don’t want an accident to happen.” Or I said, “I think I’m okay. I think I’ve just got a large shut going on and I think I just need to get there, get the teams moving, and I think I’ll be fine.” So, I kissed her goodbye and I walked out the front door. And I was found about five to six minutes later by my neighbor lying face down on my driveway, lying unconscious, not breathing, and in his words, was unresponsive white to look at and cold stuff. So, I wasn’t in a great space. My neighbor did CPR. I came back to life, if you like, but I kept dipping in and out of consciousness. So, raise the alarm with my wife. One thing I’d like to share with people that are listening today to let people understand how much our lives in our work and consumers is that my wife, as she came out the door and she was obviously quite overwhelmed by what she was seeing, she had my head in her lap and she kept saying, this is not your time to leave.
This is not your time to die. And my wife and I laugh about it these days because if you don’t become morbid and you don’t learn from things. But one of the things I said to her was, I’m going to be late for a meeting. She even says these days, if you haven’t died that day, I was going to kill you anyway, because who says that? On the driveway, on the darkest hour, I went to hospital. I don’t remember anything of that. But I seem to come to the end of the day, they couldn’t find anything really wrong with me apart from burnout, you know, total exhaustion. So, I was told to go home and just take three weeks off and take time to rejuvenate and recover.
Wow. One thing is it seems like from what I understand, you went back to work after the three weeks. Yeah. And what happened at that stage, one of the things that I think Australia does very well, but I think you’re going to share maybe it’s not enough. Is the whole campaign around. Are you okay? Which is very much an Australian thing. It’s starting to shop in other places around the world. Tell me a little bit what happened when you went back to the workplace.
Sure. It was probably a good thing in my mind, or my gut told me not to take my work vehicle and to jump on the company bus from where we resided, which is about ten minutes away from Damper, where I work. It’s a place called Karratha. So, something told me to jump on that bus that day because I had time to, I suppose, take my time to go to work, just slowly get my way back into the Superintendent role because I had someone babysitting the role. So, I remember jumping on that bus. But the feeling that I had as that BBS came to the gates at Dampier to go through the boom gates on the C-suite, I got that nervousness under my skin again, that same feeling as I had that morning in the kitchen. The difference was between then and now was my nervousness under my skin was now external. So, I was actually shaking, and I was sweating profusely. I was sweating on my forehead. My palms could have squeezed my socks out in my work boots and filled up a cup of sweat. Horrible to turn the people listening right now if they’re eating dinner or eating breakfast.
I was really shaking externally as well. So, I was trying to take a drink of water and it was like at a drinking problem, you know. And what I was to learn later in life, I was actually having a panic attack. So, my body was actually reacting to the gates at the workplace and telling me, don’t go through those gates, you are not ready. And our bodies are amazing, our brains are amazing that actually send all these warning signs and triggers. So, if you don’t know them, it’s the first time that you’re really starting to understand what’s going on. You just move on and get over it if you like. So, I did. I just pushed on and waited for those gates to go through and I went through on the bus. I started to get quite confused from the time I went through the gate. And in reflection, this was happening over three weeks at home. So, I was starting to become forgetful in my memory. I didn’t seem to be able to problem solved very well. My spelling was really out, and I was quite a good speller if you like. Even my sentences when I was speaking, I seemed to be mixing my words up and I don’t mean as in what we do usually as humans and say hot when we mean cold.
I’m really meaning is mixing a whole sentence up and can’t put words together. So, things were quite confronting for me going back to work and listening to a superintendent who was looking after my team at the time at the start-up meeting and just couldn’t get a concept of what the hell was going on. Interesting to the people that are listening right now is if I was to try and explain this articulate this way for someone, it’s like, you know, I suppose I’ll put it in your sense, if you like in your position, Eric, is, you know, you have this podcast or you know what your business is, you know what your role is and one day someone just switches off that light and you know who you are, you know what this business formula is, but you just don’t know what to do. You actually don’t know the process. And that’s what it was like for me. It’s like someone flipped the switch and it’s very confronting when the medical fraternity are saying, well there’s nothing wrong with you apart from burnout and exhaustion. But in my gut and my brain was telling me other things so I was for sure starting to see cracks and signs throughout that time I was there, and I never actually returned to that role as a superintendent, because as months went on, I think it was about three months that I was just trying to work my way into that role.
And things got worse and worse and progress fully worse until I decided that my mental health was starting to take the client side. I actually spoke to my leader and said, hey, listen, I’d like to self-demote myself and had a conversation. And that’s what I agreed to do. I ended up demoting myself from a superintendent to a quality assurance quality control officer. So as a QAQC officer, I just went to work every day, went to the start-up meeting, didn’t understand any instruction. So, you think about this as a safety point of view. It’s pretty scary filling out a take five, that a risk assessment. But I had no understanding of what I was writing. My words were all mixed up on the page and I’d put what they call as a camel back on my back, which is we fill up with water and drink water out of and I’d walk for ten to 15K every day by myself, walking live conveyor belts and just looking for preventative maintenance. And life got very hard during that time.
I’m sure when you were going through this, what was on your mind? How are you dressing? How are your colleague’s kind of checking in in terms of how you were?
It’s a great question. So, I suppose mental health was starting to take a decline because I couldn’t do anything what I was educated, trained and confident to do anymore. And so, I thought, well, I’m starting to paint a pitch now that my doctor was saying that there’s doctors saying that I’m just burnt out. So, I just need time. But then all these things are happening to me as well. And then I had a workplace that I suppose was walking on eggshells as well because I used to be their leader, right? So now I’m part of their team and some of them are my leaders now. So, I suppose a bit of a shift in the way people are thinking and how do we treat this person? But as I try to build that rapport with everyone else, because I needed them to feel comfortable who I was. I’m just a person out here like anyone else working. And I thought, if I do that as well, people can start looking out for me as well. And I found that people always asking, Are you okay? People on the past and saying, hey, Mike, how are you?
Okay. And I’d say, yes, I’m great, but I had a facade. I had this smile on my face, go, yeah, everything’s great. But I think for me is, I suppose for me, I had a lot of stigma about what was happening to me because whilst people asking whether I was okay, are you okay? It’s actually a non-for-profit organization in Australia. It’s just trying to raise that. I suppose awareness of asking your mate and your colleague how you are, but as they say, Are you okay? Goes way beyond that. It’s not just Are you okay? Because are you okay? Is a closed question, and it’s going to get a closed answer, which they got yes or no. So, people weren’t really pulling me aside and saying, hey, Mike, are you okay? Because I’m starting a bit worried about, you know, you’re a bit forgetful or you’re biting people’s heads off. That’s unlike you. But they didn’t know, just saying Are you okay? I’d say yes, great, and I’ll go my way. Things were very much changing for me as well in my mind because I always thought that I was always raising issues with people saying, hey, I’m getting lost in plant.
I’m forgetful. But suppose people they weren’t dismissive; they’re just not understanding the situation and saying things like how old are you here? We all forget things, or at this age we all mix our words up. So, I was feeling that maybe it is just me, I suppose, but people are out there looking out for me. But it was really a brush by passive listening type of situation, not an active listing.
Yeah. And I think that’s a really important message is how do you open the dialogue? And safety is a lot of conversation around actively caring. And when you think about actively caring, it connects very well in the mental health space in terms of if I know how Michael is today, then I should say something’s a little bit different. Right. And if I really know my team, I have the ability to say something’s not quite the usual, and maybe I need to go a little bit deeper. So, I think that story is very important. What would you advocate a leader to ask? You said, livid more probing questions. What other things can they do to show that care for their team members to really check in if something is maybe a little bit different?
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In reflection now, when I reflect on my time as a leader, we’re obviously always focused on efficiencies and productivity, but at the front, obviously, safety and I reflect on my time as a leader with safety is the times where you’d be doing your observations, daily observations of how the team is working, how the job is going. And you’d come across those people in the teams that appear to have their head not quite in the task if you like. And I suppose in reflection, I look back and I think, well, it would have been a different conversation I would have today as a leader compared to them, because back then I think as leadership, whilst we had empathy and we treated people right, I think the right questions weren’t asked. So for me, instead of Eric, I can see your head’s not in the game here today. You need to pick your game up and get your head back in the game, which is not shallow, but it really achieves nothing. It’s really a kick up the bum. Whereas I think knowing what I know now is actually all I wanted when I was walking around Plant was actually someone to ask if I was okay, but take me out of that environment that I was in and it doesn’t have to be off site, but away from the noise people, because it’s very confidential and people can be very confronted by what they’re about to tell you.
So, I think in my day now, I think I would go in that situation, pull that person out of that task, out of that team, and have a real heart to heart, one on one, and say, hey, Eric, I’ve just been watching you guys change that conveyor I can see everyone is working really well together. But I know you seem a little bit head in the clouds today. Is there anything that you need to tell me? Is there anything I can help you with?
Because I really want your head on this task, your mind on this task, because I don’t want you to hurt yourself and I don’t want to hurt anyone else. And it’s not that you’re not going to be meaning to do that, but if your mindset is not there, if you’re not present, these things can happen. And from that you can actually start a good conversation. You’re actually leading a person into I’m glad you told me because I’m not sure if you know, but we just had a baby at home and things are not getting much sleep. And my wife called me this morning and just before I was about to start work. So, she wants me to get something and call someone. So now I’m confronted by I’ve got a work to do, but I’ve also need to make a phone call. So that would change totally for everything. It would change everything. So, I’ll tell you what, you go up, make your phone call, let me know when you’re done, and I’ll catch up with you and you can tell me that you’re ready to go. And I think by doing that, you’re showing empathy, compassion, and you’re investing in that person.
I think it’s a really important point because somebody had shared with me even a story where a leader had found that somebody was a little bit different that morning and they were about to start some heavy machinery, fairly dangerous work. And they just checked in saying, are you okay? And I said, yeah, I’m okay. And then they went a little deeper and the person said, well, in fact, I’ve been evicted from my home last night. I don’t know where I’m going to live. Well, not the time to be operating heavy machinery and just having that conversation potentially saved a life or saved a very serious injury from happening. Just going a little bit deeper because you recognize something is a little bit different.
And by doing that, Eric, I think you’re changing the whole team’s perception of what a team actually is, is looking out for each other. And it’s showing that, hey, someone’s got my back and I can open up with my leaders and say things aren’t quite right now. And I think we have as leaders this perception, if we give a little, they’re going to take the whole lot and like, oh, they’re going to spin one on me and they’re going to take the week off. But it’s the wrong mindset to have. You really need to be thinking in that space of what if this person has something going on and I can prevent something worse from happening? And I think we’re a better, I suppose, place for it if we actually show some interest and empathy in people.
Absolutely. And I think one of the things as well that strikes me about your story is normally, we talk about injuries that happen in the front line. What you’re sharing is you were a successful executive, successful in your role, dealing with a lot of pressures, which are common in a lot of those roles, but can also even happen when you think about safety in an office environment. Same thing. There can be a lot of pressure to get stuff done. What are some of the things that as a leader, you’d reflect that maybe you’d do differently or maybe you’d be more aware, change some of the approaches because we tend to just go, go, we get things done and whatever comes, it’s a badge of honor to get it done, which creates high stressful environments in a lot of organizations and in organizations, sometimes in the safety roles, but even in roles that are in office based environments.
Absolutely. I think for me, the first thing was working longer hours meant I was going to get more work done. It is working smarter. The longer I work, the more little mistakes I made. The one percenter, if you like. So certainly, wherever you are in life if you’re at work, be present. But if you’re at home, be present with your family, because I was never present with my family. I’d work at work, and I’d work at home. And look, there’s nothing to say. The goal posts have changed these days. You can work at home and from work, but have those strong boundaries and have those timelines that set you up for success to say, well, you know what? I’m only going to work from 11:00 in the morning. Till 500 today at work. Why? Because I worked a few hours last night while when everyone went to bed, I just did a few things. So, you can still have that flexibility. But in a perfect sense is you want to be present at work, have your work at work, and you work at home. But we understand, even with Cove now we’re all working from home, a lot of us.
And as well, it’s really important to have those boundaries at home because whilst everyone had that perception that everyone working for the home would budge and go to the shop and down the beach, the actual truth is everyone is working longer hours.
There’s maybe 1%, but 99% are doing more than ever before. Absolutely.
Exactly. So, I suppose my message there as well. And even as leaders, we have leaders is to have that conversation with both your team and your leaders to say, you know what, I’m not working after 03:00 this afternoon because I’m going to pick my kids up or I’m going to play sport or a Carnival. But you can contact me between six and eight if you need to. And even in emails, hey, I’m working my hours to suit my flexibility in my life. So, it’s really about not only having the boundaries with yourself but sharing those boundaries with others. Because what we’re finding here in Australia is people are contacting people outside of all sorts of hours at home because I thought, oh, this is great. Before I couldn’t contact them at work because the office is closed. Now I can just pick up the phone and call Eric anytime. It’s really inappropriate. And so, we’ve got this silent burnout going on. The other thing with leadership as well is one thing I found is just the 1% is those little things in life that you can look after yourself. And I’m sure that people listening right now, if I said to everyone, all your listeners, hands up to all the people that eat their lunch behind their desk, and most people, when I speak to them face to face, no one says anything, they just smile and then all the arms creep up because we tend to do that as leaders.
We tend to my work is important and I’ve got to keep going. And I think we tend to think that it’s not real work, it’s work, but it’s not labor intensive because we’re behind a desk on a computer or in boardroom meetings and things like that. So, my message there is to take time out for yourself, be kind to yourself, be kind to say that I deserve this lunch break and I’m going to go out and have some fresh air and it’s amazing what that will do for you. Your brain to rejuvenate and your self-esteem and you’ll be more productive in the end. So, there’s all those little one centers that we’re just not kind to ourselves.
Great. Is there anything an organization can do to remove the Brady of honor about working endlessly. So, it’s not the organization’s responsibility fully. There’re also the individuals to shared responsibility. But there are some things in some organizations, I think it’s getting better in many places. But if you work the longest hours, you’re that person, there’s a bad one, you get the recognition, which I think also drives a sense of more hours will get me more success.
Yeah, I think there’s a couple of things there. I think what I’ve learnt is the more you give, the more they take, if you know what I mean. And I don’t mean that as in businesses being ruthless and bearing into the ground. It’s just like the old story. It’s still going to be there tomorrow. So, it’s just a bottomless hole sometimes. So be content with that list that you have for the day and say, be kind yourself and say, I’ve gone through most of that list and what I’ve done is there 100% that I can be done. My job is done today. So, from a business perspective, I think I’d like to share with you your listeners as a leader, one specific leader. I had a manager years ago that was, I suppose I really didn’t apply this myself at the time. But in reflection now it’s really made a big difference to how I see good leadership. And I remember actually working back one night. I’ve been there from 05:30 a.m. It was about 06:15. He was leaving his office and he said, hey, pack your stuff up, let’s go home. And I said, “look, I’ve just got to just finish up this proposal.”
And he goes, “no, pack it up can’t be that important.” And I said, “yeah, I will.” And he went beetroot red, like B Troop red. And I looked at his face and I thought, “geez, this guy, okay?” And he pushed my laptop closed and he goes, “no, I want you to go home. I’m not asking now. What I want is I don’t want you to be, I suppose, what this team is about. I don’t want you to be that person in that team that shows everyone else that they’re not doing enough here. So, what I want you to do is stop. You’ve done a full day’s work. Be happy with what you’ve done. Go home to your family, rejuvenate, and come back.” So, what he actually did with me is he enabled me, he gave me that tickle of approval to go, it’s okay to have a life. It’s okay to go home. And I approve of that. I want you to do that. And I think that was really powerful because in my past role, during the days of when I collapsed, it was more of a passing by conversation of share your socials here.
Well, don’t stay too long, have a great night. And that was the conversation. So, I suppose it’s like safety. It’s like walking past something that you see, the standard you set is a standard that’s going to always be there. The standard you walk past is the standard you set. So that was my experience as previously. Just don’t stay too long. But this leader actually really enabled me by saying, no, I don’t want you to stay here. So, I think businesses, even the business I was working for, had a policy to say that you can’t work past 14 hours. But I would abuse that all the time. And I was a leader. So, I suppose they’re real admin controls. But we need leaders above us and like ourselves to say to our people, you know what? This isn’t good enough. If you’re not doing the work in the time that’s allowed, we need to have a sit down and actually break down what’s happening. Are you overwhelmed by too much work, or do you need further development? Do you need more help? And I think that’s a good conversation that you can have with your leaders saying, I’m not coping.
I think it’s a really good point. I also like what you’re saying in terms of having your checklist of things you’re going to do that day and being comfortable that maybe I can’t finish everything on that list. Right. Give a good shot. And maybe there’s some days where you’re going to be much more productive than others, and that’s okay. The days where you’re maybe less productive, you didn’t accomplish as much as you’d hoped for because there were more distractions and more themes, or you maybe weren’t 100% focused on that day. Doesn’t mean you need to make it up with more hours necessarily. Maybe we just call it a day and start again the next day.
Yeah. And look, it’s easy to say this when we all work as leaders in different roles, in different businesses and different business models. But for example, in a plant, if a conveyor breaks, there’s iron ore that needs to keep filling ships if you like. So, it’s easy to say, well, at 600, that conveyor can stop. It doesn’t work that way. So, it’s about really having that balance and saying, okay, well, I might have to work longer this one, but I’m going to be kind to myself in the next couple of days. So, we got to look out for ourselves.
Absolutely. Michael, thank you so much for sharing your story. I think it’s a very powerful message around broadening the role of safety, really looking at it beyond just regular safety as much as that’s important, but also exploring in terms of how it connects with mental health, because we know these things are also intertwined with each other. But I think it gives a lot of pause to listeners that are executive professionals or even people thinking about how do I extend the role and the impact of safety into other parts of the broader safety? How can somebody get in touch with you if they’re interested in having your story shared with their employee, group, or leaders.
Yeah, I’ve got an email address so [email protected] au and also have the same name for my website and I’m also on LinkedIn and Facebook as well under my own name Michael Weston.
Thank you, Michael! Really appreciate you coming in sharing your story very powerful message as we’re exploring mental health Awareness month and really thinking about what we can do to drive the dialogue forward and also for an organization to really reflect in terms of the impact of the pandemic had and how it’s taken a toll in a lot of people’s lives in terms of their well-being. Thank you.
Thanks Eric! Thanks for having me.
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ABOUT THE GUEST
Michael Weston has worked in the mining industry within Western Australia for 20 years,16 years of which were devoted within the Iron Ore Production and Export industry located across the Pilbara Region (approximately 1600km north of Perth WA). In 2013, Michael was working as a Maintenance Superintendent in a highly demanding and stressful working environment. This role consumed much of Michael’s life which affected his work / life balance and unbeknown to him, life would take an unexpected turn. Life changed for Michael and his family on the morning of 19th April 2013.
As Michael was about to commute to work, he collapsed outside his family’s residence and was later found by his neighbour unconscious and not breathing. At the time, the only diagnosis provided by Doctors was exhaustion or otherwise known as burn-out. Whilst Michael survived, his ability to function in the work place and in life was profoundly affected. He and his wife Donna had spent the next 2 years searching for a further diagnosis and answers to why Michael couldn’t function as he had prior to the incident. Doctors and Specialists began investigating further into Michael’s condition, in which an Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) was diagnosed. In addition to these ailments, Michael was also diagnosed with Anxiety, Depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of how these ailments affected both his working and private life. A team of dedicated Doctors and Specialists then assisted Michael with his recovery and rehabilitation.
Following a successful recovery, Michael commenced motivational Workplace Speaking and Leadership Coaching, sharing his experiences and learnings with others globally which has proven to have a positive impact on others’ lives. Michael’s inspiring story is unique, resonates with a diverse range of audiences, provides a greater awareness of our Mental Health and Wellbeing by sharing his own coping strategies and how building resilience provides a positive platform towards a greater work / life balance.
For more information on Michael’s story, you can visit: