How to create a healthy mind to support high performance
November 22, 2019
After hitting the wall spectacularly, Cam learnt some simple but powerful techniques to manage his stress. Today he leads Accenture’s Healthy Minds Network – an employee network helping our people become more resilient and teaching mental fitness to high performing consultants.
For the first 8 years I worked at Accenture I didn’t believe in stress. I thought if you couldn’t handle the fast-paced culture of consulting, you shouldn’t be a consultant. And I assumed that, to be a good consultant, you had to be ‘always on’. But, every time I got deep into a really challenging project or 2-3 weeks out from a major project go-live, I started to feel the pressure. I would get random pains, face, chest, or neck, also would lose sleep often with thoughts racing in my mind, and often drift off thinking about work problems and not be present with my friends or family – in hindsight and with some education, all classic signs of stress. I pressed on, unaware, but on the fifth major project, the pressure dragged on and I completely burnt out.
I actually went to hand in my resignation. My career counsellor said: “Are you kidding? You’re one of our highest performers. Just take a step back, and you need to take break, not resign!” I was confused: “But how do I work if I can’t handle the pressure?” That’s when I took the time to discover that there are actual techniques you can use to bleed off stress. It was the first time anyone had suggested that creating mental resilience was just as important to high performance as working hard.
After I confessed that I wasn’t handling it well, the doors and conversation opened up, with several leaders told me how they’d suffered from depression or too struggled with stress. So rarely at the time were the words ‘stress’ or ‘mental health’ mentioned at work or in the community.
That was a decade ago. Today, in addition to my day job running the Accenture Australia and New Zealand data delivery practice, I also run Accenture's Healthy Minds Network in ANZ, helping our organisation to value and build healthy mental practices.
We used to call it the Mental Health Ally Network, but I felt that didn’t reflect what we’re all about. Unfortunately, there’s still stigma attached to mental health. Whereas, everyone wants to have a health mind – especially if it will improve your performance!
Brisbane at its best: Family life is key to a balanced work life for me.
The truth is you’re not mentally well or mentally ill. All of us live on a spectrum that, like our physical health, changes over time. Some years you’ll be flourishing, others you’ll be languishing – sometimes this can change daily or weekly. When you’re flourishing, you’re clear headed and focused – able to be innovative and creative.
Just as physically fit people will recover more quickly after an operation, if you practice healthy mental techniques, you’re more resilient when stress hits. Healthy mental practices are cumulative – their effects build over time. If you wait until you’re stressed, it’s too late. The most important thing is to figure out several techniques that work for you and start practicing them – now!
With me, I’m a simple guy. I keep my mind healthy by going to the gym three times a week (40 minutes of sweat!), practicing gratitude and positivity – and getting some decent sleep. To that point, I’ve learnt not to work extra hours frequently because it adversely impacts my performance the next day. Working too hard is actually counterproductive. Who knew?
Personally, I never connected with meditation – but it really works for some people, like my colleague Michael for example. For others it’s taking micro breaks like Jess or regular holidays. There’s no single best method - it’s about finding what works for you.
But the sad reality is that the people who most need these techniques are often the least likely to use them. Stress increases as you get older and take on more responsibility at work (leadership roles) and home (kids, aging parents, life!). So, our network should be chock full of leaders.
Family time is the best.
Instead, it’s our new grads who are joining the network on day one because they know all about the importance of mental resilience. Our senior leaders not so much!
The message is starting to get through, partly because our sponsor is Bob Easton, our Chairman and Senior Managing Director. Bob’s doing a PhD in human flourishing, so he gets it. We currently have about 650 people in the network, with 150 of them dialling into our monthly calls, where we give advice and people like Bob share their own techniques for managing stress. Bob won’t be satisfied until we have all 4,500 Accenture people in ANZ as members.
I’m a bit worried that the gender split of our network members is way off: 65% female, 35% male – the opposite of our actual staff representation. We’ve got to remove the stereotype that ‘real men don’t get stressed’. I guess I need to be patient. It probably took me six years to say these things out loud.
The truth is, no one is impervious. Life will hit you at some point. So, learn some skills and get onto this early. Because a healthy mind is the single most important factor in achieving and sustaining high performance.
Why are we talking about stereotypes?
We’re making good progress in promoting inclusion and diversity, but our ingrained beliefs can still heavily influence our actions. Are you subconsciously acting in a certain way because of your preconceived notions? Find out by reading and talking about our ‘stereotypes debunked’ stories.
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