Wellbeing experts need no introduction to Dr Stephen Pereira. A multi-award winning psychiatrist and cognitive behaviour therapy specialist, he is best known for mentoring Lloyds Banking Group CEO Antonio Horta-Osorio in building resilience techniques, and helping ITV presenter Tom Bradby conquer insomnia and James Middleton, brother to the Duchess of Cambridge, overcome depression.
But now it’s not only the rich and famous that can benefit from Pereira’s 90,000 consultations and years of experience in mental health best practice – both with the NHS and as a private consultant. At the age of 58, when many might be contemplating early retirement, he is launching his own digital mental health platform called Happence.
Talking exclusively to Make a Difference News, Dr Pereira outlines how science is at the very core of his new project which will help business leaders look after the minds as well as the hearts of their people.
“It’s more important to look after your mind than your heart,” he says.
“You can, after all, transplant a heart.”
A life worth living
Pereira has always been curious about people. In part influenced by the suffering that he observed growing up in India, it also stems from the stigma he encountered when he announced he wanted to study psychiatry.
“I was the butt of the jokes when I was a medical student and decided I wanted to study psychological medicine. Then, the so-called brightest went off to become surgeons or study neurology and psychiatry was thought to be for those who were perhaps ‘not quite so bright’.
“It led me to realise that many people were afraid of their minds and their inner souls and I decided to grasp the nettle and tackle what others avoided and even ridiculed.”
Looking back, he was also profoundly influenced by his near-death experience from jaundice when he was ten. Inspired by the care, kindness and skill of the nurses who looked after him he was also left with a sense of being given a ‘second life’ and that he had to do something meaningful with it.
“Life is not worth living unless you have made a difference in a positive way to the life of at least one person outside your immediate family and friends,” he says.
And this is the ethos that underpins Happence.
“People told me that spending an hour with me was like spending 10 or 20 hours with an executive coach. I felt it was my duty to put solid, preventative, evidence-based strategies using neuroscience, biochemistry and psychology into helping others.”
The power of pain
Recognising that prevention is better than cure, Pereira describes Happence as being like penicillin for mental health. It will help, he claims, stop early anxious feelings from becoming a full-blown panic disorder or frustration developing into depression.
Because the way we think can impact how we feel pain, he hopes it will also help people with certain conditions. According to a pre-pandemic report* migraine accounts for 86 million lost working days a year in the UK. By learning skills and strategies through psycho-immunology, he suggests that someone experiencing five migraine attacks a month can reduce that to just one. Even those experiencing chronic pain will find tools to help reduce the intensity of their discomfort.
Flexing the mental muscles
Pereira is calling for a major paradigm shift in the way that employers treat their employees – so that it becomes recognised that it is business proficient and smart for employers to look after people’s minds as well as their bodies.
He says: “For too long, employers’ duty of care has been exercised through policy, procedure, health and safety and tick box exercises. EAPs, health insurance, gym membership. While all these may be helpful, they don’t go far enough in recognising that the brain is an important organ, if not the most important organ in our body”.
“Leaders need to be genuine and honest. Showing vulnerability is not a weakness – in fact it can be seen as a considerable strength,” he says.
“When the business owner, the Group CEO or the Executive Committee truly believe in the agenda, the business will have more loyal employees and higher retention rates.
“Compassionate leadership that feeds into company culture means higher productivity and efficiency by employees.”
C words for the C-suite
Using compassion and cortisol in the same sentence, Dr Pereira claims that kind and caring leaders will live longer.
He explains how raised levels of the stress hormone can damage the arteries around the heart, impact brain cells and turbocharge glucose – a condition of the mind affecting the physical body.
And men tend to internalise stress more than women, meaning they can have persistently raised cortisol levels. Women tend to be naturally more open about their emotions, more compassionate and communicative. This is why, Pereira believes, they live longer and why large organisations need more women leaders.
“Just spending one extra minute with a colleague in a meaningful way, trying to understand how they are, can make a huge difference,” he says.
Cortisol levels must have gone through the roof for many during the pandemic – the stresses of adapting to working from home, honing teaching skills for home schooling, banned from seeing family and friends or even going on holiday. Bereavement and grief will have taken it to another level.
Dr Pereira said: “The pandemic has felt like being under siege – an enormous source of stress impacting a wide range of activity from sleep to movement, and the way we think and feel.
“There will be other viruses and to prepare for these and cope with future pandemics, people need to develop a way to self-audit. Now is the time to learn to look after ourselves and learn to be compassionate to others.
“Ask yourself every day ‘How have I conducted myself? Can I learn to do things differently?’ We have a duty of care to ourselves.”
But it isn’t just down to the individual.
“Employers need to recognise that they employ people, not robots, and that they have a duty of care to these people. There’s nothing wrong with asking people to go the extra mile. But what leaders don’t realise is that if they show the humane side of themselves and really connect with people, they will go that extra mile for you willingly.
“By compassionately engaging with people, you take them on a journey of turning a company around.”
In a week when cracks in trains have brought the UK’s railway network to a halt, Pereira likens business leaders that have not embraced a compassionate agenda to trains running on lines laid 40 years ago.
“The world has moved on and business owners need to get on board,” he says.
You can hear more from Dr Pereira in the Make A Difference webinar which Happence is sponsoring, in association with the City Mental Health Alliance: “The Hidden Pandemic: why wellbeing matters more than ever and what employers can do to help”. This also includes input from Janet Pope, Chief of Staff and Group Director, Sustainable Business, Lloyds Banking Group and Susan Bright, Global Managing Partner, Diversity & Inclusion and Responsible Business, Hogan Lovells and a Non-Executive Director of The City Mental Health Alliance (the community for mentally health businesses). Find out more and register here.
About the author
Claire Farrow is the Global Director of Content and Programming for the Mad World and Make a Difference Summits. She also drives the content for Make A Difference News. Claire is on a mission to help every employer – large, medium and small – get the insight, inspiration and contacts they need to make real impact on workplace culture, mental health and wellbeing in their organisation. She has been freelance for more than 15 years. During that time, she has had the honour of working with many leading publishers, including the New York Times.