Mental Health Awareness Week Operation Starfish THE CEO’s NOTEBOOK

Our CEO and Co-Founder Paul Anderson-Walsh, talks about mental health and the pandemic has impacted our well-being in a big way.

We had just stepped across into a new millennium. The hysteria arising from the threat of the feared Y2K bug mercifully proved to be unfounded. The first of January 2000 came and went without a glitch. Yet what did slip by unnoticed by the many was that it wasn’t the computers’ software that was in danger but rather humanity’s emotional operating system that was and is at risk. A few prescient souls, the founders of The Mental Health Foundation for instance had read the data and called it. Today the subject of mental health is part of the 21st century zeitgeist.

I had first written about mental health from the perspective of spiritual burnout in my book The Bonsai Conspiracy [Grapho 2004]. Even back then it was estimated that stress in the workplace was costing billions. One report suggested that stress-related illness was costing the UK economy £3.75billion a year. Statisticians were saying then that each year, 150,000 people take at least a month off for ailments causes by job pressure. More than 6.5million working days were lost and, at any time, an estimated 500,000 people are off sick with anxiety and depression; and that was in the boom before the credit crunch and the subsequent bust of 2008 and more than a decade before the Coronavirus pandemic that changed the world forever.

Hardly could the founders of The Mental Health Foundation anticipated that 20 years into the millennium it wouldn’t be the computers that would go offline, it would be the entire planet that would be fall victim to a bug that would unplug us from physical contact with each other for nearly two years.

I am writing this article on a flight to Salt Lake City where I am speaking at a Partners’ Conference for one of our clients. The last time I was in the US I was in New York facilitating a summit for another client – Covid-19 had just hit the headlines, one of the delegates who had flown in for the summit from Hong Kong was turned around and sent home. Little did any of us know that was a portent of the deadening isolation that was to follow.

Yet early on there were those who were prophesying what awaited us on the other side of the pandemic. A Professor at Liverpool University warned of a 4th wave of psychic trauma, mental illness, economic injury and burnout.¹ We are here now.


As Hannah Pitstick noted in her article in FM Magazine, “concern for wellbeing in the workplace was a rising trend even before the pandemic, and it is arguably even more crucial as people around the world grapple with widespread grief, anxiety, and burnout.” Burnout has reached epidemic levels. “From longer work hours to increased demands at home, the COVID-19 pandemic introduced new stressors to nearly every domain of life. As the world heads into the 3rd year of the pandemic, these stressors have become persistent and indefinite, heightening everyone’s risk of burnout.” ³

What is burnout? Various attempts have been made to define it. The following two definitions have always resonated with me. Dr. Herbert Freudenberger defines “burnout” as being ‘‘... in a state of fatigue or frustration brought about by devotion to a cause, a way of life, or relationship, that failed to produce the expected reward.” Psychologist Bruce Lloyd says ‘‘burnout happens when your life has lost meaning within the structures that you have committed yourself to.”

At one time or another, most of us have lived with the pressure to perform. Often burnout is the only remedy. Glouberman’s words have an eerie ring of truth to them – ‘‘We won’t stop, so burnout stops us. We won’t make a space for ourselves, so we burn out and all we have is space. And it is out of that space that the joy eventually comes.”

“Burnout is what I primarily call “High Achievers’ Disease” – it is the curse of the Approval/Acceptance Addict. Many people are simply suffering from living fatigue.”

² https://www.fm-magazine.com/news/2020/sep/leadership-skills-for-post-coronavirus-workplace.html

³ Abramson, A. (2022, January). Burnout and stress are everywhere. Monitor on Psychology, 53(1). http://www.apa.org/monitor/2022/01/special-burnout-stress

I had my burnout in 1999 – it was devastating. I was 39 years old. Like Marlon Brando’s character in the movie On the Waterfront I lamented that “I could have been a contender.’ I thought my life was over. Nobody had ever been more committed to a cause – nobody had ever been more crushed. (you’ll forgive the hyperbole, but it seemed that way to me back then). I left my “job” the prospect of being broke wasn’t pleasant but that was a detail one can always earn again, the fact that I was broken-hearted was devastating. I thought it unlikely that I would ever trust again. What I didn’t know at the time – hindsight is a wonderful thing was that there was a divine hand at work; intent not on seeing me broke, but finally broken. Broken of my need for acceptance, broken from my addiction to please people especially those people who I believed could, if they wish hold open the doors of opportunity for me. Burnout is what I primarily call “High Achievers’ Disease” – it is the curse of the Approval/Acceptance Addict. Many people are simply suffering from living fatigue. It can be said that burnout is High Achievers’ or Need-to-Achieve Syndrome. I learnt a brutal but beautiful lesson back then; it is the wanting and the clinging that crushes you. It is the attachment that ultimately detaches you. What I learnt in my burnout was that if we live for people acceptance we will be killed by their rejection.

The theme for this year’s Mental Health week is loneliness. It is a timely one. Last month was “holy month” where many of us paused to reflect what it means to live by faith alone; this month we must stop to reflect once more, because what was never in view was for us to live alone by faith.

“What I learnt in my burnout was that if we live for people acceptance we will be killed by their rejection.”

I live in London which is said to be the safest global city in the world. I would say that the reality is that is also the loneliest. To think that people weren’t lonely at work before the lockdown would be mistaken. To be lonely literally means to be dejected for want of company. We can be alone in a crowd. Evidence is surfacing that there are many from stigmatised groups who are in no hurry to return to the office environment – remote working has given them respite from the day-to-day loneliness caused by othering. As Darrin Grelle, PhD, principal research scientist at SHL, so aptly put it, “Speaking as a gay man, the way you act in the office may not be the way you act at home, and that uses up emotional and psychological resources,” he said. “If you’re working remotely, you don’t have to do that as much, and, therefore, you have more cognitive resources to get your work done.”

A couple years ago our Head of Creative, Chantelle Dusette, wrote a play about her own journey with mental health called Cancel the Sunshine; when it had finished what turned out to be an extended run at the theatre, I asked her if she would be open to touring it among those clients of ours who were brave enough to have the uncomfortable conversation. King’s College London was one of a number of those who were. Chantelle would perform the one-person play and that would be followed up with a plenary session to discuss the issues the play surfaced. One of the more disturbing things we heard from the expert members of the panel was a troubling example race-based health inequality. We were told that when a Black patient presented with mental health issues, the default treatment was to medicate them. However, when a White person presented with the same symptoms, they were invariably offered the choice between talk therapy and tablets.

“But what drives me and drives our firm is the belief that inclusion isn’t just a key to a company’s financial health, it is the key to its employees’ mental health.”

We are made for community - common-unity. We each of us have a primal need for social belonging, but that belonging cannot be at the expense of our being true to who we know ourselves to be. My days of paying the high price of my authenticity for my belonging status are in the rear-view mirror. But what drives me and drives our firm is the belief that inclusion isn’t just a key to a company’s financial health, it is the key to its employees’ mental health. The voice of the ancient scriptures cry out to us from the past … “Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” I think that one of the great gifts we can give each other is to simply listen with our whole being, with the sole purpose of understanding and appreciating what the other person had to say.

“We each of us have a primal need for social belonging, but that belonging cannot be at the expense of our being true to who we know ourselves to be.”

So what can we do? Maybe our contribution to addressing the loneliness crisis is to commit ourselves to having at least one conversation a week or even just once a month where the only agenda present was that of the other person.

Yes, sure, but there are a lot of lonely people in the world – what difference can I make…?

Yes, I guess it is. But you know what? I’m reminded of a wonderful story about a man who was wandering along the seashore early one morning, reflecting on his life and trying to establish a sense of meaning. It was very early, just before sun up, and he imagined that he’d have the beach to himself. To his surprise, he saw, from a distance, a young boy whom, he presumed, was playing on the beach. “Strange,” he said to himself, “what with it being so early and all.” Something about the boy’s game caught his attention. The boy would bend down, pick something up and, with all his might, toss it into the sea.

There was a real urgency about the boy’s game. In rapid succession he would repeat the action – bending, picking up and throwing, bending, picking up and throwing. When the man got close enough to the boy, he could see that the boy was throwing back into the sea starfish which had been washed up onto the beach by the incoming tide. The beach was literally carpeted with them.

The man called out to the boy, “Hey, son! What are you doing?”

Without looking up but continuing his bending, picking up and throwing motion, the boy replied, “I’m saving the starfish.”

“Oh,” exclaimed the man, a little bewildered. “Well, look here. There are thousands of them. How can you make a difference?”

Completing one of his mechanical cycles, the boy looked up as the water splashed when the thrown starfish re-entered it. He said, “I guess you’re right but I sure made a difference to that one, though.”

The man laughed. “Hey, can I join you?”

“Sure,” answered the boy, “there’s plenty left.”

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