Nearly 20 years ago, Sir John Kirwan helped open the New Zealand conversation around mental health when he spoke out about the crippling anxiety and depression he struggled with during his career as a World Cup-winning All Black. Now, with recent statistics show 28 percent of people experienced poor mental wellbeing in 2021 (compared to 22 percent in 2018), Sir John tells Melinda Williams how his efforts to create better mental wellbeing in workplaces are ramping up. 

MELINDA Our workplaces are in a transitional state, having recently emerged from a disruptive pandemic where acknowledging the importance of good mental health in the workplace has become impossible to ignore. This is new territory for most of us, because for pretty much the last century, you left your personal life at home when you clocked in and picked it up again when you clocked out. What do you see as the future role of the workplace when it comes to worker wellbeing, and in particular mental health? 

JOHN Personally, I think the only way we’re going to solve the mental health problem is through preventative workplace mental health. I think wellbeing is a really interesting word, because it’s what, exactly? It’s a big word. It could be free gym memberships, free yoga classes, fruit on the office kitchen table. I totally agree that for the last hundred years, we just left half our personalities at the door. That has now changed and needs to change. You get more inputs in your brain today than your grandparents had in one lifetime. Back then, it was way easier to leave half your personality at home because when you went home, you were home. And now that doesn’t exist. I mean, when was the last time your inbox was empty?

MELINDA Well, never. 

JOHN Yeah, never. So there’s this intertwining of our worlds and there is no work-life balance now, there’s just life. Along with that has come a pandemic, which is higher rates of anxiety, suicide, burnout, all those things we talk about in mental health. So if you think about the workplace, where you spend half your life, then it needs to take responsibility for how you are working. What we like to talk about at Groov is a) preventative mental health, because I’ve been pushed off the cliff and b) where does it start and stop.

MELINDA The latter is a question I think many workplaces are keen to answer. Where does that start and stop, in your opinion?

JOHN For me, really the workplace has an obligation to educate its workers on what managing your ‘imbalance’ is. Because we’ve all got an imbalance to manage. If you’re a parent, you’d like to spend every minute of your day with your child, right? But the reality is that we’ve got to work.

So, it’s about workplaces understanding each individual and giving them the power to have a daily mental health plan that can keep them thriving instead of just surviving. And I think leaders need to learn a new skill, which is how to manage psychological safety in the workplace. For me, psychological safety is really simple: it’s just trust and care, creating a trustful and caring work environment. And the thing you’ll get back from people is better attention and productivity. It’s the future of the workplace. If you don’t do it, in five years, nobody’s going to want to work for you. 

MELINDA It sounds like workplace leaders are moving from being output or performance managers to having a broader coaching role that even crosses over into psychology. How does that balance work best from your experience in coaching and being coached?

JOHN Well, I’m pretty sure you’re an expert at what you do. So do I need to technically help you, or do I need to create an environment where you can thrive? It’s no different for a footballer. More and more, kids are coming through and they’ve already got all the skills they need. They’ve been playing the game since they were 13, so they can play it well, but what do they need to perform? 

They might need to know how to deal with pressure, performance anxiety and a few of those other things. To have a real understanding of how you can care for someone… I mean, we don’t have to be brother and sister, right? We don’t have to be best mates. But we do have to bring more of our authentic selves to work so that we can actually perform.

MELINDA It seems like some workplaces are still wary about that concept of “bringing your authentic self to work” as it seems to blur the line between the personal and the professional.

JOHN What you do with your personal life is what you do with your personal life. What I need to create is an environment is that if you are having problems with your personal life, you can confide in me and get the necessary tools to deal with that. You should be able to trust me to come to me and say, ‘I’ve got some things going on in my personal life and I need some time off,’ or whatever it is. And I’m going to make sure you get that. Even if someone’s really unwell, I shouldn’t be being the psychologist or psychiatrist. I should be able to say, ‘Look, here’s where you need to go to get psychological help.’

But if you come to me because you’re experiencing some life problems, I should be able to say, ‘Okay we’ve got some deadlines coming up, but you need four hours off, right?’, and you say ‘Yes and I can catch up before midnight’ and we’ll say, ‘Okay, we’ve got your back, you can have that time off.’ So you’ve confided in me with a problem and I’ve given you the space you need to deal with that problem and still perform. I think what the boss and the workplace need to do now, and what the whole world needs to do, is understand what a daily mental health habit looks like and give people the information to start working on it. In any job you have competencies that you need to be able to carry out to survive and thrive, and I think that mental health is one of those now. 

MELINDA Groov’s been partnering with workplaces for a number of years now to help them embed wellbeing. Are you starting to hear feedback from these workplaces that it’s really making a notable difference in their team members’ mental health?

JOHN Oh, totally. But we know all that already. If you look at all the Gallup polls, they say 75 percent of distress mentally comes from your boss. 

MELINDA [surprised laugh] Really?

JOHN Yeah, work that out! The stats say that if you care for your people mentally, if you have trust and care in your workplace, you’ll get more productivity and more attention. We know that. It’s just, how do you do that? For me, it’s about how do we teach our people to make a mental health plan, and how does the leader put it on the agenda? How is this ‘just what we do’?

MELINDA Given the isolations of the pandemic period, how important is it for people’s mental health to have a strong sense of being part of a team in the workplace?

JOHN You have to feel that belonging. I think hybrid working is just part of the future, but it can’t be at the sacrifice of your people feeling that they belong and that they’re trusted and cared for. If you talk to some leaders, they’ll say, ‘Oh, people won’t work [at home], they just want to drop their kids off to school’. And I think that 3-4 percent of the population just don’t give a shit and will never work, but that’s the same whether they walk into your office or not. But the other 96, 97 percent of people want to do the right thing. So they will work and they will produce and be productive in a different way. Nobody’s got this right yet, nobody understands what this will look like from a hybrid point of view, but there is no way that you’re going to get anything much out of your people if they don’t feel that belonging and trust and care, whether they’re hybrid or sitting in front of you.

MELINDA So upskilling leaders is going to be critical to future workplace wellbeing because they’re the anchor point among all the different people in or outside the workplace?

JOHN Yeah, 50 years ago, nobody would have given a shit about being an empathetic leader. Now everyone’s saying, ‘Well, he might not have this skill or that skill, but he’s one of our best because he’s an empathetic leader.’ The empathetic leader is coming into their own because they make people feel cared for and that they belong. I think sport is an amazing accelerator around that. You see guys getting sacked from their jobs in football teams because they’ve disconnected with the players. They don’t necessarily need to be that technical anymore. We’ve seen that with the selection of our latest All Black coach, who’s open about the fact that he’s not full-on technical. He’s more about environment and belonging. And I think that’s the leader of the future. 

MELINDA Does a lot of your understanding of this come from your time coaching sports teams?

JOHN A lot of it comes from my personal experience of being clinically depressed. I call it my daily mental health plan, but it’s the six pillars. If you’ve got Groov and look at the app, there are six pillars [Chill, Do, Connect, Celebrate, Move and Enjoy], and that’s what I do on a daily basis. Within each of those I’ve got two or three things that I do. Then, when I talk about performance care, that comes from my sporting background. How do we put those two conversations together now? When you think about the workplace of old, it was about having performance conversations, and not about your feelings or how the workplace could care for you, ever. And lately it’s come in a wee bit, so we’re thinking about how to have a care conversation before the person actually breaks because they can’t deal with all the pressure. 

MELINDA From a care perspective, do you think it’s important to invest in helping your team members develop a sense of unity?

JOHN For me, the sense of belonging and team culture, having core values that you decide together, are fundamental. That’s the basis of any team. They’ve got to be shared, worked on together, and gotta be lived every day. You know where you stand, you know what the values are, you know what the actions are under that. I often talk about how I hate some [values] words because they’re actually ‘doing’ words. Like if I said to you, we need to show courage – what the hell does that mean, if you’ve got 15 people? That’s going to mean something different for everyone. So as a team, we have to decide what these words, these values, mean for us, as a team. You might have different values at home. But at work, you have to have values that you decide together, and know what they look like from day to day.

Like, to take something really simple, maybe respect, for us, means that we’re all going to come into work on a Wednesday. And you can hybrid work on Monday and Tuesday but on Wednesday you need to be in. Or, we’re having an SLT [Senior Leadership Team] meeting four times a month, and it’s going to start at 2pm and I want you all there and not late. That, for us, is respect. It’s concrete stuff that you can measure and see, and it’s nothing to do with the values of home. Sometimes we get those mixed up, all this fluffy shit that you can’t live by.

MELINDA Is in-person time important in terms of developing those shared values?

JOHN Totally. Totally. You could probably do 200 million performance conversations, because it’s what we do at work. But add the care piece to it in the same conversation. And I think that’s where work needs to go. And that care is really simple. Like, it might be really important for someone to pick their kids up three times a week, and the company can agree to that, but how’s that going to work with performance if you’ve just agreed to have an SLT four times a month at 2pm? So, you have to put the puzzle together. It’s a performance-care conversation at the same time.

What happens, unfortunately, because we’ve left our mental health at the door for 100 years, is that workplace managers think if they’re having these conversations, that people are going to come out with their psychological problems. And at Groov, we say, ‘No. If you have all these conversations all the time, the leader knows how to get someone to the EAP [Employee Assistance Programme] service, or if someone needs a psychiatrist or psychologist, the leader can help facilitate that, so their people feel supported’. That’s why I call it preventative mental health.

MELINDA Does leadership become more effective when leaders become more relatable by sharing some of their own vulnerabilities, like you have?

JOHN I think vulnerability is a key skill for creating a healthy work environment. Leaders have to live this, or people won’t follow. So when we talk about how you do this, the leader has to be prepared to have his daily mental health plan, he has to be able to be prepared to start building that psychological safety bridge, he has to share some of his care concerns and how he works best.

And this is scary, right, especially if you’re a middle-aged white guy – because we just didn’t live like that and neither did our parents. I never hugged or kissed my dad. I used to shake his hand. And he didn’t love me any less, but he would have been the first one to tell me, ‘Don’t bloody take those problems to work, son, just do your job’. It’s just the generation we grew up with.

It’s a learned skill – and once you’ve learned that skill, I think the most important thing is that people will feel that belonging. When I talk about leadership skills, vulnerability is definitely one of them. You don’t have to cry. You just have to say, ‘I’m struggling to deal with my 250 emails sometimes, and I need some help.’ And your people think, ‘Oh, shit. Same as me.’ 

MELINDA In the big picture, how are New Zealand workplaces doing when it comes to changing the way we think about employee care? In many ways, we’re seen as a progressive nation, but our mental health statistics are pretty concerning. 

JOHN The reason why we’ve done this is that I believe there’s an awareness, and there’s starting to be less stigma, but we don’t have the resources. I believe that unless the workplace really embraces this, we’re not going to change our stats. If businesses embrace this and say ‘Yes, I can make a difference by learning these things’, we will change our mental health stats. It’s not the only thing that needs to happen. We also need to change our school system, and I’m doing something there as well. 

This interview is one in a three-part series about how workplaces are evolving. To read the interview with psychologist and architect Erin Peavey, click here. And  to read the interview with Sarah Wright, an associate head of department at the University of Canterbury's Business School, who is researching workplace loneliness, click here.