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Leading motivational speaker and mental health and wellbeing communicator Nick Elston talks about his career journey and what companies need to remember in a post-pandemic workplace.

Nick Elston first spoke about mental health after experiencing a breakdown outside a networking event at a Premier Inn in Somerset in 2012.

“I was operating with a lot of high anxiety, and what I didn’t realise at the time is that I was consistently running at a point of burnout,” says Nick.

He was initially diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder when he was seven years old, but due to a lack of ‘awareness and solutions’ at the time, it was largely unaddressed, and morphed into generalised anxiety disorder (GAD).

“GAD is where you consistently run at high anxiety and high nervous energy – basically, flat out all the time. The by-product of that is you can be highly successful, high functioning and high performing. But you can only run for so long until you stop,” says Nick.

He had built a career in client-facing roles, including various account management and partnership jobs. But he reached a point where something had to shift – in both his career and his approach to his own health.

“It was a real sliding doors moment,” says Nick. “I’d never spoken about anything personal before – certainly as a man, in the corporate space, as a six-foot-four, 20-stone alpha male talking about mental illness in 2012 wasn’t a done thing.

“But at the same networking meeting two weeks later, I shared what happened to me, and that’s what changed everything for me.”

The reception Nick got from sharing openly was crucial.

“Everybody in that room queued up to give me support, to give me a hug, and it suddenly wasn’t about me anymore. What was a really selfish move – and I encourage everyone at that point to be selfish – but at that point sharing my experiences with the filter off, I found that the truth was absolutely liberating.”

After he opened up, he found others started sharing with him about their own experiences. Not just of mental illness, but around race, gender, sexuality, grief, abuse and addiction.

Learn more about mental health and mental fitness, here!

“That was the point where I saw the power of being able to deliver a message,” explains Nick, who now communicates with many different groups, from big corporates like KFC, Harvey Nichols and American Express to prisons and young offenders to school students.

Creating resilience

Nick believes this ‘liberating’ truth he experienced will be key to transitioning to a post-pandemic workplace.

“Essentially, it comes down to human-to-human conversations,” he says. “Now more than ever, we need to show not just vulnerability, but more compassion and empathy. One thing that stops people from opening up is judgement or fear of being ridiculed. We really need to take that away and remove the barriers.”

He says this involves no generalising, stereotyping, and recognising people will be in different situations coming away from this pandemic.

“It breeds a great culture to share more vulnerability, to build a depth of relationships with our teams, our workforce, our colleagues. The more we share of ourselves, the more we get back, and it builds depth faster and stronger than anything else will,” says Nick.

According to Nick, entering into this new phase of work-life will also require people to be more aware of both themselves and others.

“The biggest challenge is yet to come in a lot of ways,” he says. “We’re all trying to adapt to that new normal that everyone’s talking about. But it’s also accepting that how we used to live and work and learn is completely different now than it was last year. The reality is, it could be different again in three months’ time.

“For me, it’s about resilience. People need to consider this like a fresh start, a clean slate to step out and live a life on their terms, to really start to check in with their environment, what’s good for them and what’s not.”

Nick says this is a very individual process that involves understanding more of yourself, what helps, and what doesn’t.

He suggests creating a ‘playbook’ to help in moments of overwhelm or anxiety; or a list of things that will help ‘change your state effectively’, he says, like yoga, a playlist or meditation.

“For me, it’s country music. It resets me, tells a story – I love that. So, actually, in those moments, I know what to turn to,” says Nick.

Avoiding burnout

As we enter into a potentially high-anxiety transition period, where things are changing, it’s also important to look at the causes of burnout and ways to avoid it.

Nick says the two major reasons for burnout and breakdown are masking behaviour and not giving ourselves space.

Masking is where you find yourself trying to be someone you’re not.

“If you find that you don’t have the confidence, self-esteem or courage sometimes to say no to people we want to say no to, then that’s a good time to check in because we’ll try and be what people want to see in us and we’ll try and be what situations demand of us,” says Nick. “We’re so scared of showing ourselves.”

Secondly, people should be aware of how they fill their day – and make sure they prioritise themselves within it.

“We fill up our work day with all of our work commitments and then we’ll give away the rest of our time to whoever shouts loudest,” he says. “We don’t feature in our own lives, and that’s scary.”

“If we’re not prioritising time for us to rest, recover and recharge, we are running the risk of prolonged burnout and subsequent breakdown,” he adds.

One employer Nick works with has mandated that everyone has 30 minutes per day when no one can book your time in order to provide space for rest.

That space is going to be especially important over the next few months.

“With every corporate client I work with, change is always by far the biggest anxiety trigger reported back, but change is inevitable,” says Nick.

“We cannot control the pandemic. We cannot control what other people say and do. All we can control is how we choose to go into the day.”

Want to hear more from Nick? Watch the replay of his session at Generation CFO Live! ‘Take a break! Remote working and mental health’