When I stepped out of the lift and onto the trading floor at Hoare Govett in Heron House 35 years ago, I am certain that employee wellbeing was not at the top of the senior partner’s agenda. Whilst the stresses and strains of the job were never far from the surface, they were unspoken and rarely shared. Drowning one’s sorrows was very much part of the job.
How times have changed. Nowadays, I can think of at least two friends on the boards of major city law and accountancy firms who have specific responsibility for employee wellbeing and mindfulness. It is well documented why companies take their employees’ wellbeing seriously: happy workers are more productive, stay longer and make recruitment easier.
Large companies are investing significant resources in this direction. “Head of Wellbeing” is an increasingly common job title and a substantial amount of management time is being spent on tackling the contemporary curse of stress and anxiety. Access to counselling and medical support is often the first reaction and, of course, is to be welcomed. However, I have increasingly come to believe that there might be an earlier intervention, verging on a natural remedy, that could be prescribed by HR Departments: getting outside!
I remember being in Hong Kong 25 years ago and totally stressing out over a deal that was going pear shaped. Sleepless nights became the norm. My Cathay Pacific pilot friend had already introduced me to walking in the hills on Hong Kong Island and I began to realise that a big problem in my mind at the start of the walk miraculously seemed a lot smaller at the end of it. Puffing up hills, beautiful views, laughing with friends, family or colleagues all sharing the experience gave me a new perspective.
Back then, mobile phones and social media had not been invented. At least it was always possible to be out of touch from the office even if the office was not out of mind. I really do wonder today how I would have coped with the pressures of the modern working environment. It is not surprising that mindfulness and wellbeing, the antithesis of stress and anxiety, have become the holy grail.
As my career slowly started to wind down, I began to derive great enjoyment from meticulously planning walks and sharing the subsequent adventure with family and friends. We did the best of Hadrian’s Wall, parts of the West Highland Way, bothies and Cape Wrath, the odd Monroe and parts of the South Downs and the Ridgeway. I became convinced that the benefits and the therapeutic value to be gained from a walk, that I had first detected in Hong Kong, really did exist. Walking side by side encourages a far more open conversation than looking at each other face to face. Being in the fresh air, ready to deal with whatever the weather throws at you, generates a sense of wellbeing like no other. Sharing the beautiful views, knowing where to pick up a coffee, enjoy a picnic and where to stay all added to the shared experience. Relationships and bonds are formed from a day or two’s walk that last for years. Barriers come down and conversations flow.