Jack Green is a Double Olympian and European and World medalist. Since his decision to retire at 28-years-old due to his own mental health challenges, Jack's on a mission to make a difference to corporate wellbeing.
After retiring from track and field, Jack led on and delivered a well-being strategy during COVID-19 for BBC Studios and has since launched his own Wellbeing Consultancy, Olywel.
Let’s start with a bit about you and your background.
When I was younger, I wanted to be a zookeeper or an archaeologist. I loved animals and dinosaurs - I still do!
At seven-years-old, I tried out to represent my Primary School’s District Sports Team in the 60m. I ended up beating everyone by quite a margin and remember thinking ‘I’m quite good at this’ and that I liked being told I was good at something.
I had a bit of a meteoric rise. At 15, I broke the British record for my age in the 400m hurdles. I went to my first World Championships in Daegu at 19, which was a huge achievement. At 20, I went to the London Olympics and finished fourth, missing out on a medal by 0.13sec in the relay. I was a semi-finalist in the hurdles, but unfortunately, I fell. At that point, I was ranked top 10 in the world and had finished fourth at the Olympics in front of a home crowd.
At the time, I saw finishing fourth as a failure. When I look back now, I’m incredibly proud but it was a huge trigger for me. I was diagnosed with depression, bipolar tendencies, and anxiety. I was very suicidal at this point and considered a threat to my life.
Is that where your journey with wellbeing started?
Yes. I took two years out and when I came back, I won one European bronze and one World bronze, and finished fourth at the Commonwealth Games. I was still struggling with mental health and in 2019, I decided to take a year out to re-energize before the Tokyo Olympics.
I started working with a counsellor for the first time and made the decision to retire at 28-years-old for the sake of my mental health. It’s probably one of the bravest things I've ever done. It goes against what society understands and expects of you, because at 28, I was in my prime.
When I retired, I was already a keynote speaker, as well as being an ambassador for mental health. I also coached a number of athletes. I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to take on the role of Head of Wellbeing for BBC Studios. I started a week before the UK Lockdown. My initial brief was to audit the wellbeing at BBC Studios, but as you can imagine it became a much bigger job because of the pandemic.
The role was incredibly reactive, and I’m really proud of what I achieved. I was responsible for the wellbeing of 30 offices and over 5,000 people. A real measure of success for me is whether I am able to help and support people, and we were able to do that.
I stayed at the BBC for seven months, but I wanted to be able to help more people and have more autonomy and flexibility over my work. This led me to set up a consultancy, Olywel.
Let’s talk a bit about Olywel.
The real differentiator for Olywel is the focus on both wellbeing and performance. In my world, if you look after the human being, you'll get great performance. I believe that personal performance leads to professional performance. That’s something I want to champion.
Olywel is an advisory service. I am there to advise companies, teams and individuals on how they can improve wellbeing. Often my work starts with an informal audit of what businesses have in place, but we also offer workshops and keynote speakers to deliver sessions. The number of services offered will increase as we get going - I’ve got big plans and there’s a lot of work to do.
Do you think the pressure of being an elite athlete exacerbated your challenges?
Yes, 100 per cent. The pressure that came from being an elite athlete and the pressure that I put upon myself was the reason I had a very poor mindset in terms of well-being and mental health. It’s interesting. I had an incredibly successful mindset in the immediate term, because I was so black and white. It was very brutal, and I wasn't very kind to myself, but it allowed me to work at a really high intensity.
Do you think struggling with your mental health was inevitable?
I think the pressure of the Olympics and of being an elite athlete merely accelerated my mental health challenges, but it’s something that would have been an issue at some point in my life. I can look back now with increased awareness and education and tell you that I really struggled with anxiety and mental health as a child. But because I was successful it was almost OK. This happens all the time in the corporate world. Whenever we’re successful we don't look at what we might’ve had to sacrifice or what we’ve lost on the way. We just see the end result and that it was great, but we never consider whether it was a short-term gain which came at a cost.
Would you change anything about your mental health journey?
This is an interesting question and I remember being asked a while back whether I would choose to get rid of my mental health issues. I answered ‘no’. I wouldn't change anything, unless I could take all the lessons I've learnt along the way, all the knowledge I've gained, and all the experience I’ve had, and just lose the bad bits. If that were the case, of course I would.
The reality is, I have a really good life. I'm really grateful for everything, even the bad. My experiences have given me a clear purpose. I’m trying to help as many people as I can, something which is far more fulfilling than anything I achieved in sport.
Did you find the move into the corporate world difficult, coming from your sporting background?
I did. I hated it, but the move gave me an advantage. I’m not at all corporate which allowed me to go into a new world and see things differently. One of the most dangerous things to say is ‘well we’ve always done it this way’. I can go into a business and not get blindsided by how the business is already working.
I’ve been called a disruptor many times because of it, but it would work the same the other way. If you were to move from business to athletics, you would probably question certain things.
I struggle to understand the concept of working full-time. Where I come from, if you do a task and you do it well, then you’re done. The focus shifts to rest and recovery. When I moved to being office based, I really struggled with the fact that I’d worked really hard to get something done, and then had to sit at my desk for another x hours with not a lot to do. If I’m waiting on someone or something, I still have to be there. I’ll never comprehend why if you meet your performance goal on a project, you’re not able to just go home and look after yourself. It’s just not productive.
Is a greater degree of flexibility the answer?
For me, we need a revamp of how we measure performance. If we’re saying we’re no longer focused on time, then we need to do more work on how we define flexible working. It’s an interesting one, but I’m not sure many companies have communicated the rules and boundaries well enough. In my experience, there is often still a stigma and judgement around whether you reply to an email at 10pm. That needs to change.
I remember being at the BBC having just finished a big piece of work, and suddenly being aware that I needed to move my mouse so that my Skype status changed to online or active. I’d done my work, so why did that matter?
We need to do better at defining performance. What is success? How do we measure it? I think that wellbeing has a real part to play here and if we make it a performance measurement, it will become more important.
What role does HR play in driving the wellbeing agenda?
I’ll start by saying that wellbeing is for everyone. I tend to find that I work a lot with the HR community as wellbeing often sits under the people function.
For me personally, I think the wellbeing agenda is for leaders to drive. I think HR teams are doing too much already. It’s funny because particularly at the moment, HR is often the department suffering most from a mental health and wellbeing point of view, yet they’re expected to be responsible for the wellbeing of others.
Much of my work with the HR community is around culture and moving away from wellbeing being reactive. Yes, it's important to have interventions. Yes, it's important to have support and services, but they shouldn't be the first thing that we address. Instead, we need to look at culture. If we can get leaders and middle management on board, we'll see a lot of change and fast. Cultural change has longer term, sustainable effects.
At the moment, wellbeing tends to be a one-off service or a communication. It’s not that businesses are doing it wrong, it’s just a sign of the stage we’re at - we're still reactive.
How far do you think we’ve come in changing societal attitudes to mental health and is there a difference between the sporting world vs the corporate world?
There’s a huge difference. The sporting world is a million miles behind the corporate world. If I’d known what I know now, I wouldn't have gone public with my mental health during my sporting career, despite being very proud of the journey that I've had.
Mental health is definitely misunderstood within sport. The good news is that it will get better, as mental health becomes more widely talked about and accepted in society.
It’s important to make the point that we’ve made real progress. If you look at the role I'm doing now and the role I had at the BBC, it wasn’t long ago that those roles didn’t exist. Awareness of mental health is now much greater and that’s for a number of reasons: communication, social media, the great work of charities, and individuals being brave enough to speak about their experiences.
Where are we on our mental health journey?
We’ve reached a point where the majority of people accept that mental health ‘exists’. But what’s sometimes missing and the next stage on our journey, is educating people. Education is so important, so when people experience mental health challenges personally, or in their environment at home or at work, they're more aware and better equipped to deal with the situation.
Have we seen much action since the beginning of the pandemic? Do you think we’ve moved from discussing wellbeing, to implementing initiatives and making changes?
I think we have overall. I think Covid-19 has forced our hand in many ways. Businesses and leaders are starting to understand and have a greater appreciation for the fact that employees are human beings. Video calls give us a window into peoples’ families, lives and pets and employees are no longer just a number.
The first Lockdown meant that we had to take a reactive approach to prioritising wellbeing. The pandemic was unprecedented and wholly unexpected and we weren’t prepared. But as time goes on, it’ll be interesting to see whether businesses continue to push forward with wellbeing.
Do you think they will?
I think so. I’m sure many businesses will make it a cultural thing and that’s where my true passion lies. If I’m honest, most businesses won't have a choice in the matter, mental health and wellbeing will have to be priority. Those who don’t make it part of their DNA will get left behind because it's now an expectation of the new generation coming into the workplace.
For businesses with limited budget, have you got any wellbeing tips? What small changes can be made to help prioritise wellbeing?
I think it’s important to say that there are plenty of small changes that can be implemented. Wellbeing isn’t about having £100,000 in the bank and bringing in a variety of different services, it’s about looking at cultural change. A lack of budget shouldn’t put businesses off.
Change meeting habits.
It's an easy place to start. Think about how long meetings last because Zoom and MS Teams fatigue is becoming a real issue. Why not alter how long people can book meetings for? Simply by restricting meetings to 25 minutes or 55 minutes, rather than half an hour or an hour, you guarantee that people get a break before jumping on their next call.
Make sure the first thing you say in a meeting doesn’t relate to business. Make sure you ask how people are, or how their weekend or evening was. Make the start of a meeting about social connection, something we’re hugely lacking at the moment. It’s a brilliant way of prioritising wellbeing without having to do too much. Changing your meeting culture can be a really important first step.
Draw on internal stories.
They’re incredibly powerful. Vulnerability changed my life and made me feel so much more. Sharing stories gives others something to relate to or to understand, which will lead to them to being able to help or ask for help themselves.
When stories come from leaders and middle management, it helps to show that they’re human beings. Internal speakers will be more powerful and impactful than any external speaker because they’re familiar to others in the business, they might do the same roles, and they’re easy to relate to. If you have anyone in your business who is passionate enough and comfortable enough to tell their story, then it’s amazing.
Continuity is key.
We see it so often, it’s mental health awareness week or a particular day, and we’ll do something in support. That’s great, but then we won’t talk about it for the rest of the year. It shows a lack of authenticity and gives the impression that we don’t really care about mental health and wellbeing. If we did, we’d put on events throughout the year. It wouldn’t be a one-off or an afterthought.
Do you think we're starting to see more vulnerability from leaders, particularly over the last 11 months?
Definitely. I think leaders must have emotional intelligence and vulnerability; they’re becoming crucial traits. Leaders who demonstrate those qualities will thrive, as will their employees.
I love it when people are honest. It makes me feel valued. I think without it, there’s a real sense of hierarchy and people struggle because they almost don’t feel like they have permission. Let’s take an example of a leader saying that they’re taking an extra 10 minutes on their lunch break. If they explain they want to get some fresh air because it’s good for their wellbeing, the result is that your employees know that it’s OK to do the same.
What's next for you and Olywel?
I want to help as many people as possible. For me, the measure of success relates to how many people I can help. That’s my purpose.
Then on the coaching side, the Olympics are coming up in August - so lots to keep me busy!
Click here to learn more about Olywel and the great work they do.
If you're interested in being interviewed as part of the BPS Perspectives series, I'd love to hear from you. You can get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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