Chair of Parkinson’s UK on how to manage a mental health condition at work

Gary Shaughnessy, Chair of Parkinson's UK and Z Zurich Foundation and former CEO EMEA, Zurich Insurance, shares his personal story of managing the progressive neurological condition, and the lessons learnt that can help others navigate uncertainty and stress within the workplace.

Why did I agree to write an article about mental health?


There are really three reasons. Firstly, again and again I’ve seen the effects of anxiety and stress eat away at people. Despite a lot of progress over the last few years, people still feel there is a stigma around mental health. Physical health issues just seem to receive more understanding and empathy. When the statistics show that dealing with mental health issues early on makes a massive difference, having a societal norm that encourages people to say nothing until things are “really serious” is a huge problem.


Secondly, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it a massive and long-term increase in mental health issues. If stress is worsened by change, uncertainty, grief, fear and isolation, then the pandemic is the perfect breeding ground.


The third reason is when it gets personal, though. When I thought about it more, I realised that what I’ve adjusted to with Parkinson’s is relevant to lots of situations. While I’m fortunate that I’ve not experienced depression or high levels of anxiety in the way that many people with Parkinson’s do, there’s plenty I wish I’d known more about six years ago.


Parkinson’s has certainly taken away my spontaneity and dented my confidence. I was never someone who loved being on the stage, but I was always comfortable making comments as captain of the football team, as part of family gatherings or in a business context. Thinking on my feet was what I was good at doing and this was a big part of what helped me succeed in business.


Parkinson’s really doesn’t lend itself to spontaneity. It creates a repeating cycle ruled by your medication. When I first take my medication, the dopamine can spike too much which can actually make my tremor worse. Then it settles down and, as the medication wears off, the tremor returns. If you’ve got a key presentation or meeting, trying to work to this schedule can be a challenge. Like many people, I have the additional test of my body’s response to the medication not always being predictable.


At the end of last year I was asked to do a speech at a rugby club who had decided to make Parkinson’s UK their charity of the year. On the way down to the meeting, my wife, Janet, was driving and my medications were making no difference. I doubled up my medication dose (not particularly smart), but that still made no difference. As we arrived, I was convinced that the rugby club was going to be treated to an unintended show of my dad dancing! Fortunately, after a shaky introduction to a couple of people outside the club room, my medication suddenly kicked in. Someone even made the comment to me afterwards that they wouldn’t have been able to tell I had Parkinson’s if they didn’t know!


So, now I over-prepare. I need to understand the message I’m giving well enough to be able to keep going if the shaking kicks in. When a meeting gets delayed, it’s a minor inconvenience for most people but it can be a mini-cyclone for me!


I was due to present to Zurich Insurance Group Ltd’s Board a couple of years ago. It was a busy agenda and my slot was delayed about 30 minutes and my medication was wearing off. By the time I sat down, my right leg was almost uncontrollable. Situations like this can feel like playing darts while balancing on a tightrope. However, this example is one of many which shows just how brilliant people can be when they know there’s a problem.


I felt concerned that I had effectively been lightly kicking the Board member on my right for a full hour while I’d been in the meeting and, when we broke for lunch, I apologised to her for doing so. Her response was superb – “I really didn’t notice” she said and followed it up with a cracking (and difficult) question that showed she’d listened to everything I’d said. I have no wish to be defined by my condition or let off lightly and she had matched that absolutely.


Another great response came from a close colleague from Zurich’s leadership team. As my medication wore off, I kept on having to stand up or walk round the office to manage this situation. Everything I did, he did. His message was “I’m with you and I’m not going to let this get in the way of the discussion we’re having.” It didn’t and my admiration for this colleague grew.


Expecting my condition to be ignored is not reasonable and at some point in the working day Parkinson’s reveals itself. The challenges and frequent travel that came with the job of being Zurich CEO EMEA were not conducive to improving that condition – quite the reverse. Looking back, the decision I took to step into semi-retirement was absolutely the right one. Recognising the importance of my health, I’m now able to spend time focusing on the things that are most important to me.


I was fortunate to have the unstinting support of Zurich’s Executive Committee and crucial backing of my family, friends and colleagues. I’ve also had the wonderful opportunity to be chairing the Z Zurich Foundation and Parkinson’s U.K. The inspiration and energy that I get from the brilliant people involved and the perspective that they give me is so powerful and the challenges that both are trying to deal with are fundamental.


I’ve been asked to share some lessons that I’d take from my experience that may be relevant to others. So, I’ve got five if you’re dealing with a condition that impacts you, five for managers/leaders and one overall.


If you’re dealing with a condition yourself:


1. Most people are brilliant – in my experience, worrying about what people might say was so unnecessary. People care and they adjust to make things work


2. Team-mates aren’t doctors though. You really have to get expert advice. Recognising and adjusting to help is one thing, advising you is completely different. There are excellent resources available to you – make use of them


3. It can feel like you’re the only one dealing with a challenging situation. In most cases, you’re not. Learning from how you feel can make you more empathetic to others


4. It’s easy to avoid the issue and leave it to tomorrow. Most things are handled better if they are handled early


5. Give yourself a break. At some point, you’ll react in a way that you wished you hadn’t or not get something perfectly right. Forgive yourself and try and move forwards


If you have someone in your team who you think is struggling:


1. Be open but not intrusive


2. Don’t try to be a Doctor


3. Don’t define the person by their condition


4. There’s superb support to help you too


5. Give yourself a break. You won’t have the perfect response all the time. Forgive yourself and try and move forwards


Overall: Be careful of advice like this. It can give a perspective but only you can really understand your situation.



You can now watch the MindMatters digital event, discussing how to prioritise the mental wellbeing of you and your teams, in partnership with Z Zurich Foundation, here


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