Posted: 17 Dec. 2015 05 min. read

Staying Sane

The rise of the mindful leader

Harvey Christophers leads the Risk Advisory Practice at Deloitte, a role he took on 4 years ago when the service line was languishing. He talks candidly to Catherine Pinfold, Manager Risk Advisory about his brush with exhaustion as he brought the service linkURL back from the brink and at the same time tackled some unique personal challenges; and the importance for him of mindfulness and resilience techniques to manage his mental wellbeing.

The business world has finally caught up with what the yogis have been saying for years: Mindfulness is good for you. While further research will add insight into the how and why, promising work is already emerging to support the anecdotal evidence that mindfulness and meditation has a positive effect on our bodies and brain.

Tang, (2015) recently published a review of a number of studies in this area. Their paper ‘The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation’. Suggests that practicing non-judgemental, present moment awareness (mindfulness) can change the brain. While the study focused on a number of regions in the brain, one region is of particular interest for business leaders: the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). This helps with self-regulation and people with damage to this area can show aggressive behaviour and mental inflexibility. Even more interestingly Tang found that meditation can affect how people behave. Meditators showed more activity in the ACC and demonstrated more self-regulation, resisted distraction and learned from experience to support optimal decision making.

Is it unsurprising then that more and more executives (and employees) are using mindfulness and meditation as a way to cope with the pressures of work, family and life.

Harvey Christophers, Service Line Partner for Risk Advisory (RA), Deloitte Australia talks candidly about mindfulness with Catherine Pinfold, Manager RA. While the service line has been going from strength to strength under his stewardship since he took the reins four years ago, it wasn’t always the case. Harvey discusses the ‘rough patch’ he went through while trying to balance turning around an ailing practice, career and family responsibilities, and the important role mindfulness and mental health played on helping him work through that patch.

CP: You have previously shared a personal story with the RA Leadership group about a tough period in your life where you had to take time for yourself. Can you give the readers some background into that ‘rough patch’?

HC: [It was] a couple of years ago now. I had been the Service Line Leader for a few years in a business that was at the beginning of a turnaround. I was putting my heart and soul into it – I love my job and the people who I work with.  Work was stressful but no more than there had been for some time. However, things were building up. At the same time, my mum was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease so I was going back to the UK quite regularly to help her. I ended up as my mum’s carer that lived thousands of kilometres away.

It all came to a head over 3-4 days where, for the first time in my life, I felt immensely flat and was struggling to pick myself up and feel energised; even my cherished morning swims failed to lift my spirits. The experience was very disorientating for me, as I am normally a pretty happy-go-lucky, resilient individual; it hit me quite hard and I think a number of people around me noticed.

I got through that but when it happened for a second time a month later I had to stand up and listen.  Fortunately my wife is a great listener (and a counsellor) so I had great support at home. She encouraged me to seek support.  So I went to see a Deloitte recommended psychologist who said that I was in a typical intergenerational situation:

“You’re in your late forties so you’re in the highest pressure point of your career. You’ve got acute problems and pressures with your mum, which is mentally stressful for you. You’ve got teenage kids who are growing up.”

He gave me comfort in explaining that I was experiencing extreme exhaustion and that I did not have to go it alone…

But I realised I needed to learn techniques to manage my stress because my life was not going to change: I’m still a service line leader (and love the team and the role); my mum is still ill; and I’m still regularly travelling to England.

I ended up paying to go to a two-day mindfulness course at a local retreat.

The mindfulness practices that I was taught have been a fantastic way for me to deal with things. So now when I’m feeling flat I know what I have to do. It can be when I get on a plane at 6am in the morning or when I’m at work I take a few minutes to use my breathing technique to relax. The technique I use is to count down breaths, however everyone is different and what works for me may not work for someone else. There are plenty of mindfulness intervention courses out there where you can learn different techniques and adapt to your own preferences.

The best thing about breathing is that you can do it anywhere and after only a few minutes notice the effects on my body and mind.

CP:  As you mentioned you took on the challenge of reinvigorating the Risk Advisory Service line, a fairly daunting and challenging task given where it was in the market. What kept you going? 

  I was appointed in January 2012 and it was 2 ½ years before it really started to go well. It takes a long time to get the right talent and there were a number of people that also left. It was a pretty tough time.  What kept me going was the support I got from above and below, in particular, the level of trust from the firm’s Executive team.

CP: It can often be difficult to detach your personal self from your career identity which can have a negative impact on your personal life.  Was this challenge for you?  Do you have certain techniques you use to detach yourself from your job?

Yes it is difficult, there is always a little bit of work with you. I work hard to find structured time with the family and I rarely work weekends.  When my girls were younger, I used to take Wednesday afternoons off; I would leave at 3pm to connect with them. Now I often meet with my wife for lunch on a Friday.

One thing I do find that makes me a better person is the fresh air on the top deck of the ferry home.

CP: The RA service line is about 550 employees strong. What are some of the initiatives that the RA executives are doing to help individuals with their own resilience and personal leadership?

HC: We haven’t got any RA specific programmes as there are a number of Deloitte initiatives on their way. Wellness is one of Deloitte’s key strategies with a focus on four specific pillars:

  • Spiritual Wellness – feel a sense of purpose and meaning in what you do each day.
  • Mental Wellness – continually learn new skills; develop your mental health and resilience.
  • Emotional Wellness – feel connected, networked and be supported by a culture of inclusiveness and respect.
  • Physical Wellness – build physical endurance and renew yourself.

These pillars are inextricably linked: the goal is to create balance across all dimensions. We want our people to bring their whole selves to work and in turn we will support wellness across all dimensions.

We also have the existing things like Employee Assistance Program (a free and confidential short-term counselling service provided by Deloitte for employees) which people find very beneficial.

CP: It can be tough at the top – who do you look to for inspiration/motivation in challenging times?

Firstly my family. Nothing grounds me or energises/motivates me more than my wife and kids. After all, they are why I am here.. I do see work as another extended family and I look for inspiration from many individuals at work. But close, personal trusting relationships at work have always been important for me. The two people I looked to most for support through the tough transformation of RA were Giam Swiegers (ex-CEO, Deloitte Australia) and Dennis Krallis (who was my co-leader throughout the transformation) I could always count on their support, honesty and counsel – it’s very difficult to quantify that!

You need people who know you well, who are going to provide you with support and motivation.

CP: If you could offer your younger self a piece of advice about resilience what would it be?

To invest in my mental health and resilience at an earlier stage and that it is as important as the physical and emotional.

I’ve learnt a lot and there are more people than you think who struggle with mental health issues. In the scheme of things I had a shaky few days, I was lucky it wasn’t more serious. I’m a resilient character and have some good techniques now. I think it’s important for people to be brave and have conversations with people who can support them and to know that they will be supported as they work through things.

For further information contact Catherine Pinfold.

Tang, Y 2015 The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature 16, 213-225.

Meet our author

Cat Pinfold

Cat Pinfold

Client Manager, Risk Advisory

Catherine (Cat) is a Manager in our Risk Transformation Practice. She has 15 years of Human Capital experience across Financial Services and Manufacturing in some of Australia and New Zealand's largest firms.  She has worked across a broad range of Human Capital disciplines and change programmes.