Business Hub: Xero boss Craig Hudson has five practical tips for dealing with workplace stress in the age of Covid

Craig Hudson was playing professional rugby in England when flu in his chest morphed into a virus and attacked the lining of his heart.

The 1.98m winger collapsed during training.

“My heart rate went to 240 and I was airlifted to hospital.”

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He was later diagnosed with over-training syndrome. It was the beginning of the end for his rugby career, at just 23.

The School C dropout then set out on a career in business, with roles at a media outfit and an oil company. But if anything, he found it even more bruising than the rugby pitch – if psychologically rather than physically.

The Xero NZ managing director and men’s health advocate says when he started in the workplace, “it was very much the lads’ club, where I had to front up and leave all my baggage at the door and be the first in the office and the last to leave. It drove a culture that I didn’t really fit in with, or enjoy”.

He had encountered work-hard, play-hard, stiff upper lip attitudes before, “But it wasn’t until I was really in a bad culture in a workplace where I started to spiral out of control,” he says. “That’s when my mental health journey began.”

In 2014, Hudson joined Xero, initially working as a territory account manager based in the UK. He steadily rose through the ranks, and in 2014 returned to take the reins ofaccounting company’s 1000-strong NZ operation (although Xero is now listed on the ASX, where it recently hit a dizzying A$19.07 billion market cap), it is still headquartered in Wellington and the majority of its staff work in NZ).

From his new position near the top of the greasy pole, Hudson took the opportunity to put some of his ideas about men’s health – and workplace stress for all staff – into action.

For starters, “I sat a good chunk of the team down and told them my story,” Hudson says.

“I’d been working for Xero for two and a half years, but up in the UK, so they didn’t know who I was. It turned out that I told my story for 45, 50 minutes – a little bit of a raw story, to be honest, about my mental health journey, which pulled the curtain back.”

Staff were thinking, “‘Holy crap, who is this guy? I’m not used to a leader being this open’,” Hudson says.

“So there were tears, there was a bit of laughter, but it built a connection” and an environment where people know “it’s okay to not be okay” and to have conversations about that at the office.

He adds, “And something I’ve been pretty staunch on has been being authentic and making sure that you’re not just faking it and putting a mask on. I’ve done that too much in my career.”

He introduced five practical steps to keep up the momentum (see below) and says as well as making a better place to work, such measures pay off commercially.

Hudson sites research that shows for every $1 a company invests in mental health, you get $3.80 back in extra productivity. (And certainly Xero, in any case, has gone from strength to strength over the past three years in terms of financial results and share price performance, consistently outstripping analysts’ expectations.)

“So it’s a no brainer from a bottom-line perspective,” Hudson says. He qualifies that from a leadership standpoint, it’s an investment in time as much as money.

The bigger picture: little progress

But while some organisations have made big changes, Hudson says there has only been limited progress overall in NZ.

“The state of masculinity in the workplace has moved a little bit, there’s been a lot more open conversation, but it needs to improve a heck of a lot more.

“There are still too many negative statistics for males in New Zealand, disproportionately to the rest of the world. We’re losing too many good men, because we’re silent and we’re not connecting. We’re not talking openly about our feelings.”

And, unfortunately, he thinks things have actually gone backward this year, because of the pandemic.

“Movember” research found that nearly a quarter of men globally (23 per cent) reported their mental health had worsened in the first six weeks of the Covid-19 outbreak, while almost a third of men (30 per cent) noted increased feelings of loneliness.

“The pandemic has had a massive negative impact on our mental health,” Hudson says.

“And I predict it’s going to have a monumental long tail of negative mental health impacts.”

To help turn things around, Hudson appeared in the Man Enough series (now on TVNZ OnDemand).

But he says all businesses have to play their part, too.

“Workplaces play an instrumental part of being able to create a culture and an environment where we are able to be nurtured – and we’re able to feel like we truly belong in the place that we spend upwards of eight hours a day.”

The work-from-home boom has thrown up new challenges, but Hudson says we need to be less anxious about some of them.

“Instead of apologising for getting interrupted by somebody coming into a room during a Zoom meeting, let’s welcome that it’s getting to know people a little bit better.”

Xero's five-step check-in

Xero created a “five-step check-in programme” which it’s now made available to all of its customers, and leaders of other large businesses.

The checklist draws on the experience of the company’s NZ managing director, Craig Hudson, and was also vetted by an outside expert, with the aim of creating relatively low-cost measures that have a big payback.

A key theme running through it all is to “let people be more themselves so that they can ultimately make your business more profitable”, Hudson says.

Its headline points:

1. Getting to know your team

“What does this look like? For me, it’s having unstructured agendas meetings, where you’re actually able to sit down and connect with someone on a human level. Who are they? What are they doing? So that in a week’s time, I can refer back to the conversation. That shows that I care that I’ve listened and that I value who that person is as a person, not just for what they contributed to my business.”

2. Fostering connections within your team

“Culture is ultimately driven by the individuals within your business,” Hudson says.
You as a leader govern it, but those people are the ones that come together.

“So how do you create an environment in which each one of your team knows each other on a deeper level?

“A great way of doing it, for us, was having a meeting where each went through a hardship, a triumph, and a childhood memory for 20 minutes, 25 minutes each, some people talked for 40 minutes. It was opening up on things that we never even knew aboutsome of the team members.

“It builds a sense of trust and connection as you learn personal things about each other.”

3. Supporting others to look after themselves

“This is really important, particularly at the moment with the pandemic. So what does that look like in reality?

“I was in a conversation was Steve Vamos, the CEO of Xero, and he was saying that he was booking in his diary to go for a walk at 11.30am every day, otherwise it wouldn’t happen.

“I told him, ‘It’s no good you telling me that. You need to tell the whole organisation’.

“So at a global, all-hands meeting, he came out and said he’s empowering everybody to put things in the diary to look after themselves.”

In Hudson’s own case, during lockdowns, “I found myself on Zoom every day from 6.30am to 9pm. That just wasn’t sustainable. It wasn’t great for me.” He booked time every day to walk his kids to school.

“So it’s empowering people to look after themselves as the next step,” he says.

4. Make it okay to ask for help

“It’s about putting the ambulance at the top of the cliff, not the bottom of the cliff.

“We have an employee assistance program [EAP], where you’re able to get access to free counselling. We thought at Xero that it’s not fair that big corporates get access to these things. So we’ve democratised it. All of our customers, their staff, and their families get access to free counselling, whether it’s marriage support, financial support, or mental health support, paid for by Xero. There’s roughly 850,000 who have access to EAP through us, which is phenomenal. But as a leader, you need to empower your team to know that it’s there, and that it’s okay for them to engage without you knowing.

5. Make a long-term commitment to wellbeing

“Make a stand for what wellbeing means for your organisation, so that you can embed it in your culture. So it becomes an everyday thing and every one of your team as part of that journey. But it has to start from the top.”

Where to get help

If you are worried about your or someone else’s mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider.

However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.

If you need to talk to someone else:

•LIELINE HELPLINE: 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP), available 24/7
•LIFELINE SUICIDE CRISIS HELPLNE: 0508 TAUTOKO (0508 828 865)
•YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633
•NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
•KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
•WHATSUP: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
•DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757 or TEXT 4202

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