I grew up in rural Ireland, the youngest of six. I was always very competitive, perhaps because I was the baby of the family or because I was gay and felt I had something to prove.
When I was 12, I remember going on a road trip with my maiden Aunt Maisie. As we were driving along lush country roads I remember her saying to me something that stayed with me for years… She started off by saying “The problem with you Mark is…” and I knew what was coming next was not going to be very positive, then she continued “you’re just like your bloody father… bloody useless with money”.
Now what she said about my father was very true, he was bloody useless with money. He was a vet and earned a lot of money but he was also a big drinker and gambler. He won the lottery in Ireland and managed to spend every penny of it. I remember vowing to myself that I would not be like my father.
Now, this was very powerful motivation in the early years. I went to an ordinary comprehensive school in the middle of a bog where I was the first person to go to Trinity, Ireland’s equivalent to Oxford or Cambridge.
When I left Trinity, I was the only graduate Unilever recruited from Ireland. In my career, I was promoted every year to 18 months, with exciting roles in Asia, Africa and Europe.
At 33 I was the youngest ever Financial Director of an FTSE 100 telecoms company. I was living in Paris on Isle St Louis in a 17th-century apartment with a living room the size of my 2 bedroom flat back home, overlooking the Seine. Looking at my life from the outside in it looked like I had it all. I had all the external trappings of success but inside was a different story.
It was just after the dot-com bubble burst, the company’s share price and financial performance were going through the floor and I was under a huge amount of pressure to turn the business around. I was working crazy hours, coming home late every night and relying on food and alcohol to unwind. I was exhausted, fat and toxic.
I remember one night, being wide awake at 3 am and sitting bolt upright in bed. My boyfriend woke and asked me “What’s the matter?” and I heard myself saying “Nothing’s the matter, everything absolutely fine”. Hearing myself say those words, I realised everything was far from fine. I was on the edge of a breakdown, and something had to change.
Not being one to do things by half, I re-structured myself out of a role, negotiated my redundancy and went to India and opened a yoga retreat with a friend.
Over the next 5 years I went from working 16 hours a day to 16 hours a week, from being fat and stressed to being super skinny and under-stimulated. In the end, I was bored, I missed the challenge and excitement of corporate life and I realised that I had just gone from one extreme to another… from virtual burn out to rust out.
So now I’m passionate about supporting others to avoid the extremes and to find a way to thrive… to be successful in the holistic sense… to be healthy, happy and fulfilled.
Six years ago, I set up Thriving London, I was struck by the amount of stress I was seeing in my coaching clients and the impact it was having on them and those around them and I wanted to do something to make a difference. My intention was to create a wave of contagious reliance in the capital.
I now work with companies and charities to support their people to pause, reflect and take stock of what’s important in their lives and make positive changes to promote better mental and physical wellbeing.
The metaphor I use in the talks and workshops I run gives people the space and permission to attend to their own oxygen masks… to put themselves at the front of the queue for once and work out what they need. We then explore how they can make this sense of wellbeing contagious to those around them in work and with their loved ones at home.
To date, we’ve worked with over 10k with great results. In Deloitte, participants reported a 47% improvement in their wellbeing. In Barclays, there was a 9% improvement in engagement score year on year. I think the impact of the sessions has been twofold. Firstly giving people space to think about their own wellbeing and get clear on what are the factors they can flex to improve it. The second has an even greater impact. When it comes to stress and mental illness people invariably feel alone, the programmes have created a permission space for people to open up, given them a shared language and a framework to support each other.
Next step is to increase the reach and impact of the work outside London and the UK through a digital model. The first pilot is planned for August in India. This really warms my heart as it’s back to where I learnt a lot about developing good mental health for myself.
I’m also really excited about another project I’m launching later in the year to support people coming out of prison and who are homeless to build their personal resilience and bounce back more quickly.
Mark Mulligan runs cultural change programmes in companies and charities to promote contagious wellbeing. Find out more here.