Embrace Empathy and Develop Greater Human Connections at Work | A Q&A with Petra Velzeboer

25 January 2019

There's lots of talk in the media about mental health, why businesses need to consider the mental health of their employees and of course the knock on effects this can cause if not treated properly.

But it's something else to stand up in front of a male dominated audience, who let's be honest we're pretty poor at sharing our feelings, and encouraging total strangers to not just say hello to each other, but to open up about how mental health has affected them.

We were paid a visit by Petra Velzeboer, a mental health speaker, coach and therapist who works with individuals and companies across the globe. After we finished listening to her talk, we sat down to ask a few more questions...

We were enthralled by your story, which of course starts by referencing your upbringing in a cult, but what made you want to share such a vivid journey by speaking to audiences across the world?

It’s not so much the cult story that I want to share, I mean that’s part of my history and I think it’s important to be authentic, it’s the fact that my mindset led me to such a place of hopelessness that I didn’t want to live anymore.

It was so dark and I had to work so hard to understand my brain and the science behind happiness that I just have to share with other people the simple steps we can take to look after our mental health and not just survive but really find JOY in our work and our personal lives. It’s like having the cure to the disease of despair and keeping it to myself, I simply couldn’t do it. It’s part of my life’s purpose to share my story and help other people figure out how be the best versions of themselves.

It’s also true what they say about our times of struggle being the times we need to push us to create our impact in the world, to live to our fullest potential. While I teach people about stress and mental health, it isn’t all about removing stress, it’s about helping us understand the difference between useful stress and detrimental stress, learning to listen to our bodies and understand our minds so we can put the things in place that allow us to thrive: both personally and in our teams.

We were surprised you made us stand up and interact with each other. What was the purpose behind that?

So I think it’s crazy to talk about the theory of connection and what we’re lacking as humans in this technology age and not create a live experience of what that is. The antidote to our disconnected world is so simple, it’s really seeing each other, being present, taking a moment away from our distractions and appreciating the human in front of us.

As Brene Brown says ‘it’s hard to hate each other up close’ so I try to create opportunities for people to really see the whole person, not just the job title or the outward role. That’s how we create mentally healthy workplaces, by fostering empathy and noticing each other, taking responsibility for lifting each other and our societies up. It’s amazing how un-practiced we are in the simple process of eye-contact or touch so I think it’s crucial that I don’t just talk at the audience but allow them to experience what I’m saying. That’s what the audience remembers and creates internal change.

Your work includes executive coaching for leaders. What does that entail?

My main executive coaching client is someone who’s overwhelmed in their role and looking for balance. They like that I have a psychotherapy background but don’t want to talk about their problems the whole time, they want solutions and ideas of things to do differently.

I usually start with asking how fulfilled they are with their work and life though, and usually discover that they’ve been on a treadmill of success for so long that they don’t even realise they’re living somebody else’s version of their life. We reconnect with what they really want, teach them how to practice vulnerability and authenticity as a leader, we then think boundaries and what they need to say no to in order to have that life and their personal version of balance tends to follow naturally.

I love it when leaders have reconnected with their fire for the job or their reason for being alive. Work has to be connected to a why otherwise what’s the point. It’s amazing to see when someone gets it and starts working smarter not harder.

Are there any steps individually we could take to make our workplace better for our mental health?

For sure! I always say it is each individual that makes up the culture and while there are recommendations that the organisation needs to take responsibility for in creating a healthy environment strategically, each of us has a role to play. First of all, learn to look after your own mental health (ie. exercise, talking, good food, meditation) secondly, talk about it.

When I interviewed a Venture Capitalist for a Spotify original podcast, I asked him what he did to look after his mental health and he said exercise but when I talked about the science of gratitude he admitted that he wrote down what he was grateful for every day, he just didn’t talk about it in his circles. So many people are trying this stuff out in order to survive our fast-paced society but aren’t talking about it for fear that someone will judge them, but those are the powerful leaders’ voices that need to be talking about the tough stuff as well as what they do about it.

We can play a part in ensuring mental health is on the agenda at work by talking to our bosses, taking initiative on awareness days and campaigns but more crucial than anything, build relationships with our colleagues so that we notice if they are struggling and can be there for them by listening or signposting to services. This empathic behaviour is really the thing that saves lives.

If you had one message for our audience what would it be?

We can all play a part in creating mentally healthy workplaces. Take the first step in being brave and share your story. You’ll be amazed at the connection and team bond that fosters.

For further information call us on   or email  info@speakerscorner.co.uk .

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