What We Can Learn From 5 Years In Captivity About Loneliness, Resilience and the Future of Work: Opening Keynote at The Watercooler


Few people understand more what it is to be resilient than Terry Waite CBE, the humanitarian and author who was held hostage in the 1980s. Chained hand and feet to a wall and having to sleep on a floor, in a room with no natural light, he had no-one to speak to and no news of the outside world for almost five years.

Fortunately, his ordeal ended and he was able to take away much from the experience about how to build personal resilience. Insights he will be sharing when he opens the UK’s first Watercooler Event, at London Olympia (25-26 May). A free event that will bring business leaders and employers together to discuss how to mitigate a “second pandemic”, this time of mental health and wellbeing issues across UK workplaces.

Mental health issues are now the biggest cause of workplace absence. The cost-of-living crisis, which has already seen four out of five people impacted by rising prices, is only expected to make things worse. Meanwhile, loneliness, the theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (9-15 May), is being exacerbated by changes to working patterns.

As we move into an increasingly digital world, face-to-face interaction, after-work drinks and watercooler conversations are being replaced by digital meetings, across time zones, often with people we’ve never even met in person before.

Yet trudging back into the office, at a time when the cost of commuting is soaring and viral diseases still abound, isn’t necessarily the answer either. Instead, we need to reintroduce social connection into our lives, both inside and outside of work, to avoid that so-called second pandemic.

Those working from home, who are at particular risk of loneliness, must be encouraged to take more regular breaks to explore their local area, meet with a friend for coffee or lunch, or disconnect from work in the evening to enjoy quality time with their family and friends. Although this sounds simple in principle, skills shortages that create pressure on fewer people to do more, mean employers also need to change.

It’s simply not justifiable to set unachievable deadlines that make it impossible for people to disconnect from work in the evening or at weekends. Nor should companies judge people only on input and presenteeism, rather than results generated. And let’s remember that despite our overwork culture, the UK remains one of the least productive nations compared to the US, Germany and France.

During his captivity, Terry learned to keep himself company by using his imagination to have internal conversations with himself and even wrote his first book in his head, in the absence of pen and paper. Exhibiting many of the principles of stoicism, including the ability to reframe his thoughts to allow him to survive at a time when his future destiny felt totally out of his control.

Unfortunately, many people today are struggling to reframe their thoughts. In particular, anxiety means that time spent worrying about things that might happen means we experience the same emotional distress as if they were actually happening.

A little bit of anxiety is good for us, causing our bodies to surge with hormones that help prepare us for what’s to come. But constantly ruminating on things or having negative conversations isn’t.

Critical to reducing soaring anxiety levels, when there is much to be anxious about, is normalising it and letting people know it’s okay not to feel okay. Companies must empower workers to proactively manage their mental health and ask for help when they need it. It’s something employers including E.ON, PwC and TikTok will be sharing their thinking on at the Watercooler event.

Most important of all, according to Terry, is learning to live in the moment. “The mind is a wonderful thing and it’s amazing how much it can put up with,” he says. “But too many people are not coping. They’re compromising their lives, relationships and health, due to worries about today’s to-do list, or what could happen in the future, instead of living fully in the now.”

Refining work to create healthy cultures, where people are encouraged and empowered to look after themselves, also makes good business sense. According to research carried out by Mercer, employees who were made to feel more cared for, with access to a wide range of wellbeing benefits, were 35% less likely to leave their employer and 11% more energised.

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Dr Wolfgang Seidl and Terry Waite CBE’s session is the Opening Keynote of the FREE TO ATTEND The Watercooler event, which is taking place at Olympia on 25th and 26th May 2022. It is programmed as follows:

10:10 – 10:45, Wednesday 25th May, OPENING KEYNOTE: 

Pandemic, inflation and war: supporting employees through change and uncertainty to a brighter future for work

  • What we can learn from the experience of navigating extreme uncertainty
  • How employers can support different dimensions of trauma: the role and limitations of the EAP
  • The importance of building both individual and organisational resilience
  • Balancing business with empathy: what is “Good Work” and how this relates to Health & Wellbeing


About the author

Dr Wolfgang Seidl is a partner and workplace health consulting leader at Mercer MarshBenefits. 

You might also be interested in:

Forcing Employees Back to the Office, or Into Social Situations, Won’t Magically Fix the Loneliness Crisis

12 Practical Pointers: How Companies Can Combat the Loneliness Crisis at Work

New Webinar – From Loneliness to Connection and Belonging: How This Sits at the Heart of Employee Wellbeing as Hybrid Models Become the Norm


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