Interview with Petra Velzeboer
What do you gain personally from being a public speaker?
I love that “aha” moment when people in the audience really get something that relates to their personal life and allows them to grow as human beings. Talking about empathy and mental health, there’s a point where I’ve been totally vulnerable myself in order to give people permission to be real about their stories, and I have to wait and see if it pays off. Every group is different but I get a real sense of purpose out of my own story when people are inspired or utilise it as a springboard to have real and authentic conversations.
Who or what inspires you most?
Of course, there’s the big names like Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey and Elon Musk, but I derive great inspiration from the average person who has succeeded despite great challenges. When I interview people on my Adversity to Advantage podcast I am moved by the guy who is studying, has healthy relationships and a job after 20 years of drug addiction, the reformed prisoner who is building an honest life for himself, the successful entrepreneur who’s drive has come from running from her past. These stories of resilience and triumph inspire me to continue pushing to create my own impact in the world.
What are your biggest goals in your life or career currently?
My biggest goals include sustaining good mental health for myself, supporting my teenage children to have resilience and great character as adults and to spread my message of hope to millions of people in the world.
I’ve learned the hard way that if I don’t invest in myself then I’m no use to anyone. I do this by trying to have a meditation practice but also engage in fun, joy and connect with great people.
I ask myself in life and in business: Do I love doing this, does it bring me joy, can I have fun while I’m doing it? These questions direct me to things that give me a balanced and joyful life. Finally, I believe firmly that if I’d had a message of connection, authenticity and hope when I was suicidal 12 years ago, then I wouldn’t have suffered as long as I did. I want to be that voice for people suffering now.
Describe yourself in 3 words
Why do you think mental health at work has become such a popular keynote topic?
Reports such as Thriving at Work highlight that the cost of poor mental health at work comes to £33 to £42 billion annually; this includes absenteeism, presenteeism and staff turnover. Employers are waking up to the case for prevention and are looking for ways to promote good mental health. Health and Safety has brought down physical incidents tremendously over the past decade, however with suicide statistics on the rise, they’re realising they’ve got to focus on the Health aspect as well as Safety in order to have the impact they’re after.
Children and Young people are experiencing 70% more symptoms of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues than the previous generation, leading parents and schools to try to understand what they can do to support this epidemic. The World Health Organisation calls depression ‘a global public health concern’ and concludes that ‘depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide in terms of total years lost due to disability’.
The keynotes I run on this topic inspire awareness as well as practical change within ourselves and our workplace cultures. Not only are companies looking for greater productivity, but people are looking for authentic connection in a digitally fractured world. All of these issues can be tackled in a mental health keynote.
Do you have a favourite experience from your speaking career?
There’s just so many! The first time I was vulnerable enough to tell my own story had a profound impact on me. Not only was I intensely nervous but I also realised the power of our story, as the risk of putting myself out there more than paid off in the room, as participants connected on an authentic level and left with real value.
Another favourite is speaking to a group of young offenders and challenging them to create change. 2 of them came to me after the group telling me about the impact I’d had on how they’re thinking about things and that was extremely fulfilling.
I’ve also really enjoyed the challenge of speaking at a Senior Leadership conference within the construction industry. There were mostly men in the sea of faces and I thought, this is gonna be a tough crowd to crack! After telling my story and asking them to tell each other what impact mental health had on their lives, I asked them to stand up if mental health had impacted them in some way: 90% of the room stood up. From that point on it was just like any other group eager to learn, be vulnerable and create change within their work culture.