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Interview by Johann Harscoet in London for L’Echo, published on 30 December 2021

An Swinnen (BECS): “Office life is as important for the economy as it is for our wellbeing ”

The founder of the corporate training company BECS in London, the Belgian An Swinnen, has advised many companies in various countries, especially in the Middle East. She is also the author of a guide to psychological management “The Business Survival Guide”. In an environment full of technological change, she delivers her vision of new relational modalities in the post-pandemic world of work.

Many workers have appreciated the confinement of lockdowns and don’t like the idea of going back to their place of work every day. On the other hand, for others, getting back to life is a release. Is the return to normal desirable?

When the pandemic started, everyone said that the future of work would be online. I always thought it wouldn’t be. For a business it is essential that everyone can work in the same place. When you are at the coffee machine or the elevator you can meet people from other departments, have informal discussions which can both be a moment of relaxation and a source of relevant information. It is an essential part of life in a company, but also for the economy that revolves around office life, such as the newsagent’s, taxis, restaurants and shops nearby. Office life is as important for the economy as it is for our wellbeing. Businesses depend on these interactions. Hopefully they manage to maintain a good balance, with at least three or four days a week face-to-face.

In this regard, you mention the importance of mirror mechanisms

Yes, because without realising it, we often behave like mirrors of others in our behaviour, even down to the very way we sit in a meeting. This mechanism strengthens the relationship and trust between individuals. We can develop this skill. We can focus on this mirror effect and imitate another person’s body language for about ten minutes. After this team building game, I ask participants how they feel and if they think the relationship with the other person is better and if they feel more trust. If there is a better relationship and trust, it can enable better results. Participants always tell me they feel better about the other person. Mirroring is an incredibly powerful technique which must be preserved, and which is not possible at a distance.

The gradual return to face-to-face working can require a period of rehabilitation to social life. How do we manage this period?

Neuro Linguistic Programming offers many resources. This concept of the 70s was originally used to help people suffering from mental disorders by working on their body language and their verbal language. It turned out to be very effective in improving motivation and influencing skills, and self-esteem in a company. For example, it is essential to use positive words. You can say what needs to be said but by choosing different words. Do not use the word “problem”, but rather “solution” or “opportunity.”

You estimate that one in four will suffer from a mental disorder during their life. How do you recognise a mental disorder in a person, especially in a professional context, as it is often hidden?

Mental disorders must be differentiated from symptoms of anxiety or depression that may last a few weeks. Obsessive Compulsive Disorders or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are some of the most visible disorders.

How do you recognise Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

It is rare to have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, unless you have endured a very brutal life experience, e.g. a kidnapping or rape where there is a question of life or death. People who develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are mainly soldiers or firefighters, who may experience symptoms ranging from nightmares, severe anxiety and sleep disorders. Unfortunately, this term is now often applied to cases of general anxiety.

What should an employer, manager or a colleague do when they see an employee with a potential mental disorder?

The employer is not responsible for the mental and physical health of their employees, and does not have the power to intervene. The initiative, action and decision must come from the employee and not the employer. But companies can be pro-active. Instead of focusing on mental health, when it is already too late, they must strive to ensure a positive work culture. Active employees are very productive and waste less time. They must feel valued and included in projects. It is essential to have good team work, collective celebrations, as well as open and transparent channels of communication. Unfortunately, not many options other than dialogue can be used to assess the state of suffering of the person concerned. Everything depends on the situation. If the problem persists, the employee must be encouraged to find help with a professional, especially if the symptoms get worse. The employee must also be able to be encouraged to express discomfort within the group. The employer, colleague or human resources generally has few others options to offer than listening.

At work, personalities are often described as one-dimensional. In reality, we all have, according to you, four types of very different personalities: dominant, stable, influential and compliant.

This is a theory developed by William Marston. We have a mixture of these four personalities. A balance is made within companies, from which each adapts to its environment. The dominant personality is the one who assumes power, doesn’t show much empathy and is able to delegate to the stable personalities very easily who belong to another category of Marston’s DISC personality theory. The dominant personality is not necessarily negative. On the contrary, they can help to achieve goals. They show determination and ambition. There are also influential personalities who are more popular than others, quite cool, generous and dynamic. The fourth type of personality, compliance, is more often found in engineers and accountants. These are personalities who will not deviate from the established rules. We all have a part of these four personalities in us in different proportions.

On 27 October fifty-two people attended the Samaritans Mental Health & Brain Based Stress Management Event at the Copthorne Hotel in Plymouth. I met an army of heroes. It was an honour to do my brain based stress management talk and each attendee took home a copy of my book. The raffle raised much-needed funds and this lucky winner will spend three nights at a lake-side lodge with hot tub on Dartmoor.

I will be in London from 17 to 19 November. I have been invited to dinner at the House of Lords. I am also doing a photoshoot for L’Echo, Belgian’s business newspaper, to accompany the article. Several organisations have asked me for more information on the talk/book/food tour so I have several meetings lined up. You find more information on http://www.becsltd.com/talks or http://www.answinnen.com/talks

Would you like to meet up in London? Just let me know.

Take care and stay safe.

Warm wishes

An Swinnen

 

Five Mental Health Tips

It’s World Mental Health Day so I am putting on my psychotherapist and author hat to give you five tips to improve your mental health:

  1. During the day you fill your “stress bucket” with negative thoughts and anxiety. In your REM sleep the bucket is emptied so make sure you have eight hours of sleep as the REM stage happens in waves throughout your sleep.
  2. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that regulates your general mood. If you produce a steady flow, you feel good about yourself and you won’t be piling as much into your stress bucket during the day.
  3. If you do the things you like doing, you produce serotonin so go for that walk, have that coffee in the sun and go to the cinema.
  4. Positive interaction with others produces serotonin so hold open doors, say thank you and smile.
  5. Exercise and a good diet is just as important for mental as physical health. Not very fit? Walking is great exercise as it massages your brain.

On 27 October 2021 I will be speaking at the Samaritans Mental Health Event at the Copthorne Hotel in Plymouth at 7 pm. Everyone is invited so feel free to come along. Click here for your invitation.

Want to know more about mental health and how you can feel happier and healthier? Brain Based Stress Management is a self-help book with planners, worksheets, games and a relaxation recording. The Mental Health Survival Guide (Because It’s A Jungle Out There) has five tips and a funny cartoon on a lot of mental health subjects and is super easy to read.

Have fun, take care and stay safe.

An Swinnen

No caption.

My no nonsense view on mental health is likely to offend some people:

1. The good news is that you can control your mental health. You are in charge through the pre-frontal cortex in your brain. Lifestyle is very important: sleep, production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, diet, exercise, etc. 

2. Many GPs tell me that they don’t have enough time to talk through mental health problems and educate people on how lifestyle affects mental health. Patients want a quick fix and walk out with a prescription for antidepressants.

3. Antidepressants are overprescribed. Your brain is very powerful and adaptable. If you look after it well, your mental health will improve massively.

4. In some cases, antidepressants are a good idea. Most antidepressants boost the production of serotonin which is the neurotransmitter that regulates general mood. When you come off the medication, you need to know how to produce serotonin naturally to keep the same good mood. Do things that you like doing. Be nice to people and think positively. It will make you feel a lot better.

4. Many mental health “ambassadors, helpers, experts” do not have any qualifications. They suffered mental health problems, feel better and want to earn some money while helping you with your mental health problems. The LinkedIn user “Psychology” is a typical example. It reposts information with the hashtag psychology. Unfortunately it often reposts incorrect information. I had to stop following “Psychology” because it was too frustrating to be confronted with fake news.

5. Even mental health “professionals” on LinkedIn get it wrong. A psychotherapist who set up his practice a month before starting his psychotherapy diploma course last year posted that depression is a genetic mental disorder and that antidepressants are needed because the patient is not in control. Rubbish! Another psychotherapist posted that GPs don’t know anything about mental health because it is not part of their medical degree. Nonsense!

6. If you feel that you need some help with your mental health, do a proper check. Look into their background, qualifications, reviews, recommendations, etc.

You are responsible for your own mental health. Look after your brain. Not sure how? My books “Brain Based Stress Management” and “The Mental Health Survival Guide (Because It’s A Jungle Out There)” have useful tips and techniques that are fun and easy. Want to learn more? BECS delivers talks and courses on mental health worldwide. http://www.becsltd.com

An Swinnen

Smashwords is the second biggest e-book platform in the world so I feel very priviliged to be interviewed.

Why did you become an author?

I love books! My father was a teacher in Antwerp which has one of the biggest and best libraries in Belgium so we spent many hours at the library. We could take out a maximum of five books so my brother and I had competitions to see who could finish reading them first!

I run BECS, an award-winning training company in London which specialises in business, management and mental health courses. I design the majority of our course books. Sean Chapple (The Ice Man), a good friend of mine and fellow author, advised me to put the top tips that we give to our participants in a book. That is how “The Business Survival Guide (Because It’s A Jungle Out There)” was born in 2010. In September 2020 we will publish the second edition.  We have just published “The Mental Health Survival Guide (Because It’s A Jungle Out There)” and in January 2021 we are publishing “The Management Survival Guide (Because It’s A Jungle Out There)”.

When I graduated as a psychotherapist I wrote “Brain Based Stress Management” because I know I can help people suffering from mental health problems. Knowledge of how your brain works is the key. The solutions are easy, fun and free.

Who are your favourite authors?

Georges Simenon (1903-1989) is my favourite author. I have a large collection of his books in my office, including a few first editions. Georges Simenon wrote the Inspector Maigret series and nearly 500 novels. I admire Georges Simenon for his descriptive language. He can describe a setting so well that you feel  as though you are present; that you might be sitting at the table next to him tasting the same food, drinking the same beer, experiencing the same atmosphere and looking at the people around you. Simenon’s psychological novels are masterpieces. He understands people incredibly well, which makes fascinating reading.

George Simenon’s private life was crazier than any of his books. Just like Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, he had to remind people that he was Belgian and not French. He was born in Liege and moved to Paris when he was a young man. He travelled the world and lived on his sailing boat, in France, the USA and Switzerland. Although he was married, he claimed to have had 10,000 lovers. He certainly lived life to the full. https://georgessimenon.co.uk/

Stephen Clarke is a fantastic writer. I love “A Year in the Merde” which is the first of his Paul West series. It is the almost-true account of Clarke’s experiences as an English expat in Paris. It is hilarious! I know the French and English cultures very well and was not surprised about the massive culture clashes which Clarke describes so well. I read this book while I was travelling from my home on the English Riviera in SW England to Kuwait. I burst out laughing so many times that my fellow travellers must have thought I was mad! http://www.stephenclarkewriter.com/en/home

Deon Meyer was recommended by a South African friend. I love his Benny Griessel series which features an alcoholic policeman in Cape Town. In the background you read about the many problems South Africa has to cope with: race issues, corruption, poverty, government budget cuts, etc. I like Meyer’s style: it is cool, sexy and fast. On one page he sometimes changes between four characters’ thoughts without a problem, which is remarkable. https://www.deonmeyer.com/

Dr Barry J. Gibb is a neuroscientist, author and film maker. In his book “The Rough Guide to The Brain” he explains how the brain operates. The book is easy to read and includes interviews, case studies and links to TED talks. He also covers popular psychology subjects such as déjà vu, dreams, IQ, mental health illnesses, love, hypnotism, the placebo effect and clairvoyance. The book is a must read if you like psychology! https://www.barryjamesgibb.com/

Which are your favourite bookshops?

“Foyles” in Charing Cross Road, London is one of the biggest and best book shops in England. Before I write a book, I do my market research at Foyles which is a paradise for book lovers. Every subject on this earth is covered so I have spent many happy hours at Foyles. The staff are amazing. If I ask about the last publications of my favourite authors, they can usually tell me without looking it up on the system. http://www.foyles.co.uk

“Better Books” in Kuwait is an underground second-hand bookshop in Kuwait. It is underground for two reasons: the bookshop and community rooms are in the basement of an apartment building. Secondly, you will never find it unless you look up the location on the internet as there is no bookshop signage. You can only see a door to a basement. The bookshop houses Frosty, a fluffy white cat who loves cuddles (comparable to the “We have been expecting you Mr Bond” cat) and a bird who flies around the bookshop and sits on your shoulder or head when you least expect it. The shop wants to stimulate reading so they organise book competitions for children. The book prices are very low and when you bring back a book, you receive 50% credit to buy new books. Many people come in for a chat, the animals or spend hours reading on the sofas. https://www.facebook.com/betterbookskuwait/

“Book in Bar” in Aix-en-Provence, France is a café and a book shop. The café is not separate. The tables, chairs and sofas are set in between the books. I love this place. The food and drinks are home-made and delicious. They have new and second-hand books in English and other languages. Some people visit to meet up with friends, some to read the shop’s newspapers and magazines and some to buy books. http://www.bookinbar.com

When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?

I run two international companies: BECS is a training company. A lot of our clients are in the Arabian Gulf region. Rasson Properties has holiday apartments and cottages in South Spain, France and England. My jobs allow me to travel, meet people and speak different languages. I have turned my passions into my jobs. What could be better? http://www.answinnen.com

This interview was published by Boost Torbay. They asked me for business tips on coping with the coronavirus outbreak.

Going Back To Basics

An Swinnen is a qualified teacher and psychotherapist. She runs BECS, an award-winning training company with offices in Paignton and London, specialising in customised business, management and mental health courses. An is also the Managing Director of Rasson Properties Ltd, which owns holiday lets in Spain and England.

How are you coping with the lockdown?

My company BECS has furloughed me, so I am getting paid whilst not working for the first time in my career. I think a lot of people in Devon are in this position as we are so dependent on tourism and 0-hour contracts. I am coping very well, especially as Cafe Tutto in Paignton has just reopened for takeaway coffee!! I enjoy being at home instead of living out of a suitcase. The lockdown allows me to take time out, enjoy my garden and plan for the future.

Can you give us some business tips?

I think we need to go back to basics and pretend our businesses are start-ups again. It is important to have an updated business plan. What are your assets? How can you make them work for you? I know that I should focus on promoting my mental health books, the events and the talks that do not cost as much as weekly therapist sessions.

Currently we cannot control our business-related income, but we can reduce our outgoings. I have contacted our suppliers and reduced our bills drastically. I was always too busy to look into cheaper alternatives. The trick is to phone your supplier and say that you are thinking of leaving them because of their high prices. They will offer new deals immediately. I have managed price reductions of 50-75% with BT, EE, AXA, Sky, AA, RAC and British Gas. In Spain Orange and Vodafone refused to lower their internet prices so I have switched to Olivenet which is saving me a lot of money.

It is very important that you have a presence on social media. Social media is free and if used wisely, allows you to reach a lot of people. You need to let everyone know that you are still out there and that your business will survive the lockdown. Your friends and family can help with this. Their support is also free and you cannot beat word of mouth advertising.

Can you give us some mental health tips?

It is very normal to feel depressed, anxious or angry right now because we are surrounded by news of death and economic hardship. Our primitive brain kicks in to protect us but unfortunately, this brain is very negative and is convinced we will die of the coronavirus. The trick is to switch to our intellectual brain which is very positive and comes up with creative ideas and solutions. The intellectual brain knows that only 2-4 % of infected patients die and comes up with a plan. Try not to watch the news, especially the 22:00 news as it may disrupt your sleep.

Be careful with some of the mental health tips that you see on television and the internet. There is a lot of incorrect information out there. At the back of my book “The Mental Health Survival Guide (Because It’s A Jungle Out There)” which was featured in the Western Morning News, I have listed useful websites of reliable support organisations such as nhs.uk/oneyou and mind.org.uk.

What are your future plans?

I would like Rasson Properties Ltd to expand into France. I am researching Antibes on the Cote d’Azur and its property prices.

I miss working with children. I would love to teach them about mental health and how they can feel happier and healthier.

For more information go to http://www.answinnen.com.

Do you sometimes suffer from anxiety attacks or bouts of depression that come out of nowhere? It means that you are thinking with your negative primitive brain instead of your positive intellectual brain. In my book “Brain Based Stress Management” I explain how “The Swinnen Technique” can help.

The Swinnen Technique

  1. Imagine what your primitive brain looks like.
  2. Imagine your primitive brain standing on top of your brain.
  3. Imagine what your intellectual brain looks like.
  4. Imagine your intellectual brain at the bottom of your brain.
  5. Take three deep breaths.
  6. Think of a way in which the intellectual brain can defeat the primitive brain and send it back to the bottom of your brain where it belongs. Each time you do this, you will have to imagine a different method (Think of Tom and Jerry. Tom was very creative in finding new ways to catch Jerry.). The intellectual brain can trick the primitive brain somehow: beat him with a baseball bat, use a lasso, etc.
  7. Imagine your intellectual brain as the winner, celebrating at the top of your brain.
  8. Smile!

An Swinnen

Winner on the mountain top. Sport and active life concept

My latest book “The Mental Health Survival Guide (Because It’s A Jungle Out There)” is featured in today’s Western Morning News! I am very glad that Becky Sheaves really likes my book. This is what she says:

“If you are in need of some support, another gem in my correspondence this week was a signed copy of a book called The Mental Health Survival Guide by An Swinnen. An’s a psychotherapist who lives in Devon and I have had the pleasure of meeting her in the past. I am so impressed by her book, which is super-simple and fun to read but (if you are anything like me) it will change the way you think about your own mental health.

This is because she breaks down the way the brain works and explains why, for example, we have evolved to get angry, depressed, anxious or insomniac. Often it’s the primitive parts of our brain taking over and preparing us for fights with wild animals (anxiety) or long winters hiding in a cave (depression). In today’s modern world, it’s better to take deep breaths, walk away from the situation and let your intellectual, more sophisticated, brain help you to find solutions to your problems.

As well as being hugely informative, An’s book is also very funny, with cartoons on every page. I’m ordering copies for all my lockdown friends and keeping mine beside the bed until this is all over. I recommend you do the same – you can order at www.answinnen.com for £9.90. It is well worth every penny.”

Western Morning News Article 1

Why Can’t I Sleep?

Many people are telling me that they can’t sleep properly. It is normal in these difficult times. I have included an extract from my book “The Mental Health Survival Guide (Because It’s A Jungle Out There)” to explain why this is. The book is available at BECS, Amazon and Smashwords. Subscribe to the blog for more updates.

Why can’t I sleep?

1. You have been piling too many negative thoughts into your stress bucket during the day.

2. REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which empties your stress bucket, is restricted to about 20% of your sleep patterns. If you go over, the mind will wake you up in the middle of the night. You feel wide awake and often feel quite miserable.

3. REM sleep is tiring. It requires enormous energy to diffuse the anxiety in your stress bucket. It exhausts you and makes you want to sleep even more during the day. That becomes a vicious circle.

4. If you watch the 22:00 news, your primitive brain (your survival instinct) will take over which means that it is very hard to relax and sleep.

5. Concentrate on the positive aspects of your life.

Shut up and go to sleep

Is Stress Dangerous?

This is an extract of my new book “The Mental Health Survival Guide (Because It’s A Jungle Out There)” which is available at BECS, Amazon and Smashwords. Subscribe to the blog for more updates.

Is Stress Dangerous?

  1. A certain level of stress is necessary to help you prepare for challenging tasks such as exams, job interviews and presentations so enjoy it.
  2. Stress causes the increase of adrenalin, cortisol and testosterone so we can react appropriately when we are in danger. Stress keeps us alive and safe.
  3. After the physical and real danger has gone, the level of stress hormones decreases quickly but if the danger was emotional, it takes a lot longer to go down. Take long, deep breaths as oxygen in the blood helps lower that level.
  4. Long-term emotional stress can cause serious health problems and death.
  5. If you experience high blood pressure, fatigue, depression, anxiety or heart disease, consult your doctor immediately.

stress dangerous