Putting Wellbeing Front and Centre

Rugby Players Ireland’s Tackle Your Feelings Campaign is one in which role models within the sport have come out to talk openly about mental health challenges they have faced.

It has been an important stepping stone towards greater openness about the problems that affect too many young people and now it is being extended to schools and the business community.

The campaign is funded by the Z Zurich Foundation, the charitable vehicle funded by Zurich Insurance.

Last week we sat down with Gary Shaughnessy Chair of the Foundation to learn a little more about what they do and why Ireland features on their radar.

“Zurich Foundation was originally a small charity within Switzerland. It is funded by Zurich but it is independent and its purpose is to make contributions to areas that are important within the communities where the company operates,” said Shaughnessy in the comfortable surroundings of the Intercontinental Hotel.

“We have of late focused on a couple of key areas where we feel we can make a difference and which have a relevance to what the company does.”

“The first of these is in flood relief. We are now working to support 130 projects in 10 countries around the world.”


“The second key area is in wellbeing, particularly mental wellbeing.”

That’s where the Irish connection comes in with local management having brought the idea of Tackle Your Feelings to the Foundation for funding and support.

“There is a link to our core capabilities as an insurance company but there is also a benefit in every way to prevent things from going wrong in the first place.”

Sometimes company’s can be accused of doing things purely to ‘buy’ favour from the market but this is no box ticking exercise.

“The important thing is what the driver of a company’s involvement in a ‘good cause’ actually is.”

“I do believe that companies have a responsibility to help make the society in which they operate a fairer society, a better society and a more successful society.”

“That should be the driver behind any investment and that works for the people within the organisation for whom it is also important to be seen to be making a difference.”

“Of course, there is a benefit in simple terms for the company. People feel more engaged, and stay longer with the firm so there are positives from a business perspective but the most important thing should be the need for assistance within a society and how we can in some way meet that.”

Local leadership

“The nature of the way the foundation works is very much embedded in each of the countries we are working in. Local leadership teams have to be invested in a programme to get it off the ground.”

“The way we work is that we have a global campaign on flood relief but we also have at the moment 25 areas where we support projects that have been brought to us by local management teams.”

“It comes from a local recognition of a need and then we share the things that work so that others might be inspired to do something similar.”

The initial funding for the Rugby Players Ireland initiative came through the Foundation and it is a programme which they have been closely monitoring. Some elements have been replicated in Australia where a similar set of challenges to young people’s mental health was identified and they were able to join a few dots from up here to down under.

The first phase of reaching out to players is now being expanded towards schools and the corporate sector.

“We asked what was the problem we were looking to solve. Young people not feeling they can talk to people about the pressures they are under was a key part of where we started,” continued Shaughnessy.

“That same problem exists beyond sport. I work on an EU group looking at the area of pressure in the workplace. One in six people will at some point be diagnosed with a mental health issue. That impacts on peoples lives and also on companies in terms of how they manage the stresses that are placed on people in their workplace and their lives.”

“We used role models that you might not have immediately been obvious to peel back the fact that problems can arise in so many different circumstances.”

“Recognising that you have an issue is the first step. That’s not a weakness.”

Shaughnessy faced his own challenges in 2015 when he was diagnosed with Parkinsons Disease, a degenerative neurological condition.

The diagnosis was something which I had to consider carefully in terms of my own wellbeing but also my career. When I spoke to my employers the level of support I got was fantastic.”

“People will often worry about that but in many ways, they will be surprised by the level of support, on a human level, that people will give them.”


“I faced it fairly early. I was in line for a promotion and I felt it would not be right to say nothing. I got a really supportive response. It was longer before I stood up in front of colleagues but when I did people recognised it for what it was and dealt with it. It did not change the way they looked on me as a person.”

“How we deal with these challenges is often down to our own choices. I chose to run. There is strong evidence to suggest that physical fitness is good for the condition. I’ve done 19 Marathons so far, including the Connemara Marathon, where the wind and rain were pretty tough.

“The support of my wife, saying the right things at the right time, has been really important and the longer I can poke Parkinson’s in the eye the better.”

“Running works for me but for others, it might be painting or reading or dancing. Whatever works for you as an individual.”

Coming back to the Tackle Your Feelings campaign the important thing is clearly the passion and the drive coming from management and staff here in Ireland.

“We are good at recognising where links to the political system across the EU can be of benefit to a campaign, and in identifying online tools that can improve capability so we help beyond the funding but the real strength comes from local leadership.”


“If people don’t see it as a personal project then it will Rarely work to best effect.”

“Anthony Brennan in Ireland has been such a strong supporter, alongside other members of his leadership team and throughout the organisation.”

“It’s not just a campaign that sits in its own box. It impacts on lots of different areas within the business.”

Leisure, arts and linking with people’s passions is important across the 25 programmes. Sport is not particularly dominant but there are other campaigns, in Malaysia through football as an example, where we encourage childhood activity to combat obesity.

Sport does create a great opportunity for people to get comfortable in the emotion of sport and how that can be extended to other areas of life and business.”

Shaughnessy is an impressive individual. He recognises where the international touch can help to make local projects work and is obviously a key influencer on the Tackle Your Feelings campaign.

The world will be a better place the longer he keeps poking his finger in the eye of Parkinson’s.

Sport for Business Sport for Social Good will take place this year at the University of Ulster as part of a programme surrounding the Open Championship at Royal Portrush. Details of this year’s programme will be launching shortly. Stay in touch at Sport for Social Good.

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