A Journey to Mindfulness

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Ernestina Saarrah-Mensah
Scottish Widows

Hello there! I’m Ernestina, and welcome to the next blog in our series: “Helping you to be money well.”

Did you know that according to the most recent Mental Health UK study, The Burnout Report 2024 (PDF, 5MB), 9 out of 10 UK adults experienced high or extremely high levels of pressure or stress in the past year? And, shockingly, 1 in 5 workers had to take time off work due to poor mental health caused by pressure or stress in the past year. These statistics underscore the undeniable truth: mental health impacts every single aspect of our lives, from our relationships and work performance to our overall well-being. 

Despite its pervasive influence, the topic of mental health often remains shrouded in stigma and misunderstanding. As we embark on this journey of exploration, lets shed light on the significance of mental health awareness, understanding its effect and uncovering strategies for fostering a healthier mindset and lifestyle. 

Mental health and financial wellbeing are deeply intertwined, with each exerting a profound influence on the other. The impact of mental health challenges on financial stability cannot be overstated, especially considering the stigma surrounding mental health issues, which may deter people from seeking help when they need it. It is therefore imperative to recognise the intersection of mental health and financial wellbeing, advocating for accessible mental health resources and destigmatising conversation. 

For this month’s blog, I had the privilege of speaking to David Butcher, Founder of Mindful Pensions, to discuss the importance of mental health in long-term financial planning.  

David Butcher

David has more than forty years’ experience in the pensions industry. A CEO three times in his executive career, David also has nine years’ governance experience as a non-executive director and trustee on four pensions boards including BlackRock Pensions, and the master trust boards at Legal & General, Scottish Widows and The People’s Pension.

David also brings diversity of experience having been a board member of two research organisations in financial services and a FinTech start up in risk management. David has also chaired two start-ups in the wellbeing and mindfulness sector. A practitioner of mindfulness for more than 40 years, David is the founder of Mindful Pensions, whose objective is to bring the benefits of mindfulness to the pensions industry. 

What is mindfulness and how do we cultivate mindfulness? 

Mindfulness is heightened awareness. Awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. It’s rather like going to the gym for our minds. It’s practical mental training with real world benefits. We cultivate mindfulness through mindfulness meditation.  

“Mindfulness meditation is a mental training practice that allows you to slow down racing thoughts, let go of negativity, stop listening to your inner critic and calm your mind and body.” Bhante Gunaratana 

What inspired you to get involved with mindfulness?

I first discovered mindfulness when I was studying philosophy at university. Back in the day, the curriculum was all Western Philosophy but when I found out that there was Philosophy from India and China too, I started researching and was enthralled when I discovered, amongst others, Lao Tzu, Confucius and Buddha. 

After becoming completely absorbed in these writings I later went on to complete various courses in mindfulness, meditation and breathing and more recently completed a teacher training course in mindfulness so I am now a fully accredited mindfulness teacher. 

What are the real world benefits of mindfulness?

There is now substantial evidence that mindfulness brings significant physical, psychological and cognitive benefits to anyone who practices mindfulness for as little as 10 minutes a day. 

It can improve our immune system, our sleep and our memory. It increases our energy. It reduces tension and pain.  

Mindfulness reduces stress, anxiety and depression. This is a huge benefit as Champion Health found that 76% of us were stressed at work last year.  

Mindfulness helps us create better relationships, by becoming more compassionate, more empathetic and humbler. 

It improves our ability to focus and reduces our minds wandering.  

In summary, mindfulness improves our wellbeing, our ability to make decisions and our overall feeling of peace and happiness. 

How has mindfulness helped you? 

A few years ago, my wife was diagnosed with cancer and my Dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Our daughter was only 7 at the time. I spent 4 years caring for my wife who became paralysed from the waist down when the cancer metastasised. I was of course looking after our daughter and supporting my Mum and Dad too at the same time. My wife and my dad passed away at the same time. I was then ill myself for three years, suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, a truly awful disease. 

Mindfulness saved my life.  

Mindfulness was the key to getting rid of my stress, anxiety, and depression. It restored my confidence and self-esteem. It increased my self-awareness hugely by teaching me how to observe my thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, to let go of negativity and to stop listening to my inner critic. It taught me how to respond rather than react. It made me humbler, more compassionate and kinder. It reconnected me with my values, beliefs, and ambitions. 

In short, it had a massively positive effect on my health and wellbeing. I would not be here today, and I would not be the trustee I am today were it not for mindfulness. 

Why did you set up Mindful Pensions?

I am passionate about the power of mindfulness, and I want to bring the benefits of mindfulness to the pensions industry to improve outcomes and value for money for our customers. I have both been in the pensions industry and been practising mindfulness for 40 years, so I now want to bring the two together. 

Can mindfulness help us prepare for retirement? 

Retirement is a major milestone that can be more stressful than many people imagine. Mindfulness helps to calm down the emotional part of our brain so that we can figure out how to respond to the situation and give ourselves choice instead of reacting emotionally. 

By using mindfulness to manage down our stress and anxiety, we achieve clarity. Simply put, clarity is our ability to think clearly and not get easily confused or distracted. When it comes to retirement, this means having a clear awareness and understanding of our financial situation. This means knowing how much money we have, how much we need from our pension, and it also means understanding when we need more information, guidance or even advice with what, for many people, is a complicated issue requiring quite complex decisions. Mindfulness helps us make more prudent decisions about our retirement. 

Having clarity about our purpose also gives a sense of meaning and direction. This could involve a longer-term vision for our money and only making decisions that support that vision. Mindfulness helps us plan what we want to do with our time. By increasing our self-awareness, mindfulness enables far greater knowledge of ourselves, our values and what is important. 

After losing my wife I wondered for many years what I wanted to do with my life. Rather than think about retiring I did the opposite in setting up Mindful Pensions. It’s clear to me now with the help of mindfulness that I’m doing what I am meant to do. Mindfulness helps to give us clarity and intention. 

Isn’t finding the time for mindfulness a problem?

Developing self-awareness is key to managing your time. Mindfulness is self-awareness in action. 

If you believe that you don’t have time to do any particular activity, then you won’t have time. Not having time isn’t the issue, it’s that you aren’t aware of how much time you are spending on each activity and how much time you spend worrying about your future. Learning and practising mindfulness will create more time than the learning and practising combined and life will be richer, more peaceful and happier as a result. 

Looking to the future, can education play a role in improving mental health outcomes and financial wellbeing?

Mindfulness is a cognitive skill that we should all develop.  

I believe that we should be training our children in mindfulness from an early age in order that they develop this cognitive skill to help them realise their full potential in life. Mindfulness should, in my opinion, be taught in our schools alongside how to manage money. I believe this could make a huge difference to improve mental health and financial wellbeing outcomes generally. 

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