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Thursday, April 27, 2017

Ingrid Bettencourt: Work Should Not Be Suffering


Ingrid Betancourt: ‘Work should not be a suffering’ Former Farc hostage has turned her experience into lessons for unhappy executives Read next Lucy Kellaway on ‘One Minute Mentoring’ Ingrid Betancourt in Oxford. The former Colombian presidential candidate was captured and held hostage by Farc for more than six years until her release in 2008 © Charlie Bibby/FT Share on Twitter (opens new window) Share on Facebook (opens new window) Share on LinkedIn (opens new window) Email0 Save 7 HOURS AGO by: Emma Jacobs Ingrid Betancourt is used to dealing with strangers’ reactions. In Oxford, where she lives, they approach her in the street to shake her hand. Occasionally they even hug her. The French-Colombian former politician’s story has become known worldwide. Ms Betancourt was held hostage by Farc, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, in the jungle for six and a half years, before being released in 2008. Since then, it has not always been hugs and handshakes. She has faced criticism — notably in a 2009 book by three fellow hostages, US military contractors, who accused her of demanding special privileges in captivity. While Ms Betancourt is used to dealing with other people’s emotions, she was surprised by a weeping woman who approached her after a talk she gave at a business. This is something she frequently does now, as well as her work on peace and human rights advocacy with non-governmental organisations. “She was crying because she had lost her job. She thought she had been mistreated and she thought it was unfair.” This reaction seems self-absorbed but Ms Betancourt suggests an alternative point of view. “Suffering is suffering.” The woman’s tears gave Ms Betancourt an insight into the emotions swirling around the modern workplace. It has made her evangelical about the need to address employees’ mental health problems. I am here at the Oxford college, where the 55-year-old is researching her PhD in theology, to discuss the talks she gives to businesses and banks. Ingrid Betancourt with her children after she was rescued from Farc rebels by the Colombian military in 2008 © Reuters All manner of speakers — explorers, orchestra conductors and Formula One drivers — are trotted out by speaking agencies for generous sums to address conferences, to give perspectives on teams or working under pressure. These can be inspiring, a break from the main business of the day, or directly relatable to employees’ tasks. But recently Ms Betancourt gave a talk (waiving her fee), predominantly to financiers, at the Arts Club in London on the importance of resilience and wellbeing in the workplace. It was organised by Head Talks, a non-profit organisation that holds events on mental health. It is a topic, she says, that is increasingly in demand from business. I find the idea of Ms Betancourt’s experiences as a hostage providing stressed out executives and employers lessons on managing their mental wellbeing both intriguing and appalling. First, that workplaces are so awful, people relate to being chained up in a jungle. Second, that employees are so self-absorbed they think their own working lives are comparable to Ms Betancourt’s in captivity. Oliver James, psychologist and author of Affluenza, agrees. He hopes that bankers and executives hearing such stories realise “how lucky they are”. Ms Betancourt, elegant in a chic black trouser suit, patiently hears me out. “Work shouldn’t be a suffering,” she says. “It should be something that gives you a place in society, that allows you to feel dignified. That allows you to construct your personality, to be creative, to unleash your potential.” That is far from the day-to-day reality, she adds. “You find that people are well paid, they have good surroundings, but they are unsatisfied, because they don’t feel proud of what they are doing.” Related article A CEO’s primer on how to manage under pressure Business leaders need to find what RSA chief Hester calls the ‘on-off switch’ The light-filled sitting room of her college is a world away from the camps and marches through Colombian jungles. In her book, Even Silence Has an End (published in 2010) she wrote: “Like Alice in Wonderland, I was falling, falling into a bottomless well. This was my black hole. I was being sucked down, dragged down into the bowels of the earth. I was alive only so that I could witness myself dying.” Her stories from captivity are arresting — how could they not be? But occasionally they jar as workplace lessons. In her Head Talks speech, she recounted an epiphany she had while marching through the jungle, desperately ill. The guards had abandoned her because she was slow. She could hear a thunderous sound getting nearer. It turned out to be 60 soldiers in chains, also held by Farc, marching through the jungle. When they saw her, they sneaked a smile, a word or shook her hand as they passed. The effect on her was electrifying — she got to her feet and followed them to the improvised night camp (it was impossible to escape anywhere in the dense forest). It proves, she says, that kindness and compassion can get you back on your feet. “In the work environment we tend to think being compassionate is not on the agenda. But surveys prove that more happiness increases productivity. We are a source of joy or stress for others.” I wonder if addressing businesses and speaking about her captivity is cathartic, and how she feels about turning her most intensely painful and personal experience into a commodity. “My approach is how to make sense of a very difficult experience. It’s rewarding to think that what I went through, and the experience I gained, and the things I learnt, can be useful for people in a very different situation.” It makes her feel that she can transform the experience of being a victim into a survivor. When Ms Betancourt was rescued in a Colombian military operation she found the world had changed. Her two children — 13 and 16 years old when she was taken hostage — had become adults with their own lives to lead. Her marriage collapsed. Writing a book was an important part of processing what had happened to her. The most striking change in the world beyond her personal life was technology. “Before I was abducted, we were beginning to use cell phones. It was a brick. It was heavy.” When she came out of the jungle, communications had become “completely invasive”. There was no gradual acclimatisation for Ms Betancourt. Rather, it was a shock. She had to learn to set boundaries. “It took me a while to understand that I was not obliged to respond every time the phone rang.” She became fascinated by the internet. “I remember finding myself at 4am, browsing all kinds of things. And the next day, I couldn’t function, [I was] so thirsty for knowledge. I wanted to know everything.” She had to discipline herself “because it was becoming crazy”. Perhaps her most significant message for those in the modern workplace, though, is not about resilience. The seemingly unending time in captivity made her assess her former busy working life. “We tend to take for granted that the people we love are just there.” “I was postponing happiness . . . My family was always the most important thing for me, and I thought I was doing everything for them and for my country. And suddenly I realised it was not true, and they had sacrificed a lot.” Her advice to employees is to clarify their priorities. “We really need to make sure to harvest time with the people we love. What you don’t want is, at the end of the day, finding yourself in a horrible situation where you look back and you say, oh my God, I missed the train.” Back-story: Betancourt before captivity