In April 2022, I’m going to be in the Sahara Desert, in 50°C (122°F) heat, about to start the challenge of a lifetime – while celebrating my 50th year. Not only am I able to achieve this goal thanks to Cisco, but they are helping me to give back at the same time!
At 17 years old, I joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) where I spent a majority of the next 10 years in sandy deserts on peacekeeping missions. It was difficult but rewarding work. As I return to the desert, a few years older and wiser, I will be taking on the most significant physical and mental challenge that I’ve ever attempted. It’s a race that the Discovery Channel describes as the “toughest foot race on Earth” – the Marathon des Sables.
This is a 250km (155 mile) race in the Sahara Desert, carrying everything I need for a week in extreme heat, apart from the water I need to stay alive and the tent I’ll share with seven fellow athletes. It’s a huge challenge and one that I am very excited about. And, as I am raising money for charity, a fantastic veterans UK charity called Walking with the Wounded, Cisco allows me to use my volunteer days (we get 40 hours each year) to take part and matches donations made by Cisco employees.
The Walking with the Wounded organization helps veterans with physical or mental health issues and social integration challenges, including the homeless or prisoners. It’s a perfect fit, as mental health is another cause that’s very near and dear to me.
My journey to Cisco was different from most.
I was a contractor during my first time at Cisco, I had a mental health breakdown where I hit rock bottom and lost belief in myself. It was then that I decided to take a career break. (I was lucky that I was in a position that I could.) During the next year, I worked on my wellbeing, received weekly counselling, practised meditation, and journaled. I also played a lot of golf to relax!
I’d kept in touch with my Cisco friends and was made aware of a position in Cisco’s Customer Experience (CX) team as a Project Manager, working with the team and customers I’d worked alongside previously as a Network Consulting Engineer and Customer Operations Manager.
Despite knowing about my mental health challenges, it was evident that my hiring manager could see past these. Even though he didn’t previously employ me, he’d seen what I could achieve, what I was capable of, and most importantly, believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.
Cisco’s approach to mental health and well-being is very different from that experienced with any employer previously. Cisco quickly realised that what we collectively endured throughout 2020 was impacting employee’s well-being and encouraged us to talk about how we were feeling. We regularly have internal and external speakers who share their experiences (which helps us to recognise that we aren’t the only ones that are struggling mentally) and give us techniques to manage our mental health.
While mental health is important, Cisco also encouraged us to take part in physical challenges. The Cisco United Kingdom & Ireland (UKI) team had a challenge to “Walk to Vegas” as a team between lockdowns and we were encouraged to track all of the running and walking we did; a highlight of this for me was a socially distanced walk that CX arranged, which allowed me to meet colleagues. It’s not a surprise to me that Cisco has been named the #1 Worlds’ Best Workplace – two years in a row!
Professionally, I’ve always given everything to my career, but I knew I hadn’t done enough to give back to society in my personal life. As an active member of different clubs for triathlon, golf, and public speaking – I get a lot out of these, but don’t give a lot back other than a positive attitude. I knew Cisco, and the Marathon des Sables (MdS) could help me change this.
I want to take as many people as possible on this journey with me, and inspire them, too.
Along with raising funds for Walking with the Wounded, I’m also writing a book about my experience called “Couch to MdS”. It’s about my mid-life crisis (hint: it’s not the traditional type), my mental health, and how despite becoming out of breath on the golf course, I have decided to run “the toughest footrace on Earth”.
I have also been actively seeking out opportunities to talk within Cisco about mental health to help promote an understanding of how it impacts people, our careers, and provide techniques which can be used to help minimise how they are feeling. I’ve already spoken to over 1100 people across Europe about my experiences!
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If you are interested in keeping up to date with Mat’s challenge – join him here. (Everyone who sponsors Mat will receive chapters of his book as he writes them, culminating in the last couple of chapters when he completes the challenge.)