Lead Interview: Kate Pigeon-Owen

CEO, Wellbeing International

Our lead interview in the INCLUSIVITY issue of Norfolk Director business magazine is Kate Pigeon-Owen, CEO of Wellbeing International

Published in Norfolk Director Magazine Autumn|Winter 2022

Inclusivity: Open, Fair and Just

“As an employer, it’s about providing an atmosphere where colleagues can be themselves without fear of losing their job. It’s also about providing the right environment to accommodate and support every individual, so they can enjoy all the different phases of their life.”

Interview:  Sue Wilcock Pictures: Warren Page

Kate Pigeon-Owen talks to Norfolk Director

The fact that Kate Pigeon-Owen exudes positivity and a sense of calm, is perhaps a good thing when it comes to her role as CEO and consultant of the business she founded early in the noughties, Wellbeing International.

Yet, there is also a sense of joy that radiates from Kate when you are in her company.

“How I feel is very much in tune with the mantra we use within the business. That is, if you feel you belong, have a purpose, feel connected, and are healthy, you will succeed and flourish both personally and professionally.”

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Coming into the world in 1964, Kate came as a ‘nice’ surprise, and a bit of a shock, to her parents Stephen and Norah.

“Mum was nearly 40 and having a baby at that age in the sixties was very unusual, even though it is quite normal now. We lived in the Midlands, where Dad had a couple of businesses. Growing up, Mum wouldn’t let me cook, clean, or join the school swimming squad. In particular, she did not want me to learn to type as this was seen as a very female role at the time; she wanted my total focus to be on getting my O and A levels.

“I realise now that was because she wanted to provide me with the best possible opportunities and choices, to gain a career and therefore my independence. She didn’t want me to be reliant on anyone else financially.

“You have to remember that this strength of feeling came from the fact that when Mum was young, a woman was expected to resign from their job when they got married. Mum was quite affected by that and as a result was quite a fierce feminist.

“After achieving my O Levels and then my A Levels, I was looking forward to going to university in London, to take a degree in Business Studies and French. I was so excited about the prospect of leaving home and living somewhere new.

“Then Mum fell ill with emphysema, and Dad wanted me to stay at home and help look after her. So, instead I had to go to Lanchester Polytechnic to study for a degree in Business Studies and Marketing. I was absolutely devastated and so disappointed.”

To help raise some money to fund her degree, Kate worked part-time as a labourer and fork-lift driver at her dad’s warehouse business – a very unusual job for a woman in the 1980s.

“There wasn’t funding then, and if your parents couldn’t support you, you were in trouble. So, I had a couple of part-time jobs throughout my time at Lanchester. A big thing about doing manual work, was that it gave me a chance to experience hard physical labour, and to understand that there are jobs where you are often not ‘seen’; whereas when you are working in a job where you wear a suit, you tend to be noticed more.

“I worked really hard for £2.50 an hour, and then I was lucky to get sponsored for my degree by ISTEL (later to become AT&T). This was great, as I not only got paid to study, but I had a company car and I got to go to events with the sales and marketing team at ISTEL.

“I was 18, and quite ambitious. One day I plucked up the courage and went to see the Sales Director in his office. I was shaking and I said that, although I was happy to continue to do the photocopying and filing, I’m better than that and would he train me in sales? He was taken aback, but he liked my front, and said yes. He then found the opportunities and put me on lots of training courses.”

Moving to the City

In 1986, Kate gained her degree. She was then at an event where a friend introduced her to someone, who asked her whether she would be interested in attending an interview for a graduate sales role at Extel Financial based in London.

“Extel was a global news agency, distributing financial and business information from the London Stock Exchange and other commercial markets. I got the job, and I was so excited to finally escape Coventry and move to the City. Although a male-dominated environment, my boss was a woman, Sharon Rowlands. She mentored me, and I am still in contact with her 35 years on.”

“Looking back, I realise that I was very good at finding women who were great role models, who were doing jobs that I wanted to do.”

“This was my first proper job, and I had a ridiculous salary, plus a company car.  When I was interviewed and asked what I wanted as my ‘package’, I also had the gumption to ask for a parking space in EC2; I ended up keeping that parking space for three years!

“I rented apartments all over London and in a sign of the time, I was most definitely a YUPPIE* and thoroughly enjoyed the lifestyle and the holidays.

“I set myself a target of achieving Sales Manager by the age of 27. I actually managed it by the time I was 25. On one level, it was a fabulous accomplishment; I enjoyed the job and being goal-led, but on another level I was a bit lost, as I was unclear on what to do next.”

The catalyst for change came when things back home weren’t going so well. Kate’s parents’ health was failing, and shortly after achieving her promotion, her dad passed away.

“I started to evaluate what my future career might look like, and as exciting as my job was, it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t necessarily about what I wanted to do, but more about what I didn’t want to do.

“One area of interest to me was the mechanics of communication and I decided to develop and learn more about that as a side interest. So, whilst doing the Sales Manager job, at weekends, I did several training courses in wellbeing techniques and stress management, including learning to be a Bach Flower practitioner, a form of complementary therapy.”

More bad news was to come when less than 12 months after her dad dying, her mum passed away.  

“When Mum died, it all became too much. Looking back, I think I was overwhelmed with everything; dealing with my grief and working six days a week.”

The result was that Kate woke up one morning in acute pain, and she couldn’t get out of bed.

“I managed to crawl to the bathroom, and I was very scared. I put up with it, but after several days of feeling the same, I called the doctor, and they did some tests and diagnosed ‘Chronic Fatigue Syndrome’. For seven years, I had been full on with no respite, and my body was telling me ‘enough!’ I didn’t have a choice. If I wanted to function and survive, I needed to stop and relearn how to look after myself.”

Kate was quite fortunate that at this point in her life, she had enough savings tucked aside, to sustain her through the next couple of years as she recovered.

“I had recently moved from Streatham to Wandsworth, and I had to give up the full time job. I was very constrained on what I could do. I took things slowly – a couple of walks a day, I learnt to cook, and I learnt how to massage. Other things like complimentary therapies helped, such as Bach Flowers. I worked on rebalancing the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual aspects of my wellbeing, so they were more attuned.

“Over 24 months, I went through a total life reset. I wasn’t very social, and I didn’t have a lot of contact with anyone, except for my lodger. All my energy was concentrating on getting well and going through the grieving process.  

“At 28, I remember a free newspaper coming through my door and there was an advert for people who had experience, to become an alcohol counsellor working in the community in a voluntary role. It was only a few hours a week, but it gave you training in exchange for your time. I got it, and very quickly I was learning about addictions, carrying out assessments and delivering counselling sessions.”

It was at one of the training courses in 1993, when Kate met the man who was to become her husband. A French Canadian, he had grown up in Canada and moved to the UK as a graduate. He worked in a similar role to Kate, and they married in 1995.  

A year before she married though, Kate was offered a full-time paid position with a charity, doing their one-to-one relapse prevention counselling.

“It was tough work and very long hours, but it was extremely rewarding. However, because of the type of work we were doing, it was quite exhausting, and a few people were going off on long term stress leave. I became quite interested in how you could prevent people from getting to this place.

“You can call it serendipity, but at this time, I had just had my son Louis, and he was suffering with colic. I was massaging him to try and help, and a friend talked to me about the International Association of Infant Massage (IAIM). They worked with babies and parents after birth, to deliver massage, as they thought it helped with the attachment process.

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“I had a ‘lightbulb’ moment, realising there were links between infant massage and addiction and dependency. With all my clients, there were two commonalities; there was no sound attachment with their mum, and they didn’t have appropriate nurturing touch in their lives. I read about IAIM and realised that they understand that if babies and infants are making attachments at the very beginning of their lives, it can give confidence, self-esteem and even help prevent problems such as addiction and dependency in the future.

“I didn’t hesitate. Paying out of my own pocket, I enrolled on the very next IAIM training course in London, to teach me how to become an IAIM Instructor.”

A year of change

1999 was a very busy year for Kate. Pregnant with her second child, Katia, and yearning for a change of lifestyle, the family moved to Norfolk. Kate had given up her full-time job to concentrate on raising her son and to undergo the training and experience she needed to become an IAIM Instructor, and in 1999 she fully qualified. This meant that she was able to teach primary care givers infant massage.

“We decided to move to Norfolk as we didn’t want to raise the kids in London. We had friends who had moved to Suffolk, and we were looking for a house in the area as we loved it. I was looking at a free newspaper, when we saw this run down property advertised for sale, south of Norwich, and we decided to buy it.

“We had a very young family, but we were excited by the opportunity to start a new phase in our lives. We loved the area, the life, the environment, the countryside, and most importantly, the people.

“With two young children, my job as an IAIM Instructor gave me the flexibility to choose where and when I worked. This fitted well with my family circumstances as we had decided to home school the children initially in their early years. This flexibility around my job meant that my husband – who split his work hours between home and London – and I could share parental responsibilities.”

At this time, in the early to mid-noughties, the political backdrop meant that there were increasing amounts of funding support being made available for children’s centres and early years facilities and education. What Kate was offering in helping babies and parents tapped into that, and she established her first business, Childways.

“Anyone could come along to the sessions. There were no barriers to entry; anyone was welcome and there was no discrimination with regard to financial status, age, sex, race, religion, or disability; the one common thing was that they were the primary caregivers for a young child.”

“The mixture of backgrounds and abilities of the primary caregivers attending the infant massage sessions, enabled the group to be stronger and formed the basis of an ongoing friendship network.”

In 2005, Kate trained to be an International Massage in Schools (MIS) Instructor and Trainer. As a movement, MIS works with teachers and children, to offer a high-quality, inclusive, peer-to-peer massage programme for 4-12 year olds, and Kate worked across East Anglia, Canada and the Far East.

“The MIS programmes was a way of increasing positive communication skills among children and for them to learn to be kinder. We would teach the school teachers, who would then show the children how to do fully clothed peer massage; the whole aim was to care for each other and to listen for feedback – It’s hard to be horrible when you are massaging someone.

“It was well received here, and internationally. In fact, for a couple of years, my main bases to train were Norfolk and Taiwan, with me often flying between the two.”

In 2011, Kate qualified as a IAIM Trainer which meant that she was able to train up other instructors in infant massage. Then seven years later, the business was re-established and rebranded as Wellbeing International Ltd, to better reflect the services it wanted to offer to a wider range of people and businesses. The business had also developed into a team of 12 specialists, some working from the Norfolk office: others remotely.  

However, the Childways name was retained to deliver the infant massage training, and under this mantle, Kate teamed up with fellow IAIM Trainer, Caroline Roberts, to co-write and launch the Wellbeing for Mothers & Babies Programme.

“The programme has been an amazing success with organisations such as Barnardo’s, Flying Start and Action for Children using it as a positive intervention with young families. I am particularly proud to say Action For Children in Norwich were one of the first organisations to see the powerful positive benefits of this new programme.”

Tackling the menopause

“The rebranding of the business took place at a time when focus was continually increasing on providing wellbeing support, with inclusive approaches to teaching and learning that benefited all. So I decided that I wanted to do more things on my terms, as I felt with my past experiences and qualifications, I had more to offer than just massage instruction for babies and children.

“In the office, a conversation had started amongst the team about the menopause, which was viewed, as a bit of a taboo subject.

“My interest was piqued, but rather than listening to the problems, I wanted to find the women that had had an easier journey, and whether there was a commonality between them. So, I conducted a study among 34 women who had gone through the change with little or no problems, and I discovered that there was something that linked them all. It was that all the women had invested in regular massage and reflexology sessions and undertook activities that concentrated on reducing their stress and cortisol levels.

“Cortisol is the main stress hormone in your body which helps to control your mood and regulates the ‘flight or fight’ response. It is linked to sleep, weight, blood pressure, fatigue, and muscle weakness, and levels can be especially erratic during menopause and perimenopause.

“I feel so strongly that not enough time and attention is being given to this vitally important subject. Very little is being done to educate people about the effects and how to cater and manage the impact of the menopause in the workplace.

“Women over 50 are the fastest growing group in the workforce, and latest CIPD research** states that six in ten menopausal women say their symptoms have had a negative impact on their work, with one in four women leaving work because of the menopause.”

“This is a totally inclusive issue, as no matter what gender, race, religion, disability or age, everyone will come into contact with someone going through the menopause whether at home or at work.”

“It’s such an important topic, and it shouldn’t be a taboo subject. We decided to put together a five-point plan, which we could deliver into organisations as a way of educating people about the menopause, its symptoms and effects, as well as the steps that can be taken to introduce a menopause support plan into the workplace.

“Overnight it went nuts, and we landed 17 menopause contracts with organisations all around the UK.”

Then Covid hit.

“Going into lockdown one I was in shock. We had staff in place and everything was beginning to take off at Wellbeing International, and then we went into lockdown one, which was unexpected. I had a few sleepless nights thinking about what to do, but after a couple of weeks we realised that we could do everything we needed to do via webinars over Zoom.  As a result, we managed to retain all 17 contracts.

“Personally Covid was hard, as I lost my sister and sister-in-law; I had to watch my brother and brother-in-law mourn and we were not able to travel to offer support.

“Like many people, not being able to see family and friends was tough. My daughter was at university, so she returned home, but it was especially hard for us as our son and my husband’s family lived in Canada. We have only just managed to get over to see them all for the first time in three years.

“Professionally, although it was a scary time, the team started delivering ‘Wellbeing Capsules’ online, It was meant as a short-term thing, but it has now become a ‘product’ in its own right; something that has continued to grow, and which has been developed into other areas. We also pioneered online ‘gender neutral’ seminars on menopause, so that anyone in society, whoever and wherever they are, can gain an understanding of what women are going through, and how they can support and manage the effects.”

“What I have discovered delivering the programme, is how apologetic directors and senior managers have been when they fully understand what women go through. They realise that if they want a flourishing and totally inclusive organisation, they have to embrace the menopause.”

“It’s an important topic that needs to be led from the top and addressed by organisations if they want to hold onto their most skilled and experienced women.

“However, the work we do isn’t just with organisations. We also work with women so they can understand the science and recognise what’s happening. This gives them better control on how they respond, rather than just reacting. It’s about the woman feeling safe and secure enough to be open and honest about how they are feeling, without fear that they will lose their job, or a promotion.”

Under Kate’s guidance, the team at Wellbeing International have been working on programmes that  integrate inclusivity into other areas of the workplace; providing the right environment to accommodate everyone, and where people can enjoy the different phases of their life.

“It is a fact that women are twice as likely to renegotiate their work life around parental responsibilities or caring for elderly parents.

“Personally, I think it comes down to staff appraisals and having a flexible framework in place that accommodates work and life outside it. Once organisations have this, they will truly be able to retain their staff.

“We were brave with our team. We dared to ask the question: ‘If you could wave a magic wand, what would be the icing on the cake for you at work?’ The answer for all of them was not to work on Fridays; so we don’t.

“Looking back, I was really concerned over the amount of money and time that had been ploughed into the wellbeing programmes when the pandemic hit and worrying about what on earth we were going to do. But I think an entrepreneurial trait is being brave, taking your idea and adapting it to make it work.

“I never wanted what we did to just be about Norfolk. I wanted it to be a business that was inclusive and about what connects us as human beings, and in a lot of respects Covid has allowed that to happen. There is still a place for face-to-face, but it is easier for busy people to spare the time to attend a one hour Zoom session, and it has proved to be a brilliant way to engage and learn. An added bonus is that in one webinar, we can bring together hundreds of people from across the globe.

“I am driven to make a difference. The world is in a right old mess at the moment and it’s great to look in the mirror and know I have done a little something to make life better for someone.”

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For more information, visit Wellbeing International

*YUPPIE short for ‘young urban professional’ or ‘young upwardly mobile professional’

** https://www.cipd.co.uk/about/media/press/menopause-at-work#gref

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