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August 2017

Mental Health Tips for Executives

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INTERVIEW FROM RINGMD

"Stress is a part of life, but it is not a way of life." Stress and anxiety in the workplace has always existed and likely will always exist. However, we can do a much better job of managing these and other mental health issues. Executives and managers must empower their employees by giving them the space to be self-aware and open about challenges. These list of mental health tips for executives can help your business to reach new levels!

This past week I had the privilege of sitting down with Toronto, Canada-based counselor and psychotherapist, Noah Mugenyi. As a mental health & clinical psychotherapist, Noah's experience includes working at the Michael Garron Hospital (formerly Toronto East General Hospital WMS), The Canadian Council on Rehabilitation and Work (CCRW), Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, and The Royal Canadian Yacht Club, before serving as current clinical director at Toronto East Psychotherapy. On top of all this, Noah's personal journey becoming a therapist is inspiring in its own right.

Zach: I have a question based off something you just said before we started recording. You said you work with corporate executives to try and help them engage in preventative measures for mental health within their organizations. You said that presently the current model is essentially “once it breaks, you fix it,” whereas now what people are trying to do is “to not have things break.” So keep everyone healthy, keep the machine well-oiled as they say. That way people don’t break down because they're happy and healthy. Can you share with us some of the specific practices that you recommend to the executives you work with?

Noah:

That’s right Zach. The way I define wellness, my understanding of it, is not the absence of an illness, but rather how you really respond and cope with any emotional, psychological, or physical aspects on a daily basis. You can be functioning, but that doesn't mean that there is no stress going on. The way I look at all these preventative measures, or to stop people breaking down until they seek psychotherapy or psychological services, is simply to take a holistic approach: how is your overall functioning, from a mental perspective, and from physical and spiritual perspectives? When I look at those aspects, I understand that people might have stresses, people might have responsibilities. These can include anything from their performance at work to their family that depends on them. These are all responsibilities that require of us, as human beings, to attend and rejuvenate ourselves.

So, as you said, keeping things moving forward, instead of allowing us to reach our breaking points and seek psychotherapy for a debilitating mental aspect.

I feel that it’s not right to ever allow us to reach such a breaking point.

The philosophy behind my work is that people are not isolated. Your issue shouldn’t be isolated from the other subsystems. You can be an executive, but that doesn’t mean that you’re immune to stress or to mental issues. It’s healthy to be asking yourself how does your stress impact your performance? How does it impact your relationships? How does that stress impact your parenting? It’s important to encourage people to talk about these things before your life starts to fall apart.

Zach: Here’s a hypothetical example. Let’s say you’re dealing with an executive at a bank. Can you give some examples of what you would advise that executive to implement in terms of day-to-day procedures that would help their employees with their mental health.

Noah:

A person, to me, is a whole person, not parts. So, going back to the executive, I feel the message I’m sharing with the corporate world, the wellness aspect, is that we need to talk about these things. You have to understand your team. Just like at RingMD you have to know what’s your team like. What are some of the values? What are some of the needs?

stress is a part of life, but it’s not a way of life

Workplace stress and anxiety is pervasive, but that doesn't mean it has to be overwheming. I tell executives that as a leader you have the responsibility to understand your team. If I’m the executive of course I want to know if any given employee has enough support to do their job. This includes having those conversations, having an open dialogue, checking in on each and every employee, understanding their work, their relationships, their stressors; this engenders composure and awareness that empowers individuals.

I do encourage debriefings. That comes from my background in flying. We have debriefings every day. You plan the route and fly according to that route, but things go the other way around. We know that. Mother nature is still the boss. So even in the workforce, things may be planned, but there are always going to be needs that are pulling us in different directions. With this in mind I definitely want to emphasize starting the conversation with your employees, and understanding them and their workload – allowing them to really give you feedback and their story. If you are the executive and you don’t have time to understand that, it’s going to impact you, the individual, and the company’s performance (especially if cultural differences are involved).

Zach: So perhaps the old school way of thinking is that taking these measures in the short run will negatively effect performance because you’re taking time away from the “actual work.” I put that in quotes because that might not be the whole picture, as you’ve suggested. So do you think that people’s mindsets are shifting so that taking measures like this, the time to talk about these things, is becoming more acceptable? Do people see that these sorts of open conversations leads to a more sustainable future and that’s better for everyone?

Noah:

I do think so. As I’ve said we’ve come very far with mental health, wellness, and holistic perspectives. Our paradigm is actually shifting, whereby people have started to realize it’s not only about performance, the results, how much money we make. The people are the driving force that lead to long run sustainable “success.” And I also put that in quotes because these people need to be looked after. These people need to be listened to. These people need to express their needs. If they don't they get trapped in their own head.

If I feel comfortable to come to you as my executive and tell you “hey Zach, I’m feeling a little bit low today.” That doesn’t mean that I’m not going to be able to do my work, but I may do it somewhat lower than expected. If I feel safe to come to you and tell you that, that’ll give me joy. I’ll still go through my daily struggles, there could be something happening within my family. Maybe my relationship with my wife is not going so well. Now I’m not going to go into details because it’s not any of your business to know most of those details, but even having that window where I can feel free to come to you and let you know what’s going on. This is important because the more we allow this kind of culture of not expressing our needs, the more we lead people, and our business, into trouble.

Zach: So do you think it’s the responsibility of the manager or executive to give their employees the benefit of the doubt when they express their emotions? I ask this because I think often times when we have these sorts of conversations, at least in the past, when you make statements like “my relationship has got me down”, or something like that, you’re met with skepticism. Do you think that in order to have a healthy and sustainable company culture you have to be willing, especially if you’re in a position of power, to give people the benefit of the doubt?

Noah:

I prefer to call that “to have an open door, which is safe.” If we feel safe, which also leads me to the topic of vulnerability, we actually allow people to express their needs, beyond “what is my boss going to think of me?”

I tell people on a daily basis that expressing our needs, or being vulnerable, is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of strength.

So when I come to you as my executive, and I say “You know what Zach, this is what I’m going through, but I’m here to really make things better. I know you have my back and the resources to support me.” We should embrace such behavior. I would encourage every organization and individual to really start talking about these things. Until we start addressing these needs we are far away from what we need for success.

Stress impacts on self, family system and productivity

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What is at stake, when stress strikes? Or threatens our relationships, both individually; family needs or even collaboration in the workplace?

Speaking of relationships and family roles in this context, parenting holds a dual aspect to it. Both a privilege and shared responsibility, which another may call an obligation. Pushing our human envelope to what I call the 'mental structural limits' happens on a daily basis, which at times results in what we casually call 'busy, stressed and tired'. Navigating and maneuvering through the demands of today and meeting either individual or family needs, but also everyday expectations; such as a job or school project requires more than superman powers. No wonder the ripple effects, given the job workload amidst juggling family needs such as a kid's soccer game or your daughter's dance lesson and I haven't mentioned of hockey training routines and traffic delays.

“When two elephants fight, the grass suffers indeed.” Your valuable relationships and finding balance as well as juggling multiple aspects of life in terms of 'needs' are pulling in two opposing directions. In this case, family members or relationship stakeholders become the grass underneath the fighting elephants. As a resulting factor, one may feel overwhelmed as miscommunication and the difficulty to expressing the internal pressure for not dropping the ball keep increasing. At such a crucial moment, opportunities may pose a threat to either the relationships nurtured for years or the miscommunication getting in the way; instead of reaching out and leaning-in toward each other's vulnerability - where both partners slowdown and look in each other's eyes but mostly, be reminded that they've gotten each other's love (back). Be reminded of the gift of life and joy amidst the morning rush to drop the kids to school and hit the office as expected before the evening schedule.

Speaking of workplace stress and collaboration, reaching out for support or help from either a colleague, supervisor and management don’t mean a sign of performance and productivity weakness but rather strength and care in what you do. This is what I call being truly human and vulnerable enough; when one stretches a hand seeking support and connection rather than isolation and self-destructions as a coping strategy.

A sense of comm-unity and belonging on mental health
Research has links between social connection and health outcomes. As we look at ways in mitigating stress impacts on the self, families and communities; we must rethink the basics of whom we are meant as human beings. A Sense of connection and community belonging embodies the social attachment of individuals and reflects both social engagement and participation within communities (Statistics Canada by Ross Nancy, 2002). It’s a no brainer, for we are social beings. From our infancy to the adult attachment needs we all continue to have. Thank goodness, what a vibrant and multicultural city that we live in - Toronto! Every year in Toronto and I must add, in the Beaches and east end of Toronto; we celebrate life and community but more so; a great sense of belonging. Be it at Woodbine beach or in the small neighborhoods such as my Orchard Park Blvd annual street party.

Everyday, you and me should be looking for the 'shooting star moments' in our lives, in order to stay rejuvenated. This is when one slows down and pays attention but above all; listens and feels. Kissing goodbye to either your loved one at the airport or your son before the school bell rings goes beyond 'rushing'. I truly mean, looking in the eyes of your child before, instead of the "drop-off and rush"; chasing your own tail - the never-ending mystery. Never enough as we strive to make it or provide as we call it; yet the everlasting 'shooting star moments' are irreplaceable. Because, these are times we really connect, feel and express our deep emotions beyond vulnerability or fear; which is craved the most by any human being - love. Holding the hand or extending a touch of comfort to another, reassures them of your presence amidst your anticipated absence.

Words of encouragement: Be it at home, at school, on the bus or with a workmate; look for those 'shooting star moments' - for we are created for connection and a sense of Ubuntu. Remember to eat, sleep, connect and laugh; for it's important to working from rest than taking rest from being stressed or tired.

Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any question, for any move starts with that first step!