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?
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.
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?
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?
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.
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!
CHAPTER 1: WAR CHILD: Overcoming life’s greatest obstacles
My early years held more horrors for me than anything I have ever faced in my life. Unlike most little boys, who may have been frightened by imaginary monsters under their bed, I was terrorized by the cruelties of war and the innocent bloodshed I had witnessed.
Balimanyankya is a small village in Luweero district of Uganda. The name Balimanyankya in Luanda means, “others will know the next day.” Village history tells of a settler who lived there long ago. Due to the distance between his house and the next village, he claimed that, when he passed on, others would come to learn about his death the next day or days after. According to the village elders, the settler’s prediction came true.
I was born in this village on November 4th, 1979, under an orange tree. Miraculous though it was, this kind of labour was routine for my mother. Veronica bore nine children without medical attention or expertise, beneath various trees in our village. When we were children, she would often say to us, “You were born under that tree and your brother below this mango tree.” But for me my mother would add: “You are Mboy - a ‘miracle baby’ - and you are blessed. So, live your life to the fullest.”
Veronica called me “miracle baby” because I nearly died in her womb. One night, a month before I was born, my father beat my mother in a drunken frenzy, and as he kicked her in the abdomen he screamed: “Let me beat you until the baby you are carrying is terminated.” As Mama fell on her knees to protect her eight-month pregnancy, she prayed that I would remain intact in her womb. To this day I still call Veronica my number-one hero.
Uganda was an unstable nation around the 1980s. By the time I was three years old, the guerilla war, which brought the current Ugandan president into power, was underway. One day, I woke up terrified by the noise and the horrifying gunshots that rocked the entire Luweero triangle. At that tender age, I could just about feed myself but couldn’t run for my life or find safety during war. But miraculously, with the help of my parents, my older brother Tony, and my older sister Noeline, I survived.
“When two elephants fight, the grass suffers” is the African saying. Even at an early age amidst the war in Uganda, I saw all creatures suffer. Men and women, both old and young, and every creature from land animals to birds - all lives are at stake in the chaos. War is like a hurricane, destroying everything in its path without discrimination. But perhaps the most destructive pain humans face in war is uncertainty. The agony of not knowing whether you or your loved ones will make it to the next minute, or the next hour, eats people alive.
Noeline had been my immediate caretaker. When terrified, she would always try her best to comfort me. Even though she was scared, as any ten year old would be, she stood tall. “It’s going to be over soon and all will be fine,” she would tell us. I wondered how life would be without Noeline. Her hope was a source of strength to all of us.
During the months of travelling and running for our lives in the jungle, Noeline stepped on something that looked like a thorn. Her leg began to swell and, days later, the infection took over. As the war progressed, my sister’s health deteriorated. Still, her only worry, it seemed, was for our mother. “What else can I do to make it easier, Mama?” she would ask. “Mama, how are you going to manage carrying Mboy and Mathias (my young brother) all together?”
A few days later, Noeline died in our mother’s arms. Young and frightened, I stood by both my parents and shared in the most helpless and painful last moments of our lives. On that day I discovered to die a painful death is one thing, but to witness your loved one breath their last is unspeakable. No trauma in my entire ordeal during the war matched that of the death of my older sister.
War makes us ask questions that can never be answered: Why would an innocent infant die and a violent criminal live? Why do bad things happen to people? Why does history celebrate war and its so-called mighty warriors, who are responsible for destroying so many lives? History can tell us something about the events and circumstances leading to war, but it fails to justify or explain why a man, or a group of human beings, would choose to bring fear, terror, and death to fellow beings.
The terror I faced gave me a vivid picture of life and death at a crossroads. In those days, people either learned to use what little resources they had in order to survive, or they gave up and died. When the shadow of death looms over everyone’s face, it is very easy for the human mind to betray itself and give in. But the will and yearning to preserve one’s life is an equally powerful motivator. With enough willingness, one can determine to live on in the face of the most horrific circumstances and never give up until the end.
As is often the case in war and natural disasters, asking “why” does not guarantee an answer. In fact, if often yields more questions than answers. Of course, it is good to ask “why,” but we also need something to move us forward. That catalyst is hope. Hope is what gives us the will to go on. It is the ground on which we stand to overcome almost any obstacle. This was my final belief and hope as a young boy, for I had resolved that hope in the creator alone would determine my fate ahead.
Within days of Noeline’s burial, war separated us from our loved ones once again. My brother Tony and I found each other at a military barracks, and as the war intensified, we were miraculously rescued by a distant relative. We would stay with that relative for another three years before we could rejoin our parents after the war ended.
*** Standby for the update on the Memoir's publication and campaign***
Appreciate for your continued support, encouragement and journeying together in the gift of life.