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“Mental health days”, Dr. Renee Exelbert and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

A thriving work culture is all about its employees feeling a sense of value, comradery, purpose, and belonging. Employees need to know that they are cared for, which stems from leadership. This means the facilitation of programs that reinforce the importance of mental and physical health, such as work retreats and educational offerings that embrace […]

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A thriving work culture is all about its employees feeling a sense of value, comradery, purpose, and belonging. Employees need to know that they are cared for, which stems from leadership. This means the facilitation of programs that reinforce the importance of mental and physical health, such as work retreats and educational offerings that embrace mindfulness and self-care, as well as policies that promote personal time to achieve wellness, instead of a “no sleep, work harder” mentality; work settings that incorporate nature, when possible; forums where employees can contribute ideas and opinions that allow then to feel “heard;” time set aside for company-wide projects that focus on volunteering and “giving back” to the community; flexible work schedules that allow for family-work balance; company-wide events that allow for team-building and acknowledgment of work effort. Small incentives that do not have to be cost-prohibitive, such as a monthly free coffee bar, could also foster a sense of employee appreciation that often translates to greater productivity.


As a part of my series about the “5 Ways That Businesses Can Help Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Renee Exelbert..

Renee is is a licensed psychologist and the Founding Director of The Metamorphosis Center for Psychological and Physical Change, where she integrates psychotherapy and exercise, with a focus on the mind/body connection. She maintains a private practice in New York City, Manhasset and Nyack, New York for the treatment of children, adolescents, adults and families. Dr. Exelbert is also an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Applied Psychology at the New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development where she teaches Masters-level psychology courses. Her debut memoir, Chemo Muscles: Lessons Learned from Being a Psych-Oncologist and Cancer, was released in 2020.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I was a psychologist working at a pediatric cancer center and was then diagnosed with my own cancer. I utilized exercise and diet to regain a sense of control over my body, which led me to become a certified personal trainer. I then founded The Metamorphosis Center for Psychological and Physical Change, where I integrated exercise and psychotherapy, utilizing a true mind-body paradigm. This experience culminated in the writing of my first book, Chemo Muscles: Lessons Learned from Being a Psych-Oncologist and Cancer Patient.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I don’t know if this was the most interesting, but this was, by far, one of the most special. I was working at a pediatric cancer center with a young woman who was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. She was dying, yet wanted to attend her high school senior prom. She had a wish granted to her by the phenomenal organization “Make a Wish,” which was for a famous designer to craft her prom dress. She planned to attend the prom, but was too sick to go to the “after party” with the rest of her graduating class. My colleague and I rented a limousine and got all dressed up — he in a tuxedo, and myself in a gown. We surprised her outside the prom with the limousine, and took her to an iconic New York City dessert place. It was a magical night, and one that I will never forget.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

I think maintaining a sense of personal and professional boundaries is critical, which includes things like carving out time for personal self-care; learning to say “no” to extraneous commitments; and constantly checking in with yourself to determine if what you are doing is giving you a sense of meaning and fulfillment. It is also important to understand that you will never make everyone happy. That concept is impossible and faulty by design. Stay true to your values and beliefs, feel confident that you are working hard and putting forth your best self, and learn to strive for “really good,” as perfection is not real.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

A thriving work culture is all about its employees feeling a sense of value, comradery, purpose, and belonging. Employees need to know that they are cared for, which stems from leadership. This means the facilitation of programs that reinforce the importance of mental and physical health, such as work retreats and educational offerings that embrace mindfulness and self-care, as well as policies that promote personal time to achieve wellness, instead of a “no sleep, work harder” mentality; work settings that incorporate nature, when possible; forums where employees can contribute ideas and opinions that allow then to feel “heard;” time set aside for company-wide projects that focus on volunteering and “giving back” to the community; flexible work schedules that allow for family-work balance; company-wide events that allow for team-building and acknowledgment of work effort. Small incentives that do not have to be cost-prohibitive, such as a monthly free coffee bar, could also foster a sense of employee appreciation that often translates to greater productivity.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote’? Do you have a story about how this was relevant in your life?

I once heard the quote wherever you go, there you are.” I did not understand the meaning of this until recently. I was talking with a patient of mine, who had experienced some significant health issues. We were discussing what his goal was, and if it was simply “to feel better again.”We discussed howour development as human beings is more about the journey than the destination. Getting healthy was not just an endpoint of “feeling better,” but was rather an ongoing process of growing and evolving, incorporating self-care, meditation, gratitude, exercise, healthful eating practices, and mindfulness into one’s everyday being. Along the way, we change who we are and how we see the world, as well as incorporate new aspects of self into our identity. Therefore, wherever you go, there you are. You exist in that moment, and all of your past obstacles and growth have led you to that very spot, culminating into the exact person you are right then. You will keep moving, keep growing. And where you are next year, will be an entirely different place than where you are today. This resonated for me at a deep personal level because my experience with breast cancer was a journey. Where I began was very different from where I am now. The trauma, the physical and emotional struggles, the pain, the blessings, the gained strengths all transformed me. I would not be who I am today had I not experienced all that I did.

What strategies would you suggest to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?

Our country’s view of what it takes to achieve and excel is distorted. We compromise sleep, our sense of meaning and purpose, happiness, relaxation and our general sense of well-being for the hope that success is waiting for us on the other end. However, what we are finding more and more is that there is a strong correlation between productivity and mental health functioning. Study after study is now showing that when employees take time to engage in mindfulness, yoga, prayer and meditation, particularly when it is offered by their work site, their work productivity is improved. Employees are not only happier with their workplaces after engaging in these activities, but happier in general. As such, companies need greater education on the importance of embracing these policy changes, and finding ways to increase the emotional well-being of their employees. The implementation of company-wide policies such as PTO (Predictable Time Off), in which you take a planned night off — no email, no work, no smartphone, is pertinent. Additionally, companies can put forth company-wide “quiet time” during the day, where employees receive 15-minutes to recharge or meditate. Even the shift from work meetings in a conference room to outside in nature can dramatically shift the mood and productivity of an employee. What may have previously been regarded as “coddling” behaviors, are now seen to quiet our brains and allow us to be more peaceful at work, culminating in greater work-life balance. The importance of adding “mental health days” to compensation plans that currently only offer “sick days,” cannot be understated. This vocational-wide policy change can communicate the normalcy of mental health and the need to take care of one’s emotional functioning. Just as colleagues do not want to be exposed to their sick peer’s germs, equally true should be their desire to not be the target of a colleague’s emotional overwhelm or frustration. Changing the reinforcement system, where employees receive “reward” for using their mental health and sick days, versus quietly honoring them for being “hard-working soldiers,” also needs to occur. Paternity leave should be much more widely offered, so that it becomes mainstream in acceptance. This puts forth the view that family life is equally important to men and women, and will also level the playing field in terms of gender inequality. Companies should participate in monthly “give back” days, having their employees use the work day to volunteer at a local charity. Further, accolades at work could be tied to donations to one’s favorite charity, with opportunities for traditional salary merit being met elsewhere. These acts of kindness are linked to a greater sense of emotional well-being, and put forth the sentiment that taking care of ourselves and others is critically important in order to have the capacity to be effective workers.

From your experience or research, what are different steps that each of us as individuals, as a community and as a society, can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling stressed, depressed, anxious and having other mental health issues/ Can you explain?

The de-stigmatization of mental health is a necessary public health mandate, with a trickle-down effect coming from policymakers. The more support that mental health is given through governmental funding and accessibility, the greater its usage. We cannot prevent individuals from experiencing anxiety and depression, but we can offer policies to mitigate these feelings. Schools should be more actively discussing mental health, with curriculum as early as kindergarten highlighting ways that we can take care of our minds and bodies, as well as help care for others through our actions of charity, kindness and anti-bullying. Parenting classes should be offered free of charge upon the birth of a child, to educate new parents on psychological wellness practices and places to secure support for emotional overwhelm. More public health announcements about the signs of mental health issues, and places to secure free services, should occur. As employers, we should initiate policies that encourage mental wellness in the work setting, such as mindfulness and self-care teachings, as well as excused mental health days. Greater integration of the mind-body connection is also pertinent, with the need for medical professionals to heed the integration of mental health and physical disorders. As such, medical professionals should have greater training in mental health and collaborate more frequently with mental health professionals, as well as reduce shame associated with medical issues deemed to be “in someone’s head.” Just as children are required to undergo an “annual physical” in order to enter school each year, so, too, should they undergo an “emotional physical,” checking in on their mental health functioning. The onus on media professionals to portray mental health issues in a destigmatizing light is also necessary, as the public at large is widely influenced by news, film and television. In that vein, a call for celebrities and public figures to serve as positive role models for mental illness could have far-reaching effects on diminishing the shame that is associated with mental illness. The academic world needs to change as well, with students experiencing deeper levels of pressure, anxiety and depression, trying to obtain academic excellence in order to reap the rewards of future success and material goods. Thus, there exists a need to focus on the strengths and attributes of a full person, versus a “perfect” person. This change of behavior needs to happen at the individual level with what we teach in our homes and how we each live our lives, as well as at the societal level, placing greater value on kindness and happiness than on material success. We, as human beings, need to move from presenting our “ideal self” on social media, to being more real and focused on our “genuine self. As Ghandi said, “be the change you wish to see in the world.” We can each start the ripple of change by sharing our own vulnerabilities and struggles, thus causing others to feel more connected, less alone and valuable, just the way they are.

Habits can play a huge role in mental wellness. What are the best strategies you would suggest to develop good healthy habits for optimal mental wellness that can replace any poor habits?

The implementation of any habit begins with understanding its value and why it might be important in one’s life. Therefore, thinking about how we want to live is critical. Taking small steps towards changing behavior is key, as this makes the likelihood to sustain these changes greater. In general, moving towards a life of deeper “inner reflection,” versus “outer acknowledgment” will pave the way to greater mental wellness. This means paying attention to our own experiences and feelings, versus those of others. We can do this by being mindful and staying in the present moment. Take one small habit and start there. For instance, stay away from social media and electronics first thing in the morning, as we don’t want to begin our day overstimulated and stressed. Start the day with thinking about one thing that makes you feel gratitude. Begin to appreciate the magic of your body, and get in control of it. Start very small — your muscles don’t know if you are in the gym or in front of the television watching “The Voice.” If you add on one behavior to a habit that you already have, research shows that it is easier to develop the new behavior as a habit. For example, if you normally have a cup of coffee, pair that with doing five squats. Your brain is already accustomed to having the coffee, and it can learn to pair the new behavior of exercise with the already established one of drinking coffee. Move towards healthier eating by making small changes. Try to simply incorporate one healthy thing in your diet each day — even if that means a piece of lettuce on your greasy pork sandwich. Take a probiotic each day. The majority of our neurotransmitters responsible for our mood have been found to be in our gut. A probiotic can help with both your physical and emotional health. These small changes begin to add up to a much healthier way of living, and a much healthier you.

Do you use any meditation, breathing or mind-calming practices that promote your mental well-being? We’d love to hear about all of them. How have they impacted your own life?

I attempt to live “mindfully” each day by incorporating mindful practices throughout the day. I always begin my day with a prayer of gratitude, being thankful that I have been offered a new day of life. I spend a few moments to think about the people and things in my life that make me feel blessed. I try to exercise at least 4–6 days a week, as it is my emotional release, and helps my body and mind stay healthy. With every weight lifted, I am in touch with the power of my body and feel a deep sense of gratitude for its ability to carry me through the day and do what it does. I eat my breakfast slowly and mindfully, engaging my five senses — sight; sound; taste; touch; smell. As I eat, I focus on the health benefits of the food I am ingesting, and visualize the positive health effects these foods will have on my body and its functioning. For instance, I think about how the blueberries that I eat contain antioxidants that can help lower blood pressure, protect against cancer, and improve my memory. In the same fashion, I take my daily vitamins, such as Vitamin D, and think about how it lowers my risk of breast cancer recurrence; my probiotic, calming my stomach and brain; and my turmeric, reducing muscle inflammation. I shower in the same fashion, engaging my five senses: looking at the water; hearing the sound of it beating down on my body; smelling the shampoo; lathering the soap on my skin and feeling the self-massage; concentrating on the heat; tasting a drop of water. This enables me to experience at least 10 minutes of self-care as I begin my day. I always try to spend as much time as I can in nature, even if it is a quick walk with my dog. Throughout the day, I incorporate self-rating scales of stress that I feel, with 0 indicating no stress and 10 indicating the highest levels of stress. If my stress is approaching a 4 or higher, I will take a break and do something to calm myself down — get outside in nature; spend a few moments breathing; massage my head. I carry bubbles in my pocketbook for an occasional quick moment of levity, childhood fun and forced deep breathing. I try to take hourly deep breaths, combined with frequent body scans, checking my body for where it is holding stress and then releasing it. At work, I act with intention and purpose, and try to put my best self forth to connect with and help my patients. After a day of work, I spend my commute listening to spa music or relaxing my breath in silence. When I come home, I perform a ritual to separate myself from work and home. I wash my hands, literally ridding myself of the problems of others, and then change into cozy clothing. Only then am I back in mommy and wife mode. Connecting with my family lights up my soul. Petting my dog allows for lowered blood pressure and more love. I often end the night with a bath of Epsom salt, getting rid of the toxins in my body and enabling me to fully relax.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

Why I wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy was a formative book for me during my journey with breast cancer. It was the first portrayal of a beautiful, successful woman diagnosed with breast cancer, who was young like me. This book allowed me to feel understood and like I would be ok.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Performing random acts of kindness is associated with a plethora of health benefits, including reduced stress and pain, enhanced immunity, and a reduction in anger, anxiety and depression. Kindness can promote gratitude, empathy and compassion, which in turn, leads to a sense of interconnectedness with others. When you feel connected with others, you reduce alienation and increase the sentiment that we are more similar than different in our experiences. Kindness also helps strengthen our sense of community and belonging. If we are interested in cultivating a physically and emotionally healthier world, it all starts with the way we treat each other.

As such, I would start a platform like Facebook, where all people had to list one way that they could help someone else — a service they could provide — and in turn, request one service — or a way where they needed to receive help from another. This could be through teaching; cooking a meal; painting a picture; song-writing; math tutoring; being a friend; going grocery shopping for someone– so that every human being could contribute. Whether you are financially insolvent or affluent, a service like being a friend to someone else is an important commodity. There are people in the world who desperately want a friend, and there are people in the world who want to give their friendship. Therefore, this match system could be an opportunity for all to contribute, feel valuable, and experience some level of meaning, purpose and human connection.

What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?

https://drexelbert.com/
https://www.linkedin.com/in/renee-exelbert-ph-d-59137b89/
https://www.instagram.com/dr.renee.exelbert/

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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