“Best advice is to breathe.” with Vilma Cuevas

The advice I give my colleagues is to breathe. If you are too tired to think or are too stressed, you are probably not going to make the best decisions. I advise my team to remember that sometimes you have to walk away from the problem to find a solution. So, stop and take a […]

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The advice I give my colleagues is to breathe. If you are too tired to think or are too stressed, you are probably not going to make the best decisions. I advise my team to remember that sometimes you have to walk away from the problem to find a solution. So, stop and take a few minutes to decompress. Clear your head. I can guarantee you will be more productive.

As a part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Are Helping To Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees” I had the pleasure of interviewing Vilma Cuevas, Sr. Director of Human Resources at Westmed Medical Group located in Westchester, NY.

As a strategic human resources and recruitment leader, Ms. Cuevas has had more than 17 years of experience driving process improvement and building effective partnerships critical to business change. A big-picture thinker, she identifies opportunities for innovation and has been particularly successful in leading HR change initiatives that resulted from mergers, acquisitions, and divestitures. Ms. Cuevas has spent many years in the healthcare industry, working as a trusted advisor to executive leadership and has had influence across the organization. Recognizing that the analysis of “people” or HR data is often lacking, she developed HR data processes to be used to drive decision quality. Ms. Cuevas thrives in fast-paced, high stakes situations, where she can lead projects and collaborate across multiple-teams to enable true change.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! 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?

As a child, I wanted to make the world better for those less fortunate. When it was time for me to choose a career, I debated between becoming a psychologist or an attorney. Ultimately, I chose to pursue a degree in forensic psychology, but quickly realized it was not the right decision for me. I was still passionate about psychology, so I decided to intern and work at various organizations that provided different types of mental health services. A few years later, I was interviewed for a role in the crisis intervention department for a healthcare organization in New York City. The recruiter seemed to see something in me that I had yet to realize, and instead of the role I interviewed for, she offered me a position in their human resources department. I quickly realized that being in human resources gave me the opportunity to do what I always wanted to do; to help and make people’s lives better, just in a different way.

Human resources can be stressful yet incredibly rewarding at the same time. Leading a human resources department in a health care organization during the COVID-19 pandemic has made the work even more challenging. Our employees are stressed, scared and worried for their own health as well as that of their families. While others work from home, these essential employees are expected to come to work and provide care for patients in our community. My job and the job of my colleagues is to try our best to keep them safe, and to care for their needs while they are taking care of others. This means long hours of work, listening to our employees, keeping a pulse on the current environment and trying to forecast what is coming next — all while implementing organizational changes to address the immediate needs. Our priority through it all has remained the same: we aim to keep our employees healthy and engaged while providing a safe environment for them each and every day.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout? What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

The advice I give my colleagues is to breathe. If you are too tired to think or are too stressed, you are probably not going to make the best decisions. I advise my team to remember that sometimes you have to walk away from the problem to find a solution. So, stop and take a few minutes to decompress. Clear your head. I can guarantee you will be more productive.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. In recent years many companies have begun offering mental health programs for their employees. For the sake of inspiring others, we would love to hear about five steps or initiatives you have taken to help improve or optimize your employees’ mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each?

In recent months, demonstrating support and appreciation for our essential workers was my main focus. To do so, we teamed up with our own behavioral health team and provided both free group support sessions, as well as one-on-one counseling sessions open to all of our employees and physicians to help them cope with the daily stress and pressure they have been faced with, both at home and in the workplace. Through these mental health resources, employees had the opportunity to receive support, learn and apply new coping techniques, all in a safe and confidential setting.

Westmed also offered live dial-in decompression sessions held at different times throughout the day. These five-minute sessions were led daily by our own team members who had expertise in guided meditation. These team members volunteered their time on a weekly basis to help their colleagues decompress — even for just five minutes. It was truly amazing to see how situations like this can really bring everyone together. To complement these decompression sessions, we also offered after-hours Zoom yoga sessions for our team members, to help them move their bodies and reset their minds after a long, and often stressful day, caring for patients in our outpatient facilities. Additionally, we shared helpful reading materials and resources such as “11 apps to help you practice mindfulness” and “10 non-meditative things you can do to manage your COVID-19 anxiety”. Furthermore, we held live virtual yoga and virtual fitness classes were led by a professional instructor to all of our employee, free of charge

In addition, in August we ran a whole month of employee appreciation events to show our people how much we appreciate the hard work they have put in throughout the pandemic to help care for our patients. The entire month was filled with fun events like an ice cream day and food truck visits. We even gave out fun freebies like Westmed hats and lunch bags and started a gratitude initiative where we highlighted exceptional employees who go above and beyond. I believe that sometimes little things can go a long way to setting the tone and mood for everyone. If we have the opportunity to brighten someone’s day with a simple act, it could change their outlook for the whole day.

In early 2020 before the pandemic, I was new to my role at Westmed, and my main focus was to grasp a pulse on the culture of the organization. To understand the culture, and to help me and my team uncover current challenges or underlying issues that could negatively affect our employees’ mental health, I worked with the leadership team to implement a listening tour. On these tours, our employees were able to hear an update from our executives, ask questions and voice concerns that may have previously gone unheard. We took their feedback and were able to make some immediate changes to policies — even starting a new PTO program where new employees were able to benefit from an additional bank of PTO hours to allow them to care for themselves or their families if issues arise. Little things go a long way and everyone enjoys having an extra day off to refresh and unwind. It has them coming back to work with renewed energy and more focus.

What you are doing is wonderful, but sadly it is not yet commonplace. What strategies would you suggest to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?

First and foremost, you need to have a conversation about mental health and make it part of your people strategy, internal communication strategy and employee wellness strategy. Very often companies feel like this a topic they should stay away from. But the truth is, it should be at the forefront. Many companies have wellness initiatives that focus on diet, exercise, and sometimes they cover meditation or stress relief. I would suggest to do more than that. Make a conscious effort to address the mental health needs within your organization. The mental health of any employees is a crucial determinant in their overall health. Start small and work your way up. And do not forget to make it easy for your employees to access support. Go to them proactively with resources and programs; do not expect your employees to come to you to ask for help.

When you are working on your strategy as an organization, you might be surprised to find that you already have resources at your fingertips, whether it is experts within your own organization or through your organization’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP). If that is not an option, find an external partner. Companies like Westmed are always willing to share their resources and/or experts in the field. I am lucky to have an in-house behavioral health team who is eager to share their expertise and partner with our People Engagement team to help us build a robust strategy to support our employees.

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?

From experience, I will say that being open-minded, listening and really paying attention to the people around you and how they are feeling can make a huge difference. As a society, we are always in such a rush. Sometimes when we ask someone how they are doing; we do not stop to really hear their answer. Encourage your employees and managers to hear and support one another. Often, just showing empathy and listening is all that you need to do to make someone feel better. Our goal is always to raise awareness on the importance of supporting our team members’ mental well-being and to start these important conversations.

As a medical group, we recognize the importance of prioritizing our employees’ mental wellness — especially when we know that there is heightened stress, anxiety and depression given the ongoing pandemic. I always encourage organizations to consider offering different options when developing mental health programs for employees, because every individual is different. Given the enormous uncertainty everyone has faced both personally and professionally during the pandemic, our leadership team recognized that mental health and burnout could become more prevalent issues among our workforce. As a result, my team took action and implemented programs to help promote a culture of openness, support and transparency.

We offered various support options for our team members because everyone has different ways of coping with issues. Providing them with multiple support avenues was key. To account for the different schedules within our employee population, numerous sessions were offered on various topics that we felt were relevant to what our employees were experiencing. Such topics included: “Practicing Self-Care During COVID-19”, “Preventing and Responding to Burnout During COVID-19”, “How to Have Difficult Conversation with Your Child” and “Being Kind to Your Mind”.

Our employees were offered (free) virtual mental health counseling and online support groups for entire teams. It is important for our team members to talk, listen and express how they were feeling in a group peer setting. They were able to learn from their colleagues and recognize that they were not alone during this time of uncertainty. Our employees had the opportunity to provide/receive support, learn and apply new coping techniques, all in a safe and confidential setting. For those that wanted more individualized support, we offered confidential, private virtual one-on-one-support sessions.

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?

Do not forget to take breaks; it is so important for your mental well-being to take a few minutes to refresh and recharge throughout your day. Sometimes a break is taking a minute to breathe and be present. It is critical to remind yourself and your staff to stand up or look away from your screen, or even better add a little activity to your daily routine like going for a quick walk outside or a getting a nice stretch in.

A few ways we encourage our team members is by sending them daily “refresh & recharge” email reminders. For those that work remote, we offer virtual coffee breaks via Zoom to connect with colleagues. It is a perfect way to step away from their desk at home grab some coffee, connect and see how everyone is holding up. This is especially important for newly remote teams since the social aspect of work is no longer available.

Some other strategies for supporting mental health include keeping a journal of your thoughts or better, write love notes to yourself. We tend to be so critical of ourselves and need to learn to be kind and show love towards ourselves. I also believe in sharing your gratitude to those around you. It is as simple as sending a friend a text saying to say you are thinking of them or making a call just to see how they are doing.

As an organization we created a Westmed Gratitude Wall as a space to encourage a daily practice of purposeful reflection and appreciation. Our team members are able to “take a pause” to reflect on someone or something they’re grateful for and share their comment. We believe now more than ever; it is important that we continue to acknowledge and celebrate the good in our lives.

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

Take care of yourself before you take care of others. For me that means trying to get a workout in first thing in the morning. I know if I do not prioritize this, or schedule my workout before 7am, it just is not going to happen. Whatever morning routine you choose to do — fitness, meditation, etc. — remember it does not need to be very long (maybe 30 minutes). I also try to follow-up my fitness routine with a quick stretching session. On the days I work out I feel clear-minded. I can focus better and find myself in a happier mood. I also keep a few things in my office to help me reduce stress: essential oils, nourishing cream, cold water and a pair of sneakers. These items help me practice small acts of self-care, like giving myself a 1-minute hand massage as I wait for a Zoom call to start. It is a small act, but it feels so indulgent and it helps me release tension. If I have three to ten minutes, I do a guided meditation. On the days that I have a bit more time, I take a walk outside. I find that being out in nature it helps me relax. When I am in the office late, I play music and drink cold water to help me feel refreshed. Lastly, I make sure to go to bed early and keep a bedtime routine that includes some self-care and quiet time.

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. 🙂

I would absolutely want to start a movement for mental health awareness and self-care. As I have mentioned previously, when an employee starts from a place of mental wellness and feels supported and cared for in the workplace, it creates a strong foundation for job satisfaction and organizational success.

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