“Empathy is a valuable skill” with Dr Paula Wilbourne

Destigmatizing mental health programs and services to encourage people to ask for help when they need it.Providing resources for everyday emotional support, rather than only for individuals suffering from acute or chronic conditions.Demonstrating that emotional health, like our physical health, is something that can be strengthened and renewed. As a part of my series about […]

Thrive invites voices from many spheres to share their perspectives on our Community platform. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team, and opinions expressed by Community contributors do not reflect the opinions of Thrive or its employees. More information on our Community guidelines is available here.

Destigmatizing mental health programs and services to encourage people to ask for help when they need it.

Providing resources for everyday emotional support, rather than only for individuals suffering from acute or chronic conditions.

Demonstrating that emotional health, like our physical health, is something that can be strengthened and renewed.

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. Paula Wilbourne, co-founder and chief science officer of Sibly, a workplace benefit that expands mental health support to everyday issues for employees and their families.

Dr. Wilbourne is a widely recognized expert in empirically-based treatments, professional training, and health coaching. She designed Sibly’s innovative coaching methods and trains its coaches, or “Heroes,” in Motivational Interviewing, a scientifically tested method of intervention. Prior to joining Sibly, Dr. Wilbourne served as the National Coordinator for the Motivational Interviewing and Motivational Enhancement Therapy program at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), where she designed and successfully implemented a national training program in the country’s largest integrated healthcare system. The program has been used in 152 VA medical centers nationwide, helping hundreds of thousands of veterans in the treatment of their mental and behavioral health issues. Dr. Wilbourne has devoted her career to increasing access to high-quality mental health treatment services.

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?

Absolutely, and thanks so much for this opportunity. My career path was shaped early on — my father struggled with alcohol abuse throughout most of my childhood, which had a significant impact on my family and me. Once I went to college, I felt compelled to learn everything I could about the neuroscience of addiction and the science of helping people change their behavior.

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

Between receiving my doctorate and working at the VA, my early career was rooted in academia, healthcare, and government — which I found to be very meaningful for a long time. Yet even in our best moments, I found the slow rate and pace of change frustrating. I wanted an opportunity to drive a bigger impact, faster, and I have found that at Sibly. For me, having the chance to join forces with an entrepreneur — my co-founder Moe AlKadi — and launch and nurture our own company has been incredibly exciting and dramatically different from anything I have ever done. Innovation within a startup produces such a powerful opportunity for change, and in ways that just aren’t as feasible in larger traditional systems. It has been so rewarding and incredibly humbling to bring this to market, knowing that we are doing something that can help huge numbers of people in a very real, personal way.

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

This might not be the first thing others would think of, but my first piece of advice is to sharpen your ability to regulate your own emotions. You need to be able to experience the highs and lows of a fast-moving start up without being overwhelmed by the emotional ping-pong that comes with all those peaks and valleys of the business. The pace is fast and the demands are high…so if you don’t regulate your own responses, you’ll burn out too quickly.

My second piece of advice: be kind, to yourself and your team. Assume everyone is doing the best that they can until they prove otherwise.

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

This is a great question, and one that we put a lot of thought into at Sibly. It really comes down to authentic values — culture is shaped by what really matters to the organization. At Sibly, for example, we are all about empathy and compassion — that’s the core attribute of the coaching service we provide to companies. As such, we make sure our policies and our practices reflect empathy and compassion as well. People are encouraged to take time off — yes, even in a startup. We hold company-wide meditation, and encourage “wellness buddies” to ensure we are supporting the health and wellbeing of our team. We put wellness to work on our team and our employees appreciate those efforts. Great culture starts with authentic values.

As a woman in a position of leadership, I also make a conscious effort to support other women in the workplace, vocally and boldly. I encourage other female leaders to do the same.

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

Bernard Williams once said, “Unsolicited advice is the junk mail of life.” This quote is a particular favorite of mine because it echoes a core tenet of the coaching model we use at Sibly. Our approach emphasizes that the power to change behavior lies within the person being coached. Our coaches don’t assume that glib advice is what our members need — so there’s no “junk mail” in our work with our members. Instead of offering advice to users, coaches focus on helping people clarify their own thinking and take action on their health by using structured conversational techniques that have been proven to help create change.

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 that companies have taken to help improve or optimize their employees’ mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each?

There have been so many across our client base, it’s hard to narrow down to just five. Yet as I think about it, they are all rooted in a handful of similar goals:

  • Destigmatizing mental health programs and services to encourage people to ask for help when they need it.
  • Providing resources for everyday emotional support, rather than only for individuals suffering from acute or chronic conditions.
  • Demonstrating that emotional health, like our physical health, is something that can be strengthened and renewed.

So much of workplace-based mental health programs in the past focused only on severe issues or addiction, which affects a small percentage of any workforce. Those are important, no question, but forward-looking employers are starting to see the value of helping employees navigate everyday challenges and stress.

Here are five examples:

The Sibly Pledge — In response to the many challenges of 2020, this past spring, Sibly offered new clients the opportunity to take “the Sibly Pledge” — we provided our regular coaching services at no cost, while their HR teams looked to introduce new sources of mental health support. We had 31 companies and almost 100,000 employees take the Pledge.

Leadership transparency — The CEO of one of our clients, a commercial property management group, speaks openly about the suicide of a close family member. His willingness to share that story sends a strong message to his workforce that help is available, and there is no shame in seeking it out.

Equipping internal influencers — The HR leader at one of our newest clients recognized that her team was uncomfortable suggesting employees seek out any sort of mental health support. We worked with her to create and deliver an interactive training, complete with conversation starters and other suggestions. By helping her team open important dialogues with employees, we helped destigmatize the notion of reaching out for support, even for mild to moderate distress.

Introducing new services — In the wake of the many challenges of 2020, Sibly received a lot of interest in our services as employers change their benefit offerings to include more programs focused on mental health support. We’ve seen a spike in inquiries from industries that were hit the hardest by economic difficulties. In fact, one new client signed on with Sibly particularly to support current and former employees through a series of furloughs and layoffs.

Changing the nature of “health benefits” — Many of our clients have been expanding their focus on health to include mental and emotional wellness, in addition to physical health and wellness. This takes different forms, but they all help normalize the idea that emotional health is as important as physical health, in our overall well-being.

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

Companies are increasingly beginning to recognize employees’ mental wellness as an essential business investment. We know that supporting the mental wellness of employees boosts productivity, improves company culture, and lowers absenteeism and health care costs. It’s not just a “nice to do.” Leaders also need to understand the cost of not supporting their employees’ mental health, such as increased burnout and turnover, and the profound impact this has on their bottom line.

The pressure of juggling work and external anxieties was difficult before the onset of COVID-19, and all those challenges have been heightened. The world has changed, and the traditional solutions to mental wellness are not going to be enough to support people in the “new normal.”

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?

First, I like to borrow a line from airline safety procedures: Put on your own oxygen mask before you try to assist others. You need to prioritize your own mental wellness and self-care so that you can effectively offer support to those around you.

Second, I encourage proactive connection — Acknowledge how difficult this year has been, and ask people how they are doing. People who need connection the most are often the least likely to reach out themselves. The pandemic has been incredibly difficult for all of us in some way, and it helps if we can acknowledge that with each other.

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?

One of the best habits to take up is to simply be kind to others, and to yourself. Simple acts of kindness can do wonders for our mental health.

It’s well-recognized that the pandemic has disrupted many of the routines and rituals people formerly used to strengthen their emotional resilience. If that is the case for you, I recommend reinventing some of the structure that made a difference. For example, if you miss exercising at the gym, join a Zoom class instead. If you miss socializing, organize a walk-and-talk outside. Dedicate some time every day to a simple habit that makes you feel better — exercise, journaling, spending time with family, or calling loved ones. Consciously take steps for your mental wellness each day.

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?

I’m an advocate of diaphragmatic breathing exercises to manage stress, reduce anxiety, and generally center myself. It involves breathing deeply into my belly paired with long slow exhales. I use it almost as an instinct now whenever I start to feel stress and it really does work. As a working parent, I have to balance the needs of my family with my own needs, but seeking that balance is essential. I treated myself to a treadmill desk recently, and I love it! And finally, while it’s not a mind-calming practice, I find staying in touch with a core group of friends has helped me stay balanced over the years. It is a source of honesty, support and humor that helps me through my own life.

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

There are a few! I believe empathy is a valuable skill that can make all of our lives more meaningful. “Listening Well: The Art of Empathic Understanding” by William R. Miller is a book I recommend to anyone who would like to deepen their connections with others. Miller provides clear, step-by-step guidance to help readers build skills in empathic listening. The author has been a personal mentor to me throughout my career. He is an excellent writer and a kind spirited teacher.

For me personally, there were a couple of books that I came across in just the moment I needed them. First, “How to Be an Adult in Relationships: The Five Keys to Mindful Loving” by David Richo, had a profound impact on my life. Another is “The Dance of Anger” by Harriet Learner, which truly spoke to me and my experience as a young adult. Life doesn’t come with a guide and these books helped me find my way and frame my adulthood.

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 want to help inspire a movement that helps people understand we all have “mental health” and we can all take steps to strengthen it. At Sibly, we know that our mental health determines how we experience the world, and that every aspect of our lives affects our mental health. I’d like to see more people understand how fundamental our mental health is to our overall wellbeing and how reasonable it is to ask for help.

What made Sibly so compelling to me was the vision we had of giving everyone someone to talk to — someone trained in scientifically based tools and processes that help people manage stress, clarify their thoughts and feeling, and take action on their health. We’re providing effective, affordable, accessible emotional support on a broad basis, around the clock. I’m so proud to be part of something that can help so many.

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

You can follow Sibly on FacebookLinkedInInstagram and Twitter at @SiblyApp, or visit our website at sibly.com.

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

You might also like...


Moe AlKadi of Sibly: “Find the problem you want to solve”

by Jason Hartman

Ravi Swaminathan On How We Need To Adjust To The Future Of Work

by Karen Mangia

Dr. Alan Patterson On Redefining Success

by Karen Mangia
We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.