Encourage Vulnerability. Not everyone feels comfortable sharing things about themselves but I would recommend encouraging some level of vulnerability. If people don’t feel they can share things with which they are struggling they may not get help. I tend to believe in leading by example in this realm. If I make a mistake I will call it out and proclaim my mea culpa to my employees, if we are talking about the importance of self-care I will share a time when I struggled and how it impacted me. When people hear and see the CEO of their organization being authentic and has similar struggles it helps to normalize what they may be going through.
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 Dr. Donna Marie Cozine.
Dr. Cozine is the founder and CEO of Renaissance Academy Charter School of the Arts. The school serves over 500 students from grades K-6 and employees 94 staff members. Dr. Cozine has grown the organization over the course of the last 8 years to its current configuration. She believes in focusing on the social and emotional needs of all of her staff to ensure everyone has an appropriate work life balance. Dr. Cozine is the best-selling author of “So, You Want to Be a Superintendent? Become the Leader You Were Meant to Be!” She is living her best life with her husband, daughter, son, dog and ferret in Rochester, NY.
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?
When I started teaching 26 years ago I loved knowing that through my work I was positively impacting the lives of my students. I soon realized that by becoming a building leader and then a district leader I could positively impact the lives of even more students so I began honing my skills and heading in that direction. When fate brought me to Rochester, NY I saw a need for a high quality educational option for the city’s children and was able to create the most amazing school I have ever had the pleasure of entering. The impact of this school will be felt by families for decades to come.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Educators often “dream” about starting their own schools so they can create the “perfect school.” I actually had the great fortune of making that dream a reality when I founded Renaissance Academy Charter School of the Arts. Albeit nothing is perfect, in my humble opinion, I believe the school is very close. It was founded on the belief that children deserve a school where they can experience JOY every day, learn in a supportive environment, and develop skills and dispositions which will ensure they are successful citizens of a global society.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
Focus on your “why”. Be sure your personal mission is aligned to that of the organization. Incorporate regular self-care into your schedule and focus on investing in the relationships that make you a better person, not those that drain you.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Lead with love. Regardless of your industry you deal with people who have real lives. When you begin from a place of really understanding your people and serving them with a loving heart and spirit the entire culture transforms. By leading this way you prove that you are invested in them and not just in the organization. When you lead with love you also take responsibility for what you’ve done, good and bad, and communicate clearly. I’ve found those to be the keys to a fantastic work culture. No one wants to work for a “boss” who is judgmental, demanding, and does not give grace.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
Whenever someone is overreacting about something my aunt says “it’s not a stick in the eye.” It’s kind of a quirky statement that I’ve come to adopt and use it. It is the kind of statement that jostles you out of your overreaction. If you consider the statement it is a reminder that no matter what you are worrying about it could always be worse. When I am faced with an obstacle I try to think of it as an opportunity and always remember that it’s not a stick in the eye!
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?
- Make sure you have EAP. For the first 5 year of my organization we didn’t have an Employee Assistance Plan. An EAP is a critical step in helping support your employee’s mental wellness. Since incorporating the EAP program we have had staff use it for different issues that have come up. EAP is free to the employee which is an added bonus during these tough financial times.
- Wellness Days. The second year of our school we began incorporating Wellness Days into our Professional Development calendar. This is a very easy thing to do and costs little to the company. We began by asking staff what they would like to experience during those days and also asked what sessions staff members could offer. Over the course of the last 6 years we have offered so many cool experiences from which I know people have incorporated what they’ve learned into their own routines.
- Wellness Committee. When COVID forced our school to close overnight we realized the negative impact isolation could have on our strong culture. To combat that we created a wellness committee that created different activities that kept us connected. We had a fitness challenge, a fiction book club, a Zoom cooking show each Wednesday and Zoom trivia.
- Mental Health Days. I am a leader who is in tune with her people. When I see someone struggling I often encourage them to take a mental health day and I don’t “charge” them for it. I might say “Hey Chris I notice you have been working really hard, I’ve also noticed that you seem a little stressed, how can I help?” Once we discuss what his going on I’ll say “Listen, why don’t you take tomorrow off as a mental health day, do something nice for yourself.” I have found at first people seem reticent but when they realize I am 100% coming from a place of support and love they take me up on it. They always return in a better headspace.
- Encourage Vulnerability. Not everyone feels comfortable sharing things about themselves but I would recommend encouraging some level of vulnerability. If people don’t feel they can share things with which they are struggling they may not get help. I tend to believe in leading by example in this realm. If I make a mistake I will call it out and proclaim my mea culpa to my employees, if we are talking about the importance of self-care I will share a time when I struggled and how it impacted me. When people hear and see the CEO of their organization being authentic and has similar struggles it helps to normalize what they may be going through.
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?
I would recommend starting a wellness committee at your business. The committee could survey the staff on the type of experiences they’d like to have and ask your employees how you can make your company a place where people can learn how to manage their stress and seek an appropriate work-life balance. We’ve incorporated Wellness days into our professional development category. We offer a variety of sessions from which staff can choose. We ask our staff for suggestions of what they’d like to see offered during those days as well as ask for volunteers to run or facilitate groups. We’ve offered such a variety of fun activities as well as great trainings. We have all learned or taken something away from these days that have made us a better version of ourselves.
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?
In the United States we need to normalize talking about and focusing on mental health. For the bulk of my life mental health was a taboo subject. I suffer from anxiety and depression myself and I remember when my mother confronted me to tell me that she thought I needed medication I actually bristled and was insulted. I look back now and think how stupid I was to see that as a weakness. My anxiety has actually helped me to be a much better leader believe it or not. For better or worse I tend to be an open book with my staff. When I have spoken to a staff member who is actively struggling I share my own story with them and it helps them to know they are going to be ok. As leaders we have a unique position to help normalize stress, depression, anxiety, and mental health by talking about it, training our professional staff on how to deal with it, and providing resources to help our staff members and their families.
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?
Creating new habits is hard because our bodies are programmed to go back to our old, easy habits. I’m sure I’m not the only one whose old easy habits are not always the best or the most healthy habits. I find that preparing for the habit change helps. For example when I want to increase my exercise I’ll schedule the time into my day to get it done. For me the hardest part of new habit formation is that I already squeeze so much into my day I can easily get overwhelmed with thinking about adding One.More.Thing. By scheduling it in and making small, achievable steps I can be more successful with these new habits.
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 have been consistently incorporating mindfulness and breathing into my daily practice over the course of the last 8 years. It has helped provide perspective when my reptilian brain wants to strike out. Instead of reacting when I am under pressure or stress, I take a moment to calm my nervous system by taking deep breaths. Once I have calmed down I can focus on making a rational decision rather than an emotional one. I practice mindfulness before bed to unwind and put the day’s stress out of my mind and out of my body. People with whom I’ve worked over the course of the last 8 years have commented that my spirit is totally different today and that when I am in the building I “bring the calm.”
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
As an educator I was acutely aware of how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) impacts our students. It wasn’t until I read the book The Deepest Well by Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris that I realized how life altering these ACEs can be. By reading this book I learned seven techniques that can actually change the way our bodies deal with trauma. That book changed that way I thought about childhood trauma and the way that we began supporting the children in our organization. Fun fact, mindfulness is one of those 7 techniques that mitigate stress, anxiety, and trauma!
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. 🙂
My movement would be entitled First LOVE then LEAD. It has been my experience that it is the transformational leaders who make the biggest impact in their fields. I believe that to be the case because they focus on what is best for the organization AND what is best for the people in the organization. It has been my experience that new leaders tend to focus on purely getting things done without focusing on those who help get the things done. You cannot divorce an organization from its people and those people deserve the very best version of you, the version that first loves and then leads.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
FB @Dr. Donna Marie Cozine, @https://www.facebook.com/groups/539013333380833 @IG dr_dmc, [email protected], LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/dr-donna-marie-cozine-mills-451764164/
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!