“Find the silver lining” With Cynthia Ring and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

One silver lining this pandemic has created is more mental health awareness and empathy. This greater understanding has allowed Harvard Pilgrim to increase its focus on our employees as individuals and think about our support systems beyond traditional HR benefits, professional contributions, roles and responsibilities. We are continuing to find innovative ways of embracing the […]

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One silver lining this pandemic has created is more mental health awareness and empathy. This greater understanding has allowed Harvard Pilgrim to increase its focus on our employees as individuals and think about our support systems beyond traditional HR benefits, professional contributions, roles and responsibilities. We are continuing to find innovative ways of embracing the total well-being of our people with a concerted effort to positively impact both the physical and mental challenges facing us during this pandemic and beyond.

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 Cynthia Ring.

Cynthia Ring has served in a variety of leadership roles within human resources over the last 25 years. Her current role is as Chief People Officer at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, where she serves to champion a “People and Business Strategy.” Prior to joining Harvard Pilgrim, she served as Vice President of Human Resources & Patient Experience at Central New England HealthAlliance Hospital. She has served in the practice of human resources as well as business operations within health care, financial services, consumer goods and high tech.

Ms. Ring holds a master’s degree in business administration from Bryant University, and an undergraduate degree in English from Framingham State University.

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?

I started my career on the business side. I consistently ended up solving large problems related to labor costs, change management, and talent management which eventually led me to focusing on human resources. It’s a path that has been both challenging and fulfilling throughout my career.

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

It is interesting to understand how and why people choose their career paths. For some, it may be to follow in a family member’s footsteps, for others it may have happened accidentally and for some it is a deep calling linked to something in their lives. I met a young man that came to this country with his parents in 2001. When they arrived, his mother was very ill. He was so moved by what he perceived to be miracles in saving his mother’s life, he committed himself to become a clinician. This would require him to learn how to speak English, start a journey of many years in academics, achieve immigration work and education status and overcome his fear of hospitals. I met him back in 2003 during a job shadow event our hospital was hosting. His inquisitive nature and positive energy were note-worthy. He became a member of our youth program, went on to work part time as a transporter and before I left, he had earned his CNA certification and completed ESLA (English as a second language) and was working full time on one of our medical/surgical units. He has since become a citizen of this country, completed his training as an NP and is working in a large academic medical center in RI, the same one that saved his mother’s life all those years ago.

Anytime I am feeling like things are beyond reach or come with what feels like insurmountable challenges, I think of him and his family and I instantly have hope, find inner resilience and remember the importance of staying connected to my driven path, no matter what the challenges seem to be.

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

We are in uncharted times with the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of us are facing new challenges, like working remotely and adhering to ever-changing state guidelines. Now more than ever, balance needs to be struck between work and life and yet for many of us, they are blended in one physical location which can lead to a significant imbalance. My advice is to safeguard your personal equilibrium and set strict boundaries for yourself to avoid burnout.

Prior to the pandemic, I found this to be easier because I could separate my home life from my work life. The pandemic has altered my personal equilibrium and it has taken intention and commitment to reclaim it. In the beginning, everything took more time. It took time to learn how to do my work with a variety of virtual platforms and tools, it took time to have a work environment at home that worked for me and was comfortable to produce in. It took time to learn new ways of connecting with staff, supporting our customers and getting the basic things we take for granted in the workplace as we work at home. It took too much time to set healthy boundaries between work and my home life. I forgot to put my own oxygen mask on first. Now that my oxygen mask is back on, I can share with you how I reclaimed my personal equilibrium and avoided burnout.

My personal equilibrium is defined by the time I give to myself, as it is important to have a few different strategies for your own self-care. Here are my three favorites. First, I start my day with spin and walking the dog, which provides me with the mental and physical balance to get through my day. Second, at the end of each day, I write down three things I am grateful for from the day. Lastly, I make myself laugh once every hour that I am awake.

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

The best advice in creating a fantastic work culture is to have the courage to co-create the employee experience with your employees. Most leaders are nervous about doing this and have the notion that they would rather not ask in the event they cannot execute on the ideas they receive from their employees. Some resist it because they truly don’t understand that their people are their number one customer. If you have an exceptional employee experience, you will have an exceptional customer experience and therefore, a thriving business. Co-creation doesn’t mean you have an open piggy bank, no rules or blank canvas for ideas that don’t align with your business, your values or your purpose. Co-creation does mean that you respect the ideas and voices of all your employees. It means you are committed to hearing and acting on employee feedback that is aligned with your purpose, your business and your values. It supports understanding of what cultural, physical and technical aspects of the environment are important and will enable each employee to bring their best to supporting the business, its customers and the community it serves.

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

One of life’s lessons I am trying to lean in on is to “focus only on what I can control.” When people focus on things that are outside of their control, it often leads to disappointment, frustration, anxiety, feelings of helplessness or increased impatience with everyday things. I can’t control the number of meetings that are being scheduled on a virtual platform, but I can control my own prioritization and whether I choose to join each meeting on video or by phone. Most of us are in meetings all day. If you are on a webcam all day because everyone expects you to turn on your camera, when do you eat, go to the bathroom, have a break from the exhaustion of being on camera or take a few minutes to assist your children who are home schooling in the next room? If I wanted to have a bright light in my face and a camera pointed at my every movement for 8–12 hours a day, then I would have gone into show business and become an actress or a broadcaster. Try writing down the one thing that is draining your energy the most and then write down every aspect that you control in taking back some of that energy.

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 employee’s mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each?

We have adopted more frequent use of technology, like video conferencing, to help our team members stay connected with their colleagues. Seeing our coworkers juggle work and home commitments up close and personal has resulted in a greater level of empathy that will exist beyond the pandemic.

We offered a panel discussion led by Dr. Anthony Sossong, Harvard Pilgrim’s Associate Medical Director and a practicing psychiatrist, to answer employees’ questions and provide support on a myriad of mental health issues.

We have launched a “Sharing Inspiration” site on our intranet, a place where all employees can share ideas about things that are helping them during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We have created a new menu of live, virtual programming from our wellness team. Weekly employee classes in Mindfulness, Yoga and Zumba quickly changed from in-person to live-stream classes. The twice-weekly sessions help people to center themselves, burn off stress, and keep moving, all while building community and providing a comforting sense of stability and routine.

We also launched a new series of wellness webinars specific to self-care challenges like nutrition, sleep, and managing stress during the pandemic. Our digital well-being program rewards employees for taking actions in support of mental well-being, such as connecting virtually with loved ones, using breathing to manage stress, and balancing out negative input by making time for good news.

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

One silver lining this pandemic has created is more mental health awareness and empathy. This greater understanding has allowed Harvard Pilgrim to increase its focus on our employees as individuals and think about our support systems beyond traditional HR benefits, professional contributions, roles and responsibilities. We are continuing to find innovative ways of embracing the total well-being of our people with a concerted effort to positively impact both the physical and mental challenges facing us during this pandemic and beyond.

When determining how to raise the awareness of the importance of mental wellness we focused on the following initiatives:

  1. Increasing our flexibility on work hours. To help meet employees’ individual needs, we understood the need to offer more options beyond a traditional 9–5 workday.
  2. Continuing to investigate and invest in new tools that make connecting with one another easier.
  3. Ramping up our training efforts on new tools and offering refresher sessions for things like video conferencing that some employees may be using for the first time.
  4. Stressing the importance of vacation time and offering suggestions for stay-at-home vacations.
  5. Minimizing screen time between 12–1pm several times a week in support of employee well-being and to encourage time outdoors during daylight savings.

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?

One of the best ways to offer support is to simply ask how someone is doing or if everything is ok. The act of asking and then listening is important because we all need to slow down long enough to realize when someone is in need or something seems off. Living with stress, depression, anxiety or other mental illness can often feel isolating. If you have ever seen the movie, “What Women Want,” there is a part where a co-worker is thinking about ending her life. In her own thoughts she is commenting that she doesn’t matter, no one notices her, no one notices she is in distress or could use help and then her thoughts shift to, no one would miss her or even recognize if she just vanished and were no longer coming into work. Because this is a movie, Mel Gibson could hear her thoughts and so when she doesn’t come to work the next day, he magically shows up at her house and she doesn’t go through with her plans. We don’t have the benefit of a Hollywood ending in real life. We all need to be more in-tuned and aware of those around us to truly offer support.

We are accustomed to entering into small pleasantries in passing and don’t always observe or really invite a genuine response from others. Many of us are polite passers and don’t want to really know how someone is doing when we ask, “how are you”? Support requires time and for the recipient to feel like the question is more than a pleasantry in passing.

It is important to note, the role of support is not to fix or solve. It is to listen.

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

Develop a personal equilibrium habit that is right for you and do it each day.

Be intentional to laugh each day.

Commit to eating well.

Develop a bedtime routine that eliminates screen time 1 hour prior and try and make bedtime a consistent time every night.

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 recently downloaded Insight Timer. This app helps people learn how to meditate, cope with anxiety, manage stress, improve sleep, master mindfulness, ways to boost your self-esteem and tips for starting your mornings. I listen (no screen time) to a 15–30 minute session before bed. I started using this app to hear the talks that Gisele Bundchen has on hope and the talks Tom Brady has on body gratitude. I am truly enjoying them, and they are helping me find a calm space before bed.

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.

If I could start a movement, it would be to preserve and honor the importance of freedom of speech as written in our constitution. Freedom of speech is a principle that supports the freedom of an individual or community to articulate their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, censorship or legal sanction. In a time when there is so much chaos and unrest around us, we all need to be reminded of the value we achieve through difference. If we all had the same ideas and opinions, we would not learn, grow or advance and change as a civilization or country. We can achieve a different understanding through the free expression of ideas and opinions that are different from our own.

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

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/cynthia-ring-10a2141/

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

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