“Habit is that you’re trying to replace”, Alyssa Petersel and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

At MyWellbeing, since going fully remote, we have begun hosting a weekly team lunch, which gives us at minimum a weekly opportunity to connect with each other informally and playfully, which may have more organically happened by the coffee machine in offices past, but by screens is harder to arise on its own. As a part […]

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At MyWellbeing, since going fully remote, we have begun hosting a weekly team lunch, which gives us at minimum a weekly opportunity to connect with each other informally and playfully, which may have more organically happened by the coffee machine in offices past, but by screens is harder to arise on its own.

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 Alyssa Petersel.

Alyssa Petersel, LMSW is Founder and CEO of MyWellbeing (mywellbeing.com), where she and her team connect people with the *right* therapist, while helping therapists build and manage their business and professional community. Alyssa, also a writer and therapist, released her award-winning debut narrative nonfiction anthology, Somehow I Am Different, in 2016. Alyssa graduated from Northwestern University in 2013, graduated summa cum laude from New York University in 2017 with her Master’s in Social Work, and graduated from The Writer’s Institute at CUNY Graduate Center in 2017. Named one of Crain’s New York Business Notable Women in Healthcare 2019, and one of Built in NYC’s 50 Startups to Watch in 2020, Alyssa and her team have helped more than 20,000 people find the right therapist for them and have been featured in prominent publications like Forbes, Allure, HuffPost, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and more. MyWellbeing supports thousands more through innovative, stigma-ending content and community building. A native New Yorker, in her off-hours, Alyssa enjoys spending time with her friends and family, social justice, and learning more about others’ cultures and world views.

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?

Of course! For as long as I can remember, I have been drawn to learning more about suffering, the root of its cause, how it manifests for different people in different circumstances, and how I can leverage my skill set, privilege, education, and resources as much as possible to alleviate it.

When I was a child, the first career I thought I wanted was to be a veterinarian. I have always adored dogs and horses, but when I saw a dog with a deep wound, I realized that I wasn’t well suited for a career involving literal blood and tears.

I started college as an engineering major, wanting to build prosthetic limbs to support trauma and war victims. In the first quarter of my freshman year, I realized that public speaking was my favorite class and advanced organic chem my least favorite, which wasn’t exactly in line with the experiences of my classmates or predictive of a career match made in heaven. When I spoke to engineering majors in their junior and senior years, they told me that I would just have to get through the annoying stuff in the beginning so that I could get to the good stuff senior year. I didn’t want to invest 3 years in the material I didn’t enjoy, so I pivoted to psychology.

I spent the fall quarter of my junior year in India, studying Buddhism and conducting an independent study about whether meditation and spiritual practices were protective factors for local communities recovering from a traumatic earthquake. When I returned to campus, I dove deeper into health and wellness studies and started my career after graduation in community organizing around violence prevention in Chicago.

While organizing, I crowdfunded a years-worth of living expenses to live and study in Budapest, Hungary, interviewing 3rd generation Holocaust survivors about their rebuilding of Jewish culture and identity. Upon my return, I published my research into my first book and applied to social work school to become a therapist.

5 years later, I am not only a therapist, but I have started and grown a company to help people match with the right therapist for them, as I’ve lived through both first-person experiences searching for a therapist and providing therapy, after which I have as stronger than ever conviction that mental health is more important than ever, and we need the right systems to connect with the right provider at the right time.

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

While I was writing in Budapest, I took a weekend trip to visit my paternal grandmother’s hometown, Munkacs. I did not know much about the town’s history. While I was living in Budapest, my grandmother died. I returned to New York for her funeral, where I reconnected with cousins who I hadn’t seen in a long time. I mentioned that I was living in Europe and I was interested in visiting my grandmother’s hometown, where, as it turns out, they grew up, too. They insisted on arranging a weekend tour for me.

I arrived in the middle of the night to a pitch-black train platform. A young man in a hoodie looked me in the eye, took me by the hoodie sleeve, and put me in a car. In my mind, this was either a family connection or I was being kidnapped, and I had no control over which. He dropped me off at a hotel, where in the morning, I’d be greeted by my English translator and tour guide (and the same boy in a hoodie behind the counter of the hotel).

During that weekend, I felt a connectedness and a closure that I didn’t know that I needed, despite not speaking a lick of the local language, or having known exactly what I’d be walking into. Sometimes, we need to let go a little bit and allow ourselves to see what’s in front of us that we’re so often running from or too busy to notice.

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

For me, boundaries are incredibly important. We need specific, allotted time away from our screens. We need specific time blocks where we are not working — and ideally, where we are not responsible for taking care of someone else. Time blocks during which we can do something that is just pure fun, and purely for us.

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

You cannot overvalue listening. It sounds simple, but we rarely create and protect spaces to purely listen to our team and their needs. Sometimes, you may not be told explicitly with words or language and you, as the leader, need to read between the lines. At work, if you are the boss or the manager, in many ways, you are the caregiver. You need to have your antennae up to how your team is doing, you need to create safe spaces where your team can share and unpack, and you need to model appropriate boundaries and health practices so that you know viscerally knows and observes that you have needs, too, and when they arise, you honor meeting them.

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

Do something fun. Since a young age, I have nurtured a tendency to take life really seriously. I’ve prioritized good grades, volunteering, solving my and the world’s problems. My dad always said, make sure to do something fun. I think we all forget too often that life is meant to be lived. Yes, we should work hard, achieve, grow, challenge ourselves and others. But we need to practice gratitude, as well, and we need to protect the moments of celebration and light that we’re working so hard for.

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?

We have worked with a number of companies that have launched guiding workshops with us at MyWellbeing for their team. These are 60-min guiding seminars, completely virtual, through which teams learn tangible tips, tools, and perspectives about how to better manage and improve their mental health. The topics we have hosted most often relate to stress management, sleep health, relationship health, grief (especially now), anti-racism, pride, and more.

Additional brands and companies have also sponsored processing groups for their teams and communities. These are 60 min sessions, guided and contained by a mental health expert, but much less formal and truly intended to be a space where attendees can share anything and everything on their mind.

At MyWellbeing, we schedule monthly 1:1s between management and teammates to review specifically the interpersonal aspects of the working relationship. Does the teammate feel safe? Are they challenged enough? Is their current role meeting and building toward their overall career aspirations?

At MyWellbeing, we have also granted our teammates a specific work from home budget, now that working from home is in full swing and does not appear to be going anywhere anytime in the immediate future.

Finally, at MyWellbeing, since going fully remote, we have begun hosting a weekly team lunch, which gives us at minimum a weekly opportunity to connect with each other informally and playfully, which may have more organically happened by the coffee machine in offices past, but by screens is harder to arise on its own.

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?

It’s incredibly important that emphasis about how much mental health matters comes from management and leadership. Leaders need to model the values they profess. I do my best to practice vulnerability and authenticity in the weekly KPI email updates I send to my team, including snippets here and there about what I am reading, what I am learning, or what I am feeling in that given week, to share that it’s okay for there to be variance and for us all to be learning as we grow.

We also need to implement and really stick to policies that honor our values. We are a mental health company that really values each teammate having the support they need to thrive. We technically have an unlimited vacation policy, and understand that unlimited vacation can put pressure on employees to counterintuitively never take a vacation. Accordingly, we have Quarterly Fridays, which is 1 Friday per quarter that the entire company is off. While this likely is unsustainable for many companies, for us, it works. The most important piece of advice in all of this is to identify what is unique and particular about you and your team, what are YOUR particular needs, and how can you be creative about meeting those particular needs in your particular culture. It does not need to be expensive but you do need to be thoughtful about it.

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 exact answer here is going to vary really widely depending on who you are and who the people are who you are trying to support.

I recommend practicing curiosity and patience as often as possible.

If you are feeling your irritability rise, try to insert a pause. Don’t answer right away. Practice curiosity around why those feelings are arising, and can you afford to answer in a few hours when things have settled a little bit?

Practice boundaries. Can you sleep with your phone in another room and use an actual alarm clock to wake up, so that you are not checking your email and social media accounts last thing before bed and first thing in the morning? Can you introduce a meditation and therapy practice into your week?

Reflect on who the people are who matter most in your life. Can you introduce a regular cadence of connecting and checking in with them? Perhaps once per week, or once per month?

Try not to assume that you know what is happening for someone else, or that what you’re seeing on someone’s cover is the full story. There are likely so many moving pieces of responsibility, stress, celebration, and more; try to assume the benefit of the doubt. Give that grace and patience to yourself and to those around you, personally and professionally.

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?

First thing you to do is reflect on and acknowledge or identify what the “poor” habit is that you’re trying to replace. Make a list.

Why do you think you are doing that thing? What value does it add to your life? What problem is it solving?

By better understanding and digging into the root, you can then identify what might be healthier habits that provide a similar value or solve a similar problem.

For example: if you are binge-watching Netflix alone to wind down or distract from the stressors of your day or the world around us (which is totally normal and reasonable), but you are unhappy with the cadence, or you would like more connection in your life and you feel you are isolated, perhaps you can introduce a board game or video game that you play with someone else, so that you continue to benefit from stepping away from work and current events temporarily, but you do so with another human being.

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 go to therapy weekly and have started working with an executive coach, both of which have changed my life immeasurably. I have gained so much more awareness about myself over the years — my strengths, my weaknesses, the things that I crave, the things that make me tick. This is all invaluable insight for me to better design my work, relationships, and the world around what I understand to be my strengths and my triggers.

I also highly value meditation. I do my best to meditation 3x/week, sometimes I need to refresh and reset my priorities here. I also highly value exercise. I generally exercise around 6 days per week, and lately, have come to exercise with my partner, which is an activity that really brings us together.

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

I absolutely love reading and have read so many books over the years that have changed the way that I think and go about my day-to-day. Recently, I read So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, which I could not recommend more highly. I am now reading More than Enough by Elaine Welteroth, which is helping me to understand the lived experience of another ambitious woman, which I find relatable, and opening my eyes to the unique journey of a mixed race woman in media. The Monkey Is the Messenger by Ralph De La Rosa is a fantastic book for anyone who either currently loves meditation or is interested in learning more about it and getting started. Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed is a beautiful collection of all things life and love, which is a great book to have by your nightstand to read before bed as an evening ritual.

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 deeply believe that mental health affects absolutely everything. If more of us were trained in emotional intelligence and stress management from a young age, we’d collectively facilitate and experience significantly less trauma and violence through our lives and the lives of our children to come.

Race-related trauma and systemic injustice cannot be separated from our overall mental health and wellbeing. I look forward to a future where we have undone more of the systemic injustices that we’ve instituted and we experience and open the door to more equity and justice.

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

Keep in touch with me at @alyssapetersel on Instagram and follow MyWellbeing’s journey at @findmywellbeing on Instagram. Match with the right therapist for you at mywellbeing.com. We can’t wait to talk with you soon.

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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