Have healthy, connected relationships. Who you choose to spend your time with matters. It’s important to evaluate all your relationships. Which ones are healthy and supportive? Which ones drain you with drama or toxicity? Reset your boundaries and ensure you’re spending your precious time with people who enrich your life, and vice versa.
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 Sharon O’Donnell.
Sharon O’Donnell is the Founder and CEO of Fit For Good. Sharon became well-acquainted with the needs of consumers and businesses in her successful, varied marketing career with companies like Disney, DHL and Kaplan Higher Education. After her father suffered a stroke in 2014, Sharon began a more personal journey into the world of health, wellness, and the rise of the obesity epidemic. In 2017 Sharon left the corporate world to focus on helping individuals create healthy lifestyles by making personal training and nutrition coaching affordable and effective while also giving back to the community. She established Fit For Good, a mobile app service, to help clients turn their health goals into lifelong habits. Fit For Good has now expanded their offering to include a low-cost corporate wellness program for small and mid-sized businesses. You can learn more about Fit For Good at https://www.fitforgood.us/
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?
I think like many, my career path is more of a winding road. My professional career had been in marketing, and I had worked in a variety of industries, moving my way up the ladder as I had progressed. Personally though, I had always been someone who was very active and doing my best at living a healthy, balanced life. Over the last decade, my father’s health had been deteriorating as a result of him living with obesity, and as the years passed and I watched the toll it took on him, it pushed me to look at the obesity epidemic in a more meaningful way. The more I learned, the more I wanted to actively work to push against the growing trend. Given my personal passion for wellness, and witnessing first-hand the impact on my father, I made the decision to shift gears and work on developing a solution to help individuals take small steps in the pursuit of developing lifelong health habits, with the mission of creating a company anchored in social good.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
For me, it’s the story of a little boat in the Arctic, the Northern Lights, and a blue whale.
By 2016, I had worked over 20 years as a dedicated marketing leader in the proverbial corporate world, I was proud of the career I built, working at amazing companies, for amazing leaders. But I was starting to get an itch. In the two years leading up this adventure, I’d had moments of sitting back and evaluating my purpose.
Later that year, I spent almost three weeks in the Arctic on a small explorer ship with only a few dozen other passengers, completely detached from the world, without television or internet. Pure, authentic nature surrounded us, silent, peaceful and magical. I explored the region in a tiny zodiac, up close and personal with a blue whale — just us little humans, alone with the largest animal in the world. I met walruses, seals, humpback whales, got close enough to smell the deep blue ice of icebergs and stared in amazement at the hypnotic luster of the Northern lights. The experience wasn’t just life-altering. It was soul-altering. I journaled every day to recount all that I experienced. The silence allowed me to ponder life and my purpose in it.
I came back from that trip a different person. I worked the rest of the year, then in early 2017 I made the leap. I started fresh with the goal of building a business that focused on helping others. This was a completely unknown path, a constant rollercoaster. It forced me to take risks, to fail, and to build again. But in 2018 I launched Fit For Good, focused on pushing against the tide of the obesity epidemic that plagues our nation. The journey is new. The road ahead is long and unknown, but it’s worth the ride.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
I have two suggestions to break free from a burnout-mindset, which also boost your clarity, creativity and vision.
- Be disciplined about disconnecting from work every day by using another part of your brain — whether by reading, writing, cooking, exercising, or learning/practicing a new skill. Whatever you choose, it should be a fully different experience from your work life.
- Be purposeful in actively connecting with family members, friends, and colleagues. Social connectivity lets you focus on someone and something other than your day job. It will bring joy, perspective, and may allow you to help others in ways you cannot imagine. Sometimes our smallest actions can have amazing impact for others.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Creating a fantastic work culture should not require us to go to great lengths. With the most impactful leaders I have known, and the cultures I have built within my own teams, there are basic human behaviors that inspire organizational behaviors, and create happy, healthy cultures.
Make these behaviors the norm and refuse to accept anything less. You’ll have a culture where everyone wins.
- Listen with empathy. Truly hear your employees and support their needs. This creates a level of trust and connectedness that translates into loyalty that truly shows itself when times are tough.
- Communicate with Transparency. Transparency is one of the easiest ways to build a team that works. Transparency builds respect and trust in leadership. When everyone is equally aware of the good and the bad, great cooperative thinking is possible. It’s much easier to rally the team when everyone is on the same playing field.
- Act with integrity. We leaders know we can’t solve every problem for every employee, but we must act where we can. If we are listening to our teams, then we must act as well; this kind of follow-through shows integrity. Make decisions with integrity at the forefront.
- Empower with trust. Empower your people at every level. Employees want to feel ownership and pride in what they do. Trust them to lead, to act, to drive. You will create leaders at every level of your organization. And when they don’t quite get it right, give them the chance to see where they can improve, then let them take another swing at it.
- Laugh with your employees! This point is a big one. We have so much to be serious about right now; we’re all feeling pressures from every direction in our lives. Taking ourselves too seriously in the workplace adds a level of stress and strain nobody needs. Let freak flags wave freely and let humor slip in wherever it can. Laughter is one of the best cures for all things stressful!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
Words have always had a way of moving me. There are many quotes I love — for all sorts of reasons, and for all sorts of situations. But the quote that circulates my brain rather consistently, and that in my adult years turned into a personal mantra, is “Never let fear decide your fate.”
I learned early that I would need to call upon courage to pursue the things that lead to a more enriched life. Fear is a fact of life, but so often we struggle with rationalizing that fear, whether it be change, emotions, or the unknown. When you muster up the courage to face your fears, you ultimately control your fate. I’m not sure I’ll ever master fear. In fact, I think it’s meant to be an ongoing love/hate relationship. The best we can do is to never let fear stand in the way of what matters most in this precious life we’ve been given.
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?
The global pandemic has forced many employers to take a more active role in focusing on employee wellbeing. While there has been a trend in the right direction on this topic over the last several years, dealing with the new normal of the workplace has pushed this conversation, and more importantly, the need for solutions to the forefront.
The pandemic has caused a perfect storm of stress. Full-time employees suddenly going remote, Zoom fatigue, managing the kids’ schooling at home, managing the kids’ isolation, fear of contracting COVID, fear of losing one’s job, separation from loved ones, basic social activities paused…the list goes on and on. The world seemed to change overnight to a threatening and isolating place, and it’s a shock to our systems that naturally takes a toll on our wellbeing.
Stress, anxiety, and depression are all normal reactions to what we have faced. As a result, and while we may all joke a bit about it, we’re eating more poorly, we’re not exercising like we used to, we’re drinking more, we’re getting less sleep — all of this is a recipe for our mental health to deteriorate.
Many employers have acknowledged the impact this pandemic has caused and are taking action to support their employees’ wellbeing. Embracing health and wellness as a core value promotes a happier, healthier workplace. Here are a few examples of initiatives that employers have taken to put wellness at the forefront of their organizations:
- NextJump promotes employee care. One company that has embraced this practice is the e-commerce company NextJump. They understand that if they take care of their employees, then their employees will take care of their customers and the business. NextJump offers help in the areas of health and fitness, including managing energy, nutrition and mental health. They encourage proper breaks during the workday, offer healthy snacks, and offer employees the opportunity to participate in at least 20 mins of physical activity at least twice a week. In addition, they offer psychological and coaching programs to help employees “be the ‘best you’ you can be.”
- Zoom with remote Work Wellness Initiatives. Given the isolation of remote work, staying social is an important component to employee wellbeing. Humans are social beings and removing the workplace from their lives eliminates a major social connection. While Zoom fatigue is a real thing, we can break it up by using the platform for more social activity and learning, everything from happy hours, guest speakers, and online events that have nothing to do with work content: a wine tasting class, a creative writing circle, a home office organization hack class, ways to de-stress, or easy recipes to keep your nutrition in check.
- American Express creates a dedicated Wellness Program. American Express is a leader in this area, with their recognized Healthy Minds program, an offshoot of their longstanding employee assistance program. The company hired a clinical psychologist to head up their employee assistance program and continuously work to improve their service offerings. They also provide part-time counselors at each employee clinic, along with wellness education, workshops, webinars, etc.
- Accenture Fosters a Culture of Choice. Accenture that has put the power of choice in their employees’ hands. Even before COVID forced much of the workforce to go remote, Accenture offered its employees flexible work schedules along with the option of working remotely. Since they put employee wellness at the forefront, they developed an activity app that encourages each employee to choose a wellness goal, with built-in support and rewards them for achieving their goal. They also recognize that factors outside of the workplace impact employee wellness, so they offer confidential support services that help employees with stress and anxiety management, depression and substance abuse.
- Traction on Demand, one of Canada’s Best. Recognized as one of Canada’s Best Workplaces for Mental Wellness, Traction on Demand is doing a lot that is right. While doing many of the things already mentioned here, Traction on Demand takes it to the next level by leveraging a platform that tracks their employees’ “wellness sentiment” in real-time, measuring how they feel about their day-to-day activities. Employees rate how they’re feeling in relation to their work using emojis that range from “amazing” to “brutal”. This tool allows employees to improve their mindfulness, while giving leaders visibility into how their teams are feeling and providing immediate opportunities to improve the environment.
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?
I believe it starts with basic education. Leadership should stay informed about global and local mental health trends, statistics, and the factors that are impacting these numbers in a negative way. The World Health Organization is a great source of this information, and in fact, WHO estimates that depression and anxiety cost the global economy upwards of 1 trillion dollars per year in lost productivity. They also found that with every 1 dollar spent towards mental health, there is a return of 4 dollars in improved health and productivity.
The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) is also a great resource on the topic. HR leaders can access SHRM for additional information about the benefits of supporting mental health, including increased productivity, improved retention, and lower healthcare and disability costs.
As leaders become more aware of the trends and the potential impact to their own employees, conducting an employee wellness survey is another way to assess how mental health is impacting its employees. With this tool, employers can pinpoint the kinds of resources their employees want to be able to access, whether it be educational content, webinars, trainings, etc. to mental health coverage included in their benefits.
One way to achieve this is to create a cross-functional “Health Advocate Team” dedicated to assessing current trends of mental health, conducting the research, developing solutions, implementing new programs, and analyzing key performance metrics, until these practices become an embedded part of the culture.
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?
As individuals, we make the greatest impact on the people in our lives. Being able to recognize signs of suffering is the first step in providing support. Signs could be anything from withdrawal, loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed, anger or sadness for no apparent reason, changes in eating and sleeping patterns, a disrupted schedule (like missing work), or abusing alcohol and/or drugs. If you suspect a problem:
- Check in with your loved one and ask if they are okay. Showing that you care is a huge step toward helping.
- Know where and how to seek professional help if it is needed.
- Offer to help make appointments.
- Help them prepare for their doctor’s visit. For example, assist in creating a list of symptoms and questions for the doctor.
- Offer to accompany them to appointments for moral support.
- Stay supportive, whether by offering to go for walks to get some exercise, reminding them to stay on top of any therapy exercises, or encouraging them to journal when they feel triggered or are experiencing stress and/or anxiety.
With respect to community support, local mental health and wellness groups can be great advocates for raising awareness about the importance of good mental health and the resources that are available to their local communities. Local groups should seek out strong partnerships that utilize their services. These could be businesses, school districts, primary care providers, elder care providers, emergency service providers, youth groups, etc.
Mental Health and Wellness groups should build their social media presence and provide ongoing content and resource help for their communities. This can be done through working with local media to pitch stories, events, or news to continue raising awareness of their service offerings, or collaborating with elected officials and local respected leaders to further the cause. Ensure there are ways that these influential individuals and groups can share the message.
As for supporting mental health at the societal level, you can get involved with a national organization like NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), or MHA (Mental Health America). These organizations provide several ways to be involved in the national conversation in support of advocacy and reform. You can choose your level of involvement from simply donating money to running a fundraiser. These organizations work to provide greater awareness, education, resources, and reform to our society.
Due to the increased awareness of mental health needs, it’s also worth noting that entrepreneurs have risen to the challenge and found ways to provide greater access to resources that support mental health and wellbeing. Some of those leading the way are:
- Talkspace: an online therapy provider which matches users with licensed therapists who can communicate via video, audio, or text.
- Headspace: an app which provides meditation and mindfulness courses, short duration stress release workouts and calming sleep stories.
- Calm: another app which offers guided meditations, sleep stories, and check-ins once a day with recommendations to help your current mood. They have also partnered with Kaiser Permanente to provide free services to their members.
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?
- Have healthy, connected relationships. Who you choose to spend your time with matters. It’s important to evaluate all your relationships. Which ones are healthy and supportive? Which ones drain you with drama or toxicity? Reset your boundaries and ensure you’re spending your precious time with people who enrich your life, and vice versa.
- Practice gratitude. A little gratitude is an amazing asset to a healthy mindset. Start each day with a quiet moment recognizing all the good that surrounds you, even something as simple as the furry little friend that loves giving you puppy kisses. Set your intentions for your day. And as you lay your head down, think quietly and appreciate one good thing that happened during your day.
- Stay active. I cannot emphasize this enough! Physical activity has a chemical reaction that automatically boosts your mood, plus all the physical benefits for your body as well. It’s as simple as a 30 minute walk each day. Get on a bike. Make it a family event. Do some gardening or even some cleaning. Any physical activity will get those endorphins flowing.
- Eat a balanced diet. Good nutrition, less alcohol — while it seems simple, it’s never that easy. The key is to make small changes. Add a piece of fruit to your daily diet. Then add something green in your diet every day. Cut the soda out of your diet one day at a time. Start managing your portion sizes one meal at a time. Small changes over time have a way of becoming lifelong habits.
- Proper sleep. Do your best ensure you’re getting enough sleep. Proper rest is another important factor in keeping your mental state better balanced. We all know how we feel when we’re overly tired — everything is exacerbated. Emotions run higher. Getting enough sleep keeps our physical, mental and emotional states better balanced
- Give to others. Helping others is a wonderful “feel good” activity. When you help others, whether through volunteer work, mowing your elderly neighbor’s lawn, tutoring your friend’s child, or donating to a good cause, these efforts have a wonderfully uplifting impact on your spirit. Giving gives back to you.
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 am a true Type A and my mind often has a difficult time shutting down. I feel like it’s only getting worse as I get older too! There are several ways I have learned to manage my anxiety and stress, to calm my mind and stay focused. It’s a struggle, but here is what has worked for me so far:
- Simple deep-breathing exercises. Slow, deep breathing instantly creates a calmer mind. When I’m feeling stressed or overwhelmed and can’t seem to focus, I stop whatever I’m doing and take five deep breaths. I very slowly inhale, hold my breath for five to seven seconds, then exhale as slowly as possible. Repeat four more times. I often do this as soon as I turn the lights out each night. It’s a good way to ease a restless mind to help me fall asleep.
- Running/walking. I’ve been a runner since high school, and while my reasons for running have changed over the years, there has been a common thread that has stayed with me through the years. Running for me easily melts stress and clears my head. I don’t listen to music, just the sounds of my own breathing and noise around me. This is when I gain the greatest clarity. For those that don’t run, walking is just as beneficial. A brisk walk, fresh air, and silence will most certainly allow for some better mental balance.
- Playing the piano. This is my other go-to stress reliever. The ability to focus on playing a piece of music and having full concentration on following the notes and tempo is an automatic way for me to simply let go. I challenge myself to learn new pieces so that I keep progressing, and it helps to keep my mind challenged in the most positive, creative way.
- Hot baths! My grandmother was a nurse, and I suffered terrible migraines as a child. She taught me that soaking in hot baths does the body and mind good. I’m a soaker and can be found in a froth of bubbles a few times per week.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
Ah yes, that would have to be The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. This was my favorite book as a child and my original copy sits with me in my office as a constant reminder. It may sound a bit trite, but it is one book that never goes out of style. It’s not about the latest leadership trend, or cool technology, or about the unicorns that changed a slice of our lives for the better. The book’s simple message transcends everything. It’s about the human spirit, kindness, and giving without the expectation of receiving. To me, it was the simplest lesson about life in general. Unconditional love makes the world a better place.
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. 🙂
Trying to do good for others at scale is the ultimate challenge, isn’t it? There are so many companies that are working hard at making it a reality, where social good is at the heart of their mission. That kind of mission is what drove me to start my own company, Fit For Good, and to work at doing exactly what you’re asking about. The sole purpose of my leaving the corporate world after 20+ years was because I was ready to do something that would benefit the wellbeing of others.
Over the years, I watched my father struggle with obesity. I saw the impact that it had on his life as he slowed down and gave up on the activities that he loved. Because of my enthusiasm for fitness, I paid attention to the trends in exercise, health and nutrition; still, nothing seemed to stand in the way of the epidemic of obesity in the United States. Frightening statistics demonstrated the terrible impact that obesity has on children, to the extent of even shortening their lifespans.
In May of 2014, I received a phone call that changed my life. My father was in the hospital after suffering a stroke. The reality of the situation had come home, and nothing was the same again. From that moment, I began a journey to find answers, to find a way to help individuals adopt healthy habits that would stick, but also to give back.
Then, when I had my soul-changing experience with nature in the Arctic in 2016, things started to really come together in both a mental, physical and spiritual way for me. My plans began to really take shape and in making them, I asked myself the following questions
- What if I could marry convenience, flexibility, and affordable personal training?
- What if I could help people better understand what it means to live healthy?
- What if I could break down what feels like an overwhelming journey into a more bite-sized, step-by-step approach, filled with little wins?
- What if I could help create a community that was focused not only on doing good for their own bodies, but also on doing good for others?
- What if we could actively support health and wellness programs for children across the country?
Fit For Good, was established in 2018 at the Innovating a Healthier Future Summit as one of five startups invited by Partnership for a Healthier America, then launched nationally in early 2019. Fit For Goodis more than just an app; it’s a personalized fitness and nutrition system, and it does good things for the community. Every month, a portion of membership fees help provide fitness and nutrition programs for schoolchildren in need through DonorsChoose.org. To help keep clients motivated, Fit For Good also provides clients with additional challenges throughout the month to unlock even greater donations.
As a result of COVID, and the need for more organizations to have the ability to offer their employees wellness solutions, we have expanded our offering and recently launched a turn-key corporate wellness program. It provides the fitness and nutrition components, but now also includes a mindfulness solution. In keeping with the goal to provide greater access, this new program is a low-cost alternative aimed at small and mid-sized businesses.
I feel like working toward something greater while pursuing personal health goals can create lifelong habits and empower every one of our members to make a difference for others.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
Connect with Ms. O’Donnell via LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/sharonodonnell9
Stay informed on all that Fit For Good is doing at https://www.fitforgood.us/
Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!