Well-Being//

How a wellness challenge can help bring mental health to the workplace

In far too many businesses, working until the point of burnout is a badge of honor. Here's how we can change that.

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In far too many businesses, working until the point of burnout is a badge of honor. Whether it’s on Wall Street or in tech companies, value is often placed on the idea of working until you drop, crashing, and starting all over again.

To try to change this, some businesses launch wellness challenges. Often, these are competitive, getting people to participate in some kind of group activity or commit to taking on the same daily action, like biking to work – or practicing mindfulness more regularly.

Recently in Chicago, where I live, we tried a different kind of challenge. The results were powerful, and helped advance my journey for mental health in ways I didn’t predict.

The Chicago Wellness Challenge

Our challenge focused on the startup community, which is notoriously plagued by long work schedules. It was created by Pete Wilkins, managing director of an early-stage venture group, who had struggled with poor health from overworking. I was happy to serve as a founding participant.

We were given leeway to create our own goals. We simply had to establish what they would be, and share our journeys on social media using the hashtag #ChiWellnessChallenge.

As it is, I exercise and try to eat well. But there’s something I don’t do enough of: give myself time for recovery — not just physically, but mentally. So I organized my goal around that.

Valuing recovery

The term ‘recovery’ can mean all sorts of things. There’s a long-term effort to “recover” from childhood trauma, which is a key part of the work I’m doing. There’s short-term physical “recovery” after a workout.

But there’s also a kind of daily recovery that I hadn’t thought about much. For me, it means disconnecting from all the pressures and stresses of work and life. We all get caught up in the flow of life. And while I enjoy living in that flow, it’s important to process and let go of the negative emotions that can accumulate.

To function better, I needed to create a space away from all of it. I needed time for myself, in which I can listen to my body and mind and achieve full presence. Doing this once a week through yoga or meditation wasn’t enough for me. I needed to make it a daily habit.

So I set myself a goal for the challenge: an hour of wellness activities every day, which would include time for recovery.

The results

It’s amazing what you discover when you listen to yourself and consider what you need. During this month, meditation and mindfulness became a daily habit. When I tuned everything else out, I felt the need to engage in those activities.

Other things changed as well.

My physical exercise improved. As a competitive person, I often spend spin classes working to keep my name high up on the leaderboard. But now, when I got on the bike, I was instead focused on my heart, my blood pumping, my body. I was working to improve my own results rather than trying to achieve something external.

I even stopped drinking alcohol. I don’t drink much, but will often have one drink at night. Even that one drink affects my circadian rhythm and sleep. I tend to feel it the next day, being a bit sluggish and less productive. Now, I no longer wanted that drink. I enjoyed non-alcoholic beer just for the feeling and taste of it — and got the placebo effect of relaxation from just enjoying it.

The social aspect

A big goal of this program was to inspire others to take part. It worked. After I shared my experiences on social media, other people — including some of my employees — jumped on the bandwagon and began taking part as well.

This aspect also helps keep the movement going. I’ve continued with this goal, even after the challenge officially ended. And since I’ve got friends, colleagues and employees watching, I expect that I’ll keep it up well into the future.

There are all kinds of ways to make wellness challenges succeed where you work and live. Here are some ideas from health.gov and Corporate Wellness Magazine. I highly recommend the kind of program that gives people free rein to choose goals that make the most sense for them.

As they consider their goals, encourage them to give serious consideration to mental health. Because while physical health is important, mental wellness too often falls to the wayside. A month of habit-forming change can make a big difference.

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