Observe your staff. People will tell you how they feel without even asking them. Pay attention to not only what is being said but what is not being said.
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 Robert Allen.
Robert Allen is a mental health activist, growth coach, and author with multiple advanced degrees in the areas of business, counseling, education, divinity, healthcare, and leadership. With over 20 years of experience in both the public and private sector, Robert has served in various industries, from education, military, law enforcement, business, mental health, and ministry. He is the founder and CEO of New Dimensions Consulting Services LLC, a company that specializes in helping businesses, entrepreneurs, and everyday people maximize their talents by engaging them through innovative mental health initiatives as well as leadership development, employee engagement, project management, operational consulting and corporate strategy. His book “Self-Care: Let’s Start the Conversation” is a refreshing conversation on healthy self-care concepts and practices that not only exposes the myths but also provides sound, concise principles, and guidance for those seeking effective strategies for retreating, reflecting, replenishing, and restoring themselves at every level of their lives.
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?
Yitzi, first and foremost thank you for having me. I was born and raised in Detroit, MI. After finishing my BS. in Education Human Service and a minor in business at U of D Mercy, I went on to work in education where I served as a teacher and coached Football. In the summer I worked with my uncle in his home improvement business. I can say I loved learning new things and really figuring out how things work. While in my undergrad degree I really took a keen interest in sociology and economics. I was just fascinated by how people interact, as well as how money works. So, in some way you can say I have always been poly-vocational as I love to help people, I have a passion for teaching, and I love the way business works and the complexities regarding problem-solving.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I would say writing my book, “Self-care Let’s Start the Conversation.” This was probably one of the most challenging things I have done. With so much schooling under my belt, I certainly know how to write academically. I am also a creative writer, I always have been. However, I have never written in the balance of creative and academic, it was always one or the other. This said, after conducting self-care training, I was encouraged — rather pushed to write the book based on overwhelmingly supportive feedback of the training. Nevertheless, I took about two months doing nothing but writing. I completed the book and sent it to the publisher. They kindly responded, “we like chapters one and two.” Which meant I had to rewrite pretty much the entire book! Frustrated, I begrudgingly received constructive criticism and rewrote the book. I rewrote the book and was sure it was perfect. However, I was told the book is not there yet. I rewrote the book three additional times, before the publisher said now this is it. I don’t think I had another rewrite in me. Each rewrite came with added frustration, as this was a whole new area for me. An area that I was really unfamiliar with. However, we got there, and I certainly, in hindsight, appreciate the feedback and the push to revise and having to rewrite again and again.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
Simply put: take time for yourself. In most industries, family systems, you name it, we are not only conditioned “to do” but to do MORE and to get better as we do more without taking the necessary time to recalibrate. I’ve been the person who has put in 12–16 days running off low energy levels consistently. My advice is to take time and take breaks. Use vacation days to vacation, not to vacation to do more work. There are four pillars in my book, “Self-care Let’s Start the Conversation” that I call the 4r’s. These 4r’s stand for Retreat, Reflect, Replenish, and Regroup. I’m sure we will talk about these more in-depth later.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
As leaders, we often think of the bottom line. I have worked in various industries that promote particularly good things, like health and wellness initiatives. However, offering things like this, without thoroughly training people on the subject matter, can often just lead to a good idea being put on a flyer. For instance, many restaurateurs post a sign in the bathroom that says “employees, please wash your hands.” Sometimes the sign even includes step-by-step instructions on how to do so. Although this sign is a good reminder, there are more impactful ways to ensure the message resonates. For example, I saw a short germ awareness video years ago that was so impactful, I still think about it every time I wash my hands. (The video depicted a person quickly washing their filthy hands. Afterward, the person put their hands under UV light and I was shocked to see they were STILL DIRTY. Then, the person washed their hands again, demonstrating proper handwashing techniques. After the proper handwashing, the person’s hands were truly clean under the UV light.) In short, it is more impactful to show not tell
To create a fantastic work culture, leaders need to take interest in more than the bottom line. People need to know that it is ok to take time for themselves. This does not have to always be vacation. However, it could be what is meaningful to your particular industry that can aid in people decompressing. People need the opportunity to decompress.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
I recall in my youth, I would love to speed through things so I could go about playing. I recall sitting at the dining room table, in tears and my mother saying you are not going outside until your work is done right, and it can’t be sloppy. I thought she was mean. But I learned a valuable lesson about quality and taking the time necessary to do things right. Fast forward. My oldest son, Robert Jr. loved Thomas the Tank Engine when he was little. He would rush to get things done, just to watch Thomas. I instilled in him this, something my mother taught me: take your time and do it right and do your absolute best. I am not certain if I heard that from somewhere. But it is a motto that I have instilled in my kids. Our family Motto: Take your time and do it right and do your very best. This quote speaks volumes, especially as it pertains to mental health and wellness. If i can say it another way. Take the necessary time for your health and ensure you are not skimming or short-changing the process.
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?
Here are FIVE ways companies can improve employee mental wellness:
- Create an environment where it is ok for people to say, “today is not a good day.” Many jobs and people in leadership positions say, “I have an open-door policy,” but do they really? Again, a lot of the jargon sounds good, but do employees really feel like they can go to a colleague, team member or to leadership without it negatively affecting them? Contracting with wellness coaches that specialize in life and goals coaching, I worked at a company and experienced this first hand. I thought it was amazing, however, it only lasted a short while because it was part of becoming a leader in the company,
- Observe your staff. People will tell you how they feel without even asking them. Pay attention to not only what is being said but what is not being said.
- Ask questions and gather data. Try having small groups or huddles and ask people meaningful questions. Questions don’t always have to be personal to be meaningful. For example: What would you say people’s 5 top stress points are? Questions like Work-life balance. Etc.
- Create training and programs centered around the feedback you get. But not just another training that again, becomes a nice flier. But a training where employees are given the time to go. Training that is not labor-intensive, boring, or becomes information overload. We have all endured the pain of sitting through a boring lesson or training session that was like watching paint dry. I am talking about training and retreats that actually engage the people like the ones my company offers. Self-care training and retreats that speak to everyday people about everyday issues, mostly those outside of work.
- Be consistent and repeat the process, because times will change and new issues will arise. However, if you are already implementing 1–4 you will know what the new trend of stress looks like for your organization.
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 like to cook, and one of my favorite devices is my pressure cooker. So, I’m not sure if you are a cook or not, but with a pressure cooker, you throw all your seasonings and goodness into the pot. You then lock it and set the timer. Halfway through the cooking cycle, you can hear the pressure cooker letting steam out. Near the end, it lets a little more steam out. By the end, the pressure cooker releases all the steam. Here is the catch, if the pressure cooker doesn’t release steam at different intervals, the pressure will build up and the pot will explode. Just for a minute, pretend YOU are that pressure cooker. You have a lot of demands, from family, work, friends, maybe church or other responsibilities. If people are not being taught how to release steam or properly deal with particular life demands, they will either stress out, become depleted, or explode. A visual aid like this and training and retreats that are geared toward practical applications with people having the ability to share and give input is huge.
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 stigma of being perfect or having to be perfect has to stop. No one is perfect, however, as a society and community, we often display the perfect home, perfect marriage, perfect this or that. We drive competition by pitting people against each other with everything being solely based on winners and losers. I believe as a society we are good at showing people how to work and how to work hard, but we are not good with showing people how to decompress. We are not showing people how to take care of themselves. Before I wrote the book, “Self-care: Let’s Start the Conversation,” I taught classes on self-care. I would start the lesson by asking people “What is self-care?” The responses ranged from basic hygiene to going on a vacation. There were people expressing they were under the impression self-care was being selfish. Many people had no idea what self-car truly entailed. Self-care is about what YOU need in your most needful space. Keyword being YOU. People have to begin to take adequate care for themselves. Again, this comes through awareness, coaching, and education.
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?
I actually talk quite a lot about habits in my book and I defer largely to Charles Duhigg, one of the foremost experts on habits. When it comes to habits, being intentional, honest, and introspective is the first step. We have to honestly look at habits in totality, the good and the bad. People have to take an introspective look at what their bad habits are. Even I need help identifying blind spots. Areas that are not known to me but known or seen by others. One cannot change something they don’t know they do. When you create trainings that talk about habits, and other people share. Then, some will say, “Hey, I do that too!” Then you can get down to the nitty-gritty and ask, “Does this habit help me or not?” Knowing is the key and when people don’t know they can’t do better. Let’s go deeper, if people know they have an unhealthy habit and don’t understand why it’s an unhealthy habit, they will continue the habit. Knowing is key but understanding is what takes it deeper (root cause). Then the work begins on how to change the habit or behavior.
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?
Yes, getting back to the 4r’s the first is to retreat. Which equates to simply removing yourself from all distractions. This is the first part in calming yourself. To get away. The second is to reflect. To give yourself time to think about what has gone well and what adjustment you need to make. The third is refresh, taking the time to really do that which fills your cup. For instance, for me being at a lake or in nature really soothes me. Sometimes, my cup being filled consists of me really being in a place that gives me life. Lastly, restore, taking everything from the aforementioned and being centered.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
Yes, there were several. A few that come to mine is a book called Boundaries, The Five Love Languages, and Nuts, written about Southwest Airlines. Boundaries, which I also reference in my book, is key to one’s personal and professional life. Lack of boundaries can oftentimes lead to burnout. As I said before, I have tried to be that person who was so concerned with being successful that I lost focus of myself. I began to chase dreams that were not my own for the sake of being successful. For me, if it made sense and was a solid ideal, I would pursue it. In life, you will learn people will use you, and you have to set boundaries for yourself as well as for other people. I had to learn that I could not be everything to everybody. I had to start developing what I called the art of No, not right now.
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. 🙂
Thank you, I am actually doing it now. I am starting a movement about self-care. This movement is more than a vacation, it is more than good hygiene, or taking a break. This movement helps people identify so much more about themselves in a way that is not clinical but therapeutic. I am so humbled by those who have read my book and engaged in the reflective pauses at the end of each chapter. The feedback, being, I never thought about that, or why do this or, I never realized this habit stemmed from this or that. This is just the start. I have already begun, work on “Self-care: Let’s Continue the Conversation” which even goes deeper. However, we have to start the conversation first and a good part of that is dispelling myths about self-care and encouraging people to become more reflective.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
For more information about my book “Self Care: Let’s Start The Conversation” please visit: www.rwallenbooks.com. To learn more about the consulting services we provide such as self-care training, growth coaching, and retreats please visit New Dimensions Consulting Services www.ndcssolutions.com Also, we encourage people to follow us Instagram and Facebook @rwallenbooks and @ndcssolutions
Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!