“Simplicity and incremental change are key” Dr. Valeriana Colon and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

Simplicity and incremental change are key when creating a mental health program. By knowing your staff, their needs and values then designing program goals accordingly, you will encourage participation and form a community committed to wellness. Ensure your benefits, policies, and daily interactions are in alignment with a healthy work environment. If you have robust […]

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Simplicity and incremental change are key when creating a mental health program. By knowing your staff, their needs and values then designing program goals accordingly, you will encourage participation and form a community committed to wellness. Ensure your benefits, policies, and daily interactions are in alignment with a healthy work environment. If you have robust benefits and policies, but do not address a stressful work environment or have regular check-ins with your people, your mental health initiative will fizzle.

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 Dr. Valeriana Colón.

To resolve the complex challenges that keep people and organization from living their best work life and achieving peak performance, Dr. Colón is passionate about breaking barriers to build connection and inspire transformation. She is an author, researcher, international speaker, the President of BONUM Business Solutions and host of MetaTalk — a mental health social media platform dedicated to forging a better workplace from within.

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?

Twists and turns with a central theme of serving others is how I would describe my professional backstory. At the age of 15, I started college determined to find financial security and expand my mind to its greatest potential. Then I became an intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army to add a strong female character to a multigenerational family tradition of military service. As an injured veteran by the age of 21, I had to regain the physical use of my arm and redefine my identity to move forward in life and in my profession. Education has always been a source of constructive problem solving for me. After earning a Master’s in linguistics, I taught refugee students from war town nations and they taught me resilience, generosity, and a zest for life. On a parallel path, I started consulting for limited-English speaking business owners providing them access to a foreign environment. It was in 2011, as a top executive in my early twenties, working with REALTOR® during the housing crisis that a began to see the connection between mindset and professional success. By infusing professional development curriculum with both the necessary business acumen and the complementary mental disposition, I was able to lead REALTOR® to significant financial gains during the most challenging time in their industry.

Fast-forward to 2020, the world went into lockdown as I came back from working in South America with the U.S. Department of State. My company was impacted as the global economy reacted and I was out of the game completely in April sick with COVID19. While mentoring international business owners in June, I felt compelled to promote the importance of mental health in the workplace as a multitude of organizations across industries struggled to respond to the crisis from being paralyzed in action due to psychological reaction. To amplify my message, share free resources, and form a supportive community in September 2020 I created MetaTalk- a mental health social media platform dedicated to forging a better workplace from within. And that’s the backstory.

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

My most interesting story deals with loss, but I assure you good things can come from bad. With more availability after completing my doctorate, my business was scaling once again and I was personally taking on contracts. Then from November 2018 to February 2019 I lost my god-mother, grandfather, aunt, and cousin, one after another for four consecutive months from different causes. The feeling of catastrophic loss was immense and on the fifth month I needed an emergency tonsillectomy. As the head of an amazing team, my business was covered and I thought I could step away to address my personal needs. However, the response from my state contracting agency was to offer their sympathies and read me the bereavement policy.

The “needs of the organization” reigned supreme and the working environment was such that I could only step away for three days in total. I was at the highest level of my profession, had already over-delivered on the contract, my daily responsibilities were covered, I experienced the death of multiple loved ones, and needed surgery, yet I struggled to get those three days approved. While I would like to say this is an uncommon response and villainize the agency- these were well meaning people following policy. When the contract term ended, the renewal offer included a longer term by three months for less over all compensation, to begin immediately. While I found having a regional impact on education fulfilling, I had to choose me. With inherent worth, one’s SELF is the most valuable, irreplaceable asset. Know your worth, do not accept anything less, and do not sacrifice yourself for any one or thing. In reflecting on this situation, I learned valuable lessons on how organizations address mental health in the workplace, the environment conducive to optimum performance, how workers interpret job satisfaction, and that from interns to presidents, every can be affected.

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

Remember: self-care, balance, and self-compassion. Self-care is critical in today’s context for managing stress and maintaining mental acuity. Create a routine of self-care activities: exercising, eating a balanced diet, sleeping soundly, connecting socially, and asking for help. Strive for a work-life balance by setting priorities and continually recapitulating your tasks based on your values. You can make the conscious decision to be unbalanced for a time (perhaps for a specific project), but you must have a plan for rebalance and recovery. Our internal critic is the harshest. Self-compassion is important when we cannot find balance or meet the expectations we set for ourselves. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping. If you would not let your partner or child be treated or spoken to in such a way, do not do that to yourself.

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

Creating a fantastic work culture starts with the people. Involve your team in evaluating the workplace to discover the improvements and qualities needed. Having contributed to the vision casting, the team will be more invested in nurturing the desired culture. Moving forward, hire the people who will infuse your organization with the right qualities to shape the workplace. Often this means hiring for difference not match. We need to update hiring practices in response to 2020 and stop asking questions like: why do you want to work here, what is your greatest weakness, what would your last supervisor say about you, and why should we hire you. Candidates do not know enough about your organization or what you are looking for to provide a meaningful answer. Past supervisors are irrelevant to the current situation and remember not all supervisors are good. Being more interested in strengths brings out the best in people and showcases the qualities that could add to your work culture. Finally, set the stage for a fantastic work culture by supporting agency (the freedom of choice, to self-select), flexibility, and human leadership. These areas are fundamental in the work environment of today.

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

“I hope that my achievements in life shall be these: that I will have fought for what was right and fair, that I will have risked for that which mattered, that I will have given help to those who were in need, and that I will have left the earth a better place for what I’ve done and who I’ve been,” by Carl Hoppe.

In my experience of life, I have found meaning and drive from having and pursuing an individual and a shared purpose. This quote speaks to my individual purpose- my mission statement. The pandemic has led many to question their purpose in life and their values to a hope crippling degree. I firmly believe every life has a purpose and finding that purpose is a purpose unto itself. Our existence today is evidence of the indomitable persistence of life. When in doubt, observe nature going on blissfully unaware of humankind’s hardship. We are getting through this together. We ARE reimagining, repurposing, and redefining the new normal every day. Keep hope and purpose.

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?

With social distancing people are thirsting for connection and acknowledgment. Using affirming language (e.g. I hear you, we are with you) and making a virtual space for people to gather a part from work goes a long way. Small things like artsy company themed adult coloring books and home-delivered healthy snacks packs have been met with a surprising level of excitement- order extra. Purchasing from local artisans and shops connect staff with the communities they miss. Having them share their favorite local goodies with co-workers sparks a sense for hometown pride and comradery. Gamification by initiating virtual fitness competitions with staff earning points for various wellness tasks is always fun, compelling, and low-cost. Painting, yoga, virtual concerts, and other activity-centered weekly mental health happy hours have the added bonus of supporting team building and lowering the sense of isolation. Subscriptions to robust apps- providing staff with access to virtual therapists, online journaling, fitness tracking, daily reminders, and other mental health resources, has been a mainstay investment.

Simplicity and incremental change are key when creating a mental health program. By knowing your staff, their needs and values then designing program goals accordingly, you will encourage participation and form a community committed to wellness. Ensure your benefits, policies, and daily interactions are in alignment with a healthy work environment. If you have robust benefits and policies, but do not address a stressful work environment or have regular check-ins with your people, your mental health initiative will fizzle. Invest in continual education and awareness focusing on ‘the why’to maintain momentumLastly, consider access and agency by asking if there are any barriers to participation and if staff can self-select into the program. As adults we want to have a say and options in what we do, especially in personal areas like mental wellness.

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?

Awareness starts with reasons. The people at the heart of organizations will be the ones that address the challenges of today and drive economic recovery- we must support them. Lower healthcare costs, increased productivity, decreased absenteeism, higher morale, and improved recruitment/ retention, are a few reasons supporting the mental wellness of employees is critical. Promote the value of mental wellness programs by keeping the conversation going, sharing your experiences, educating yourself, volunteering, leveraging your social media platforms, speaking with your community leaders, and nurturing your own mental health.

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?

To support those around us, we need to normalize caring for our mental health as we do for caring for our physical health. Although some ignore the boundary, generally we know when a physical illness is to the degree which requires medical attention and the type of practitioner to see (e.g. general practitioner, specialist, or emergency). Few people consider the distinction in regards to our mental health. As a society we need to come around this topic and create clear pathways to mental wellness.

As an individual, supporting the mental wellness of others starts with being mindful. Now more than ever understanding how our behavior impacts the people around us is important. Kindness and patience go a long way in daily interactions. As good as it feels to be heard and understood, actively listening to others soothes the psyche. Rephrasing and repeating what others say, acknowledges their current experience. When reaching out to people in survival mode do not take distance or unresponsiveness personally. Regularly remind them how much they are appreciated and matter to you and others. Do not force activity when people are experiencing symptoms of mental distress- instead provide options, levels of participation, and space. Listen and be observant to learn about what triggers others. Most importantly, create a healthy environment conducive to growth, instead of trying to fix others or make people grow.

Habits can play a huge role in`az1 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?

Dedication to a routine of exercising, eating a balanced diet, sleeping soundly, connecting socially, and asking for help is the cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle. If these habits are not already present in your life begin gradually incorporating them while practicing self-compassion when you do not meet expectations.

To break the cycle of a bad habit, begin by understanding and addressing the source of the habit. Note your triggers then alter your response by inserting a healthy substitution. Reinforce the positive behavior and give the new response time to become a habit (18–254 days, on average 2 months). What does this look like? I stress eat gummy bears. While I work to reduce the stress in my life, I am going to substitute the gummy bears with a healthy equivalent- dried cranberries. Knowing multiple deadlines trigger stress, I stock-up on dried cranberries for the end of the month. Every time I go for the cranberries instead of the gummy bears, I earn 10 minutes of a relaxing activity. Every few weeks I check to see if the substitution is still satisfying and make adjustments as needed until the habit forms.

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?

Mediation has been a part of my routine for years. Working in high-stakes, fast-paced, and ever evolving environments can take its toll. Mediation provides me with a space to reflect, rebalance, and frame life in a more positive outlook since our emotions and internal dialog shape how we interpret life. When asked how I have come through life events that would have broken most, my response is — like any great warrior I have my wounds, but overtime I have developed skills and a team to prepare for the battles of living.

One of my favorite beathing hacks is when you start to feel anxious in a virtual meeting, trace the edges of your monitor with your eyes, taking a deep breath-in until your eyes meet a corner then out until it meets the next then repeat as needed. To calm the mind when you begin to feel yourself getting upset, pick an object in the room and describe it with your five senses: how does it look, smell, taste, feel, and sound. Coffee and water are two of my favorite liquids to describe. As winter approaches, I have already set my emotional stage with Seasonal Affective Disorder lighting throughout my home to mimic natural sunlight which supports mood lifting brain chemicals. Since nutritional deficiencies can have a significant impact on mental health, similar to that “hangry” feeling, I take a multivitamin. Exercise improves cognitive function and self-esteem, so I have planned several options for inclement weather. To keep my brain stimulated, I have rearranged my furniture, varied my routines, and stocked up on puzzles and board games. This winter may feel different than others. Be methodical in your preparations.

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

A COVID must read is, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Jordan B. Peterson. The book offers a unique framework for processing challenges. Books are not just objects to be consumed, but a chance to engage in a dialog with the written word. I enjoy unpacking the author’s key points by highlighting aspects which resonate and repel my personal perspective. I consider how I would alter the text to enhance its relevance to me or difference audiences. The result is an e-book with a ton of annotations and a nourished mind. Do the same with this book and by the last page you will feel more capable of addressing the chaotic world of COVID.

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. 🙂

Normalizing mental wellness with an emphasis on self-compassion is an essential movement to address the challenges of today. In the context of our history there have been rare opportunities when every person in the entire world has simultaneously reimagined how we work and live- that commonality is beautiful and connects us. As we move forward, let us continue to show OURSELVES and others compassion. Let us normalize mental wellness and come out of this experience stronger.

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

Visit www.urbonum.com/findme and join the conversation by leaving a comment. We need to start talking about mental health in the workplace. Mental health is a critical issue to address in our global economic recovery.

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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