This month, we continue the conversation around Wellness in the Workplace with Tara Strachan, a Certified Recreation Therapist that specializes in Mental Health. Her current role at a national corporation is in workplace wellness and focuses on helping those with health promotion, fatigue management, critical incident stress management, and emotional support.
We spent some time with Tara learning about her, the importance of supporting wellness in the workplace, and how to better support your team’s wellness while working remotely (among other things!).
What key points would you like our readers to know about you?
Some of my professional values include power sharing, service, authenticity and continual learning. My approach is believing that individuals are the experts in their own life; my job is to walk beside them as they uncover their strengths and use their skills to support their happiness, health and well-being. I value being of service and offering my energy, expertise and care to those who invite me into their journeys; that privilege is never lost on me and one of the things I love about my field. You’ll get a sense of my authenticity very quickly when time is spent together. I truly believe in transparency; there’s great power in vulnerability. Lastly, i think it’s integral that professionals engage in continuous learning to stay up to date on current trends.
I am also a new mom; my son Isaac is 11 months old. He brings an incredible amount of joy into mine and my husband’s life. Being new parents in a pandemic world offers a lot of challenges as we have learned to navigate without our village but finding our footing together and making it work.
What made you want to learn and discover more about wellness support?
In my early twenties, I was at a crossroad. I was contemplating going into Nursing. At the same time, I attended a ceremony honouring my grandmother and learned about the field of Therapeutic Recreation (TR). My sister was a student in the program and introduced me to the program coordinator who asked me a simple question, ‘Tell me about yourself,’ I replied that my passion has always been to provide real care and support to both individuals and families. She got excited and briefly told me about TR. Through her passion for it, it ignited an interest in me!
Once I learned about all the different possibilities within my new career, Employee Wellness was one of the streamlines, and that added another level to my passion. It was then that I knew that one day my dream job would be to work in a corporate setting offering therapeutic services. The kind of role that is aimed at the whole person. Life is stressful and chaotic at times, and I wanted to work where I was able to create a space where I can support the whole person.
My current job exceeded all my dreams. I literally told my interview panel that I had dreamt of this and was so grateful to be considered for the position. I am thankful everyday for that monumentally life changing conversation that occurred on the “dance floor” of a ceremony for my grams.
What does wellness support look like to you? what does the ideal model look like, in your opinion?
I feel that wellness support looks like walking individuals and embarking on an excavation journey to allow them to find their way on their wellness journey. A phrase I use often is “holding space”; it’s my job to sit beside people and hold that space for them to process, heal, and explore their needs and then find their answers.
I am not the expert in their life, and I do not believe in giving advice. It’s more powerful when you ask questions to allow folks to find their own light in the darkness/shadows. I also believe that listening is an underutilized skill that professionals and individuals could benefit from practicing more. In my experience, I find that a lot of people just want to be heard. There’s incredible power in allowing space for that.
A model framework I use in my professional practice involves power sharing; I have therapeutic tools that I use to support and there's power in that professional skill. However, the sharing occurs when I hold space and allow the individuals I’m supporting to share their story. I just stay there, beside them, sometimes we sit in the mud together and then at other times we dance in the sunlight. Just like the weather in Vancouver, what is needed from me can change hourly in my day.
What is your perspective on how much an employer should 'push' wellness programs with employees? How do you position support to an employee without negatively impacting the conversation?
I do not believe that anyone should have anything pushed on them. A professional and personal value I have is choice. Ultimately, it’s everyone's prerogative how they manage their lives and what actions, or inaction, they choose for their health and well being. There’s a lot of research to support how difficult behavioural change is, especially health behaviour. One must be in a place of readiness for said change.
An effective style I'm trained in and use often is in Motivational interviewing (or dialogue). - It is a method of support, grounded from a place of curiosity, where empathy is the cornerstone.
Self efficacy, an “I can do it” attitude, is a powerful agent in fueling desire for change, health, wellness. When people are perceived as being rigid or difficult, there’s a motivation to behave that way as they dig their heels in; that’s the sweet spot for change, that is a great place to explore further. They can choose to accept the help and engage in their wellness and happiness, or not, but employers can’t force anyone to do anything.
Are there areas where employees struggle that we may not initially think of as 'wellness' related? For example, financial struggles can have an impact on emotional health. Are there other triggers that employers should be aware of?
When thinking about wellness or health I find it helpful to see things from a holistic perspective. How are people managing physically, mentally, spiritually, socially, financially? Each area directly impacts the other. If you think about wellness being a wheel, if one area is lacking then the wheel wobbles and sometimes breaks down.
I think something employers should be mindful of is stress. The research clearly shows how stress can negatively affect health. It negatively impacts one’s immune system which puts them at risk of being sick frequently, which directly impacts workplaces with employee absenteeism.
Mental health is an area more and more employers are focusing their attention on and I’m so happy to see it in the forefront. Not just to combat stigma but to promote compassion and empathy. Everyone struggles and mental wellness is important for all of us. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, 30 percent of short- and long- term disability claims are attributed to mental health and illnesses, which costs the Canadian economy $50 billion annually. The World Health Organization reports that Depression and Anxiety cost US$1 trillion per year in lost productivity. It’s in every employer's best interest to invest in the mental health of their employees.
What kind of training to you think managers should have in order to be able to help employees through Covid or other crises?
I feel that any training aimed to improve awareness and understanding of mental health is welcomed. CMHA has offices across Canada and each branch offers a variety of courses managers can take. In the US, there is Mental Health America. Lots of the courses focus on workplace wellness, and they're often offered at a reasonable cost. I’d also recommend any training in Motivational interviewing or conflict resolution. Any training aimed at supporting or working with people, communication or leadership is beneficial.
How has working from home impacted employee wellness?
I think there are both costs and benefits to working from home. I am hearing how disconnected individuals feel and how lonesome it is not having colleagues around. Some costs and benefits are for instance:
Folks working in their pajamas: though it’s comfortable it can sometimes have a negative impact in perpetuating a ‘why bother’ attitude. So to re-establish a work routine by changing into ‘work attire’ can make a mental shift that the work day has started.
Not having face-to-face time with colleagues is a challenge because no one has an ‘eye on you.’ People who are struggling can ‘hide’ as no one is noticing changes in their dress or presentation. No one is asking questions such as, ‘Hey, I noticed you were quieter than usual, is everything okay?’
Increased productivity as there are less distractions without interruptions with people knocking on office doors.
Better work-life balance as we tend to take breaks, prepare meals, snacks, and spend more time with family as there is no commuting. However, some working parents struggle deeply with demands of their children’s attention and work.
What do managers need to do differently in order to support their staff that is working remotely?
To support their staff, managers should:
Regularly check in with their teams - my manager schedules bi-weekly meetings with us individually in addition to team calls twice a week.
Occasional Video calls - managers can see their employees
Managers should be flexible but take into account the need for productivity and work, but understanding everyone is fighting their own battles
Employees in turn need to manage their own well-being and take personal responsibility to manage their care to their jobs to their best abilities
What are some signs managers can look for, which may indicate a team member might need some support?
I’d suggest managers to keep an eye out for any ‘out of norm’ behaviours such as:
Someone who’s always punctual with deadlines is now handing in work late
Non-verbal cues such as how an employee is presenting themselves, like how much care they are putting into their appearance- has that changed from their norm?
Different tone of voice, or facial expressions, which video connecting helps with
Paying attention to all the things your employees are not telling you directly but might be showing in other ways.
I’d take the time to inquire how their families are - how are their children managing, asking if they have aging parents in care facilities that they aren’t able to meet or embrace. Also asking how folks are sleeping is important because sleep is an indicator of stress and health. Show interest and actively engage with your employees and share yourself as well. Sharing and inquiry can show attention and care.
Managers need wellness plans for themselves, too. There’s a saying in the airline industry to “put your own oxygen mask on first before assisting others”. When we are caring for others - and I believe that people leaders are servant leaders - it’s a tremendous amount of responsibility and stress. My hope is that managers have their own defusing partners whom they lean in to share their load/burden while also ensuring they are taking care of their own well being so they can effectively carry what’s on their often very full plates.
Interested in additional resources to support wellness at your worksite? Check out these links:
Medysis Canada: They are a Canadian site that offers current and reliable information. They have great resources shared on their mailing list, videos on their website and opportunities to explore with them further how to support companies.
Workplace Strategies for Mental Health: This site has a wealth of information on improving psychological health and safety in the workplace. There’s also some information on peer support as well.
Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA): They offer lots of great training opportunities on topics like Mental Health First Aid, resiliency and general awareness and peer support
For more information, or to reach Tara: Tlstrachan@gmail.com