The Power of Personal Wellbeing: 8 Ways to Promote Positive Mental Space

Culture is important in order for employees to feel connected to an organization, but just as important are leaders who ensure the mental wellbeing of their teams.

Personal wellbeing starts from personal responsibility. As leaders, we can make that path clear and more welcoming.

by Kimberly Pope-Robinson, DVM, CCFP

Culture is undeniably important in order for employees to feel connected to an organization, but just as important are leaders that ensure the mental wellbeing of their teams. And while culture and mental wellbeing intersect with each other, how they show up can be different. As you progress throughout your professional career, you’ll probably try many different ways to help promote a positive mental space for your team. Here are eight that I lean on and keep in my professional toolbox that have served me well in leading teams.

① Provide Language

It’s often difficult to understand—let alone communicate—our emotions and feelings, but using common verbiage and general language can help. When I work with teams, I share my concept of the “ocean of shame” as an example to help bring this point home. In the ocean of shame, we feel unworthy of acceptance or belonging, and floating everywhere in this ocean with us are sinkers that drag us down. Clients not having money to care for their pet, Dr. Google’s incorrect medical diagnosis, low-star Yelp reviews, and even a pandemic virus changing how we interact with our team and the public are all examples of how deep the waters can run.

But as trying as those sinkers are, there are counterbalances. I like to call those balloon fillers. They help connect us to our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. When did you hydrate yourself last? Take a bathroom break? Recover from the stress of the last emergency your team handled?

It may seem trivial to think of taking a bathroom break or getting a glass of water as a balloon filler, but if you don’t attend to the bare necessities, each sinker moment pushes you further under the water until it’s too much to handle. Sinkers and balloon fillers are unique for each person. What triggers one individual could be a nonevent for another. As a leader, helping your team understand their own sinkers and balloon fillers is important, but when common language is shared within the team, they’re able to relate to each other just a little bit better.

② Allow for Creativity

As simple as it seems, expression through imagery can feel safer than expression through words. So another core resource I help teams embrace is the power of creativity. An exercise I like to use is to place cards with various images on a table and ask everyone to select the one image that best answers a specific question I’ll ask. Perhaps the question concerns how they see themselves within the world of veterinary medicine, or how they might feel about starting telemedicine in their practice.

When team members share their selection with the group, the image gives them a springboard to help communicate their feelings and removes some of the pressure of finding the right words. Although they are talking about a picture, they are in fact tapping into a level of self-awareness perhaps even they didn’t see.

③ Provide Resources

You can’t do everything for your team, but you can help create an environment to support their ownership of their own wellbeing. How? It’s quite simple. First, share resources you’ve leaned on throughout your career that have helped you maintain balance: magazine articles, books, TED talks—you get the picture. The goal here isn’t to force one specific book or article on someone but rather to provide tools to help them recognize that what they’re feeling is normal and that support exists to help them when they need it.

④ Don’t Own Their Journey

No matter how much you want to help, you can’t walk their walk for them. Allow yourself forgiveness that, as a leader, people will struggle regardless of how hard you try to support them. But if you let every one of your team members’ struggles affect you, your own mental health becomes compromised. When you attempt to assume the burden of all the struggles of your team, and even of your clients, you end up with resentment and frustration, and it ultimately does not help them get to a better place.

Recognize and embrace that you can help create a space that promotes and supports personal wellbeing and emotional awareness, but you can’t take them on their path through it. People are different, and sometimes their timelines don’t align with what we hoped for them, but that doesn’t mean that leaders can turn a blind eye. There are limits. Promoting wellbeing doesn’t mean not holding employees accountable. You will have team members who won’t thrive under your leadership, and that is not necessarily a reflection of you.

Personal wellbeing starts from personal responsibility. As leaders, we can make that path clear and more welcoming. Have compassion for yourself: even if you create the space for them, if they’re not ready to take the walk, it’s not your fault.

If you want to instill a culture of wellbeing, you need to practice what you preach.

⑤ Lead by Example

If you want to instill a culture of wellbeing, you need to practice what you preach. It’s very easy to worry about everyone else and forget about yourself. Make sure you’re creating a network of support that allows you to take your own mental breaks. I get it—it is hard letting go and turning off. The feeling of responsibility for not leaving your team alone and always supporting them is incredibly strong. But again, treat yourself with kindness and compassion in understanding that stepping away makes you a better leader. Don’t make yourself available to everyone 24/7. Take time off and, more importantly, disconnect! If you say you’re taking time off but then check in every day, what example is that showing your team? Make sure there’s support in some way while you’re gone to allow yourself the opportunity to refill your own balloons.

⑥ Recognize the Stress

It’s normal to feel stressed, frustrated, or overwhelmed throughout the day. There will be those moments when you want to scream and pull your hair out and remaining composed seems impossible. How can you, when you’re constantly managing emotional clients who are dealing with their own stressful decisions and, to top it off, anxious pets? It’s inevitable: tension will rise and emotions will come out. Help your team recognize that this is normal.

One resource I have used to address this topic is a video I made called The Brown Gauze Moment, about a personal experience I had. In a nutshell, it was an overwhelming day that got worse and worse, and at the end, when I went to complete a simple task of changing a bandage, the material I needed wasn’t there. I lost it! It wasn’t my proudest moment, but leaders need the grace to feel stress too, because they feel the pressure not only from themselves but also from their team. I’ve found this video to be an effective tool in helping teams open up to discuss their own brown gauze moments and ways they can support each other through them. In fact, it’s not uncommon that I’ve heard teams say several years later that they are still utilizing this concept, and in fact “a brown gauze moment” has become a catchphrase for when they need to express that they’re at their breaking point and need that extra bit of support.

⑦ Embrace Moments of Mindfulness

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of mindfulness is “A mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.” We’ve all heard about the value of being mindful and how this helps to minimize stress, but finding ways to carve out mindful activities for ourselves and our teams isn’t always as simple as it may seem, and can sometimes even be intimidating. But they don’t need to be elaborate, time-consuming activities. If you have two to five minutes to allow your mind to settle, you can create a space for mindfulness. One easy activity I’ve had teams do to provide that space is to “take a bubble break” and actually blow soap bubbles. I get it—blowing bubbles seems silly. However, silly as it is, it allows us to quiet our mind, take deep breaths, concentrate, and clarify our focus while also providing a sense of community and fun interaction. It also allows our brain the sense of accomplishment it’s craving. All day long, it’s working through a sea of open-ended projects, constantly looking for solutions. Creating bubbles allows our brain to have that moment it needs to give it that much-needed dopamine hit. Two minutes of blowing bubbles outside, either alone or as a team, can provide a quick, inexpensive, and interactive moment of mindfulness to help the team recharge.

⑧ Connect with Purpose

Mission statements and core principles can help, but as leaders within the veterinary profession, we also have a responsibility to help our teams learn how to live with purpose. This refers back to when I mentioned filling balloons at the beginning of this article, but runs a bit deeper than the token drink of water or bathroom break. Physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, it runs the gamut, but as challenging as this profession can be, it can also make us stronger. Allow your team the opportunity to share how they are finding their purpose. One way I have seen teams do this is through the exercise of creating a gratitude board or a balloon wall where they can share how they’ve been able to connect back to their professional purpose. The power in numbers is very infectious and effective.

There isn’t one path or structure in leading a team. Incorporating these techniques has helped me create a path toward building teams that embrace the necessity for self-awareness and personal wellbeing. This isn’t absolute, though; I’m sure there are far more ways out there to lean on, and I encourage you to get creative and find actions to help your team embrace the power of personal wellbeing.

Kimberly Pope-Robinson, DVM, CCFP, has been in veterinary medicine for more than 20 years, practicing in both the large- and small-animal sectors. Her broad career experience has provided her a unique understanding of the stresses involved with maintaining a career in this industry. She now dedicates her time to providing wellbeing support for the profession through the 1 Life Connected movement and shares this message through one-on-one coaching, through customized team events, as author of The Unspoken Life, and as a dynamic international speaker.


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