Five Foundational Components of Mental Health and Wellbeing

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Although there are many factors that contribute to mental health and wellness, there are several that form the basis, or foundation, of wellbeing. One is biological (sleep), three are mental (mindfulness, self-compassion, and gratitude), and one is psychosocial (human connection).

Why do these factors matter?

Sleep

Of all the factors affecting physical and mental well- being, adequate sleep consistently has the biggest impact. Others include diet and exercise.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness supports equilibrium between the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic nervous systems and provides the awareness necessary to support other interventions.

Self-compassion

Self-compassion is critical to addressing many mental health issues and is essential for addressing trauma and shame. It supports better self-concept and counter-acts negative self-talk.

Gratitude

Gratitude provides healthy perspective on life events, supports resilience, and mitigates against worry and frustration.

Human Connection

Connection with others is central to the human experience and meets the foundational need for acceptance and belonging. It also supports purpose and resilience, while boosting mood.

Assessment of Foundations of Mental Health and Wellbeing

I sleep at least 7 hours per night.

Rarely                       Occasionally           Usually                     Always

1                                  2                                  3                                  4

I engage in a daily mindfulness practice.

Rarely                       Occasionally           Usually                     Always

1                                  2                                  3                                  4

I practice self-compassion daily.

Rarely                       Occasionally           Usually                     Always

1                                  2                                  3                                  4

I note what I’m grateful for at least weekly.

Rarely                       Occasionally           Usually                     Always

1                                  2                                  3                                  4

I connect meaningfully with someone who cares about me at least weekly.

Rarely                       Occasionally           Usually                     Always

1                                  2                                  3                                  4

Total score from each item _____ (A total score of 10 or less suggests that you are not employing tools that can positively affect your mental health and wellbeing)

Plan for any item scored 2 or lower:

Sleep __________________________________________________________________________________

Mindfulness ____________________________________________________________________________

Self-Compassion _________________________________________________________________________

Gratitude _______________________________________________________________________________

Human Connection _______________________________________________________________________

Making More Money to Find Happiness: A Really Bad Idea

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“There are two ways to get richer: One is to make more money and the second is to discover that more of the things we could love are already at hand.”

Alain de Botton

Most of us who have chosen the first path described by Botton have discovered that even when we do make more money, there comes a time, usually decades into the pursuit, in which the internal dissonance of that quest starts to get in the way. For some of us, it’s just a nagging sense that maybe we’ve compromised more than we wish we had. For others, it’s a full-blown crisis. Either way, we ignore this wake-up call at our own peril.

To put it mildly, we’ve been sold a bill of goods. We live in a system in which some minimal amount of money is required to meet basic needs and a little more than that for access to modest opportunities and comforts. However, the research is clear that as income increases, its contribution to happiness decreases and we actually encounter a new set of stressors, challenges, and demands that compromise our wellbeing and our happiness.

When money is connected to work, as it is for almost all of us, there is almost always a direct correlation between how much money we make and how much additional time we dedicate to that pursuit. Unfortunately, the research cited above also makes it clear that above a certain income (typically less than $100,000 annually), time is a much stronger predictor of happiness than money, as is the way we spend money. For example, money spent on experiences and on other people predicts more and longer lasting happiness than does spending money on objects of desire, particularly objects that simply reflect luxury or status. So, for many of us, the pursuit of money is really a Faustian pact in which the more successful we are with that quest, the more factors come into our lives that mitigate against our search for happiness. Not so ironically, as wealth increases, so do difficulties in relationships. Research suggests that as wealth grows, people engage in less healthy interpersonal behavior, have less time for healthy, non-work, non-finance activities, develop fear of losing their wealth, and become vulnerable to making personal and moral compromises in the interest of maintaining and growing their wealth.

The effects of a quest for more and more money are usually insidious, sneaking up on us over time. It is only when we are forced, by dissonance, mental health issues, relationship problems, etc. to look back over “how we got here,” that we recognize just how much time, effort, intellect, and spirit we’ve dedicated to activities and people that, in retrospect, often didn’t align with our own values, desires, and wellbeing. And, equally insidious, in most cases, money turns about to be incredibly ephemeral. We can go from “rich” to “poor” in a strikingly short period of time with just a couple of unfortunate circumstances.

Of equal importance, we’ve also been sold a bill of goods related to happiness itself! Research suggests that happiness is somewhat ethereal and vulnerable to so many factors, that even in ideal situations, it is hard to sustain. It probably makes more sense to focus on having purpose, which is more sustainable over time, and is even less correlated with money. And—big bonus—purpose is not only more resilient than happiness, while negative events typically compromise happiness, they can give more meaning to life. In short, when we pursue purpose and meaning in our lives, we are more likely to experience alignment between our values and our behaviors and feel more satisfied with our life, both of which are probably more valuable and sustainable than happiness in isolation. In other words, we can feel good about ourselves and our lives regardless of whether or not we feel “happy” in a given moment, which sounds like a heckuva lot better thing to shoot for.

If you’d like to join a small group discussion on October 28th at 2pm Eastern time about how you can begin to shift from a pursuit of money (and dubiously happiness) to a pursuit of purpose, fill out a contact form here.

Foundations of Mental Health and Wellness: It May Be Simpler Than You Think

Wellness

The three most critical factors for wellness are diet, exercise and sleep. They account for about 80% of our longevity, with insufficient sleep impacting cognition, immunity,  obesitydepressionanxiety, and even heart failure and dementia.

If you could do one or two things to improve diet, exercise, and sleep what would they be?

Mental Health

Like physical health, mental health is a product of multiple domains which often influence one another. For example, lack of sleep can cause both physical and psychological harm. Three of the most effective things we can do for our own mental health beyond diet, exercise, and sleep are mindfulness, self-compassion, and gratitude.

If you could do one or two things to support mindfulness, self-compassion, and gratitude, what would they be?

For a more comprehensive understanding of your current state of wellness you can complete a wellness inventory here or here. If you have any questions about supporting your wellness and mental health, please contact me here.

How Our Ancient Brains Have Let Us Down

To paraphrase Alain de Botton, while humans have achieved remarkable advancements related to technology and life-span, we aren’t much evolved emotionally since we dwelt in caves. As a result, we are ill-equipped psychologically to deal with much of what is threatening us in the contemporary world. For example, long ago we developed a powerful fight or flight response, that instantly co-opts our endocrine, nervous, cardio-vascular, muscular and other systems. This process works brilliantly when activated to avoid a predator. Unfortunately, it’s activation is wholly ineffective and usually detrimental when the “threat” is related to a relationship, work conflict, financial stress, or global pandemic. Unfortunately, our otherwise very capable brains often can’t tell the difference.

It is a cruel truth that there simply is no comparable neuro-endocrine response designed for typical modern “threats” and stress. In fact, the part of the brain that we really need for most of today’s problems, the frontal cortex, actually gets subordinated by the fight or flight response from our older, mid-brain, and our powers of analysis, prediction, problem solving, and restraint become anywhere from compromised to totally “off-line.” In effect, for most contemporary threats, the fight or flight response is a false alarm, which in the absence of an actual need to run or go to battle, manifests as anxiety, which perpetuates the cycle, and can even lead to a state of hyperstimulation that does not return to normal.

For many of us, our vulnerability to fight or flight false alarms is related to previous, unresolved trauma, neglect, violence, etc. The most important thing for getting through the current morass, as well as supporting brains that did not evolve for this life, may be our willingness to explore in our own pasts what we’ve spent a lifetime avoiding. The most important skill we can probably learn is to re-regulate ourselves once our amygdala has gone bonkers and the false alarms are ringing.

For more information on how to address modern problems with an ancient brain, click here.

The Impending Collapse in Higher Education

Image credit: Money Magazine

I first wrote articles in 2017 and 2021 about the decline in traditional higher education. You can see them here and here. Back in 2017, higher education was six years into an enrollment decline with ballooning student debt, an increasingly unstable business model, and looming disconnects between what colleges and universities provided students vs. what that actually needed. By 2021, as the pandemic was nearly a year old, the landscape began to get more complicated with continuing enrollment declines, worsening demographic trends, increasingly negative public opinions about higher education, crippling student debt, further diminished ROI for students, and an increasing number of post-secondary alternatives to college. Even by 2019, before the COVID crisis, about a third of all colleges and universities were already operating in the red with additional enrollment and revenue declines still to come.

What’s happened since then?

Well, the underlying fundamentals have gotten quite a bit worse and it is arguable that a substantial swath of the higher ed industry may be vulnerable to collapse. No, that is not hyperbole. It simply reflects multiple underlying realities related to consumer behavior, market shifts, increasing student attrition, unsustainable business models, and substantial moves away from college degrees as credentials for employment. A good private sector analogy would be store front retail. For perspective, over 1,200 institutions, mostly for-profit, closed between 2010 and 2019. Between 2016 and 2019, 86 non-profit colleges closed or merged and another 53 met the same fate in the 2019-2020 school year alone. The rate of closures and mergers is accelerating and shifting from the for-profit sector to non-profit schools. This trend will increase substantially over the next several years as institutions have exhausted pandemic funding and other short term cash management initiatives.

As of 2022, there are now 4.1 million fewer students attending college than in 2011 and 1.4 million fewer just since 2019, which is a decline of 10% since the pandemic began. In fact, enrollment declined by 662,000 students again just since spring of 2021! In terms of consumer behavior, we’ve seen a dramatic decline in percentage of high school grads intending to attend 4-yr college from 71% in 2019 to 48% in 2022 and many potential students have simply abandoned traditional college programs altogether in favor of high value, short-term, industry focused options.

Going forward, demographics alone will likely decrease college enrollments by another 15% by 2029. And those students who are enrolled are far more fragile, both financially and in terms of general wellness, than even ten years ago. For example, three million students leave college each year because of a time-sensitive financial crisis of $500 or less. While many eventually return, many do not, and there are currently 39,000,000 dropouts in the U.S., which is up nearly 9% since 2018! Additionally, in the first six months of 2022, 41% of community college students and 32% of bachelor’s degree students reported considering leaving school due to mental health issues. As of late 2021, 70% of college students say that affordability has affected their enrollment plans. And although the perception is that most families have weathered the pandemic financially intact, 36% of parents reported having taken money from their children’s college funds to compensate for pandemic related financial challenges. In fact, the median family income in the U.S., adjusted for inflation, is more than 10% lower today than in 2007! When we combine financial/economic, mental health, and family issues, the situation is potentially bleak, not just now, but for years into the future.

On the contrary, non-credit / non-degree programs are growing. For example, enrollment in coding boot camps grew by 70% in 2020 and as of May, 2022, over half a million students were enrolled in short-term certificate courses through Amazon Web Services with similar numbers from Grow with Google, Microsoft Education Center, and other very large purveyors of non-college, post-secondary education. This doesn’t even include the millions of people taking industry delivered entry-level and upskill training in the workplace. AWS alone has committed to provide upskilling courses to 29 million people who don’t work for Amazon – no that is not a typo – by 2025 for free. Moreover, a survey conducted during the pandemic found that 63% of adults who were out of school said that if they did pursue an educational program, they would prefer non-degree skills training or certificates rather than a degree program at any level, so it’s clear that given a choice, much of the student market is rapidly moving away from college degrees as a preferred option within the broader post-secondary ecosystem.

And to be clear, the exodus away from traditional higher education is not just about cost. It is about perceived value. A great example is Calbright College, a publicly funded institution in California, that literally can not give away free certificate programs paid for by the state. After somewhere in the neighborhood of $100,000,000 of public funds spent on startup and operations, and close to three years of operation, the institution enrolls about a thousand students and still hasn’t conferred even a thousand certificates.

The simple fact is that the market changes and disruptions impacting much of higher education are so profound that in the absence of foundational changes in both funding models and consumer behavior, neither of which are likely, there simply will not be enough demand over the next decade to support all of the thousands of colleges and universities operating today. About a third of the wealthiest and most exclusive colleges and universities are likely to continue operating with viable financial models for the foreseeable future—although with less exclusivity at the bottom of that elite group. The other two thirds will exist on a spectrum of risk, with many simply unable to survive in their current state, or at all, and with others operating as “zombie” institutions, technically alive, but shells of their former selves. Keep in mind that nearly one third of all colleges were spending more than they were taking in before the pandemic and many have exhausted most of the short-term tricks for preserving cash (layoffs, borrowing, elimination of sports teams and academic majors, delaying maintenance and accounts payable, etc.). And of more recent concern, the federal pandemic relief via the CARES act, roughly $50 billion dollars for higher education, has been disbursed and mostly spent. This substantial cash influx papered over cash crises and even insolvency at many institutions, but no more is coming and those institutions that were at greatest risk will soon be unable to operate.

As noted earlier in this article, the notion of at least partial collapse of the higher education system is not alarmist hyperbole. There simply are not enough students with enough money to support all of the institutions that exist now and that will get worse, not better, over time. For institutions of higher education (IHEs) existing somewhere on the risk spectrum, those with the most compelling need to reinvent themselves are those in moderate peril. The “code blue” schools will not have the resources or time to change and the most elite won’t need to. In short, a substantial number of IHEs whose survival horizon is several years out must aggressively begin the process of reinvention now, before it’s too late.

Note: The data in this article come from a variety of primarily governmental and some private organizational sources, all of which have been vetted by the Transformation Collaborative™.

Whatever Else You Do, It’s About the People

Unsurprisingly, according to Gallup, employee engagement levels in early 2022 have fallen to less than a third of all employees, with nearly one fifth actively disengaged. Gallup also found an eight-point decline in the percentage of employees who are extremely satisfied with their organization as a place to work and an even sharper drop in the number of employees who believe their employer cares about their wellbeing.

The areas of engagement reflecting the greatest declines relate to having clear expectations, the tools to do the job, the opportunity to focus on what they do best, and a connection to their organization’s purpose.

On the other hand, Gallup also identified a number of organizations whose employee engagement is more than double the national average, so called “exceptional workplaces.”

What separates organizations who are losing employee commitment from those that are excelling? As is often the case, it is not rocket science, but it does take a clear, dedicated approach on the part of leadership.

Excelling organizations:

  1. Make decisions, and especially difficult decisions, based on values rather than short term wins, convenience, fear, etc. As such, employees know what to expect and what their employers’ stand for.
  2. Embrace flexible work environments based on how that flexibility will directly benefit employees.
  3. Prioritize employee wellbeing and focus on the whole person. The pandemic has dramatically ripped the band aid off the notion that people stop being human at work.
  4. Customize communications based on locations, technology/media, accessibility and other elements that keep employees not only informed, but participating.
  5. Empower and upskill managers for the jobs they have now, not the ones they used to have. This includes a focus on supporting employees through coaching, resources, flexibility, collaboration, etc.

While the last two years have not been “normal” by any stretch of the imagination, a shift to viewing people as long-term competitive assets rather than expense lines on a P&L, started in enlightened companies and organizations before the pandemic, which has positioned them with a clear competitive advantage as they transition into the next normal, whatever that is.

We know that engaged employees are:

"far more productive and the work they do tends to result in greater performance, particularly around outcomes that are most important to the organization. They also tend to be more resilient in the face of challenges, have a greater sense of their own efficacy, are able to work with less direct supervision, manifest a more internalized sense of accountability, and are more likely to feel that they are an important part of the organization.”

Sounds like a pretty good payoff for simply doing the right thing.

Why Are We Unhappy When We’re Working So Hard to Be Happy? Maybe We’re Pursuing the Wrong Thing

Most of us want to be “happy.” As parents we want that for our children as well, but are we in pursuit of the wrong thing? Interestingly, even when we do achieve happiness or contentment or pleasure, it tends to be temporary, particularly if we associate happiness with acquiring something. The reward is short lived.

Also, if we’re constantly in search of happiness we likely find ourselves in a cycle of pursuit, short term reward then back to pursuit. It is not only unfulfilling, but it is ultimately exhausting and includes periods of disappointment and frustration when we’re “not happy.”

If this is correct, and a great deal of research suggests that it is, then what might be a better alternative?

Both my personal experience and a growing body of research suggest that building purpose into one’s life is much more sustainable and satisfying than pleasure, happiness, etc. This does not mean that feeling contentment or pleasure is bad nor that we shouldn’t want those experiences. It simply means that having a life worth living and feeling fulfillment over time is much more likely to come from nurturing a reason for being than from the pursuit of self-gratification.

More than a half century of living, and my more recent work as a psychotherapist, has taught me that enjoying and appreciating life is based on a fairly simple set of human needs. I’ve also come to understand that not very many of us base key decisions in our lives on those needs, which explains at least part of the dissonance that so many people are feeling!

In addition to purpose, having healthy human relationships, some sense of spirituality, gratitude, and underlying health and wellness are genuinely foundational to long term fulfillment and a life worth living. You may have noticed that this foundation is based primarily on internally derived meaning and sustenance rather than external sources of reward. It is also based on our existence being additive and beneficial at some level to others.

Although the model may be fairly simple, unlearning lifetimes of contrary beliefs and behavior is not. And even if we come to understand that we’ve likely been sold a bill of goods about much in life, actually changing how we live and what we value requires deep work and acceptance of new truths. For many of us, it actually requires a life changing crisis to nudge us forward. Regardless, it is possible at any point in life to shift from an unfulfilling pursuit of self-gratification based on external rewards to an internally focused pursuit of purpose and meaning.

And even though we all face different levels of challenge and privilege, identifying our purpose in life, creating some level of human connection, recognizing our relationship to something bigger than ourselves, and acknowledging gratitude is possible in almost all situations. In fact, one of the most eloquent descriptions of this notion can be found in Victor Frankl’s memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, about surviving nearly three years in Nazi concentration camps in World War II. While few of us will experience that depth of existential crisis, it shows the potential of human resilience.

If you’d like more information on how to implement the model described here in your own life, including both purpose and wellness, please reach out to me via a contact form or directly via email at wkp@wallacekpond.com.

Wellness as a Foundation for Mental Health

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I work with a broad range of counseling clients, who present with a wide variety of issues, some relatively benign and others devastating.

One of the most important things I’ve learned in my time as a psychotherapist intern is that no matter what else you are dealing with, you will achieve better outcomes in your life if you are operating from a baseline of reasonably good health and wellness.

A good place to start is with a simple wellness inventory, which you can find here or here. Both are slightly geared toward college students, but they’re free and will apply to most anyone. Once you have the results, you’ll have an idea of which areas present the most risk to your wellness and where your relative strengths are.

In addition to the information provided by the assessments, I have created a 15-item checklist of activities to focus on relative to building greater health and wellness across multiple domains. The checklist is also free and can be used alone or with a therapist.

If you’d like to discuss your own wellness profile and strategies for building resilience, contact me directly via email, contact form, or phone at (719) 781-6349.

The Top Task for CEOs in 2022? It Might Be Managing Fear

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An end of year survey by Axios found that people of all political persuasions are substantially more fearful about 2022 than they were about 2021. And to be clear, they were already trepidatious about 2021. Overall, we’ve moved from 36% of the population to 54% being more fearful than hopeful—a year over year increase of 34%!

Why should this matter to CEOs? Because the most important lesson the pandemic has taught us is that people don’t stop being human at work. They bring their humanity, including their fears and aspirations, to work. When work itself is a source of stress, and when people don’t feel either safe or valued, their engagement and productivity plummet. The fact that the number one worry reported in the survey is the stability of respondents’ own jobs and the broader economy, CEOs ignore this at their own peril. The “great resignation” of 2021 makes it clear that tens of millions of employees are willing to leave their jobs if the conditions are, on balance, more negative than positive.

After jobs and the economy, the number two fear is for democracy itself, followed by healthcare. Since many Americans get their healthcare through their employer, two of the top four worries are work related!

So, what are executives to do?

First, the lessons of the initial two years of pandemic are as urgent in 2022 as they have been so far. Executives must focus on people leadership and that includes a few central issues.

  • Making the work environment safe and stable
  • Supporting employee wellbeing, including mental health
  • Focusing on coaching and development rather than performance evaluation
  • Recognizing and validating the humanity at the core of employees/personnel/workers

Leading in the current environment is more natural for some executives than others. The reality is that many leaders came up through the ranks in organizations that look little like what is described above and were trained to see employees as an expense line item whose value was measured solely by productivity. In fact, it is fair to say that in many cases people have been seen as disposable, not much different from technologies or marketing campaigns. That approach is proving to be broadly untenable in today’s world.

The most effective contemporary leaders have several traits in common. Probably most importantly, after an uncompromised focus on people, they recognize that they achieve more success through others than through their own efforts or technical expertise, which, of course, requires a focus on people! Secondly, they are comfortable, if not enthusiastic, about decentralizing control across the organization, thereby empowering the human capital under their purview. Relatedly, they reward innovation and risk-taking, which not only meets employee needs for self-efficacy and self-actualization, it also dramatically increases the organization’s capacity to operate in hyperchange, hypercompetitive markets! Lastly, effective leaders use emotional intelligence to know when to engage the people in their sphere with compassion and empathy. They are also comfortable expressing their own vulnerability and humanity, which by the way, is essential to reducing fear and creating a sense of safety. As noted in the title of this article, that may be the most important task of CEOs in 2022.

The really good news is that even leaders for whom the traits and skills described above do not match how they were developed or what they typically lean on in difficult times, it is possible to learn new ways of leading and being. At the Transformation Collaborative™, our leadership development opportunities are frankly unlike anything available elsewhere. We work with small groups to stretch leaders beyond where they’ve gone before and challenge them to consider more than they thought possible. If you’d like to talk about how we can help you transform as a leader, reach out to us here.

The Great Resignation: What We Can Learn from the Employee Exodus

Photo Credit: CFI Education

A recent article in the American Prospect  by David Dayan caught my attention with this simple quote: “You can measure a worker’s worth by how they were treated in the pandemic.”

Mark Cuban made a similar comment earlier in the pandemic to the effect that companies will be judged by how they treated employees in a time a crisis.

Of course, the pandemic of 2020, 2021, and soon to be 2022, has generated a combination of factors that are unique for just about everyone alive today, but one, unexpected outcome has been the rebellion of many workers, across the spectrum of employment, to working conditions that employees previously broadly “put up with,” despite often debilitating effects. Although we’ve seen frequent mention in the media throughout the pandemic of the need for organizations and their leaders to support their employees needs as people as well as employees, my sense is that the “great resignation” suggests that huge numbers of employers have failed the test. Of course, there are almost certainly multiple potential variables driving the exodus, such as increased savings for some families, historically low unemployment (and thus availability of other jobs), stimulus and unemployment benefits, etc. However, what is likely at the core of the massive, collective decision to quit jobs, sometimes in dramatic fashion, is the calculus now shared by so many Americans that even if they have to give up income and make different life choices, working conditions in many cases have simply become untenable to the point that they would rather make potentially substantial sacrifices to avoid the drudgery, disrespect, health-risk, and even abuse that come with many jobs. In fact, we’ve learned that even $15 or $16 per hour is not enough to compensate misery for many workers.

Just how big is the phenomenon?

In August and September of this year combined, over 6% of the entire U.S. workforce quit, followed by another 4.2 million workers in October, for a staggering total of over 12.5 million! That has never happened before in American history. This trend has continued through November and December, but we don’t have official USBLS data yet for the most recent two months. In fact, New York Times estimates that approximately 25,000,000 Americans left their jobs in the second half of 2021. And as Noreen Malone notes in the same article, “When 25 million people leave their jobs, it’s about more than just burnout. Job satisfaction has gone through the floor.”

One thing the unprecedented labor realities of the pandemic has demonstrated is that showing tangible care for employees may itself turn into a significant competitive advantage over time even if it compromises profits in the short term. And in many cases, it will actually drive growth and profits, even in the short term. An interesting example is in the shipping and logistics industry. UPS has experienced a fraction of the turnover during the pandemic experienced by FedEx and Amazon. Why might this be? UPS has a stable, unionized workforce, that not only makes more money, but receives good benefits, and works in more employee-friendly and stable environments. Amazon had to spend billions of dollars in just the second half of 2021 to hire both new and replacement workers and suffers substantial turnover. Only one small part of FedEx’s workforce is unionized, and with the exception of their pilots, have suffered significant turnover as well. To be clear, this is not an argument for unionization per se. In fact, unionization does not make sense in many smaller, modestly paid workplaces. It is an argument for recognizing that workers/personnel/employees/labor also happen to be human beings and that even when wages are low, the work environment can be fair, respectful, stable, and supportive of employee wellbeing. When it’s not, employers will pay a far higher cost in the long run.

If your organization is ready to transform its view of human capital and reap huge rewards, reach out to us at the Transformation Collaborative™ for a complimentary consult on what that might look like for you.