Saturday, February 18, 2012

GUEST BLOG: Human Resources in the Pressure Hangover

Kate Burke and I met in cyberspace when she reached out to me to interview me for a class project on social entrepreneurship and suicide prevention. Six months later, she is interning for the Carson J Spencer Foundation remotely from Washington, D.C. and helping us build our Working Minds Program. Her blog speaks to the challenges HR professionals face when trying to promote mental health in the workplace.

Unless you’re a park ranger, this image is in stark contrast to the realities most of us face when we head into our days, in particular our workdays.  Instead of calming colors and soothing sounds, the concrete jungle and an impression that challenges loom as large as the buildings can surround us.  On such a day, I came across the following quote by Victor Frankl:

When we are no longer able to change a situation,
we are challenged to change ourselves.

This quote struck a cord with me.  There were quite a few things outside my control, which were consuming my energy and hopes.  I was a manager of 20 administrative staff, which included extensive performance management and employee relations duties, in one of the largest professional services firm in the US and globally.  The economic downturn had required a number of tough staff decisions as well as a restructuring of my team.  These stressors mirror situations faced by many Human Resources professionals noted in an HRCrossing article titled WorkplaceStress and the Human Resources Professional.  One of which is…

Dual allegiance: Trying to be of service both to the managers and blue-collar employees can put enormous stress on the consciences of human resources professionals. If, by chance, adversarial relationships exist between the two groups, then the human resources professionals may get scorned by both sides and viewed as inefficient meddlers.

I felt I was between this proverbial rock and a hard place. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has also noted in their report Stress at Work that “extensive literature links job characteristics (e.g., low levels of control and work overload) to job stress and stress-mediated health outcomes such as cardiovascular disease and psychological disorders”.  Their diagram included here shows how a mixture of work stress and factors from outside work can work for or against people with possible negative outcomes for health.  This stress trap was also termed a “pressure hangover” in an article titled “Creativity Under the Gun” in the Harvard Business Review.  The article notes that working under pressure situations can require a few days for recovery.  This idea supports further the idea that chronic stressful conditions increase risk of illness, by not allowing recuperation time between pressure intensive projects.

For me, the work stresses in addition to other life stressors were making it more difficult to keep my emotions in check.  The phrase “Let it go” was oft repeated by friends and colleagues, with an occasional “You care too much”.  So how does one manage if you want to care about life but have no framework on just how is it you, “Let it go”?  Even while “being proactive” is a catch phrase in corporate America, there is a gap in proactive work being done to create Healthy Workplaces as it relates specifically to mental health.  Seemingly ever-increasing stress levels in the workplace are compounded by evidence I observed that organizational leaders are not fully prepared to handle employees who are facing severe stress, depression or other mental illnesses, and even less those that are contemplating suicide.  I would say this is mostly due to lack of knowledge versus lack of caring.

As is mentioned later in the HRCrossing article, I followed the path of many HR professionals, and took my own advice in making a change.  I resigned after 10 years in an intense corporate environment to pursue a master’s degree in Social Enterprise at American University with the intention to find structural solutions for healthier workplaces and work lives.  This program is allowing me to bring together my experience from business, entrepreneurial practices for new business structures – whether for profit or non-profit – and a commitment to live and encourage more balanced living of integrity.  In the course of my studies, I researched whether there were people applying the methods and ideals of Social Entrepreneurship to the field of mental health in the workplace and came across the Carson J Spencer Foundation (CJSF).  In particular CJSF’s program, Working Minds, is an answer to what I had observed during my time in Human Resources and Management and was encouraged by how they are bringing the entrepreneurial spirit to this conundrum creating healthy workplaces nationally and internationally. 

Working Minds showcase workplaces that practice innovative and effective approaches in promoting mental health at work through contests.  They also open dialogue about mental health in the workplace by providing education and training in suicide prevention.  This approach not only works to help the individuals facing challenges, it also contributes to the organizations through a double bottom line of social/health benefit and financial benefit.  Instead of the costs associated with absenteeism and turnover, Working Minds equips leaders to create a working environment where staff can get assistance and continue to contribute to the organization.  The training normalizes the discussion of mental health, and provides intervention skills when needed.  There is also focus on re-integration after crisis situations, all of which helps create an environment where people can reach out for help as well as continue to contribute.

I am excited about what Carson J Spencer Foundation (CJSF) and Working Minds is accomplishing and being a part of expanding their work.  I encourage you to join in the effort by being a changemaker in your organization.  Open the dialogue with your leaders about creating a healthier workplace.  If you or any colleague you work with is at a crisis point, reach out for help through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.  This link can also provide more information about warning signs.  Become informed and ask for training from Working Minds.  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kate Burke is a consultant with over 15 years of experience in business in the private and non-profit sectors.  Ms. Burke's most recent experience is in operational management and human resources with the professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.  She focused on performance management, process improvement and change management projects in San Francisco Bay Area and Washington Metro Area.  Ms. Burke has also worked with a locally based management company, a national non-profit higher education association and national life insurance company.
Ms. Burke holds a B.A. from Westmont College in International Studies with an emphasis in Latin America, including studies in Costa Rica.  She is a Masters candidate in Social Enterprise with the School of International Service at American University in Washington, DC.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Take the Stairs: How Self-Discipline and Goal Setting Improve Our Mental Health

An Interview with Rory Vaden

The Carson J Spencer Foundation excited for Rory Vaden and the Take the Stairs tour to come to town on March 4th (Littleton) and 6th (Denver)! We are so honored that he is donating the proceeds for this event to help us expand our youth entrepreneurship program to the state of Colorado and to support our partners at the University of Colorado Depression Center.
Rory is a professional speaker and author who promotes self-discipline, and we believe his message ties in well with our mission to help leaders and communities “sustain a passion for life.” I met Rory last fall at the Colorado’s chapter meeting of the National Speakers Association where he was the featured speaker. I was immediately drawn to his “true grit” approach to reaching challenging goals and felt his practical advice on making dreams become reality was spot on for our youth who are now transitioning from business plan creation to implementation.
I also know how goal-setting and persistence affect mental health. The Depression-Bipolar Support Alliance suggests that creating the life you want is an excellent way to build resilience against the on-set of depression.

That said, we also know that goal setting when one is depressed is hard,, and sometimes the smallest steps seem huge. For these reasons the University of Michigan Depression Center created a goal-setting toolkit.
Dr. Michael Allen, Director of Research at the Depression Center noted that, “Flexibility in goal-setting often leads to success. We must learn to adapt to what's available even though it's not a perfect match with our interests or goals. A problem in depression is rigidity and perseveration.” 
The types of goals we set also influence our well-being.  For example, people who value relationship goals above achievement oriented goals have been found to have a greater sense of wellbeing than people who place achievement goals above relationship goals.  Our perceived lack of progress towards our goals affects our mood, especially when there are large discrepancies between where we are and where we think we should be. Finally, our self-talk around goal failure can influence our mood, do we say, “Bummer! I learned some lessons here and can grow from this experience,” or do we say, “I am a failure. I am always failing. The world is against me.”
For these reasons, I interviewed Rory about his philosophy, book and what we should expect from his presentations on March 4th and 6th.
SALLY: What is Take the Stairs all about?
RORY: The last time you had the option of heading up the escalator or taking the stairs, did you take the stairs? If you're like most people then probably not.  Unfortunately most people have an "escalator" mentality in all areas of their life. They are looking for the shortcut, the easy way, and the overnight success. Yet even in this instant age, success in anything simply comes down to discipline; the discipline to do things you don't want to do.  The book is about the psychology of overcoming procrastination, how to simplify the process of improving our self-discipline, and how to get ourselves to do the things we know we should do when we don't feel like doing them.
SALLY: In your experience, how does goal setting and goal achievement affect self-perception and mood?
RORY: The most disciplined people in the world have determined that the best strategy is to put your self-esteem into your work habits and not your outcomes. In other words they focus only on what they can control and let the rest of life happen as it may. This is important because it means we can have confidence in ourselves that is unconditional and not affected by the positive or negative circumstances we may be facing in life as long as we are working as hard as possible on the things that we have in our power. I’d encourage people to focus on the next step in their path. What is the best thing is that they can do to influence that step? I tell people not put so much pressure on themselves about whether or not their goal may come to fruition exactly as hoped.
SALLY: What can people expect when they come to the event?  Who should come?

RORY: Everyone!  From high school students and their parents to professionals in the community, everyone can benefit from improved self-discipline.  I’ll be teaching the 7 strategies of simplifying self-discipline that are in the book.  Plus, by being there you’re supporting the Carson J Spencer Foundation’s Fire Within Program.  I look forward to being there!

This event is for people who want a more fulfilling lifestyle—those who are looking to take a different approach in 2012. My goal with this event will be to change the way audience members look at their path to success—each dream is achievable, but short cuts are not an option. We’re going to talk about why taking the stairs is the only route to the top.

Join Us! You can register for FREE but seating is limited.
 To learn more about Rory, please visit  

March 4th at Columbine High School
March 6th at the Colorado Depression Center

Thursday, February 2, 2012

GUEST BLOG: Wishing You Peace, Love, and Soul

  • (LEFT) Phoenix K. Jackson - Board Member of Carson J Spencer Foundation, Author of Compassion to Clarity and Back Again
  • (RIGHT) Jess Stohlmann - FIRE Program Director at the Carson J Spencer Foundation

In the wake of tragedies, it is easy to feel lost, confused, shocked, and even angry. All of these emotions are common reactions to the loss of a loved one, community member, or icon. The loss of Don Cornelius leaves many of us overwhelmed by emotions because we never would have imagined losing a man who had changed history for African Americans in the United States in this manner. As the first person to put positive images of African Americans on TV on a consistent basis, Don Cornelius made a direct impact on millions of lives while Soul Train was on the air, and far more with the legacy of his work. In the midst of tragedy, we should seize the opportunity examine the issue of suicide in the African American community. As a part of our efforts to honor of the great accomplishments of Don Cornelius, we should venerate the ways that the community has protected itself against suicide, and we should look into the steps that can be taken to prevent future tragedies.

Often, the first question we want to ask is “Why?” It is natural to want to understand something as complex as suicide. It is also normal to try and find one, simple reason. The truth about suicide is that the answer to that burning question is far too complicated to boil down to one simple answer. Suicidal people experience multiple, varied situations and struggles that eventually lead them to feel like suicide is the only remaining option. If we can find a way to intervene when we see the warning signs, suicides can be prevented. But no one can be expected to intervene when they don’t know what the warning signs are. Below is a list of some of the warning signs we can look for as communities, and a link to a helpful resource. Educating ourselves about these warning signs is a great way to work toward preventing future tragedies. We know that prevention works, and most people who attempt suicide once, will never consider it again. If we can connect people to the right resources, we can prevent those attempts from ever happening. If you or someone you know is in distress, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) to get help.


(American Association of Suicidology)

·         I Ideation (Threatening to hurt or kill self, looking for ways to die)

·         S Substance Abuse (Increased or excessive substance -- alcohol or drug -- use)

·         P Purposelessness (No reason for living; no sense of purpose in life)

·         A Anxiety (Anxiety, agitation, unable to sleep or sleeping all the time)

·         T Trapped (Feeling trapped - like there's no way out; resistance to help)

·         H Hopelessness (Hopelessness about the future)

·         W Withdrawal (Withdrawing from friends, family and society)

·         A Anger (Rage, uncontrolled anger, seeking revenge)

·         R Recklessness (Acting reckless or engaging in risky activities, seemingly without thinking)

·         M Mood Changes (Dramatic mood changes)

For more information, click here:
Part of what might make this loss so shocking is that suicide rates are low in the African American community, and especially among women. African American women have the lowest rates of suicide of any population in the U.S. For example, according the American Association for Suicidology in 2007, 1,958 African Americans completed suicide in the U.S. Of these, 1,606 (82%) were males (rate
of 8.4 per 100,000). The suicide rate for African American females was 1.7 per 100,000. The rate for Caucasion males in the same year was more than twice as high as African American males.

Slide from Center for Disease Control and Prevention

We want to highlight the things that have historically helped the African American community safeguard against suicide risk. Communities that have historically pulled together in times of need tend to have relatively low suicide rates. In the African American community, things that we know safeguard against suicide risk are: making individuals feel like they have an important, irreplaceable role in the community; empowering individuals and making sure they have a voice in their communities; and participating in faith communities that encourage feelings of belongingness and censure suicide as an option. All of these protective factors are also strong values in African American communities, so the rates for African American women are particularly low. Even with all of these protective factors, it is important that we as communities be willing to ask the right questions to make sure that we can intervene when people are in need. We should all be thinking about what we can do to stop the loss of life.
Belongingness protects against suicide. Photo by: vox_efx
Throughout the year, but especially as we celebrate BlackHistory Month, let’s join together to honor the incredible positive impact these values have had on African American individuals and communities, and work toward creating similar safeguarding values in other places. Focusing on the prevention work we can do in the future, protective factors we can work on increasing to reduce suicide risk, and honoring the life of those we have lost are the best ways to heal as a community.

As Don consistently wished us on his show, "… in parting, we wish you love, peace and soul!"


For Suicide Prevention Training and Suicide Bereavement Support

Carson J Spencer Foundation