For most people, their workplace is their second home. While some days are filled with productivity and motivation, some bring burnout and stress from an overwhelming amount of work. So it’s no surprise that our mental health deteriorates, which significantly affects us and our work. Today, Elizabeth Bachman sits down with R. Darin Hollingsworth in a discussion about mental health and wellness in the workplace. Darin is the Chief Gratitude & Accountability Officer at Odonata Coaching & Consulting. He helps successful professionals and organizations move from surviving to thriving.
Mental health is as important and as devastating as physical health or illness. This discussion about mental wellness in the workplace is very important, so tune in.
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Mental Wellness, Gratitude And Compassion In The Workplace With R. Darin Hollingsworth
We’re talking about mental health in the workplace, which is something that I’ve been wanting to address. I’m so excited to have my dear friend Darin Hollingsworth of Odonata Coaching talk to us. If you’re reading because you’re curious about how to be a better presenter, you can find out how your presentation skills are doing by taking our free four-minute assessment at SpeakForResultsQuiz.com. That’s where, in four minutes, you can see where your presentation skills are strong and where maybe you need a little bit of support to get the results that you want and the recognition that you deserve. If you score high enough, you will get a free 45-minute assessment with me to discuss those results.
I am very happy to have Darin Hollingsworth here. He has had a thriving career as a financial advisor, a sales professional, a senior fundraising professional and a nonprofit executive. He’s run nonprofits and now he’s working as a speaker, facilitator and coach. He helps successful professionals and organizations move from surviving to thriving.
Darin is a skilled facilitator who works with businesses, nonprofit executives and boards of directors to create new possibilities for transformational organizational culture. Darin empowers clients to build upon strengths and face challenges with curiosity, confidence and expertise. He’s a student and a practitioner of the research on gratitude and appreciation in the workplace for many years.
Darin is a frequent speaker to inspire leaders and organizations. He had formerly produced and hosted over 70 episodes of a podcast called Working Gratitude: Real People, Real Gratitude at Work. In these conversations, Darin has explored ways that gratitude can shift individual perspectives and organizational culture. He’s a certified facilitator with appreciation at work, which is the five languages of appreciation in the workplace.
He’s a native of Memphis, Tennessee and lives in Jackson, Tennessee. He volunteers to bring his work to small nonprofits and he’s passionate about mental health and suicide prevention. He has an interesting passion project. In 2021, he served as the Chair of the AFSP, which is the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in Jackson, Tennessee. They have an Out of the Darkness walk for suicide prevention and mental health awareness.
He also paints and then hides kindness rocks to promote the walk and to raise money for the cause. He has displayed rocks and literature at special events leading up to the walk. Mental health in the workplace, mental wellness and recognizing that mental health is as important and as devastating as physical health or illness. This is a topic that’s very important. I’ve been meaning to get to this for some time. I’m so delighted to have had a chance to interview Darin Hollingsworth. Here’s the conversation.
Darin Hollingsworth, welcome to the show.
It is so great to see you and visit with you again, Elizabeth.
I interviewed you several years ago on a different show. You were mostly just talking about gratitude in those days. I kept replaying that episode about gratitude. Let’s do gratitude at Christmas time, too, and all of that. Now we have an international audience so we can talk more about issues that come up in everybody’s workplace. Before I dive into that, let me ask you about your dream interview. If you were to interview someone who’s not necessarily available, who would it be? What would you ask them? Who should be listening?
I think as you asked the trailing questions, I was thinking differently along the way. If they were available as in living still in this spirit, I really want to sit down with Brené Brown and have a conversation about her journey, vulnerability and everything that she teaches. I believe in her work so much because it’s a research space. I’m a bit of a research geek myself. I like having the knowledge to go along with what my gut is telling me. On a more sentimental side, honestly, my dad’s been deceased for many years and I would probably sit and try to get as much wisdom. I got a lot from him in the many years I spent with him, but I would probably sit and try to pick his brain for more contemporary wisdom and knowledge.
Are you older now than he was when he passed?
2022 is the year that I turned the age when he passed. It’s very present for me.
I ask this question of all my guests and quite a few have listed an ancestor of some sort and who they would like to talk to.
We all have a bit of affinity for reaching out to people that we wish we had spoken more with in the professional environment or personal environment.
My mother’s father died when my mother was seventeen, so I know almost nothing about him and my mother’s mother was very present in our lives. My father’s parents lived on the other side of the country, so I didn’t see them that often but I would like to talk to both of them for different reasons, especially my mother’s mother, who died when I was 24. I was right out of college. I was all involved in my old life. I wish I’d been smart enough to have sat with her and gotten more of her stories instead of just being all involved in me. I think every child goes through that.
My dad died when I was nineteen. I gratefully spent a lot of time with him to go back to my gratitude work. I got to spend time with my dad because he was retired on disability. In that way, I am immensely grateful, but when you’re an adolescent, you’re still not latching on to everything that’s there. I wish I had learned to cook from him. He was a great cook, but I certainly didn’t do that.
Chanel him for some lessons. Have a medium come in and help you get some recipes. We’re talking about mental health in the workplace, which is such an important topic. There’s a stigma. It’s one of those things that you’re not supposed to talk about. I’m curious about the work you’ve done and what you talk about now when you’re helping companies create policies to deal with mental health in the workplace.
A lot of my experience is very personal unless from a professional perspective. I have to always do the disclaimer that I am not a licensed counselor, therapist or otherwise, but I have a lot of lived experience in the workplace and in my own mental health journey. That being said, when I’m working with organizations, particularly nonprofits, that are faced with stressors that some for-profit organizations never even realize.
I talk about mental health in the workplace as part of organizational culture along with my gratitude work and my compassion in the workplace. It all fits together. It’s about leaders being aware of the stigma that you just mentioned. It’s about leaders really doing their own work and keeping themselves healthy so that they can overflow into the lives of their colleagues. Having the recognition of when there is a need for empathy but beyond empathy, to take action for an employee who’s dealing with a mental health issue, that’s when compassion really comes into play. Taking action on empathy is what I’m seeing and trying to communicate to employers.
Mental health, gratitude and compassion, I’m picturing a Venn diagram. I’m not quite sure what the mental health part would be, but the gratitude. Mental health is an overall category, and gratitude and compassion are actions.
The feelings of gratitude and compassion generally translate into actionable work. From that perspective, I would offer that being aware of mental health is really as prominent as physical health in the workplace. You have occupational health and safety for physical injuries. We don’t necessarily have that for mental health or it’s not as readily available. There are actions associated with that mental health bubble that can be cultivated. That’s why there is that overlap with gratitude and compassion.
Maybe it’s awareness, gratitude and compassion.
Correct, awareness and being willing to take action about where there’s a gap or when something is eliminated in an environment. This happened to me in a mental health crisis that I went through in 2018. I worked for a major nonprofit. I was in a job where I absolutely loved raising large gifts for a mission that I believed in so strongly, but I was stressed. Beyond stressed. There was anxiety, depression and some PTSD, not to the fault of that employer, but as I progressed in my illness, there was just a lack of awareness of how to deal with me and having to deal with my necessary short-term disability leave. The staff member assigned to me to help me through the process really had only dealt with short-term leave in terms of maternity leave or paternity leave.
There were just a lot of different questions that I had and that she had that we had to navigate together. Subsequently, that organization learned a lot through my experience and was able to help a lot more people get comfortable with raising their hand and saying I don’t have a physical health crisis right now, but I’m experiencing a mental health crisis and I need help. That’s my point of gratitude. One of my points of gratitude for my personal journey is that it did overflow into the workplace in a way that has made some of my colleagues able to get and receive compassion more readily than it was available to me.
The door for conversations was opened because of you. Let’s talk a little bit about guilt from your point of view and the point of view of your colleagues.
That was definitely part of the stress. When you are working for an organization, you believe in that’s taking care of very vulnerable populations and the nonprofit sector is full of that. You just feel compelled to get up and do your work. On those days when you’re experiencing horrible anxiety or onset major depression and you don’t feel like getting out of bed, the diagnosis is compounded by guilt. These children and their families or this population experiencing homelessness are conquering battles every day that I should be able to overcome.
I’ve said for a long time in my practice and seen a lot of affirmation that we can should all over ourselves and make a really big mess. Guilt is like a should to me. We feel it, we’ve got to be present with it, but it has to be practiced as a temporary condition that will pass. Guilt is very past-based, based on some life experience or some imposed guilt. I will say that in an organization that has strength in the delivery of its mission, there can be an undercurrent of we’ve got to do this for our mission.
The show must go on in my life. It makes me think of a very dark time in my life where the career I thought I had disappeared underneath me. I likened it to being fired without actually having been told you’ve been fired. You just don’t get hired again. At the same time, in my living situation, the people we’re living with are dealing with the death of a family member. I felt guilty for talking about my pain and yet my identity had been erased because nobody wanted me for what I was doing at that point. I was the product.
You were grieving and they were grieving. It was just two different types of grief.
I kept telling myself, “Nobody died, so get over it.” Until the day that I broke down and said, “What about me? My whole dream has disappeared.” That was where things started to turn around, but I did about six months of stuffing that down. It is similar, not necessarily exactly the same.
It has parallels, exactly. Since you say very much relate to that, that sense of grief or loss of identity in a position and in the workplace, so many of us are identified by our work. I know that I did at that time, particularly workaholism is a very real diagnosis for addictive behavior and self-medicating. It’s very common for people to thrust themselves into their work in a way that does cover up those other emotions.
When those emotions are properly dealt with, it can be a painful recovery process. I hear you for sure and I do think that sense of comparative suffering and if you’ve not explored that topic or your readers have not looked at comparative suffering, it’s something we all need to take notice of. I refer back to Brené Brown when early in the pandemic, she was illuminating how different each of us was coping in those first days of lockdown. I like exploring that topic a lot.Cultivating psychological safety takes a lot of work. A practice of gratitude in the workplace is a starting baseline. Click To Tweet
Let’s talk a little bit more about comparative suffering because it leads to my next question, which is how about the people who’ve never had mental health issues and the feeling that the other person is just using this as an excuse not to come to work. Rather, let’s say there are people who will abuse it. How do we balance that? How do we walk that line?
Transparency in that is part of the balance. Instead of saying, “I have to go to a doctor’s appointment,” when I need to take off an hour to go to a therapy appointment, I speak what is truth. That became my leaders’ knowledge of that. Even though I was already in therapy, it was in my toolkit. They knew that I was working to take care of myself, like if someone was going to the doctor regularly for some other issue and another one popped up unexpectedly.
That’s how we have to look at this. You have to cultivate a culture of integrity and appreciation so that people feel valued and trusted. If they need to deal with a stigmatized issue, which mental health is, they have a sense of psychological safety to come forward with whatever is appropriate to disclose in their journey of diagnosis.
It’s a slippery slope about how much you talk about when you talk about it? It has to be cultivated over time and practiced just like people used not to speak the word pregnant. I remember when I was a kid, I was raised in the South with some interesting cultural norms. If an uncle, aunt or older cousin was pregnant, my grandmother would spell the first four letters of the word in front of us, thinking we couldn’t spell and didn’t know what was going on. For some years, we didn’t speak cancer. It would be spoken under the breath
Divorce. I remember when nobody talked about, “Why is Susie’s dad not around?”
We then circle back to some of the core things that can be either triggering or very different. For example, we talked about grief. Grief in the loss of a family member, a loved one, the loss of an identity, a job or the loss of life, as we knew it, for example. Grief does not automatically lead to a major depressive episode and properly discuss grief and processing of grief as an emotionally intelligent community helps us. It can help us avoid incidents of major depression, but the two are not the same.
I hope that as people talk more, listen more and look for more research, they’ll understand. Back to your question of whether people will abuse it, we have to have some grace and spirit to trust people and understand that you may be very sad, but you may not be clinically depressed. It is not my armchair diagnosis or my experience that can diagnose you.
I can be a listening ear for you, but just like if someone was having palpitations or what they described to me as palpitations. Anxiety even can present as a cardiovascular issue, but you can’t ignore it. Due to that, people don’t ignore or too many people do ignore the signs and symptoms of heart and stroke issues. The point being is you don’t need to ignore it and you’ve got to get it professionally examined. If you go and get the tests done and the results come back negative, you can move forward from what you know but moving forward from what you don’t know is very difficult.
The fear of the unknown is always the worst. The anticipation is always the worst, which is easier said than done. I hear the words coming out of my mouth and I think, “Goodness, that sounds so glib.” If someone had said that thing to me when I was in the depths of some of my worst times, I would have slapped them.
We have to let people be where they are.
It also makes me think about people who are suffering from addiction. You can’t just tell them to stop. They have to be ready. You can’t just tell someone to stop drinking.
That is important in the recovery movement and recovery and addiction as part of the mental health umbrella. For most of us, it was not entirely a quick, incidental, single issue. You’ve got a lot of work to do. It took us time to get here and it may take time to get healthy. I think it would be good for me, Elizabeth, if we also talk about mental health in building mental wellness like we build physical health and physical wellness.
Let’s talk about what we can do.
My toolkit is available on Medium and on LinkedIn. My illness, it definitely took six months, end of ‘18 and early ‘19. As I got healthy, my therapist and I talked about, “What can I do with this? How could I use it to my advantage for future prevention but also to others?” I did a self-examination of what I had before I got sick and how I was able sometimes not to see those things.
It was my toolkit and that may include anything from gratitude work. A practice of gratitude in the workplace because we’re talking a lot about work can cultivate psychological safety. It’s best executed peer to peer because other appreciation can be expressed in reward rewards and recognition, but that peer to peer cultivation of acknowledging someone’s success and praising them for it. A practice of gratitude is a starting baseline.
Other practices may be anything from the appropriate amount of sleep to the appropriate amount of exercise to being in therapy. Being adherent to medications builds the soft landing pad of support from people around you who know you well enough to see a change in behavior and be brave enough to speak it to you.
I had that toolkit and I will acknowledge simply like when you said there were things that people could have said to you when you were in your darkest moments that you would have just not been receptive to. I could not even find my tool kit once I broke down, let alone reach into it and use it. However, as I got healthier through my network support through the good therapy and appropriate medication that I had, I could start seeing where the toolkit, “It was there. I just couldn’t reach for it.” That is what I hope to help people cultivate proactively as mental health and mental wellness before the crisis onsets.
It sounds to me like you’re saying practice these tools before you need them.
Correct. They become much more emotional muscle memory. If you’ve had a healthy practice of them and you have a compromised condition that disabled you from practicing them regularly. Getting back to them makes it easier than starting them fresh while you’re in crisis.
I remember somebody once saying to me when I was in a very dark time and I said, “Does it ever get any easier?” He said, “It doesn’t get easier, but it gets faster because you have tools.” Will you tell us what the tools are? Let’s tell people what the tools are, please.
I’ve already mentioned gratitude as a very important baseline practice. What I say for people who are struggling is if you can’t find gratitude at the moment and there are some things, for example, that is fresh on our minds that I cannot find gratitude for. I’ll call attention to the latest death by disease of mental illness, the death by suicide of Naomi Judd.
Naomi Judd was a very famous country music singer and was about to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Pinnacle of her career and she was not alive to attend the ceremony.
That experience and then mass shootings in the United States as the one in Buffalo and then one that I don’t even have full knowledge of yet but in California. Those types of events I cannot immediately find gratitude for. However, there’s a beautiful quote from Mr. Rogers and I think Mr. Rogers is probably pretty international by this time. It says, “Look for the helpers,” and it is during these times that are so devastating based on the events that happen.
At the event, there’s nothing to be grateful for. It is the people who step up during these times that I can be start to be grateful for and speak truth, speak compassion and act compassionately.” Because there is grief surrounding these times, there are layered emotions and grief is not a linear process. There will be a lot of anger. I have it myself sometimes and with a practice of gratitude, don’t take it back to that. We can respond to some of the other emotions rather than react to them.
Similarly, a second practice is the practice of meditation or mindfulness, getting present with your very own breath. One day at a time, one step at a time. There’s tons of research and I refer people all the time to articles. Harvard Business Review has really started stepping up its content on mental health in the workplace. There are tons of resources there. The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley has a whole center for emotional health and wellbeing. Most of the respected universities across the country that I go to for research, like Stanford, for example, has a Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, CCARE, where all of this is validated.
What I’m giving as tools are tools that I gathered because I researched them. Another one after mindfulness is kindness. Popular culture, if you will, has looked at the random act of kindness beautifully. I liked that, but I’ve come to see the more intentional act of kindness as a practice that helps me more. On a very personal level, painting kindness rocks. It’s a creative outlet for me.
I paint little rocks with encouraging sayings on them. I started this during the pandemic. I never knew I could paint or draw. Suddenly, I become a little rock artist. I would call myself a little bit more of a rock hobbyist, but nonetheless, I can put a pin or a brushstroke to a rock and release some of myself editing. The beautiful part of it is whatever I create, I very intentionally put out into the world in a park or a parking lot or something for someone to find randomly, but my act of kindness was intentional. Does that make sense? I formed it randomly and received it randomly.
You were intentionally spreading signs of kindness in your community.
Another practice and I’ve come to look at these as practice as much as tools, practice communicating with friends and family that you love and trust. In the workplace, we have to establish that psychological safety. There’s a ton of great work on psychological safety. I think of another podcast I listened to from the Wharton Business School and how it is becoming so important for leaders to be keenly aware of their own ability to bully. We hear bullying and in the LGBT community. Since this will be published as part of Pride Month, we hear a lot about bullying. Many of us have experienced a lot of bullying because of being gay or lesbian. In the workplace, bullying happens very differently, but it absolutely happens.
Microaggressions, you hear that term.
Absolutely, and with the racial lack of equity and the hate that is evident from the latest shootings that we’ve talked about, those microaggressions are very real and have to be sometimes painfully uncovered. It’s like doing the work of your own personal mental health journey. It can be painful working through those, but the win is doing it and doing the work. Another practice is being active. Keep moving. From my experience and with major depression, particularly, it is just easier to sit at home and binge. That can appear to the stigma. Otherwise, that can appear very lazy.
You’re lying on the couch all day.You can be a leader from the seat you are in. Click To Tweet
It is absolutely disabling. It’s like if you’ve got a massive headache. Thankfully, I don’t experience migraines, but I know people who are literally disabled by migraines. If you think of depression, severe anxiety or triggering events, they can really knock you down. Another practice is good nutrition, your body and your body chemistry that helps affect serotonin levels and dopamine levels are all impacted by what you’re taking in. The continuum of sugar to alcohol and everything in between, you’ve got to know how your body processes chemistry so that you know how to. You need to know this in advance so that you can talk with your medical professionals about whether your medication is doing what they thought it might do for you.
That candy bar when I’m depressed is maybe not such a good idea. Medicating with chocolate.
In the moment, but if you just do that every 30 minutes, you maybe have a problem.
I was making a joke about that, but actually, because medicating with chocolate, we make a joke about it, but indeed it’s real.
It is for some people.
For some people, eating an entire cake in one sitting rather than feel the feelings.
That’s a great lead-in to a practice that I also try to have in that toolkit is that of savoring. You can eat one chocolate bar, really enjoy it and look at it. I know because of where you spend a lot of your life, you have access to good chocolate. You’re less likely to eat a chocolate bar, that beautiful morsel of cordial but savoring that, looking at the craftsmanship of how it was made, taking a bite of it in your mouth and not the whole thing one time and feeling the layers of texture. Translating this work then to the professional environment, savoring an experience at work, you have a success.
Let’s take a moment to enjoy that before we go on to the next one. Let’s take a moment to thank and appreciate, so it’s woven in with gratitude but let’s take a moment to realize who all helped in that success and making that success possible. Savoring is one that I learned from the discipline of positive psychology, the power of positivity and several other books.
You take a moment that is meaningful, healthy and useful to you and see what you can create that could be a shift for you in another situation where you’re needing to get out of a crisis of depression or anxiety. With the practice of savoring, you know that you have experienced better performance in the workplace but from yourself or others. Calling attention back to that in a mindful and healthy way is very important.
Darin, this has been really interesting. As a leader, you’re a manager, you’ve got a team or you’re a leader of a company. Where could somebody start?
That is always a really great question in the cycle, particularly of gratitude and compassion. I would say this. I truly believe that everyone can be a leader from the seat they sit in. They can influence from exactly where they are by staying healthy themselves, by sharing openly things they are exploring. That transfers exponentially to the person assigned to a leadership role. Those people have to be healthy because they report to higher-ups and they have people that take care of them.
A lot of my work is in the nonprofit setting and particularly for executive directors. They’re frequently an island because they may have a small staff that is counting on them to be the leader, but they report to a board of directors of people who do very successful things in other disciplines. Bridging that, taking care of yourself at that leadership level and then being very aware of things like gratitude, appreciation at work and compassion in the workplace that transfer from empathy to active compassion is where leaders are going to have to continue to do more work, do more practice and create more tools.
Darin, this has been fascinating. You called your practice, Odonata Coaching. What does Odonata mean?
Thank you for asking because it is a word that sometimes trips me up, but I absolutely love dragonflies. They’ve been a symbol for me of transformation and change. Not unlike a butterfly, they change from one little creature through metamorphosis to a very efficient flyer. They see in almost 360 degrees. They can move in any direction very nimbly. They’re great predators of mosquitoes. I love them and I think they have a lot of symbolism in the workplace. When I do work with people, each of the four wings moves independently. I encourage people to find those full wings on a body of gratitude and keep a vision and a curiosity like the dragonfly sees 360 degrees. This is just a way for me to help bring attention to something that I enjoy in nature.
I love metaphors anyway so that’s a wonderful metaphor. Darin Hollingsworth, thank you so much. I’ve been really wanting to get you back onto the show. This has been wonderful. We may have to circle around and get on here again because I know we only barely scratched the surface.
Thank you for having me, Elizabeth.
Thank you for joining us. Let me remind you that. If you’re curious about how your presentation skills are doing, you can take our free assessment at SpeakForResultsQuiz.com. That’s where, in only four minutes, you can discover where you are strong with your presentation skills and where a little support could get you the results you need and the recognition you deserve. I’ll see you on the next one.
- Odonata Coaching
- Working Gratitude: Real People, Real Gratitude at Work
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention