The Leadership Value of Mentoring

By Stephanie Kowal, Healthy Workplaces, Academic Partner

Mentorship is valuable. Different folks argue that mentorship is valuable for different reasons, but you will have a hard time finding resources telling you that mentorship is a waste of time. Some articles focus on the satisfaction that mentors receive for from contributing to the growth and well-being of someone else. Some say the networking and career development that can emerge from mentor relationship is invaluable to the protege.There are lists of benefits for both sides but one of the regularly cited reasons arguing the value of mentorship relationships is the leadership skills both mentors and proteges gain during their time together.


As mentors take on new proteges, they agree to be in positions to motivate and encourage others. Mentors are asked to mentor because they have reason to be confident in their abilities and skills, to share their wisdom, and to help others follow in their footsteps. It is easy to find the ways that mentors act as leaders. Indeed sometimes leader or leadership is embedded directly into the definition of what it is to be a mentor, like the Canadian Nurses Association that termed mentors as experienced and knowledgeable leaders that support the maturation of those less-experienced but who have leadership potential.

It is fair to assume that proteges want their mentors to be experienced and have leadership qualities. However, there is no grounds to say that proteges are less experienced or only have the potential to be leaders. Often proteges are exploring new ways to use their experience and existing leadership skills in more meaningful or effective ways. I would argue that proteges are all leaders from the beginning. Proteges often take the initiative to approach their ideal mentor to ask for guidance. Conversely, they might be asked to enter into an unnatural facilitated mentorship partnership through a company program. These people could easily say, “No thank you,” but instead recognize the potential benefits of being in these programs and jump in with ideas based on their own goals. Proteges lead their own growth and development through their initiative, which can be a very anxiety-provoking yet fruitful trait. While the mentor may be recognized for his or her history of leadership, both the mentor and the protege demonstrate leadership qualities simultaneously.

Mentoring as Partnership

It is this partnership–between two leaders interested in personal growth–that makes leadership through mentorship unique. Mentorships are mutually beneficial. Furthermore, they are cyclical in their benefits. At first, a mentor may benefit in most ways altruistically. They feel satisfaction in helping bolster the growth of a fellow employee or someone new to the field. Mentoring gives mentors an opportunity to reflect on their practice, understand where they are strong, and share that knowledge with another. However, mentors receive material benefits at times as mentorship can be considered community service that can further a mentor’s career.

Similarly for proteges, their new learned skills and strategies can make their job easier or make them more productive, increasing job satisfaction. Proteges may also use new skills, or develop an understanding and appreciation for their current skills, making them more confident in general. This confidence can be used to do their current job or may give them the motivation to pursue another job or career path they’ve been curious about for some time before their mentorship experience.

When each person grows, the benefits of mentorship expand beyond the initial reasons for engaging in a partnership at first. This is especially true in partnerships within the same organization. As the proteges becomes more confident in their skills and their voice, they can begin challenging some of their mentors’ perspectives. By contributing their thoughts, proteges give mentors new ideas and ways of thinking to consider. Consequently, both the mentor and the protege contribute to each other’s understandings of their organization the various experiences of those in different company positions.

mentorship-2When both the mentor and the protege share their knowledge in this way, they build each other’s capacity and the overall strength of the organization. Mentorship is a strong tool for organizational learning if mentors and proteges share their knowledge and their learnings with others in the organization. Everyone has invaluable talents, experiences and knowledge they gain through their day-to-day practice. Most often we keep this experiential knowledge to ourselves, taking it with us when we eventually leave the organization. We do not hoard our knowledge, we are just rarely given the opportunity relay it to others in meaningful or permanent ways. Journals, logs, reflections, or activities recorded during mentorships can all be used as documentation to share implicit knowledge with the rest of the employees, in turn building the capacity of many co-workers, rather than just within the partnership. Few things are as satisfying as building the camaraderie and knowledge of your coworkers others through sharing your own lived experience.

And here is where the benefits of mentoring come full circle for the mentors and the proteges. Two leaders with implicit knowledge have the opportunity to, first, learn from each other, then, create a resilient work environment by developing organizational best practices through sharing knowledge. This sharing builds everyone’s capacity, captures valuable knowledge (building organizational learning), and gives those in the mentorship partnership a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment.

Mentoring Activities for Helping Professionals

By Tom Barker, Healthy Workplaces Project Lead

Most mentoring in child and family services comes through informal means.  A new person in an agency has a lot on his or her plate:  understanding intervention and service frameworks, building networks of community supports, and just plain learning the ropes of a new job.  But beyond that there is a comfort zone that all professionals know well and that takes time to build.  On an informal level, just “being there” for a new employee is a great way to open the door to mentoring and guide newcomers toward that comfort-zone goal.

Informal Activities

Informal mentoring can be one way to make that comfort zone seem more attainable.  Consider what mentoring can do to help new employees:

  • Impart “insider knowledge” about an agency that can lead to better footing for newcomers
  • Impart “network knowledge” of community support people, government agencies, health resources and safety options.
  • Support right descision-making when applying ideas from training, or from Alberta’s Child Intervention Practice Framework.

However, in some agencies, mentoring can be more systematic. It’s part of a program designed to foster communication from top to bottom of the career path.  In such a formal setting, specific activities can be spelled out to guide mentors and protogees in their work together. Melany Gallant’s blog on 20 Great Ideas for Work Mentoring Activities can be a good start for refreshing one’s memory about mentoring.   The thing to remember about Gallant’s suggestions is that you don’t have to do them all, nor do they have to be done in any specific order.  Coaching, setting goals, job shadowing, working together:  these come naturally to professionals.


One of the main activities mentors and proteges engage in is conversation.  Asking questions is a great way to get conversations started.  Looking back at Gallant’s activity ideas, you can see them as based on questions.

  • What do you think was the “take-away” message from that meeting we just attended? (#13 “Debrief afterwards.”)
  • Where do you see yourself after a couple of years in this job?  (# 14 Creating a vision statement)
  • What brought you to this work?  (#10 Share career history)
  • How do you think that intervention worked (or didn’t work)?  (#3 Address mentee challenges)
  • How could you have handled that interview differently?  (#18 Be a coach – Target weaknesses)

What even more good questions?  The Centre for Mentoring Excellence website has some great ideas for conversation starters.  For example:

  • For starting the mentoring relationship:How do we make this process work for you?
  • For goal setting: What is the most important thing you want to achieve?
  • For pushing and challenging your mentee: Is this goal worthy of our time and effort together?
  • For goal achievement: Did you get the results you hoped for?
  • For checking in and feedback: What value has this provided for you thus far?


Team or Group Activities

Another advantage with having a formal mentoring program is that it gives mentors and protegees the chance to meet and share ideas about activities.

When we think of mentoring relationships, we usually think of one-on-one interactions with a mentor and a mentee. But that doesn’t always have to be the case. In fact, for many organizations, group mentoring has become an equally effective (and often more efficient) way to offer mentoring services to employees.

If you know what other mentoring teams are forming, maybe you can find ways to suggest that teams get together and address issues that come up from time to time. It’s always reassuring to learn that other pairs have asked the same questions, just as it is to get new ideas.

Accountability Activitiesistock_000006392696small-300x200

Finally, we want to be accountable in our mentoring.  Being a part of a mentoring team or partnership can only be as strong as the self-awareness and responsibility that both partners need to bring to it.   To help build accountability, the Mentoring Partnership Check-In Accountability Tool can come in handy.  Building an activity around accountability is a great way to help knowledge get built into the culture of an agency. Meetings like this are reality checks that can keep a partnership on track

Whether mentoring is informal or formal, it is centred on activities–conversations, meetings, and reality checks–that keep up interest and keep partnerships moving toward productive goals.


Growing Wellness Leaders in Alberta

By Tom Barker, Project Lead

Our in Healthy Workplaces addresses wellness issues–stress, burnout, compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma–as outcomes stemming from disengaged, under-supported care workers.  Hence, our emerging framework to address stress in the agency human-services sector in Alberta builds on a healthy “helping cycle” (intake, assessment, mitigation, and release of clients).  We help staff members look at ways that they can understand the stresses inherent in that role and how they can work with the agencies that employ them to grow their ability to deal with stress.  The agency that supports the work–the helping cycle–of its staff is the agency that, ultimately, can adapt to external market, client, and gThe Helping Cycleovernmental conditions productively.

The workshop materials we present in the existing Be a Wellness Leader package have been tested and refined from our Winter Workshop series of presentations in Edmonton, Red Deer, and Calgary, as well as to the ACDS Conference held in Edmonton in March. The workshop materials contain useful statistics from our research to support the points made. These materials guide staff members and supervisors through a series of steps that represent ways employees can realize their roles in supporting a healthy agency workplace.  The five steps are as follows:

  • Step 1: Understand wellness basics
  • Step 2: Understand your role in the agency
  • Step 3: Have a “leadership vision”
  • Step 4: Use wellness tools
  • Step 5: Share a “leadership story”

Kelly’s Story

The workshop follows the case of a care worker named Kelly who has what many recognize as a “bad day” based on frustrations she experiences in the workplace.  Along the way, Kelly learns the dynamics of stress, understands what she and her agency can do together.  She–and the workshop participants–then develop a vision of a stress-free workplace and practice using stress assessment and mitigation tools.  Finally, workshop participants see how Kelly developed a leadership story and they develop their own.  The leadership story is a success narrative that, in Kelly’s case, involves understanding the need for social support from co-workers.  Other kinds of support–from agencies, families, and social networks–are also explored.

Workshop Materials

The Be a Wellness Leader workshop contains three primary tools to help supervisors, trainers, and human-resources managers strengthen employee engagement and awareness of stress issues.

The more care workers can learn from each other, the better.

The Presentation

The Be a Wellness Leader presentation is a self-explanatory workshop presentation that takes the audience, step-by-step, through the five-step process of understanding stress and understanding how to deal with it in healthy ways.  The presentation consists of 38 slides that can be broken up into segments or all done at once.  The entire presentation takes three to four hours, but can be presented in a half-day format.sharing

The Handouts

The handouts for the presentation include worksheets for identifying elements of the “Helping Cycle” and where stress points might occur in the every-day work of Helping cycle assessment toolserving  clients.  It also contains a worksheet that allows a care worker to examine a day plan and assess potential pressure points that one might encounter on any given day.  This worksheet, called the “Daily Stress Assessment,” is modeled on the kinds of daily health and safety sheets that are used in construction work, manufacturing, and industry. The handouts also feature worksheets to help participants develop their “bad day” and “next day” stories and help plan how they might use their experiences to support other workers and contribute to the healthy climate at their workplace.

The Slides

Like most BWL Slidespresentations, the Be a Wellness Leader package also includes 3-up slides with note-taking areas.  Participants are encouraged to follow along and engage with the materials so they can discuss and ask questions of one another.  Really, the materials are basic to social work and self-care so in this presentation the real resource is the worker him or herself.  The more care workers can learn from each other, the better.

The Certificate

When staff members work through the slides and share their wellness stories with one another, they will have accomplished a lot.  They will see the stages they need to follow to become more wellness aware, and will have developed a plan for sharing their self-care success stories.  As recognition for their efforts, we have included the “I Am A Certified Wellness Leader Certificate.” Just print and write in the name.

The Evaluation

Again, like all good presentations, we have included an evaluation form that allows participants to provide feedback to the workshop facilitators.  Those involved in the workshop are encouraged to scan and send responses, or simply gather them in a file, and send them to the Healthy Workplaces Project Team (

We at the Healthy Workplaces Project hope that these workshop materials will be useful for human-service agencies in Alberta to support their wellness efforts.certificate



Overview of the Healthy Workplaces Project

By Tom Barker, Project Lead

This blog presents an overview of the Healthy Workplaces project, and attempts to put the pieces of what we do together.  At its foundation, the project attempts to find out the extent to which workers in this sector feel comfortable with their work, think that they are making a difference, and are assured that their work contributes to the agency where they work. Because these individuals care for some of the most needy Albertans–in terms of disabilities, families in crisis, youth in crisis, and victims of violence and sexual abuse–the working conditions of these persons is of great interest to all of us.

The Job Demand vs. Resources Theory

Much of what we do and think about this work has to do with a very common paradigm of stress known as the job demands vs. control model.  The idea behind this model is that, when an employee is asked to do something, the amount of stress (measured as “unhealthy pressure”) that person feels depends on whether that person has the capabilities to respond.  If the person can respond well to the pressure, then “no problem.”  The worker can handle the stress;  has the professional, social, and organizational supports and resources to respond.  Sometimes this is called the “stress bucket” model.  The more a person puts into the bucket, the more stress.  The more a person can empty the bucket (by relaxing, getting appropriate training, seeking help from supportive supervisors) the more the bucket does not overflow with stress.

Because the pressures in the stress bucket–from increased client need, changing economic factors, and other social realities–have increased in the sector, we wanted to measure three things:  are employees feeling stress, are they satisfied in their jobs, and do they feel healthy in their workplaces?  To find out the answers to these questions, we partnered with associations such as ALIGN, CYCAA, ACWS, AHVHA, ACDS, and AASAS to reach out to human service workers in Alberta.

Our environmental scan of agencies in Alberta resulted in the following general statistics. 

  • Number of non-profit, human service agencies:  450

  • Number of employees in non-profit, human service agencies:  13,000

  • Areas of client services offered:  child and family services (including foster care and child protective services workers), child and youth counselling, women’s shelters, sexual assault counselling services, home visitation services (including tean pregnancy), disability services

The Findings

Through our association with these advocacy agencies, we were able to reach out to almost 600 employees across the province.  Admittedly that is a small number compared to the many persons working in the sector, but we feel strongly that the survey reached the right people and that our results tell a valid story of the pressures these people feel.  What we found was that people are indeed feeling “unhealthy” (36%) in the workplace.  We also found that roughly one in four persons (27%) feel “unsatisfied” in their jobs.  Finally, we found that about 2 out of every 3 persons felt “unhealthy stress” (62%) in their jobs.

Given that one in three persons in the sector feel stressed (because so much is demanded of them for which they lack professional, social, individual, and agency resources) we think there are areas where support could be provided.  But the situation is complex.  What causes the increases in job pressures?  What can be done at the individual or organizational levels to help provide the needed social and professional resources these caring individuals need to do their work?

To help answer these last two questions, our survey asked about individual capabilities and working conditions. Based on the advice we got from our Research Team (consisting of representatives from our Partner Agencies) we framed our questions positively, asking our respondents what resources they thought were most important.  We asked 14 questions along these lines and found that a few common threads emerged.

  • “Control is given to me in my job” This response was given by almost 3 out of 4 (72%) care-givers.
  • “Flexible work arrangements” Almost 3 out of 4 (72%) of care-givers indicated that they needed to be able to adjust to job demands as they saw fit.
  • “Organizational support”  This category of strengths has to do with a complex of factors, including “support for self-care” (60%), “access to employee assistance programs” (54%), “relevant job supervision” (53%), “open communication about health and wellness issues” (51%).

The overall picture that these and other findings create for the leadership in the sector is that health and wellness is something of a crisis in the non-profit, human service sector in the province.  We are not just faced with one in three persons lacking adequate resources to do their job, but we are faced with thousands of clients who depend on professional service and who may receive service that is compromised despite the best efforts of the care-giver.

The Intervention Framework

In accordance with the mandate we received from the Ministry of Labour, that funded our project, we have begun to put together some ideas about how to provide support for these care-givers.  Again, in line with our approach to work at both the individual and the organizational levels, we want to ask “where does responsibility lie?”  We think it lies both with the individual-who needs to understand his or her role in health and wellness–, and the organization–that needs to know the right kinds of support and resources to provide. Our approach, then, can not focus on specific issues that individual agencies face–employee burnout, increased certification and training issues, lack of funding–but to overall issues of wellness and health.

The strategy we use is based on the relationship between overall wellness and health.  According to a research done by the Gallup organization, “Engagement alone has been shown to have a positive relationship with employees’ health outcomes.”  If these findings are correct, this means that employers wishing to boost overall workplace health can do so by increasing the extent of employee engagement.  What this relationship tells us is that the more employees participate, have their views heard, and contribute their day-to-day knowledge about how their jobs can be done right, the stronger and healthier the agency will be.

Our interventions are based on two levels.  The first is to find ways to help individual employees think of ways they can do their work better.  To this end, we have found many scholarly and popular sources to help in identifying the basics of stressors and responses, learning about self-care, building healthy relationships, using agency resources, and telling their wellness stories.  We call this our Be a Wellness Leader program.

At the organizational level, we are working with four partner agencies to develop staff supports that incorporate the Be a Wellness Leader ideas into techniques for developing greater staff engagement.  These strategies include mentoring programs, job-design committees, and employee communication pathways.  These experimental approaches, in conjunction with targeted training, can create a framework wherein agencies can fine-tune their engagement efforts.

The Future

The outlook for non-profit, human service agency employees, the agencies they work for, and the clients they serve is promising.  This coming Fall we will inaugurate a new workshop series, including webinars and face-to-face presentations, that will deliver our framework to the province.  And next year, in 2017, we plan on hosting a all-Alberta Healthy Workplaces conference that will showcase the efforts of our research partners and present the results of our second, province wide survey.  The hope is that having identified the outcomes that matter and having built (with the help of our research partners) a useable wellness/engagement framework, will lead to overall increases in wellness, and, in turn, better service to Alberta’s citizens with child, family, and disability needs.  That is the ultimate goal.


Double-Looping in Agency Practice

by Tom Barker
Project Leader, Healthy Workplaces for Helping Professions

Here’s something that occurs every day in family-service agencies in Alberta.  A client comes into care and there begins a process or testing and assessment that can take up to a month or more.  The goal is to find foster or kinship care that is appropriate and helpful so that the youth can move ahead on a healthy life path. This is challenging work, especially for new staff. New staff who help that youth make it through the first few days or weeks often rely on each other to fill in the gaps in their training.  “How can I calm this kid down after I’ve exhausted all I learned in training?”  “How do I bridge the [you name it] gap between what this community support is supposed to provide, and what it actually does provide?”

To the experienced staff member, these are questions with ready answers, but to new staff the answers are less obvious…and more stressful.   What’s more concerning is that that kind of hallway talk doesn’t always make it back into training.  It is too often lost to the agency.

In this blog post, I’d like to explore a technique found in organizational learning that can help an agency benefit from the hallway talk that new employees rely on so often.  It’s called “double loop” learning.  First, let’s look at single-loop learning.

 Single-loop learning is very valuable because it relies on the “try something new” approach we often take in problem solving.  Let’s take the “how to calm the client down” problem.  If playing a game doesn’t work, then we might try telling a story.  If that doesn’t work we might try offering a cookie or fruit, or whatever, until we learn something that creates a calming connection.

Single-Loop Learning

According to ToolsHero, “This form of learning aims at solving the increasing changes and the problems that have risen as a consequence of this. However, this ignores the real cause of the problem.”  The real cause of the problem may be outside of the immediate situation.  It may lie in how the intake is set up, or require the asking of more fundamental questions.  Such questions go beyond problem solving.

Double-loop learning is learning that goes beyond the try-and-try again approach.  Recollect the situation we described above.  Suppose the staff person stopped and asked, “Why do I want to calm this child down?”  “What happens if the child can, this time at least, experience his or her own feelings for a while, until some more natural restraints kick in.”  Asking that kind of question requires that the helping professional look at the underlying assumptions that govern the situation.  This is double-loop learning.

Double-Loop Learning
Double-loop learning, as the diagram at the left shows, loops back from the assumptions one makes to the information one has and questions the rules that govern decision-making.

This process is the key to reflective practice, especially in ethics. In ethical decision-making one asks,  “Why am I doing this and does this action cause harm?”  All ethical professionals are trained to consider processes of ethical thinking in all their professional activities. We may not realize that the reflective process in double-loop learning is strikingly similar to ethical reflections that we engage in every day.

For helping professionals the process of double-looping is often not recognized as being as valuable as it actually is.  So why is it valuable?  The answer is that it often captures the lived experience of staff members; the tacit understandings that staff members develop over the years. Authors Louise Grant and Gail Kinman even claim that managers with years of experience can pass down the emotional resilience needed to undergo a potentially stressful situation (such as an un-calm client).

Double-loop thinking–and learning–is the way that agencies can benefit from otherwise unrecorded experience.  According to Richard Elliott, double-loop learning has a direct link to quality improvement.  That is, the more organizations can develop ways to record this kind of knowledge and use it productively in their strategic thinking, they more they become “learning organizations,” capable of weathering things like economic downturns or radical shifts in practice frameworks or markets.  The question is, then, how can human-service agencies find ways to encourage double-loop learning among their employees?

Some of the more traditional approaches to building a learning organization, such as Quality Circles and Self-Directed teams rely on reflection and problem solving.  In the area of social work one finds theories that suggest that practice is “practitioner-led” and “discovered through experiential learning.”  Reflective practice is built on this assumption:  that organizations and individuals that examine their assumptions are able to learn to value their own and others’ experimentation.

One might argue, however, that, especially in Alberta, the Child Intervention Practice Framework and approaches like Signs of Safety, and others, already come with built-in solutions.  However, from the perspective of double-loop learning, it is in the actual, lived experience of applying these frameworks that agencies are able to benefit in terms of wellness.  If agencies are not able to do this, then they risk introducing frameworks that increase the pressures on their employees who have to apply principles without adequate training or mentorship.

In our research into stress-related factors in human-service agencies in Alberta, the Healthy Workplaces project has found that being able to adopt one’s own strategies for problem solving (and balancing work and family) is reported to be most important by over 81% of respondents.  And being given control over one’s job is reported as important by over 71% or respondents.  These findings suggest that staff members on the job feel that they could reduce stress if given the chance to apply their own “strategies” to solving work problems.  If implemented strategically, double-loop learning may be a way to capture some of this home-grown wisdom and put it to use across the agency.

One of the reasons double-loop learning  works is because employees who use it are, in fact, making up theories about why events fall out the way they do, and they are acting on those theories.  The problem that theorists note, is that people are often not even aware of the theories they use every day.
 Another popular method of instituting double-loop learning in organizations is through mentorship programs.  But only if those programs are given the extra power of reflection. Michael Kelly makes this point in his article on mentoring and organizational learning.  Kelly asserts that mentoring that has the “catalyst” of reflection can produce policy and training insights for social work agencies.

The basic idea was to give mentors and proteges (in pairs) assignments to monitor the relationship between problems they discuss in their relationships and company policies that impact an employee’s job control and duties.  The pairs would meet for a couple of hours twice a month to discuss their experiences (focused on their assignments) to see how job policy might be revised or, at least, reflected upon.  In this way the employee experience, going through a couple of steps, affects policy and, in turn, increases the agency’s ability to control job pressures effectively.

The “couple of steps” is what we know as double-loop learning and has to do with using experience to question underlying goals.  That’s kind of what we’re about in the Healthy Workplaces project:  taking experience to another level of understanding and applying that to policy and training.

Mentoring is just one way to introduce double-loop learning into an agency.  Agencies can also tap into the learning that goes on in Health & Safety committees, staff meetings, exit interviews, and other human-relations oriented activities.  Evaluative activities that accompany training are also great sources to capture the record of double-loop learning.

So when you or someone you know asks, “What’s a better way to do this?”  they may just be tapping into double-loop thinking and learning.  And when agency leaders find ways to link that learning to policy and training, they may just be moving their agency toward greater health and wellness.

Learning about Wellness at Work

by Tom Barker, Project Lead, Healthy Workplaces for Helping Professions

There is no shortage of examples of workplace wellness programs that do wonders for their employees.  I recently visited a charity organization in Calgary where I heard about Vivo, an organization that is built on wellness.  And a variety of companies, such as Premise Health provide examples of programs ready to go for an organization.  In today’s blog I’d like to examine some examples of ways that an organization, in particular a human services organization in Alberta, might be able to develop a program from scratch that can help that agency grow its wellness capacity.

Where Do Great Wellness Programs Come From?

The term “from scratch” might be misleading, because nothing comes from scratch really.  Good wellness initiatives, according to some sources, come from the workers themselves.  I enjoy asking staff members this question:  “How often do you say to yourself, ‘I could do this in a better way.'”  Someone always brightens up at this question with comments like, “Well, the other day I figured out that if we ….” and so the story goes.  Employees are a huge, and often untapped, source of efficiency and good practices.

Tapping the wellness resources of employees is the approach taken by Graham Lowe in Growing Healthy Organizations. In Lowe’s book, based on his research into companies across North America, healthy wellness initiatives occur when agencies and companies go “beyond wellness” and see wellness as something built into the fabric of a company, or into the way the organization relies on its employees as a source of innovation.

Win With Wellness

Seeing employees as sources of wellness innovation is a win for the company. For one thing, according to Benefits Canada, a wellness program has to pay for itself.  According to their research, companies can expect a 2:1 and even up to a 6:1 return on investment when considering wellness programs.  However, when the organization uses, or has the capacity to use, the existing health resources in its own employees, then the initial investment cost goes down.  That’s a win for the company.

For employees, developing a wellness program based on their lived experiences in the job means, or can mean, that somewhere in their day someone is paying attention to how they do their jobs–in a good way.  Someone is collecting their short-cuts, their attempts to get along with others, their techniques for keeping themselves healthy and sane.  Someone, that is, is valuing what they have learned and building policy and practice on it.

It may be in the form of a reward program, or a special recognition, or it may be in the form of a focus group where staff members can contribute to the shaping of policy and practice.  It can come in many forms:  mentoring, blogging, microblogging, each-one-teach-one programs or healthy walk and talks.  If done right–so that the know-how of the worker actually comes back as an improvement on how things are done–the employee has made a substantial contribution.  The result is a win for the employee.

Ultimately both the employees and the agency win in another important way: organizations become more self-sufficient in wellness.  Self-sufficiency means that the agency develops its own pathways of learning that are tailored to its own clients, history, culture, services, and unique characteristics.  For example, an agency that specializes in complete care for the disabled is prone, over the years of successful client interaction, to find practices that work to support that “complete care” mission.  The self-sufficient agency has learned that–through communication channels, training, reflection, and careful stewardship of its engaged employees’ practices–it can grow from its own collective agency experience.  Some would say it has become a learning organization.

Wellness in “Learning Organizations”

Learning organizations are those agencies that build transformation and learning into existing practices.  One definition says that learning organizations “develop as a result of the pressures facing modern organizations” and that they are enabled “to remain competitive in the business environment.”

For human-service agencies in Alberta, being a learning organization means that the pressures–of growth, turnover, practice innovations, funding model shifts, economic downturns like the current depression in the oil and gas markets–are taken in stride.  It’s not a perfect solution, and it’s one that needs to grow over time.

The Challenges Facing Employee Wellness

Often those employees whom I mentioned earlier–the ones who always have great ideas about their work–realize that their beloved agencies would suffer if they were to disappear from their jobs.  This may be because agencies that rely on the heroic efforts of key, often long-term, talented employees but who have yet to build a learning organization around them, face challenges when those employees retire.  These challenges differ from those faced with new employees, but the links are there.  If agencies don’t take steps to learn from their employees and build their wellness policies around what they learn, then the agency may not be building the sustainable culture and sustainable processes it needs.

If agencies don’t take steps to learn from their employees and build their wellness policies around what they learn, then the agency may not be building the sustainable culture and sustainable processes it needs.

According to the experts on wellness at Ceridian Corporation, “Companies should always be collecting data on their wellness programs, but they should bear in mind that it sometimes takes years for them to achieve their desired results.”  The work that the Healthy Workplaces program is doing is beginning to show us that the kind of “collecting” that agencies need to do centers on its employees.

What Agencies Can Learn From Employees

One company in the U. S. has been listening to its employees and has started to identify employee wellness ideas that can affect the bottom line.  Our work with human-service agencies in Alberta in the Healthy Workplace project has shown something that employees say.  Here are the top 5 factors they say contribute to a healthy workplace.

  1. Give us more control over our jobs (72%)
  2. Give us flexible work arrangements (70%)
  3. Support and create opportunities for self-care (60%)
  4. Give us access to employee assistance programs (53%)
  5. Give us relevant and reflective job supervision (53%)

Agencies that care about employees and who want sustainable wellness programs can, literally, start from scratch by investigating their employees and becoming a learning organization.



Turning it Around: The Power of Stories

By Tom Barker

So often in working in helping situations, professionals use the power of storytelling to get a mother or a family member to open up. They know that storytelling for some cultures is a way to relate to the past meaningfully, to shape one’s relation to traditions, and to get a clearer sense of a road forward. I know that when I speak to groups, I often start with a story about myself that connects in some way to the experience of my audience. In class I ask students to tell stories of how leadership or communication has shaped their lives, and what it was that brought them to the point they are now.

So given the power that we know stories have for others, why not turn it around and use that power for self care? That’s a great idea, but how does it actually work?  What makes storytelling so effective in healing, reducing stress, and reconnecting us with our best motivations?  How do stories work for self care?

There has been lots of research into the phenomenon of storytelling, some of which can challenge how we think about storytelling. One insight that might come as a surprise is that writing or storytelling that really brings health benefits doesn’t have to be positive. Researcher James Pennebaker has found that using negative emotion words (for example words that express sadness, hate, or guilt) leads to more positive health outcomes than using positive emotion words (for example words that express happiness, joy, or peace).  So it looks like letting it all hang out works better to help redefine a trauma into a life lesson.

We might be tempted to say, “What good is it to remember that screw up?  I’d rather forget it and move on.”  Working back over experiences, often associated with reflective practice, can see futile, and often re-experiencing the pain isn’t worth the effort.  But the fact is, experiences don’t just end when we move on.  It would be great if they could but often they become key points of anxiety.  Those key points can haunt us if we don’t reprocess them in some way.

Haunting experiences often end in regret.  “Why didn’t I do that?  How dumb of me!”  But as stories, they can have a different effect.  There’s a difference between stories and experiences.  Stories have the benefit of hindsight, for one thing.  We look back on mistakes (or successes) and think, how else could this have gone?  What else could I have said?  Stories give us the chance to relive and revise.  In psychological terms, they allow us to rewrite a memory, layering it with thinking that is perhaps better, more focused, and more healthy.

Stories can also have a purpose and lead to action.  Who wouldn’t want to relive an experience where you were at a loss for words, unsure about how to handle a client, unclear about a diagnosis, or unsure about an intervention.  Experiences turned into stories can become instructive anecdotes for others.  For volunteers, newcomers to your workplace, and sometimes for the audience of the self, they keep your experience alive and turn it into valuable self care.

Lynda Monk uses storytelling and journaling as self care.  In her article, “Reflective Journal Writing for Social Worker Well-Being,” she tells how journal writing, which is essentially the process of turning experiences into stories, can be a powerful tool for self care in helping professions.  Monk notes that helping professionals are “the story keepers” for their clients, detailing trauma, loss, pain, and desolation and seeing how clients revive after they tell their stories. Says Monk, “To prevent these hazards, social workers must have a way of processing the emotions relevant to the nature of our work which at its heart can be referred to as “emotional labour.”

Storytelling is a way of processing emotions, experiences, and other pressure-filled aspects of work into strengthening stories.  So doing that “emotional labour” can, and should, be a regular part of our work.  For many it is.  For those who reflect, the experiences of the past are sources of strength and part of their personal leadership efforts.

Monk suggests ten ways that helping professionals can use journaling. These include debriefing, unwinding, and just being grateful for experiencing.  But they can also be powerful ways to connect with others.  And by doing so stories can show how otherwise individual workers can find their role in a group.

According to social identity theory, communicating–telling stories shaped from experiences–is a very powerful way to build culture.  Communicating can create a sense of belonging  because communicating takes random, and often painful or difficult, experiences and draw out the shared principles that bring communities together.  These shared principles are the bedrock of community, and the needed element of a workplace culture.

Dr. John Grohol, psychologist and expert in journaling, says that “Writing in a journal is an effective tool for use in the healing process.”  He suggests a number of ways someone can get started:  beginning with where you are now, logging successes, and sharing with others.  One of my favourite journal starters is to write a brief profile of a person I’ve met.  Sometimes I might not like the person, but I always find that writing about them can turn that around.

And turning things around is what it’s all about.  Turn around the practice of encouraging clients to tell stories, and turn around experiences so they get rewritten as purposeful narratives of self care.