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Dr Saria Saccocio On 5 Ways That Businesses Can Help Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees

An Interview With David Liu

As we lead with our personal passions, we teach our teams to follow their own. As a leader, your job is to know and recognize the passions of those on your team and help amplify them. Stop trying to change people and strengthen their strengths instead.

As a part of my series about the “5 Ways That Businesses Can Help Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Saria Saccocio.

Dr. Saria Saccocio is a primary care physician focusing on whole-person care and the president of Proactive MD, a national employer-sponsored health care provider. Leading with passion and personal connection, she has worked in numerous capacities as a physician executive, including running her own primary care practice and serving as chief medical officer at a major Southeastern health system. She received her M.D. with honors from the University of Florida, completed her residency at the University of Miami and earned her master’s in health care administration at UNC Chapel Hill.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

From an early age, I have been inspired by people and have sought deep social connections. At the same time, I have always been intellectually stimulated and challenged by science. Family medicine marries both of these passions in one career that is both community-oriented and personally rewarding.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I remember the first day on my first primary care rotation in Jacksonville, Florida, one of my patients went into labor. I stayed by her side for almost 24 hours while she delivered her child. That day, I learned what a privilege and joy it is for a primary care physician to stand beside a patient during all the milestone moments that make up their life.

That day, I also learned that providing this level of whole-life care is extremely complex work. Jacksonville has a large military population, and the physician I was working with at the time cared for many service members and their families. He taught me that context is everything and that a primary care physician must intimately know and have a heart for the communities they serve. Much like the brave mother in the hospital that day, primary care is truly a labor of love.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

I think the answer is simple: Lead with your passion. Do more of what you love. For me, that’s the personal connection that underscores family medicine; but for others, it could be teaching or research. Passion is what lights the fire in your belly — so you have to keep lighting that fire if you don’t want to burn out.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

As we lead with our personal passions, we teach our teams to follow their own. As a leader, your job is to know and recognize the passions of those on your team and help amplify them. Stop trying to change people and strengthen their strengths instead.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

I have had the same Chinese proverb on my CV for 20 years: “The normal physician treats the problems, a good physician treats the person, and the best physician treats the community.” I believe in many ways, this proverb parallels the growth in my career. I started in solo practice, where my sphere of influence was the exam room. I moved into a leadership role as a chief medical officer in a hospital, influencing the people who provide care. In my current role as president of a nationwide company, I’m able to positively impact communities across the country as our providers deliver care that extends beyond the walls of our health centers. I believe the moral of this quote and my story is that you can only experience true personal growth when you learn to focus on others. You rise as you lift up those around you.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. In recent years many companies have begun offering mental health programs for their employees. For the sake of inspiring others, we would love to hear about five steps or initiatives that companies have taken to help improve or optimize their employees’ mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Listen: The first and most important step before implementing any new program is to listen to the people for whom it is being designed. Early in my career, I provided home health services to an older couple named Betty and Irving. Irving was a retired pharmacist who was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, but his primary concern was always the happiness and comfort of his wife. As a medical professional himself, he was excellent at coming to me with a “laundry list” of questions and concerns (mostly related to Betty!). Betty and Irving taught me the important lesson that people are usually far more than meets the eye, and you can’t expect to treat anyone properly if you don’t listen to them first. Whether you are creating a family care plan or an employee mental health program, you need to take the time to listen to the needs of people you are serving.
  2. Be intentional: Once you’ve taken the time to listen to your people, make the effort to design creative programs and solutions that will target their specific needs. I’ve seen enough health and wellness programs in my career that merely “check the box.” Unsurprisingly, these programs have little impact on retention, productivity or outcomes. If you’re going to do it, take the time to do it right!
  3. Make it sustainable: Anything you do should be replicable and continuous. When I was in residency, I made a commitment to myself that I wouldn’t become disenchanted with practicing medicine, as many doctors do. So I started my own solo practice and hired my mom as my office manager. I did hospital and home visits. It was so important to me to ensure continuity and deliver excellent care at every point. I believed in my heart that every person deserved this level of care, but at the end of the day, it wasn’t a sustainable model. In my current role, I work for a primary care organization that has the corporate, billing and care team structure to support this level of care nationwide. I have been able to see my hopes for family medicine come to life in better ways than I ever imagined because the foundation of the model is scalable and sustainable. It’s easy to think that doing big things requires a complicated and grandiose vision, but the truth is if you want something to grow, it needs to be simple, structured and sustainable.
  4. Focus on the whole person: Overall employee well-being goes hand in hand with employee mental health. It’s critical for employers to constantly be looking for ways to develop their people — both in their careers and personally. If I’ve learned anything working as a primary care physician, it’s that people cannot be compartmentalized. Health is complex because people are complex, and it’s critical to treat the whole person rather than just focusing on symptoms. In the same way, employers should be looking at mental health programs as one piece of a larger people development program.
  5. Be part of the solution: If we’re serious about improving the mental health crisis, we need to focus on creating healthy work cultures where our people can thrive. The human resources department at Proactive MD recently transitioned to a people operations department, intentionally shifting its focus from policy and process to improvement of the overall employee experience. We, as employers, need to do more than simply provide a solution — we need to be part of the solution.

These ideas are wonderful, but sadly they are not yet commonplace. What strategies would you suggest to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?

Setting an example and storytelling. At the risk of sounding trite, leaders must, as Gandhi said, “be the change you wish to see in the world.” We can be a living, breathing example of the power of mental wellness, and in doing so, we invite those around us to prioritize it. Storytelling works in a similar way. Praise and lift up the stories of those around you who are working toward balance and whole-person health. When we show what mental wellness can do rather than tell the latest research or statistic, we make room for our audience to see themselves and those they love in our stories, which will drive change.

From your experience or research, what are different steps that each of us as individuals, as a community and as a society, can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling stressed, depressed, anxious and having other mental health issues ? Can you explain?

In my experience, the key to building resilience is practicing patience. Just last week, a coworker asked me how I maintain a consistently positive outlook as we dealt with a tense situation, and the truth is that it takes a lot of patience with myself and with others. No matter how strong the programs we build turn out to be, there will always be some level of conflict, stress and depression among our employees. We are humans, and we have to give ourselves and one another grace! When you face these feelings internally or externally, take a moment, breathe and make an intentional effort to lead with positivity. Make this a habit, and you will be surprised what a calming force you will become.

Habits can play a huge role in mental wellness. What are the best strategies you would suggest to develop good healthy habits for optimal mental wellness that can replace any poor habits?

The strategy is simple: Do what works for you. If you feel better, keep going! If not, don’t force it. Part of being a family medicine physician is meeting patients where they are, and I can tell you that doing yoga and drinking green juice just doesn’t work for everyone. For some, healthy habits may include going to the gym; for others, it may include listening to music. Some may prefer spiritual practices like prayer or meditation, while others choose social activities or peaceful moments alone.

Do you use any meditation, breathing or mind-calming practices that promote your mental wellbeing? We’d love to hear about all of them. How have they impacted your own life?

Walking! I walk every single day. And when I walk, ideas come to me. I process conflict and reflect on the conversation. This habit started as a physical exercise, but the mental and emotional benefits are what motivate me to continue.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

Brene Brown’s “Dare to Lead.” What I believe in and what she professes is that the best leaders are vulnerable leaders. I learned to be brave, be kind and that kindness is honest feedback.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Kindness. It’s that simple!

What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?

You can follow me on LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/saria-saccocio-md-mha-faafp-70338714/ and keep up with my work at Proactive MD by visiting www.proactive.md.

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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David Liu

David Liu

David is the founder and CEO of Deltapath, a unified communications company that liberates organizations from the barriers of effective communication