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Kelly Swingler On 5 Ways That Businesses Can Help Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees

An Interview With David Liu

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 Kelly Swingler.

In 2013, Kelly had a successful leadership career, yet she was burned out, exhausted, and missing out on life with family. Determined to enjoy the success that she had earned, she’s learned to create a life of balance and boundaries that is also highly successful. Today, Kelly helps women leaders all over the world to prevent and recover from burnout, without giving up their career or jeopardising their wellbeing.

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?

I’d had a very successful career in HR and in 2013 I reached burnout. After some deep personal work and reflections I made the decision to leave the corporate world and start my own consultancy. I was already coaching Execs and Senior leaders, but it felt like I needed to do more to help women in preventing burnout. When the pandemic hit in 2020 it allowed me some time to really consider what I wanted to do, and so I decided to leave the consultancy I’d founded 6 years before and focus on coaching women and here I am. I’ve been the only woman at Director level, I’ve experienced burnout and I know what it takes to create success without jeopardizing your wellbeing. Burnout impacts so many people and can lead to mental health issues. Leaders and their people are equally responsible for setting the right boundaries and creating the right work environments and cultures that prevent burnout and promote wellbeing at work.

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

Oh wow, there have been so many. The one that immediately springs to mind is when I was part of a disciplinary panel and we made the decision to dismiss the person based on the severity of the incident and repeated patterns of behaviour. When I informed him of the decision he started to make a lot of threats, began swearing and shouting at me, pointing his finger and basically blaming me for everything. I’d experienced this before, not to this level though and he actually threatened to shoot me which I didn’t think too much about at the time. That night I left the office quite late and walked to the car park which was almost empty, and there he was. In his Land Rover with the back open, holding a shotgun. I froze for a moment and then just got in my car and drove off. For a few weeks I kept thinking I saw him in the street when I was out walking at lunchtime, but I never knew if it was just me thinking I saw him or if he was actually there. That one took a while to get over.

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

Having spent a large part of the last 8 years looking into this, there are three effective ways to prevent and recover from burnout:

  1. Get really clear on who you are at the core — your core values, core beliefs, core strengths, your definition of thriving, balance and success. Sit with the question ‘Who am I?’ for as long as you can and when you don’t feel like you can answer anymore, keep going, the longer you sit with it, the deeper the answers.
  2. When you have a deeper understanding of who you are, set and maintain boundaries. Often burnout can be caused by a lack of alignment which in turn leads to stress, then prolonged stress and ultimately burnout. Boundaries really help to draw your line in the sand.
  3. When you’re clear on who you are and you’ve got your boundaries in place, create daily time just for you. Even 10 minutes a day can make a big difference and it can be as simple as sitting and breathing, enjoying a hot drink or just sitting and staring out of the window.

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

You’ve got to really understand what your people want and need and this comes from open and honest two way communication. Policies can help to implement frameworks, but it has to be people before policies. Everyone who works for you is a person and I think leaders can often forget that when the focus is on getting the job done. People are complex, unique and emotional. And people thrive when they are given the space, resources and support to do their job well.

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

Two spring to mind, whether you’d class them as life quotes I’ll leave up to you. The first is Dr. Seuss “there is no one alive that is youer than you”. And the second ‘Taking care of yourself doesn’t mean “me first” it means ‘Me too” — L.R. Knosts

The Dr Seuss quote has stuck with me ever since I heard it. I’ve been in many situations in life and at work where I’ve been the only one with a difference of a opinion or a different perspective and I sometimes felt there was something wrong with me based on some of the feedback I’d get. Realising that I’m me, and accepting that was a gamechanger for me. And its why I don’t believe in competition with my work, only collaboration. Someone may have the exact same offering as me, but what ‘s makes mine unique, is me.

The second is really how I now view self-care. We can often think it’s selfish to look after ourselves when really it means we’re just as important as everyone in our lives.

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. Firstly this has to come down to having enough people to do the work. Wellness days, yoga classes and mental health first aiders won’t help at all if you’re staff are always overwhelmed and overworked.
  2. Creating Psychologically Safe environments where people can talk, share, be heard and above all are valued.
  3. Weaving Mental Wellness into everything that the organization does, not just promoting a group, system or platform on wellness days, but incorporating it into every single thing you do.
  4. Having leaders lead by example and demonstrating what it means to have boundaries, to speak openly, to share, to listen, and to learn.
  5. Providing what your people need. I’ve seen wellness days being given, four day working, platforms, groups, forums, changes to recognition, health campaigns. There’s so much out there, but if it doesn’t really help your people, it’s no use at all.

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?

I think the first thing is for leaders to really identify why their organisations are preventing mental wellness for their people, and then when they’ve answered this, taking. The steps to make the improvements. Is it workload, pay, fear, lack of training, not enough people, difficult markets etc.

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 or having other mental health issues ? Can you explain?

I’d encourage the individual first of all to answer the three points I mentioned earlier. Who are you? What boundaries do you need? What time are you taking for yourself? Use this answers to understand the root cause of the issue and then ask ‘what do you need from me?’ or ‘What can I do to help you?’

We need to listen to each other.

Often we want to try and ‘fix’ the person or their issue and so we don’t allow time to really listen to and understand what they are experiencing and give them space to try and change things for themselves. I could give a list of things that could help with any of these things, but if the person isn’t ready, or my solution may not work for them then I could make the situation worse.

This might seem intuitive to you, but it will be helpful to spell it out. Can you help articulate a few ways how workplaces will benefit when they pay attention to an employee’s mental health?

Identify what people need and provide it. If they need help or support, provide it. If they need time off, let them have it, without quoting policies and how many days they are ‘allowed’. We need to be less prescriptive and personalize the support to our people. I might just need a frank and honest discussion with someone, I might need some time off, I might need to change my role, I might need a new job in a new company.

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?

Yes to all of these. I meditate at least twice a day, sometimes more. My morning meditation is breathing and focus, a reflective practice. My evening practice is guided. And if I need more then I do it. I also practice a lot of yoga and pranayama and experiencing just how the powerful the breath can be for energizing us or calming us is like magic, we all have breath. I’m also a qualified Breathwork Practitioner and incorporate some of the techniques into workshops and coaching.

I work in the communications industry, so I’m particularly interested in this question. As you know, there are a variety of communication tools such as video conferencing, phone, text, and push-to-talk. What changes or improvements would you suggest for these technologies to help foster better mental health?

Again, I think we need to understand what works for our people. I found myself overwhelmed a few years back. The preferred communication for some of my clients, peers, contacts, family and friends was far reaching. I was being emailed, called, texted, Whattssapp-ed, DM via LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I was being tagged on social media platforms, and I couldn’t keep up. I specify my preference now and it works for me.

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. :-)

I’ve been toying with the idea of a #ThisIsBurnout campaign, where people share their stories and a picture of themselves. So many people still assume burnout won’t impact them. And when it does they can feel like they have failed. I’d love to show that it can impact us all and that it can look different for each of us. There are some common signs, but it can come to us differently at different times and in different ways and I’d love for people to realize this and do all they can to prevent it from happening as soon as possible,

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

On LinkedIn or at my website kellyswingler.com

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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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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David Liu

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