Building a Culture of Wellness

Note: This blog is inspired by a workshop designed for nonprofit leaders during the Montana Nonprofit Association 2022 annual conference.

Pasque flower at dawn

How might we compose a life that is richly fulfilling, nourishing, and serves the greater good? This is a question I ponder often, perhaps more so in this season of gratitude and reflection. 

As I understand it, cultivating wellbeing is an active process of becoming aware of and making choices that lead us towards a more balanced, generative life. As a process, it’s continuously evolving as we ourselves change, grow, and adapt. How can we cultivate greater balance and wellbeing in our personal, interpersonal, organizational, and community lives?

Personal Realm | Composing a life

“Living is an improvisational art,” wrote cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson in her seminal book, Composing a Life. We are continually adjusting to changing conditions in order live with fulfillment. During the MNA workshop, we explored three aspects of composing a life: attention, embodiment, and self-love. 

  • Align your attention to your intention  Have you ever noticed that you start to see red cars EVERYwhere when you’re thinking about buying a red car? What we focus on influences our awareness. It’s a bit like the self-fulfilling prophesy: our expectations often define our experience. Aligning our attention to our intentions means curating what we think about, read, and watch; who we spend time with; and how often we make time for activities that bring us into consonance with deep joy. 
  • Embodiment: “The body keeps the score,” Dr. Bessel van der Kolk wrote, studying the effects of childhood trauma. We can help our body off-load built up stressors through movement and mindfulness. The good news is that our bodies are healing us all the time. (Healing is our greatest use of energy, second only to digestion). When we see ourselves as allies to our body’s healing processes, we can begin to unwind societal messaging and truly befriend our magnificent vessel.
  • Compassion starts with self-compassion; love with self-love. Knowing your love language is an awesome place to explore self-love. For me, gifts are a love language and so, once in a while, I buy myself a wee gift: a pair of fuzzy socks, or a couple salted caramels. When you’re being particularly hard on yourself, ask, “What would my best friend say to me right now?” Chances are a voice of love and wisdom arises within you – your own built-in best friend. (Obvious exception to those of us who have crazy BFFs who advise us to do the very thing we should NOT do. Good thing we’re wise to their ways…)

Interpersonal Realm | Building a sense of empathy & belonging in our work relations

The pandemic is shaking up the way we relate to one another at work. Research is showing that we’re experiencing an extraordinary rise in stress in all aspects of our home, work, and community lives, and it’s blurring the lines between work and homelife, for better or for worse. There is a rising need, nonprofit expert Beth Kanter says, for “radical empathy.” Key to that is fostering a sense of belonging in our work relations.

“Belonging suggests when you join something, you have the power and standing to participate in the cocreation of the thing you’re joining,” says john a. powell, director of the Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley.

How might we cultivate a sense of belonging in our work relations? Workshop participants shared strategies they practice, including: asking better questions of coworkers to truly learn from one another; seeking understanding by confirming mutual agreements, ex: “What I heard you say is…”; making time to connect at a personal level; and cocreating team agreements on work schedules, like no zoom Fridays.

Organizational Realm | Workplace policies and practices

Transformation begins from within, and yet we know that context matters. The structures, policies and practices within an organization can encourage or discourage us from cultivating well-being. As the post-pandemic reopening unfolds, millions of people are reassessing their relationship to their jobs, challenging longstanding assumptions about workplace norms.

“When it comes to workplace wellness in our state, Montana nonprofits are leading the way,” a statewide nonprofit leader shared with me. Increasingly common practices in Montana nonprofit organizations include: 32-hour work weeks; regularly scheduled early release days; sabbaticals; holiday hiatuses; paid volunteer time; flexible sick leave; and work from home options.

Which of these practices does your organization engage? What’s missing? Which might you explore, given your organization’s work culture? Workshop participants shared current strategies, including: making sure organizational leaders lead by example to demonstrate a commitment to wellbeing; and launching a cross-departmental team to co-create policies and practices for their organization. 

Community Realm | Weaving connections

Much of my work is as a community builder – helping community members come together to make a positive difference in the lives of our neighbors and our world. Another word for that is “weaver” – someone who strengthens community by connecting people, organizations, and efforts. Many of us in the social sector are weavers, and we have worried at the increasing divisiveness within our communities and our society. 

However, recent research by the Harwood Institute found that, “Americans don’t feel polarized or antagonistic toward one another. They feel isolated and disoriented, like they are trapped in a house of mirrors with no way out. They are in the grips of a perilous fight or flight response.” 

To help ballast us through times of crises, many of us turn inward, which can increase our sense of isolation and difference. And yet key to community wellbeing is fostering a sense of connectedness, something that the social sector excels at. We’re the ones who host the open houses, rally responses to crises in the world, and corral folks to volunteer on trail days and at food kitchens. We weave the social fabric of our society, even as the conditions, opportunities and crises shift.

The good news? “There are many more weavers than rippers,” as I wrote in a blog inspired by a David Brooks column in the New York Times. “There are more people who yearn to live in loving relationships and trusting communities, but they need strategies to strengthen their awareness and skills.”  And so we continue to weave.

There was more more we explored during our daylong workshop, and we experienced a lot of joy and deep conversation. Throughout the day, we cultivated our own wellbeing, inspired by and inspiring to one another along the way. I hope you give yourself the gift of quietude this holiday season, to reflect on how you cultivate wellness in your life. In the meantime, keep safe and stay in touch.

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