By David Unmacht
Note: This is the second in a two-part column on employee and organizational well-being.
One of the watershed moments in my career came unexpectedly after a routine morning meeting years ago when I was the Scott County administrator.
At the time, Public Works Director (now county administrator) Lezlie Vermillion approached me after the meeting and asked, “Can I talk with you for a moment?” “Sure” was my reply. “What’s wrong with you?” she said. I hesitated, startled by her bluntness. She continued before I could reply, “I can tell by your body language, by where your mind is and it’s just not you.”
I knew I was off — my mind occupied by a handful of concerns — but I did not realize it was so obvious to others. Thankfully, she had the strength to confront me square on.
Her final words were not tough love, but sound advice and encouragement. “Do something about it, we need you.” I recall with vivid memory heeding her advice by immediately committing my list of concerns to paper.
This life lesson helped me to realize that I cannot compartmentalize my personal and professional life — they are intertwined. Lezlie’s straight talk allowed me to admit this fact publicly and it has been my guidepost ever since.
Taking care of my own mental and physical health is important to me. By making these priorities, I set an example that also allows me to perform my best in my roles as a spouse, parent, friend, and organizational leader.
This may sound like an oxymoron, but the events of the recent past have unceremoniously yet obviously given each of us our own public invitation. The promotion of personal and professional well-being of staff and the organization has always been an unspoken priority for public sector leaders. Yet much work remains to emphasize, prioritize, and ensure a commitment supported by organizational resources, including time and money.
Buoyed by my own sense of conviction and self-interest, I’m writing about this topic to convey passion and purpose, and to encourage you like Lezlie encouraged me. The subject is complicated, emotional, highly personal, chock full of legal “dos and don’ts,” and requires honest and deliberate intentions. There are a lot of slippery slopes to maneuver, but it is not impossible. It’s a matter of getting started. Here are a few simple steps to consider.
Lead by example. Look in the mirror. Take stock in yourself first. How you are you doing? Do you like what you see? Why or why not? How well can you separate your personal and professional life? Ask yourself difficult questions, and be willing to prepare your list if you need to make one. I know checking off items from the list will make a difference.
Normalize the conversation. There is risk now, but this is where you establish your credibility and trust to begin to make a difference in the organization. Casually, informally, start asking your colleagues, co-workers, and elected officials how they are doing. Accept “fine and ok” only if you think they really are sincere. And don’t be afraid to probe more deeply, respectfully, and carefully. Be genuine and intentional over time. Make this a purposeful pattern.
Educate yourself. Admit what you know and don’t know about the topic of well-being both for yourself, but more importantly, as a leader of others. There is so much information available to research and review to strengthen your knowledge, skills, and abilities. Ensure your organization’s employee assistance program (EAP) is active and a strong partner with your organization. The adage “the more you prepare, the better you perform” is so true.
Own it. If not you, who? I have included the mental and physical well-being of the staff and the League as a personal and professional goal. If organizational leaders don’t own the responsibility, no one else is going to. In the current environment, we have an opportunity to make a difference like no other time in our careers.
There are many demands on your time and energy. Adding more to your plate can be difficult. However, so much is at stake: the future of our organizations, our competitive edge in recruitment and retention of employees, and the ability to establish a work culture where employees feel empowered to be honest about what’s on their minds.
Benjamin Laker said it best in a February 2021 Forbes article, “At the end of the day, our mental and physical health are our most critical assets and are the determining factor in our ability to show up for those who rely on us, including family, peers, and colleagues.”
David Unmacht is executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or (651) 281-1205.