My Personal Workplace Wellness Story
My first job experience was what I hope for every person who enters the workforce. I was a cashier at the boat-rental dock and ice skating rink at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York, during the late 1980s and early 1990s. There were long hours, nonstop customers, and some of the most competitive, challenging, wisecracking workaholics I’ve ever encountered. I loved every dizzying moment of those hot summers and snowy winter days and nights.
We staffers formed a camaraderie and cohesive network that spilled over from our time at work into entertaining eating excursions after hours and explorations of events in the park, making our bond and effectiveness at the job even greater. Working at Prospect Park contributed to my ability to be an effective team member as a surgical trainee and, later, a diligent leader as an attending surgeon.
As time went on and I entered the academic medical arena, I was again blessed to meet so many great people. However, my impression of work and colleagues changed to something that, at times, became adversarial and bitter. Don't get me wrong, I had many life-changing experiences that solidified my resolve to train as a physician. However, some of the attitudes and the often political-bureaucratic environment dulled my sparkle and made coming into the hospital and clinic truly feel like “work” instead of sparking the charge of energy I’d experienced during my many years working in Prospect Park.
My clinical practice as a plastic surgeon was abruptly sidelined in 2013, when I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). It was at this time that I was saddled with a heartbreaking decision ‒ to either step away from clinical practice forever or come up with a more humane and “self-centered” approach to the work environment and equitable patient care, for both myself and those I served.
With that in mind, I want to share with you what I learned and the steps I implemented ‒ before and after my diagnosis ‒ to make your place of employment a more joyous, peaceful, and welcoming arena for all who enter that space, including yourself. Most importantly, check in with yourself periodically and consider if this vocation, location, position, salary, or environment is best for you.
Because of financial, familial, and/or contractual obligations, we often do not have the luxury of changing jobs immediately. This does not mean that we cannot create an actionable plan to improve our environment. I was in surgical training for nine years, not including medical school, so believe me when I say I understand those who feel “stuck” and without many options. In those moments of inertia, I instituted the following to improve my mood and the energy of the world around me.
Six Ways to Keep Yourself Well at Work
1. Set positive intentions.
Begin with a prework exercise, yoga, meditation, or your preferred ritual to set the intention and energy for the day. Perhaps extend your shower for two minutes to recite a mantra, prayer, or affirmation. Or maybe start journaling to follow up on your progress and the promises you made to yourself in the previous entry.
2. Keep hydrated.
Working for any duration of time while dehydrated is a recipe for disaster. Always keep a healthy beverage with you – it really does make a difference. Dehydration can lead to headaches, dizziness, mood swings, fatigue, and a host of other unpleasant side effects.
3. Fuel your body.
A tasty smoothie, a piece of fruit, or a handful of your preferred nuts/dried fruit/leftover veggies from the night before will make all the difference in your day. The people who consume unhealthily fried foods or foods loaded with preservatives will crash and burn much earlier than those who load up on nutritional foods that provide energy reserve for your cells.
4. Practice self-care.
Figure out what to do in moments of stress and tension at work to regulate your emotions, including incorporating de-stressing and energizing techniques. Internalizing stress can manifest as mental illness, substance abuse, and most often, conflict at work and home.
To relieve stress, add plants, photos, artwork, vibrant charms, stress balls, or other relaxing items to your workstation. Use your allotted break times, take a walk around the complex (or your home), do chair yoga, take a bathroom break, and engage in any activities provided by your workplace that help you deescalate from stress-filled moments.
5. Make time for fun.
Schedule relief after work! Consider joining a recreational sports team, attending yoga classes, learning to sew, starting to craft, practicing martial arts, or traveling with a book club.
6. Get involved at work.
Join committees and seek leadership positions at your workplace that are responsible for structure, activity, and organization. These are the people making things happen, including implementing resources and opportunities for the office to become a healthier place to be! Also, utilize your downtime to get to know and share common interests with those around you; this is your chance to create a more welcoming space to thrive in your job!
The Bottom Line
Keeping yourself well at work involves maintaining your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Sometimes, no matter what you do, the job may not be the right fit for you ‒ or perhaps the people and environment may not be amenable to the space and energy you require. Although it may be scary, you might have to leave that gig and pursue other options.
I’m in that space right now; I had to make the painful decision to step away from a job with many redeeming qualities but some others that strained my everyday existence, which created tension on my health, personal well-being, and family life. Moments like these are never easy, so confer with your partners, family, and confidants first. Create a safe strategy for your departure and figure out what steps you should take to make the next pursuit one that fulfills you on your personal, physical, professional, and evolutionary path.
Sometimes it’s a case of dreams deferred: You may have a great job yet feel urged to pursue a higher calling or different path. It’s possible to do both! So if you'd like to create your side hustle, hobby, or alternate passion – do it! Countless professionals, including yours truly, have created multiple pathways to create avenues of revenue and hold tight to the daydream! The Institute for Integrative Nutrition offers one such avenue for this transformation; IIN has helped thousands make the switch to their dream careers.