February 5, 2021
As a Certified Work-Life Strategist and employment specialist supporting newcomers to Canada, I am acutely aware of the importance of mental health wellness for my clients and myself. As my clients navigate the hurdles of immigration, getting a survival job, or establishing a career in Canada, I offer them unconditional support, kindness, and belief in their worth and future success.
My work is both gratifying and demanding at the same time. And I know that when I don’t set work-life boundaries and take good care of myself, my mental health suffers. When that happens, I take steps to turn things around because I know that mental health wellness is essential to my success in career development.
What is Mental Health Wellness?
The Canadian Mental Health Association defines mental health as a state of emotional, psychological, spiritual, and social well-being. As CMHA states, “It’s not just about surviving; it’s about thriving.” Mental health wellness gives us the ability to make choices and cope with day-to-day stresses. It allows us to be productive and contribute to our networks and communities in meaningful ways. Mental health wellness affects and supports all areas of our lives.
How are Mental Health and Wellness Connected to Career Development?
Career development practice is inseparable from mental health wellness. As Dave Redekopp and Michael Huston tell us in their excellent 2020 book, Strengthening Mental Health Through Effective Career Development, as career development professionals, we support our clients in areas such as “self-awareness, self-reflection, self-assessment, goal setting, visualization, labour market research, educational research, skill development, decision making, and the like.” We tirelessly help our clients in a myriad of ways that support and promote their mental health and well-being while they’re making decisions that will affect not only themselves but their families, too.
We teach our clients that stress is a normal part of daily life and we help as they navigate career-related stress. They are taught how to develop coping skills, mitigate obstacles, self-advocate, and build self-esteem, confidence, and motivation. We reframe our clients’ negative stress into eustress; healthy and desirable anticipation of new experiences and challenges that provide opportunities to learn and grow. We check-in regularly with clients to ensure they have everything they need to stay on target. When appropriate and necessary, we provide “emotional first-aid.” The nature of our work is that there is no end to the flux of people who need our help.
But what about us? Who looks out for our mental health? The short answer is we do!
Why Practicing Good Mental Health is Foundational for Career Development Practitioners
As practitioners, we find ourselves outwardly focused, continuously learning, listening, helping, supporting, encouraging, counselling, coaching, mitigating difficulties, averting crises, advocating, searching for solutions, teaching, referring, doing administrative and a host of other tasks related to our profession. Sometimes we work with clients who are searching to regain balance, stability, and confidence, while experiencing heart-wrenching life situations and losses.
After a while, we can start feeling overwhelmed and burned out if we don’t take good care of ourselves. To continue to serve our clients, we must first support our own well-being; take the time to reflect, go inwardly, become attuned to our innermost self, and nurture our body, mind, and spirit. The most selfless act we can do is take care of our personal well-being. How do we do that?
1. Fulfill our own human needs: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs tells us that we must take care of our basic needs first (physiological needs, health, and safety) and then move to take care of emotional, psychological, spiritual, and social needs (love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization).
By ensuring proper nutrition, hydration, adequate rest, and balanced exercise, we improve our physical health.
Participating in rituals such as spiritual practice, yoga, meditation, mindfulness, creative expressions, fun activities, being in nature, cultivating social connections, volunteering, and being involved in our community, we take care of our higher needs.
2. Practice self-love: Psychology studies show that practicing self-love and self-compassion are essential for robust mental health and keeping anxious and depressing thoughts under control.
By treating ourselves gently, the way we would treat a child, we love and accept ourselves unconditionally.
By telling ourselves that we are enough, we tune out the inner critic’s voice.
By allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and sincere, we live courageously and wholeheartedly, finding strength from within.
By permitting ourselves to make mistakes, we let go of self-criticism, take responsibility for our thoughts, emotions, and actions, and learn valuable lessons for personal growth.
By giving ourselves permission, time, and space to experience difficult emotions, we allow self-understanding and healing.
By simplifying and decluttering our agenda and only doing what’s necessary today, we prevent burn-out and self-exhaustion.
By reaching out and asking other people for help, we stop feeling like a victim, build trusting relationships, and develop assertiveness.
3. Understand the nature of stress: Stress is a worry about not being in control of a situation. It is a normal response to an unpredictable and ever-changing environment. The function of fear and stress is nature’s way of protecting us from physical threat. During a real or perceived danger, the brain’s hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis produces the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol increases our breathing and heart rate, releases glucose in the bloodstream, and fuels our arm and leg muscles to allow us to act quickly and get away from danger. Over a prolonged period of time, stress can affect our digestive system and weaken our immune system, making us more susceptible to viruses and illnesses.
By practicing mindfulness, we recognize, label, and let go of stressful or fearful feelings.
By acknowledging the protective nature of stress, we validate this feeling and let it dissipate.
By becoming familiar with our stress and “befriending” it as our protector, we let go of fear.
4. Develop coping strategies: While the function of stress is to protect us, it temporarily arrests our brain’s frontal cortex, the largest part of our brain. Frontal lobes regulate functions such as clear thinking, memory, language use, impulse control, social interactions, voluntary movements, and many others. When we proactively develop ways to cope with difficult emotions, we gain skills to minimize and dissipate stress while feeling better mentally and physically.
By breathing deeply, we slow down our breathing and heart rate, self-regulate, and allow our body to relax and our mind to think clearly again.
By moving our body, we let go of built-up energy and tension.
By observing and taking note of strategies that help us feel better, we develop confidence in our ability to deal with stress.
By journaling, recording, and storing coping strategies in our coping toolbox, we create efficient go-to short-cuts at a time when our mind is not thinking clearly.
By reflecting on how different thoughts make us feel, we start choosing our thoughts strategically.
By practicing “feel-good” thoughts daily, we develop a positive thinking skill, proactively mapping our brain’s pathways, and staying mentally well.
5. Practice emotional hygiene: Prioritizing our psychological wellness will help us thrive and build emotional resilience. Loneliness, fear of failure, and negative rumination can create unhealthy thinking patterns and contribute to mental health illness.
By checking-in with ourselves daily – “What do I need to do for myself today?” – we become better attuned to our emotional needs.
By asking ourselves, “What do I need from others today?”, we practice open and assertive communication.
By reaching out when lonely or overwhelmed, we stop feeling isolated, regain an objective perspective, and strengthen our relationships.
By changing our response to failure from internalization to a learning opportunity, we gain confidence in our ability to tackle problems.
By distracting ourselves from negative rumination – even briefly – we develop more positive thinking patterns.
6. Cultivate happiness: Stuart Brown, medical doctor, psychiatrist, clinical researcher, and the founder of the National Institute for Play, noted, “The opposite of play is not work – it is depression.” Play is our natural way to adapt, remain flexible, socialize, and self-regulate. Engaging in fun and creative activities, we restore our well-being and ability to deal with stressful situations.
By taking the time to engage in activities that we love, we nurture our inner child, our sense of comfort and belonging, and increase our perseverance and mastery of skills.
By restoring our wellness reserves, we pro-actively demonstrate self-care and positively affect others by being equipped to provide them with much-needed support on an ongoing basis.
Career development is an essential service that positively affects our clients’ well-being. As professionals dedicated to this field, we want to continue to be productive and to support our clients in the best way possible. We owe it to ourselves and to our clients to be well.
Career Professionals of Canada has launched an innovative course focused on career and life wellness – Work-Life Coaching. This much-needed and timely course is an all-encompassing study of wellness in all areas of work and life and is backed up by extensive and thorough research and data. The program focuses on all pillars of wellness, including mental health, and will benefit career and life coaches, counsellors, consultants, and educators supporting clients in living, learning, and working.
Ksenia Lazoukova is a dynamic Certified Work-Life Strategist. As an Employment Specialist at Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia, helping newcomers to Nova Scotia with their employment goals. In her past role as a Job Coach with Easter Seals Nova Scotia/New Leaf Enterprises, Ksenia provided a wide range of employment services to people with disabilities. Ksenia has over 14 years of experience serving people with physical and intellectual disabilities. Her passion is helping people of various backgrounds overcome multiple barriers, fulfill their life and career goals, and become more fully integrated into their communities.