Do You Have Role Models? Why We Need Them to Promote Well-Being

Starts With Me Journal
Vol. I No. 2 (September 2019)

Do You Have Role Models? Why We Need Them to Promote Well-Being

David Zarnett, Ph.D.
Director, Research & Strategy

(To download a pdf version of this article, click here.)

Life often throws us challenges and obstacles that can feel insurmountable. This can lead us to think we have no power to change things.  The result is inaction and continued suffering.  

One way to overcome feeling powerless is to keep an eye out for positive role models. The people we admire and whose behaviour we’d like to emulate. According to social learning theory, a lot of our behaviour is learned from observing the actions of others. Positive role models, such as parents, teachers, bosses, peers, or even strangers, can teach us moral behaviour and inspire us to behave in more ethical and productive ways.

In today’s world a lot of attention is given to people with highly questionable behaviour. It seems that negative role models are more common than positive ones. Our tendency to focus on the negative behaviour of others can threaten our sense of wellbeing. 

However, if we look closely, we can find many individuals who can provide us with some ethical direction and motivation.  Looking out for these sources of guidance can help us muster the courage we need to tackle our own problems. Cultivating this courage is especially important when we start to feel as if our own circumstances are overwhelming. Having an example to follow can be very helpful.  

Over the summer, I spent some time reading Leon Uris’ QBVII, a book published in 1970.  It got me thinking about courage and heroism under extremely challenging situations.  

QBVII is about a court case between a Polish-British doctor (Adam Kelno) and an American writer (Abraham Cady).  During the Second World War, Kelno was captured by the Nazis in Poland and was taken to Jadwiga, an extermination camp.  There, Kelno served as one of the camp’s doctors. After the war, Kelno made his way to Britain, served overseas in Borneo (then a British colony, today part of Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia), earned a knighthood for his work, and returned to London to continue practicing as a doctor.  Just as Kelno appears to have his life back on track, he receives word that Cady has published a book stating that while at Jadwiga, Kelno worked with the Nazis to conduct brutal experiments on Jewish inmates. Kelno sues Cady for libel, and the two go to court.

In court, Kelno defends himself saying not only was he not complicit in the Nazi experiments but that his work saved lives and met the highest of medical standards, even under very difficult conditions. Any wrongdoing he committed, he and lawyers argued, were because of the severe duress he was under. If he didn’t obey orders, the Nazis would send him to the gas chambers.  

The merits of Kelno’s defense depended on the accuracy of his accounts of his behaviour and the larger question of what we can reasonably expect of someone living under horribly repressive conditions.  In his closing statement, Kelno’s lawyer emphasizes this point:  

We keep returning to a thought of how we in England can really re-create in our minds the nightmare of Jadwiga Concentration Camp. We heard some of the horror, but can we really relate to it? Can we really understand how this would affect the mind of an ordinary man….you or I? How would we have stood up in Jadwiga?

How we answer this question depends in part on the extent to which we believe that our environment determines our behaviour. If we see our environment as posing obstacles that we can’t overcome, then we may be doomed to behave in ways that are unethical and damaging to our mental health.  

But if we believe that we have some power, some ability to make a choice, even in the face of significant challenges, then new possibilities open up.  

During the trial, Cady’s lawyer argued that Kelno had a choice about whether to follow the Nazi orders or resist.  How did they know? They pointed out that other doctors at Jadwiga refused to take part in the Nazi experiments, risking their own lives in the process.  If these doctors disobeyed Nazi orders, why didn’t Kelno? As Cady’s lawyer put it:

I agree that Jadwiga Concentration Camp was as awful as things had ever come to. Yet, members of the jury, the inhumanity of man to man is as old as man itself. Just because one is in Jadwiga or anyplace else where people are inhumane, that does not give him leave to discard his morality, his religion, his philosophy, or all of those things that make him a decent member of the human race.

It’s a thought provoking statement. It makes me think about those individuals who have stepped up in one way or another to promote change in their own lives and for others when so much stood in their way.  

Overcoming great challenges: childhood difficulties, economic collapse and family catastrophe

Think about Glenn Loury, who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in a working class neighbourhood in the south side of Chicago, an area described as one of the most violent in the US.  In fact, through the 1960s, when Loury was a teenager, the number of homicides in the city nearly doubled. Loury describes his childhood environment as quite challenging. In a recent interview, he said: “there was a lot of stuff going on that I don’t know that anyone could really credit as productive or helpful to the wellbeing of the micro-society of which I was a part.” Despite all of this, Loury managed to excel at school and became the first African-American Professor of Economics to receive tenure at Harvard.

Loury continued to experience life challenges, including a public scandal, professional and marital difficulties, and a drug addiction.   As he describes it:

“I found myself in a hole, with drug addiction, cocaine, and it almost destroyed my life and I had to go into rehab. I lost about a year in halfway houses, you know, in-patient rehab, and my marriage barely held together”.

Despite all of this, he persevered and worked to get his life back on track. Today, he is a prominent economics professor at Brown University and a popular public intellectual. 

Or think about Michaylee White. In 2008, the collapse of the US housing market and the ensuing financial crisis turned her family’s life upside down.  Rather than diving into the depths of despair, she had the courage to adopt a different perspective.  She described this perspective in an interview with the CBC:

It’s curious to think that the economy was the thing that caused my family to lose so much control.  We lost three jobs and one house. I made six moves and attended three high schools, all in just two years.  And still, all that my family had been through, the hardest thing of all was losing the time together and our connection to each other.  Everyday I remind myself that only I am capable of removing the sadness that life brings and that I need to find happiness rather than waiting around for it.  

Or think about Deborah and David Cooper, who lost their son Eli to suicide in 2010.  After years of therapy and hard work, they channeled their energy towards promoting positive change for others. They are working to establish Eli’s Place – Canada’s first residential treatment centre for those struggling with mental illness. In a recent interview on the State Of Mind Podcast with Mike Stroh, Deborah described their path forward in the following way:  

Almost a year after his first suicide attempt, [Eli] did take his own life on July 2nd, 2010.  And that changed our lives forever and sent us on a new journey…I know it’s a story of such profound loss and why do people want to listen. We at this point really see it as a story of recovery and hope, and this is what we want to transmit because through all the loss and the grief, and that’s a whole journey on its own, we have found a way to memorialize Eli by trying to do something to make things better for others.  

In addition to those who experience significant trauma in their lives and work through it, there are also those who courageously tackle major social problems. 

Community heroes: teaching youth mindfulness and tackling climate change

The founders of the Holistic Life Foundation in Baltimore, Ali and Atman Smith, and Andres Gonzalez are another example. After graduating from the University of Maryland, they returned home to find their neighbourhood in disarray.  As they describe it:

What these kids experience…it’s like a war zone out there.  The environment in general with crime, drugs and just violence, it’s like all these kids are experiencing PTSD.   This is the war zone.  It’s not like they are going somewhere to war then coming back here and they feel like that. They’re in the midst of it. They are living in it.  

Instead of moving to a different city or giving up hope, they decided to take action and formed a non-profit to teach youth yoga and meditation to better themselves and contribute to their community.  Their mission is to empower individuals to take more control over their lives and to “teach teachers” to facilitate transformative change in their community and beyond.    

Think about the people trying to tackle climate change. There is no shortage of news that bombards us with a sense of despair and hopelessness.  In her recent book, Shut it Down: Stories from a Fierce, Loving Resistance, Lisa Fithian describes the courage that she and others have had in protesting human rights abuse and environmental degradation around the world, while facing threats of imprisonment and violence.  What is notable about her story is how she thinks about the societal problems that can cause so many of us to turn away. In a recent interview, Fithian describes her perspective in the following way:

We can’t let that pain destabilize us. So, again, what I’ve been learning is that when we are feeling afraid, when we are feeling we can’t take it anymore, the most important thing to do is actually reach in and to take action and to do something, because that’s where we begin to get a sense of our power, that we can make a difference. And if history has shown us anything, it’s like, unless we actually organize, we aren’t going to make changes.

What qualities do these people possess?

What is particularly fascinating and inspirational about these individuals is that they defy something that psychology professor Paul Slovic and his colleagues refer to as “psychic numbing” – the cognitive phenomenon of turning away from severe problems that appear to be too big or complex to deal with, resulting in inaction. Rather than allowing a problem to numb them, these individuals engaged with it head-on and are better off for doing so.

These individuals, even the fictitious doctors in Jadwiga refusing Nazi orders, can offer us much inspiration. They serve as a sharp reminder that we can choose to not let our difficult circumstances get in the way of doing what needs to be done to help ourselves and to make positive contributions to the lives of others.

We may live in difficult times, but with some effort we can find a few powerful positive role models that can help us find the path forward.   

Thanks for reading and see you again in two weeks.  


About the Author: David Zarnett is the Undergraduate Advisor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto, from where he received a Ph.D in 2017.  His work supports students as they address challenges in school and as they prepare for life after graduation.  Through his work on campus, including as a lecturer and teaching assistant, he has witnessed a deteriorating mental health situation. He is passionate about providing students with the support and guidance they need to reach their potential.  Beyond his work at the University of Toronto, he is also the Executive Director of Every Kid Counts, an advocacy organization that is campaigning to strengthen special education policy in Ontario.  

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Image credit MLK – Creator:Donald Uhrbrock Credit:Time & Life Pictures/Getty ImageCopyright: Donald Uhrbrock

Nelson Mandela – Creator:Chris BaconCredit:PA

Mother Theresa – https://www.stchadscathedral.org.uk/2016/08/mass-thanksgiving-canonisation-mother-teresa/

We Don’t Need to be Safe, We Need to be Resilient

Students, teachers, system leaders and business leaders share ideas, learn to be resilient, 
and begin to turn the tide of a growing epidemic.

TORONTO, April 29th, 2019 – On Tuesday, April 30th in preparation for Mental Health Awareness Week (May 6-12), hundreds of youth, teachers, and mental health system stakeholders meet at the third annual State Of Mind Mental Health and Innovation Festival, to celebrate the work of high school students through multimedia, tech, and the arts.

“The purpose of the State Of Mind Festival is to create an internationally recognized centre of excellence, joining a variety of stakeholders interested in and committed to improving workplace mental health, youth mental health education, and mental health care system,” said Mike Stroh, State Of Mind Festival Founder and Director. “Today’s focus is on youth mental health education. School teachers are recognizing the importance of empowering students to find value in self-expression, and together with students we are creating a platform for engagement in a system where these opportunities otherwise wouldn’t exist.”

This year, the Festival has teamed up with leaders of Amazon Toronto, who share the goal of raising awareness around mental health issues, promoting mental wellness at Amazon and beyond. “As soon as we started talking, amazing things happened. This is the exact point of reducing the stigma and opening the conversation. Last week, one of our local Amazon managers introduced us to an interesting organization called “Starts With Me” who hold an annual Festival called “State Of Mind,” it looked pretty cool to us, and our HR team and others will be volunteering,” said Keri Topping, Toronto Site Lead/Sr HR Manager, Amazon.

The content on display at the State of Mind Festival is part of the students’ school curriculum. Lesson plans are integrated into regular class work and require students to develop creative expressions of what mental health is and what it looks like in people’s lives. Their final work is then exhibited and celebrated by an audience of peers at the Festival.

The State of Mind Festival is part of the programming offered through Starts With Me. “We aspire to create a workplace and school environment that encourages people to be honest, responsible and competent while supporting their innate capacity for wellbeing,” said Mike Stroh, State of Mind Festival Founder and Director.

Since launching in 2015, Starts With Me has engaged with more than 50,000 people in k-12 education, post-secondary institutions, and the workplace across the GTA through mental health speakers, workshops, training and presentations.

Agencies attending and supporting partners include Amazon Toronto, the Canadian Mental Health Association Toronto, What’s Up Walk-inFitIn, Patient Commando, CreateBeing, and Layup Youth Basketball. For more details: State Of Mind Festival

Supporting Salespeople’s Mental Health in the Workplace

Over the past five years, there has been a lot of “talk” and promotion surrounding the value of mental health in the workplace. The question we want to understand is; why are things not getting better? And, how do we move from talking into action?

The large marketing campaigns about mental health can inspire, but only for a short period of time. Our optimism is restricted because the talk is limited to special days and occasions throughout the year. We need to move beyond talking and show people and organizations how to navigate this troublesome situation.

People’s fear of being honest about their mental health feeds a pattern of stigma and avoidance. No one wants to talk and no one wants to listen.

92% of people with mental health conditions believe that admitting these conditions in the workplace would damage their career. (Delloite)

But can you blame them?

56% of people would not employ an individual who had a history of depression, even if they were the most suitable candidate. (Delloite)

No one is to blame. Developing the courage to face your suffering is difficult. Add the discomfort of accepting the suffering of someone else and knowing how to help them, is one part of this complex situation.

We seem to be losing our ability to understand our emotions, thoughts, and how to communicate those to others. The solution lies in reducing the fear of opening up, which can only happen once we develop the awareness and the knowledge of how to do so.

Why Start With Sales

The World Economic Forum estimates that mental health problems will cost the global economy approximately $6 trillion by 2030. Action is needed and prioritizing the mental health of your sales team is a good place for your organization to start. Here is why.

Salespeople, more than other employees, face constant pressure to perform. Their days are filled with rejection, anxiety, stress, endorphin rushes and mood swings.

A deal will close one minute and the next, a “sure thing deal” falls through. Newer salespeople may feel overwhelming dejection, while tenured salespeople tend to dive back into their pipeline trying to rescue or chase down lost revenue.

All to reach that ultimate goal – achieving target and the lucrative commission cheques that come with it.

It’s exciting, intoxicating and emotionally exhausting even for the most hardened sales veterans. We suspect this environment impacts salespeople struggling with their mental health more compared to the average employee.

The mental health spectrum helps us understand how the mental health of a salesperson can fluctuate on a daily basis. At any point throughout the day, week, month, etc, we can move across this spectrum. Emotional intelligence and self-awareness can help to navigate the stress of working in sales.

Without the proper awareness, behaviour and support system the daily stresses of sales can lead to a variety of challenges for any organization.

These are common problems related to mental health that are gaining more attention and that negatively impact workplace performance. (World Health Organization).

  • Absenteeism:
    • Increase in overall sickness, absence.
    • Poor health (depression, stress, burnout).
    • Physical conditions (high blood pressure, heart disease, ulcers, sleep disorders, skin rashes, headache, neck and back ache, low resistance to infections).
  • Presenteeism – Work Performance:
    • Reduction in productivity and output.
    • Increase in error rates.
    • Increased in accidents.
    • Poor decision making.
    • Deteriorating planning and control of work.
  • Staff attitude and behaviour:
    • Loss of motivation and commitment.
    • Burnout.
    • Working longer hours but diminishing returns.
    • Poor timekeeping.
    • High turnover.
  • Relationships at Work:
    • Tension and conflicts between colleagues.
    • Poor relationships with clients.
    • Increase disciplinary problems.

Now, the pressure salespeople face need not be a hindrance. Stress and pressure push salespeople to achieve great things – but too much causes them to breakdown.

According to a Nationwide survey by Morneau Shepell, 83% of Canadians believe stress itself is not universally negative, asserting that workplace stress can be positive or negative depending on how the workplace supports and responds to the employee.

The National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, further supported this claim:

“Workplaces with a positive approach to psychological health and safety on average are better able to recruit and retain talented workers, have improved worker engagement, enhanced productivity, are more creative and innovative, and have higher profit levels”

Data shows the benefit of addressing Mental Health, but 77% of Canadians still do not feel comfortable talking about it in the workplace.

How can this be? Why is this number still so high?

Stigma and the lack of skilled training prevent the creation of mental health programs at scale. The purpose of our work is to create solutions to these barriers and to soften the clutch of silence that is common in the competitive ‘Sales Culture’.

Salespeople can never be weak, depressed, sick or miss target if they want success – they must be infallible. Any sign of vulnerability is often viewed as a direct sign of weakness. It is hard to be honest when your career is so closely linked to your performance.

When salespeople fall behind their forecasts, there is a tendency to forget that they are a colleague and are treated more like a number on a dashboard.

They are pushed, pulled and stretched to perform with little consideration of this stress on their wellbeing. Empathy towards their personal struggles is overlooked because the company must meet target – no matter what.

The Sales Floor

In our highly connected world, we are losing our ability to pause, slow down and have meaningful conversations with each other. It seems that we can’t even acknowledge that we are lost in unawareness.

The recent rise in open office concepts has not brought about the increased communication and employee engagement it was purported to. Read more in this fascinating study from Harvard.

Open environments are not new to sales. There has always been the “sales bullpen” or “sales floor” that carries infectious energy when salespeople are pitching. With the walls down, privacy is restricted and everyone must be “ON” all the time.

These days conversations with customers, managers and colleagues rarely happen face to face. They’ve been replaced by digital communication under the assumption of improved productivity. These tools turn human experience into emoticons and remove non-verbal communication.

The digital channels create more problems than they solve. According to some research up to 80% of human interaction is done through non-verbal cues that only occur in face to face interactions. It is no wonder that when mental health challenges arise, individuals feel lonely as they are left to confide in a hug emoji.

Workplaces can benefit from creating opportunities to have difficult face to face conversations onsite.

One primary benefit of dialogue is practicing how to think through problems. Salespeople will benefit greatly from these discussions because they can learn how to regain perspective and balance their mental health after stressful moments throughout the day.

Without these opportunities, salespeople often turn to after-work trips to the bar where they can vent and decompress. However beneficial a pint with friends can be, it is rarely conducive to solving emotional and psychological problems.

It can be difficult to have a thorough understanding of how these suppressed emotions and fluctuations in mental health are draining productivity, engagement and retention.

What to Do? Where to Start?

Sales organizations that acknowledge and action change around mental health stigma have the opportunity to unlock their sales teams full potential.

Research from PricewaterhouseCoopers has shown an average of 230% return on every dollar invested in creating a mentally healthy workplace. This represents a 33% decrease in absenteeism, presenteeism and disability claims.

The Mental Health Commission also confirmed their research and stated improving mental health in the workplace can decrease productivity losses by as much as 30%.

Sales productivity, engagement and employee retention is connected to revenue generation more so than any other function. In addition – Sales KPIs are measured closely, which means efforts to improve mental health in salespeople can be measured through the same metrics.

We must create experiential learning opportunities to help salespeople cultivate their innate capacity to be resilient, mentally fit, and self-aware. The Sales Health Institute  and Starts With Me have partnered to create mental health training programs for salespeople to do exactly that. We teach practices to help reduce short and long-term disabilities claims, absenteeism and presenteeism within sales.

Motivating our work is a sincere desire to help people become healthier human beings and ultimately to create a more prosperous and cohesive world. Drawing from our personal and professional experience, we have put every ounce of effort to bring forth a program that can change lives. We hope to meet and work alongside you on this journey.

If you’re interested in exploring our mental health workshop for your sales team or organization please get in touch.

This is a co-authored article by Mike Stroh & Jeff Riseley

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We’d love to hear your thoughts about mental health in the workplace. Please let us know or contact us for more information about our work.

Starts With Me | Workplace Mental Health