The Wellbeing Doctor, Shanna Brewton-Tiayon: Why Wellbeing Isn’t Optional, it’s Necessary


As ‘The Wellbeing Doctor’ can you tell me how it was that you found a passion for working in this space?

My entry into the wellbeing space is both professional and personal. I’ve always worked in human focused professions, starting off as a Peace Corps Volunteer, then later working in the international development space and prior to starting Wellbeing Works, Human Resources. I’ve always been drawn to understanding and trying to improve the human condition.

So much so, that I pursued a PhD in Sociology with a specialization in Social Psychology. While in academia my research focused largely on mental and physical health. I was fascinated with the determinants of health outcomes for different groups and how life experiences impact these outcomes.

However my resolve for this space was cemented when in the third year of my PhD program I found myself in the worst physical and mental health space ever. I was experiencing unexplainable body aches and pains, gastrointestinal problems, serious lethargy and cycling in and out of depressive symptoms.

It took me about a year of experiencing this to realize that I was experiencing distress from managing a full time doctoral program, full-time consulting responsibilities and juggling all this with family responsibilities – raising three kids with my husband. It was in climbing my way out of this that I realized how wellbeing is not optional, its necessary and so much of our time is spent in the workplace that employers have to be likewise invested in this goal.

As a Doctor of Social Psychology, what would you say is the biggest sociological factor impacting the way mental health is perceived in America, and globally today?

In the beginning mental health was viewed as operating on a continuum. But with the advancement in the psychiatric field and the development of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), we started to view mental health as having discreet, clinical, categories.

While this may have improved the capacity to treat mental illness, it also opened up space to label and view those who are on one side of the continuum (i.e. experiencing poor mental health) as somehow being deviant and non-normative. While in fact we all move up and down this mental health continuum depending on the life stressors we are dealing with. Mental health stigma is one of the biggest barriers to seeking care. Society created it, society can also undo it.

In your work with employers, what is the thing that you see them struggling with most in terms of supporting staff mental health and wellbeing?

The reality is that knowing how to support employee mental health in the workplace is not an immediately intuitive skillset. I spent about 10+ years in HR before I was aware of a fraction of what I know now, and that happened after starting my doctoral program. The biggest struggle is knowing what to do. But that comes from training, training managers and HR professionals on how to spot the signs of potential mental distress and how to support employees towards a pathway to recovery.

Also, understanding ways that workspaces perpetuate mental illness stigma in the workplace  through internal language, policies and behaviors. And the last point I would raise is truly understanding the role of the manager to employee relationship in employee wellbeing. Managers have an immense amount of influence over their employees’ wellbeing linked to their management practices.

What role do you think mental health support for staff should play in a DE&I strategy?

I try to advocate that managers should root their management practices in a principle that is popular in the medical field – “first do no harm”. This principle encourages medical professionals to consider the potential harm that specific medical actions might have on a patient before proceeding. It invites a pause in medical action.

This same pause is needed as it relates to management practices in general, but especially in the DE&I space. I was speaking at a conference the other day and a participant asked what they can do to take DE&I conversations from just being discussions among executives to being actionable.

By applying the principle of first do no harm, it invites a pause before deciding on new polices or procedures to ask which employee segments might this action potentially harm, how and can it be it avoided? Most organizations introduce policies and new initiatives without even asking these kind of questions, while unknowingly perpetuating bias in their organizations. A good example that I recently wrote about for Greater Good magazine, is holding race dialogue talks without considering the potential harm these talks can do to racial and ethnic minority employees.

Is there anything positive you think employers can learn from COVID-19?

Absolutely! There are many, many gems that covid-19 can bring to employers who are open to being introspective and with a learning mindset. But sticking to the employee wellbeing space one positive lesson is the value of employee wellbeing.

The truth is that employee wellbeing has always been important, but now we see this in relief, with visible signs of employee distress and a dearth of employer support structures to help them. Employers with an eye to maintaining a strong and engaged workforce for the long term are figuring out how to support their employees’ wellbeing during a very challenging time and seeing the benefit of this. So the employee wellbeing investment – employee output connection is being made and reinforced. It’s my hope that organizations will continue to make similar investments beyond COVID-19, so if another crisis arises (be it in the world or internal to the organization), they are prepared.

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Shanna Brewton-Tiayon will be joining us as a speaker at the Make a Difference Summit US in association with Mind Share Partners  the global go-to digital event for employers who want to Make A Difference to workplace culture, mental health and wellbeing – taking place October 15th. We are also running MAD World Summit on October 8 and Make a Difference Summit Asia on 11 November, 2020. Pick and choose the content most relevant to you. You can find out more and register here.

Shanna writes and speaks on topics of wellbeing and the ways we may infringe upon the wellbeing of others. She’s a TEDx speaker and her writing has appeared in Greater Good Magazine, Longreads, Yes! Magazine, Sojourners and Narratively. She is a frequently quoted expert in the mental health space. 

Heather Kelly is the founder of Aura Wellbeing, a consultancy providing workplace wellness strategy, coaching and training services to employers. She’s also Content Director for Make a Difference Summit US and Online Editor for Make a Difference News. Heather led the development and operation of the Workplace Wellbeing Index, during her time working for the UK’s largest mental health charity, Mind. In her earlier career she worked as a photographer, a journalist and a senior manager in the insurance industry. She’s passionate about inspiring more empathy and awareness in workplaces toward normalising mental health and in her spare time Heather teaches photography to teens as part of a charity projects in London and Spain, she’s an avid runner and experimental chef for recipes promoting healthy minds.


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