Inside Occupational Wellness

“It is far more important to deal with the internal problem than the external symptoms.”

Dr. Caroline Leaf

Occupational Wellness is no easy topic…for anyone. It can feel complicated and out of one’s control. I know my wellness within work has been one of my biggest struggles since I began to build my identity around my career in my 20's.

If I am honest, I’ve been kicking around what to write specifically about occupational wellness, and it hasn’t been easy. Most of what you find online relates to this definition:

Occupational wellness inspires us to prepare for work in which we will gain personal satisfaction and find enrichment in our life. Your attitude about work is a crucial influence for occupational development. Occupational wellness allows you to explore various career options and encourages you to pursue the opportunities you enjoy the most. This dimension of wellness recognizes the importance of satisfaction, enrichment and meaning through work. (Source)

What I didn’t want to do in this series of addressing each dimension of wellness was to simply define them and give pointers. You can get that content thousands of other places. (Trust me, just search on Pinterest or Instagram and you’ll get endless scrolling material.) However, what you won’t get anywhere else is my unique perspective on how to connect each dimension to an inside-out wellbeing journey.

Since I am not a wellness “expert”, a self-help guru, or an influencer, I believe my place is to share from the heart and allow it to connect (or not) with other hearts. I never approach my writing with the motivation to “fix” other people. My purpose is to authentically, sincerely, and vulnerably offer my gifts, talents, and experiences for the potential impact on someone else’s journey. Therefore, defining deep topics only serves as an introduction to things that have personally impacted my inside-out wellbeing journey. The juice is in the impact, not the education. I write to connect, not to lecture.

Fundamentally, the definition and understandings out there about occupational wellness rub against everything I have been working to undo in my own life. Most of the content out there addresses the need to find fulfillment IN work. I haven’t been able to find fulfillment in work after 20+ years of searching, and I have pushed a full-court press in an attempt to make work fulfill deep-rooted desires and needs.

I’ve shared some of my work experience in other articles, but now I’ll give you a brief (CliffsNotes version) timeline to share my occupational journey. Perhaps it will reveal a trend of searching for something deeper than what work could provide without having to divulge into too many details because, trust me, that could fill a novel.

I was a fashion model from the time I was 14 until 20. I lived in Toronto, New York City, Hamburg, and Milan, and I traveled the world during these years. When I realized I didn’t want to just be a mannequin, I worked as a bartender in New York while I completed my degree at NYU. When I didn’t want to be objectified and tipped loads of cash tips for wearing scantily clad outfits, I moved to work at a sandwich chain that was owned by a hospitality company. I traded in my mini skirt and thigh high boots for a hat, branded t-shirt, and jeans. This experience was humbling, but also one of the best experiences I have ever had in learning how a business operates from the ground up. Before too long, I was hired to join the hospitality corporate office where I built a catering division and began working in branding and marketing as the company rapidly expanded into luxury restaurants with celebrity chefs. My entrepreneurial itch was strong by the time I was 26 and married, which led me to open a creative branding agency with a friend who came from a complimentary professional background. My thirst to prove myself and be accepted into “more exclusive” New York occupational circles drove me to present an entire issue of a magazine to the owner of an international fashion and art magazine (not expected or even warranted — just a shot in the dark on my end). Looking back, I think this move was also a subconscious attempt to re-enter the fashion world from the “other side” where I would be making the decisions and running the show, as opposed to being subjected to it. Before I knew it, I was the editor of that magazine while expanding and running the US operation in New York. Soon, I merged my agency with the magazine and was working with top fashion, art, and lifestyle brands and talent and sitting in the front row at fashion weeks in New York, Milan, and Paris. From exclusive parties to dinners with celebrities to being “dressed” for events…it was pretty “fancy”…on the outside.

As the CEO and partner of an agency and the editor of a prestigious international magazine, one would think I should have felt quite satisfied, right? Even my younger self didn’t necessarily aspire to such titles and experiences. And yet, I was still unfulfilled. I felt like I didn’t fit in. I felt like an impostor. And, let’s be honest, it was a serious hustle and a struggle to stay on top. Most entrepreneurs understand that there is no apex where the work gets easier, the pressure gets lighter, or the sleepless nights get fewer. Competition and survival of the fittest is real the higher you climb.

I was in the midst of all of this inner dissonance when one of my clients approached me to be a partner in working with brands and clients who wanted to create real positive impact in the world. The offer touched my inner questioning and deep search for fulfillment, and I made the very complicated and difficult occupational jump on the promise to be a partner in a marketing and investment start up with a mission to change the world.

By 2020, after years of working tirelessly, I had come to the end of myself. My heart and eyes were opened to realize I was still searching for fulfillment and enrichment in the wrong places. I have had the tendency to confuse acceptance, approval, and praise for fulfillment, meaning, and purpose. I have been like a lap dog who gets her fix by getting a good ear scratch only to be left begging and panting as soon as the attention goes away. This made me the perfect candidate for manipulation and performance addiction. As I touched on in my article about perfectionism, ever since I was a child I looked for approval to shine as the sixth out of seven children, and I have grown into a woman version where I have been the perfect compliment to characters who like control, co-dependency, and ego boosts. Somehow this dynamic always served my own ego, and I was addicted. Fortunately for me, it all became clearly unsustainable, and God’s grace pulled me out of the cycle for some serious inner workings.

Identifying that the issue was related to my addiction to external sources of fulfillment, I was able to see a blindspot that began to reveal a lot more. I also listened to a few heart-opening sermons by Tim Keller where he focused on the inside-out truth of real faith, and the convergence of all of this led me to my commitment to an inside-out well-being journey. I understood that I needed to flip my search from looking for work that would fulfill me, to searching for true inner life fulfillment that I could bring into my work.

Ah, yes! Just simply flip everything inside-out! A lot easier said than done. I would give myself the “side-eye” right now if someone gave me the same massively over-simplified answer.

I understand this all sounds like a lot of work and potentially a lot of navel gazing, but there are foundational truths that make it a lot less daunting. The key is to think of it as a journey, and only focus on the very next step (cue “The Next Right Thing” by Anna in Frozen 2). The result is a more open, vulnerable, honest, connected, and loving mindset that lends itself to others more than the incessant search for personal meaning from external sources. The outside-in approach is quite selfish because it is looking for others to fulfill inner emptiness while the inside-out approach is a commitment to a journey to be fulfilled spiritually, mentally, and emotionally enough that the “cup runneth over” to fill other cups.

My perspective of real occupational wellness is that it is a result of a foundational inner life that builds on personal resources from a value system to actions within every dimension. Take it from me, it does alter life a lot. It is not an overnight flip, it’s a daily journey to live focused on the inner life over the outer life. It takes a growth mentality where change and challenges don’t threaten a resilient sense of self that is built on a solid value system as opposed to whatever identities have been developed externally. For me, the shedding of identities that no longer serve me has been one of the most liberating and yet threatening of processes. It takes a dedication to a conscious and mindful awareness, which requires a minute by minute refocusing where the past and the future don’t dictate the present. Prayer and meditation are key for me to shift my mindset in the midst of daily chaos and avoid the vortex of debilitating anxiety. Beyond all of these techniques and skills that many people explore and practice, I have learned that I need a blueprint to anchor my value system to so it isn’t like a flag in the wind susceptible to every new “self help” trend. My anchor is a faith in Jesus, and a dedication to understanding his truth and ways.

Occupational wellness should be a goal for all people and all businesses. It is a two-way street, and I have written about the equation where half of the burden lies on the work environment. I believe we lack these corporate environments focused on the wellness of human capital because we have leaders who are not functioning with a foundational inner life themselves. As I have said many times, businesses are made up of people and the character of a business comes from the top down. After decades of trying to transform businesses through branding and marketing, I have come to the foundational truth that there is no true transformation unless it begins with the leadership from the inside-out. Thus, my dedication to this work.

Occupational wellness should be a goal for everyone, but the method to get there lies in each of us individually. Only then can we truly transform how “work” is viewed and environments are formed. We should all aspire to work in a way that uses our gifts, talents, and experiences to provide fulfillment and enrichment to ourselves as well as others. My experience has revealed to me that the only real way to find occupational wellness is to go about it from the inside first. Don’t look for the perfect job to meet a checklist of wellness attributes. Begin with your personal resources and allow those to help you navigate why, how, where, when, and with whom you work.

Remember, life is not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and there are a lot of other people running the same race. As Mr. Rogers said, “Look for the helpers.” You’re not alone.

Originally published at https://www.alexismaida.com on September 1, 2020.

Alexis is an experienced executive with 15+ years of expertise in strategy, communications, branding, marketing and wellness.