Wellness

The Critical Importance of Wellbeing in Professional Development

Joerg Schlatterer

“How are you?” and “Take care” are phrases often used to start or finish a conversation in the U.S. As a German native, it took me a while to get used to these phrases. Why would someone I don’t know care about my physical and psychological health?

Over the years, I stopped questioning if these individuals had a vested interest in learning about my actual health. Instead, I developed a different reaction. Now, when I hear these questions from others, I take a moment to reflect and, if necessary, plan actions. As a daily routine, I ask myself questions about how I feel and if there is anything that might help me feel better.

Without managing all aspects of our health, we undermine our ability to flourish as human beings and as professionals.

Neglecting our wellbeing in graduate school can seem unavoidable but is ultimately damaging

As chemists, we become adept at conducting research, teaching, giving presentations, writing articles, and applying for funding. We do all of that to help discover new things and drive innovation in our specific field of study. We have invested quite a bit (e.g. time, educational experiences, building and nurturing relationships) into getting where we are in our career. It is in our and society’s best interest that we make sure to get the best return on investment (ROI) possible. Although there are numerous factors that impact the ROI, one of them is our health.

Merriam-Webster defines health as “the condition of being sound in body, mind, or spirit.” Without managing all aspects of our health, we undermine our ability to flourish as human beings and as professionals. Maintaining health allows us to refine self-management skills and is a prerequisite for accepting and successfully accomplishing professional and personal projects.

Managing wellbeing starts with self-assessment

Maintaining and managing our health starts with a regular self-assessment. I must admit that I have often been guilty of neglecting my own wellness. During the last decade, I certainly have not always taken enough time for my own health self-assessment and interventions. Weight fluctuations, lack of physical exercise, and work-related stress have led to suffering physically and mentally. What have I done more recently to change this?  

Initially, I thought that I had no time to really understand what was going on and to identify root causes for my dwindling health. So, I suffered through it all.

Several years ago, a trusted friend asked me during a conversation, “You realize that you harm yourself; you harm your future. Think about this. You spend so much time on shaping the foundation of your career, and now? Do you really want to jeopardize all of that by putting your health at risk?” This candid conversation triggered some critical changes. For example:

  1. One adjustment I made was to self-reflect regularly whenever someone says, “How are you?” or “Take care.” Suddenly, these phrases where no longer meaningless statements but sharp reminders. How do I feel today? Is there something I can do to feel better?
  2. Reflecting on my physical and mental health became a daily routine and helped me discover what I can do on my own and when I need support from someone who has more knowledge than I do.
  3. I began to embrace that positive physical health habits can decrease stress, lower my risk of disease, and increase my energy.
  4. As a chemist, I do not have the in-depth knowledge level of a physical therapist, a fitness coach, or a dietician. Conversations with such specialists and friends helped me create my own individual physical health action plan. Where are you in the physical wellness space? You might want to visit NIH’s physical wellness checklist to start asking yourself questions about your exercise and activity levels, body weight, diet, etc.

Facilitating my wellbeing didn’t end with having the right mindset but continued with behaviors I was willing to change.

Behaviors that contribute to our wellbeing as chemical science researchers

During my graduate education in Germany and postdoctoral training in the U.S., I witnessed that balancing chemical science research with challenges of life can be extremely stressful. Stress is how the brain and body respond to any demand. Any type of challenge, such as research performance, a significant life change, or a traumatic event, can be stressful for me and you. Everyone feels stressed from time to time. Interestingly, stress provides energy when I need it most. However, there is a threshold towards harmful, chronic stress. Incorporating simple stress-management techniques in daily routines has helped me to avoid reaching this threshold. For example:

  • Making it a priority to get enough and quality sleep (e.g. avoid electronics before going to bed, developing a bedtime routine)
  • Trying relaxation methods (e.g. 10 min. meditation before breakfast)
  • Exercising regularly (e.g. yoga, soccer, dancing, running, walking)
  • Setting priorities (e.g. during breakfast, go over your to-do list for the day and prioritize)
  • Building and maintaining a social support network (e.g. dedicate two evenings per week to meet friends)
  • Thinking positively (e.g. any situation comes with positives and negatives. Reflect on both, but use the positives to move forward).

I attempt to pay attention to how I deal with minor and major stressors, so I know when to talk to trusted friends or seek help from a professional.

Many years ago, I felt it was a sign of weakness to share my physical and mental health challenges with others. However, as I progressed in my chemical science education and my career, I learned that everyone has unique health challenges and unique approaches to tackle those. In science, when a project stalls, it is important to reach out to others to make it progress again. We might embrace the same attitude when tackling our own health challenges and take advantage of trusted friends and professionals as needed.

Mental Health Resources & Hotlines

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
1-800-273-TALK (8255) [24/7 Hotline]
1-888-628-9454 (Spanish)
Crisis Text Line Text “MHFA” to 74141 to speak with a compassionate, trained crisis counselor, a volunteer who has been trained to help with problem-solving and will address the caller’s situation.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA’s)
National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
Treatment Referral Routing Service or
TTY
1-800-487-4889
This hotline is available 24 hours a day.