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Last fall, the Driehaus Foundation launched a revised Professional Development and Organizational Vitality supplemental grant program to include self-care and wellness initiatives. The Foundation gave full agency to grant recipients without being too prescriptive on what those initiatives could be. We received and funded all 24 requests, three of which focused on self-care and wellness initiatives. Grant recipient Architreasures used the opportunity to send its Executive Director Manwah Lee to a four-day Embodied Transformation training at the Strozzi Institute in Petaluma, California. Grounded in the body, the training infuses a somatic approach to explore leadership values. This community-centric experience deepens leadership maturity through an embodied exploration that creates trust, resilience, and helps leaders develop who they are as people.

Dietitian and Somatic Coach Christine Coen defines somatic therapy as a method backed by scientific research that proves we not only store our memories, experiences, and emotions on a cellular level beyond our thoughts but also in our bodies. In the past few years, somatic therapy has been shown to be impactful by helping individuals regain control through movement and self-awareness. In our previous news post, Integrating Self-Care Plans into Nonprofit Structures, we briefly touched on the correlation between a lack of personal self-care and the decline in quality of leadership. Further exploration of this topic reveals a current shift in leadership development as more workplaces move towards a holistic approach to employee well-being.

But what exactly is a holistic approach to well-being and how can workplaces cater to their employees’ needs, as opposed to just implementing pseudo self-care activities? Championing Holistic Health: A Blueprint for Workplace Well-Being (Spring Health, April 2024) explains that approaching employees through a holistic health lens means acknowledging that many components comprise well-being beyond just physical health, and also includes mental, spiritual, financial, and interpersonal well-being. Each employee has diverse needs that employers should be compassionate towards and be able to provide benefits that support those needs.

In Holistic and Personalized Learning: The New Paradigm in Leadership Development (Chief Learning Officer, September 2023), authors Lisa Banks and Pam Krulitz state that personalization matters. “A universal mode is no longer dictated for every individual and personalization is emerging in the learning and talent development space” as employers meet leaders where they are. They define personalization as a way to make space for each leader’s unique talent, mindset, ability to manage complexity, values, emotional intelligence, vision, social drives, and sense of purpose, while keeping in mind that leadership is a human endeavor in which each leader is informed by their history, skills, beliefs, experiences, fears, and aspirations.

Holistic Mental Health is a New Paradigm to Know About in 2024. Here’s What That Means (Spring Health, January 2024) dives deeper into how employers can support leaders by acknowledging that the interconnected facets of a person’s well-being intersect with their individual identity in the workplace. Holistic support in the workplace is focused on a strengths-based approach rather than fixating on employee weaknesses. By creating new tools to navigate challenges, employers can enhance leadership skills and improve overall performance. Most importantly, a holistic approach proves effective in prevention and addressing employees’ needs before challenges escalate.

While many may be skeptical about the effectiveness of self-care and wellness initiatives, continuous research shows that it is not so much the implementation of these initiatives that is necessary but rather the way in which they cater to individual needs that should take precedence. What Wellness Programs Don’t Do for Workers (Harvard Business Review, August 2019) asks if employers really have employee best interest in mind or are they focused on gaining competitive advantage instead? Often, low-cost wellness offerings resonate more with those already in good health, but for those struggling with actual mental health issues, “a disproportionate focus on wellness benefits can be irrelevant and a trigger for more pain.” Not every initiative appeals to everyone and can unfortunately be harmful to others. By not addressing real needs of individuals, workplaces can easily miss the mark on a holistic approach.

However, through a trust-based employer-employee relationship, wellness programs can be transformative and create a collective willingness to better support individuals and leaders. The article further mentions that research conducted at the University of Michigan found that employees’ performance and well-being thrive in environments with flexibility so that they can adapt to their circumstances. It further advises that leaders should encourage vulnerability and cultivate compassion, sometimes even through sharing their own experiences, to enhance positive feelings and trust with employees because “in the longer term, compassion has been shown to help organizations attract and retain its most talented workers.”

For Lee, the Embodied Transformation training taught her to have somatic awareness through movement exercises in which she unlearned “conditioned tendencies,” – habits, ways of relating, moods, and emotional range that are adaptions to trauma, social oppressions, environmental conditions, and historic experiences. To increase connections, trust, and authenticity, she learned exercises that mirror “rhythms of action” that produce a new shaping of the self. To support her role as a leader at Architreasures, Lee will apply the learnings from the training to the organization’s work within the “soma” of communities, neighborhood environments, and project stakeholders. “As I become more practiced with the somatic framework for facilitating embodied transformation, I plan to integrate the model to shape organizational changes and community changes through our art and design projects.”

The Driehaus Foundation’s Professional Development and Organizational Vitality grants give organizations like Architreasures agency to pursue their well-being needs by funding valuable opportunities like this. As we continue to learn from our grant recipients, Foundation staff also recently completed a 90-day emotional intelligence team training so that we can embody a positive workplace that reflects our values. We will continue to adapt to the needs of our grant recipients and the nonprofit sector as we keep ongoing dialogue open around nonprofit organizational well-being.

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