Talking about mental health in the workplace has become a "must", but the path to actually doing it can be confusing and uncomfortable. In this episode, we were joined by the incomparable Jill Wolf, LCSW and Executive Director of WolfPack Therapy to talk about the key components of building a foundation of understanding and fostering a humble and open work environment.
MEET THE GUEST
Jill Wolf (she/they), is a licensed clinical social worker and Executive Director of Wolf Pack Therapy. For the past 14 years, Jill has maintained a small private therapy practice. After two decades in the nonprofit workforce, she decided to leave and build Wolf Pack Therapy to focus exclusively on building mental health services that are normalized, prioritized, and accessible.
Connect with Jill Wolf: LinkedIn
Connect with Wolfpack Therapy: Website
HEATHER: This is for anyone with a job, a weekly podcast on a mission to unravel the Yuck, lift some of the weight and fear and arm you with the tools to talk about mental health at work. I'm your host, Heather Bodie, and today I'm joined by the one and only Jill Wolf, a badass therapist and executive director of wolf pack therapy. She's honestly one of my closest friends and the first person I call when I'm crying in the bathtub. So let's meet Jill.
JILL: Hi, I am Jill Wolf I use she/they pronouns. I am a therapist who sees a therapist whose therapist sees a therapist. Hope you get my drift. I'm an artist, entrepreneur, I'd say like little h healer. I'm a daughter and a partner and a lover. And a friend and a cat Mom.
HEATHER: What's the difference between little h healer and big H healer?
JILL: Yeah, good question. Little H healer would I would say it'd be a little more informal. I'm instinctually good with my hands. And I can go up to someone and touch them and kind of know where a spot might hurt. I'm not a certified massage therapist. I'm not a Reiki instructor. I mean, I do have a yoga teacher certification. But like I see myself as a healer of the people versus like this formal structural, kind of more institutional and academic and like medical healers. Does that make any sense?
HEATHER: Yeah, it does. Yeah, it does. I think I think the way I absorb what you're talking about is the what is the saying? The the jack of all trades with a master of none. Right? And that there being zero shame in that like total neutrality when I use that phrase?
JILL: Yeah, well, in this case, it's a Jill of all trades, Jill, of all trades, Jill, of all trades. And I say that, because I do feel like multi-dimensional that way. And am I a master of anything? I mean, shit, myself, I hope but yeah.
HEATHER: Yeah. But mastery also requires sort of a finite avenue of thought, right? The mastery requires so much of your energy to go toward one path with the and that, to me, those are the big H healers, like if you're looking down the sort of pinhole specificity of approach to healing, whereas yours feels a little bit like a wider spectrum.
JILL: You know, that makes me think of a little bit that I've been writing about and talking with some other colleagues is this element of like, competence, versus humility. And this comes specific when we talked about like, cultural competence, right? Like, I know enough information that I can sort of relatively identify if someone's different from me and be like, oh, you know, hey, what race or you know, whatever this sort of competence versus humility. Okay, so like cultural competence, which is a term we talked about all the time and a way to just anyone's welcome at the table and realize that, you know, you could learn about someone's culture versus cultural humility. I don't, I can't be competent, and all the culture, I can't know all of this stuff. But I can be humble about it. And know that I can ask some questions or get curious. And that that's enough versus versus having to come in with all of the expertise.
HEATHER: I love that so much. And it absolutely hits at the heart of the purpose of this podcast and the purpose of these conversations, which is to look at the fact that we do not have to be mental health experts to hold valuable and productive, effective conversations about mental health at work.
HEATHER: And almost, we're not going to be experts, right? That's not the goal. You don't need to be competent as a right to health therapist to help someone.
HEATHER: Yeah, absolutely.
JILL: To be humble and have humility as you approach another human. Like we're all these like sentient beings. That's what my favorite word is sentient, right senses. And we have these senses that hopefully we use all six, even though there's like really five, right sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch. But then we have this like instinct, everything about like the gut instinct, that's a sense that we oftentimes, like don't tap into because I don't want to say the wrong thing to this person. And oh, my gosh, my colleague is crying. I like, I don't know what to say. So I don't say anything. I don't go over there. It's a really fascinating thing to be in a culture that says we should separate personal and professional.
And I suppose depending on like, what realm of work you're in - Professional is professional and personal is personal. But other work, how can you separate them? When oftentimes you spend more time at work than with the people that you love and your personal life? Or you bring work home with you? Or like and why should we separate? Why are we taking a personal out of professional because then it's like, sterile? And how do you address mental health and support people in a professional environment and be zipped up? It's hard.
HEATHER: It's really hard, but it's doable.
JILL: It is so doable. Oh, and it's doable to bring the personal, little p personal into the professional.
HEATHER: In your experience working with clients, when I imagine more often than not people because you sit like you were mentioning where it works so much of the time. So inevitably, when talking and processing through things that are mental health related work has got to come up. Right. I mean, it may even dominate a lot of the conversations that you're navigating with clients. Is that true?
JILL: Yeah. I mean, when I think about some of the bigger transitional things, or issues that people bring in to therapy, job change, career things are a huge stressor. Right? And even like positives, like, oh, my gosh, I got a new job, I got a raise, I'm really excited that positive stress is still like, takes up a lot of space. And it's still a lot to consider.
HEATHER: Absolutely. I feel like that even you know, when I think about my own mental health journey, it was it was through complaining, I said, I used the word complaining at the time, but through processing about issues at work in like a cyclical, I was just saying the same thing over and over again, week after week after week, that my therapist finally was like, let's look at your inbox. And we looked at my inbox, and she watched me click around my screen together. And she recommended I get tested for ADHD. And it was through that, you know, through this, like, we're not getting anywhere talking about work, that she identified something I've been living with my entire life. And so I think also sometimes we process through the lens of work stressors, things that we're not comfortable talking about at home, either. So it's this weird duality of like,
everything that we're experiencing, we cannot like you said we cannot bifurcate we cannot separate what's going on with us as individuals and what's going on at work?
JILL: Yes, I mean, outside of a capitalist structure, I think that there's this element of work has meaning to us as - as meaningful meaning making beings, as people who want to, you know, like, unfortunately, our culture is way more into this produce, produce produce. And it's, it's like, false, right? It's just it's untrue. But, but we do, it does stem from something real that people do enjoy helping and doing and being good at something. And that's a part of identity.
HEATHER: A deep part of our identities. And it's the great irony is that what we do for work, it takes up the majority of our time, it doesn't land on the on the tombstone, you know?
JILL: Well, and what happens when you're really good at something that you don't like?
HEATHER: oh, you…stick with it for a very long time, no matter what, right?
JILL: Like, all these issues come up, and you're like, why am I unhappy? And like, Well, I mean, like, it's, it's such a fascinating thing that we get ourselves stuck in these notions of how things are supposed to be, I've kind of moved my life and a lot of the questions I work with my clients to how do you want your life to feel?
And that sometimes is such a hard question for people because because we are habit forming people like you go to work, it takes 90 consecutive days of a consistent behavior to form a new brain pathway. Okay, so it's like not really set when we think about ourselves as like, developing and certain things that like are just rote or things we do is habit, but we don't pay attention to, we've been doing it way more than 90 days. And you'll notice anything that you're doing in that first early 90 days, it's not a habit yet, because we get into these habits of like how life is. Well, I go to work at nine and I leave at five and I sit here and this is just how it should be. Why? Well I want my life to feel more like I want a little bit more freedom. And I don't really want to work for myself because I don't really like that but there are ways to move towards how building our life how we want it to feel if we know how we want our life to feel. But, most of us grow up on this like moving walkway of life. You go to you graduate, you go to college, you get a job, you meet someone, you get married, you have kids, you have this - like, unless - I think of like at O'Hare Airport, you know, down that like ridiculous place where they have all those moving walkways, like, unless you pick your head up, you don't like really realize where you are, because there's moving walkways, just taking you all the way from one mile from, you know, one end to the other end of the concourse.
And the reason that that's important is because if you don't start to be like, do I want to go slow, don't want to go fast. I want to kind of go on my own. It's - we find ourselves with kids and resenting them, because we actually didn't really want kids, we just didn't stop to think about it.
HEATHER: Uh huh. And the messaging around us was, you're never ready. This is just how life goes. This is right. So more of that same narrative of this is just what you do. You do. Absolutely. Yeah. Something that what you just said brought up for me is this idea of, well, this is the choice I made, so now I stay. I'm noticing for myself and the people around me friends and my community around my age group around that sort of early 40s. There are more than a handful of people who were like, I know, this is what I went to school for. I know, this is what I've been doing for the last 15 plus years. But I don't love it. And I'll say, so what? What is next? What are you going to do now? And they say, Well, I can't change now, even though they're looking down the runway of 25 plus more years in their profession.
And I imagine that feeling too of being stuck, of being immovable, of having made a choice, and having no room for growth, or change in any sort of drastic way, can really compromise someone's mental health. Something I've come across a lot recently, is people really struggling to reconcile this idea of, what if I walked in the opposite direction and got off of this moving walkway all together? Decided to go from O'Hare to Midway. Yeah, and get on a different flight completely.
JILL: I do think yes to all of that. And it can be daunting. I think, in other ways. It doesn't have to be. And that's where I bring us back to like, how do you want your life to feel? For some folks, like, there's not meaning in jobs and in work doesn't you don't have to, like love what you do to be okay with and sustain and manage and do well with with a job. If there's - I'm thinking of someone who's like, Oh, I just really don't like this thing. I know, this is what I'm trained for. But you they really stopped you like what do I want my life to feel like? Well, I want to feel like I am have the flexibility for this and this and this. And maybe that means that they stay in that job, but they start to take an art class, or they start doing something that's uncomfortable for them that might sort of bring out this thing that they thought they were missing at work and wanted to get from work, but actually get from their personal life that helps them withstand some of this stuff with work. I mean, work is called work for a reason. Right?
JILL: It is it is work. And it is hard and hopefully, and the whole thing like if I find something you love to do you don't work. Are you kidding me? I love what I do. I it's relatively easy in the sense that it comes naturally. But this shit’s hard! Whether it be just sort of holding space. And like that, that term of sitting with people when they're struggling or, you know, when they're not struggling and maybe don't want to get into it. Or maybe you're working with a company that's like continues to stigmatize I don't know black people or people who use drugs or gay folks, and, you know, like, it's, it's hard, it eats a you and if nothing else, you know, the work I do, despite loving sort of some of these issues, I find myself becoming a bit callous, you know? And like, oh, like I - make - being too sarcastic or, and I love my job. And it is work. So I think that there's this I, unfortunately am not independently wealthy and I need to make money given the life I want to live here and this. So there's these choices that we make. And I think that when we realize a how do I want my life to feel and B make choices towards that, there's a bit more ownership of like - Alright, I got on the moving walkway and I'm, I'm gonna stay on the moving walkway or I'm, I'm actually gonna get off and walk every other every other leg, I'm gonna walk and then I'm gonna use the moving walkway. And, you know, I think that when there's choice, um, sometimes it doesn't feel so shitty.
HEATHER: Yeah, yeah. When you feel like you have agency. Yeah. I’ve been talking to someone recently about their toddler and navigating the complications around parenthood. And whether we're talking about a missed nap or refusal to put on shoes or won't eat or won't do bath time, whatever, whatever it is that we're discussing. I continue to use the phrase we are three year olds, three year olds are us. Because it all comes down to agency.
HEATHER: This feeling like they have some element of control or choice in the put your shoes on now or put your shoes on in five minutes as opposed to shoes on or no shoes, you know, and then the shoe is thrown out the window.
JILL: But there's the parent who's got the agency there too, right? Like the parent can be like, No, you've got you put your shoes on now and we're like, really? Why? Why do they have to put their shoes on now? Okay, yeah, I mean, so can you go into the car without shoes on? Yes, you can. And our user parent gonna choose to be right there and have agency have no they're gonna do this or really be like, what what is this about? Do I want to waste my energy or my spoons or my Yeah, whatever.
HEATHER: Give them spoons away. Yeah. Can you describe the spoon? The spoon idea? I've heard it multiple times, but I haven't heard it in like sort of assistant. I have a general understanding but not a clear visual.
JILL: So I'm gonna give it to you in terms of my kitchen. So I live alone. I sometimes cook and I eat things and - so I'm not as great at doing my dishes, right, so I have about 12 spoons, in my silverware drawer. And when I take one out to start for my coffee, and it goes into the sink, now there's 11 spoons, and then I eat yogurt, and then I, and then I'm not doing the dishwasher, which means eventually I'm gonna run out of spoons, right? And, and I might not have any more spoons left. And it's the same idea of life, like spoons, in this case could be energy or space, or whatever that might look like. And when you do something in life, be it for me, it would be making myself dinner is an effort. That would probably take a spoon for me, for other people, that might be like putting a spoon back. For a lot of people especially like, even more highlighted after the pandemic, but like traffic is incredible spoons for people where it takes a lot of resources to get through that and then to come home and not bite someone's head off. So these things that exert energy, positive or heavy energy, right? like…requires spoons. Does that make sense?
HEATHER: This does make sense feel like what you've heard. I know it's a very, it has. And I heard it used in the in the sense that like, if you're living with a diagnosed mental illness, or maybe a chronic pain disorder, or any sort of health related anything, or maybe you're a caretaker for someone with extra needs, that you're working with a smaller set of spoons. So while the quote unquote average person comes to work with, let's use your number 12 spoons, somebody who has other things on their plate, or other people utilizing their spoons, like children, like elderly parents, like a sick partner, or something along those lines, they fewer spoons from jump, and so they get mid day, and they're out of spoons, and everyone else has six left to go.
JILL: Well. And the point with that is that we never know what someone uses a spoon for. And so what I love about that example, you talked about with your therapist, who was like, okay, look, let's have you let me observe you drive your email. Unless somebody did that. No one would ever people, check your email, whatever. But it's not just No, like hell to the Hell no, there's like, so much happening. That we don't realize what it actually takes for someone's maybe even get to the office, right, or to get out of their cubicle to talk to someone, or to get to work because they just got in a fight or just had a death or they're managing a addiction or whatever it might be. The humble approach, versus the competent approach here would be like, hey, like, life is stressful, like, and it might take you two spoons to get here. And it takes me 12.
JILL: - and I don't know, I just think we can never know how many spoons someone has on their jar, and don't even know that I have 12. It was just for my example. Yeah, I feel like I should go count though, right now.
HEATHER: And that is the part that makes my eyes light up and my heart light up, which is like, I would love for you to count because I think it's important for our relationship that I know how many spoons you have. Write, just as it's important for me to share how many spoons I have. Just as it's important for me to be able to articulate who uses mine. And what depletes mine. And to know the same for you because we tend to assume that somebody else else's energy is depleted by the same things as our experience.
JILL: Yes. Yes. And that would be awesome. For that to be like in our friendship for that to be like hey, Bodes, how many spoons you got today. Here's the thing, though, is that again, like to even be able to say I have this many spoons requires a lot of a lot of things that have happened before that body literacy, emotional literacy, being able to read what your body's telling you where your emotions are. But for that, I can't tell you how many spoons I have. Right?
JILL: So like even for a with your own self or with a relationship to sit to say, this is this my silverware today.
HEATHER: And to your point a minute ago Work is work. Getting comfortable. Talking about mental health and becoming proficient and effective at it is work. We don't go to the gym once and become a bodybuilder we have to go again and again, and also watch our diet and change up the muscle groups that we're utilizing. And shift when there's injury and it's uncomfortable, and it's stressful. And there are down weeks, and they're up weeks. It's this same idea with developing language and emotional and physical and literacy so that we can communicate and connect with people in a workplace setting about what's going on in our emotional lives that stays within the boundaries of what it is to be, quote unquote appropriate for work.
JILL: Every single damn one of us needs to change. Not because something's wrong with us, but because a lot of this shit we were taught is like, just wrong and ass backwards. And so change is hard for all of us, especially humans. And so the idea here is I always look for the presence of stagnancy. When there is stagnancy is when I start to get concerned.
So if I'm struggling with something and I'm feeling good about it, then I'm feeling bad about it. And I'm like, Oh, I'm confused about it. And there's this like movement within it - That's beautiful. When there's nothing, and it's like a mucky pond that there's no movement in the water, it becomes like smelly and all the green things start to build. Right? And that's that that's where we should start to get concerned is when there's stagnancy, and in any form around change in a business, you know, like, oh, yeah, let's talk about mental health. And we just check a box, and then nothing happens. Like that’s stagnancy. So I always say like, when you're feeling great about something like, Yeah, that's awesome. But when you're feeling shitty about something, that's also an indication of movement, and change. And that's badass.
HEATHER: Something that I hear people say often and I'd love your take on it is is? How do we get past and this is something I'm really passionate about - how do we get past the concept of part of this work is managing discomfort, getting comfortable being uncomfortable, we hear that phrase a lot. And I feel like I grasp it intellectually entirely, I can even hold value in it. But when it comes to actually applying that on a daily basis, when I am faced with something at work, and I am like sort of instantly activated, I'm instantly uncomfortable. I don't know what to do in that moment to quote unquote, get comfortable being uncomfortable.
JILL: But oftentimes, when there's something uncomfortable, our body reacts, it's a natural thing. Either we recoil or if something is uncomfortable, like a fire, like, you know, we pull back, and it's …because it's uncomfortable, and we react versus respond. Right, a reaction is sort of like there's not much thought or consideration into reaction. It's automatic versus a response, which is considered and there's thought and there's ultimately, space between the thing that makes you uncomfortable and your response, recognizing that you're uncomfortable is the first thing. Okay, I'm uncomfortable. How do I know I'm uncomfortable? I love when I ask people that like, What the fuck do you mean? How do you How do I know? Yeah, like, how do you know how, what is your body telling you?
Well, and oftentimes, I have to give myself as an example. I said, when I start to get nervous, my hands are gonna, My palms are gonna sweat. My stomach is going to feel a little funny. I can't quite keep still like, they're like, oh, yeah, okay. Okay, so I'm, I'm uncomfortable. I find there's a bit of heaviness in my chest. And this is what we call body literacy. Right? It's our way of trying to read. How do we know we're uncomfortable? Wow. Like, I don't want to be around people. I might, my shoulders are going up. Okay. And so starting to actually, like, pay attention. What what about this is making me uncomfortable. And ultimately, I think that the work that around getting comfortable being uncomfortable is getting curious. When we are curious and can kind of tap into more about what our body's telling us, what our senses are telling us, it gets more comfortable. It gets less uncomfortable, because we can start to read it. And by reading it, it starts - we become empowered.
When I work with folks who manage anxiety, some of what's incredibly anxiety provoking to them is not knowing what makes them anxious, or what to do when they're anxious, or how do they know when they're anxious? So we can start to tune into their body, they start to feel a sense of agency and capacity to manage what comes up because they're like, oh, you know, I noticed that I - my legs twitching a bit. That's, that's a sign for me that I've got some energy. Oh, actually, that and I've my stomach, I keep going to the bathroom a lot. Something's going on, I should maybe pay attention. What that requires to get curious, is patience. I am not patient with myself.
It fascinates me, right? I am so patient with my clients. And I am so not patient myself. So does that answer your question or on like, what to do in the moment? I mean, I think part of it is like if we can like push, pause and pull the lens back to kind of look at ourselves and really observe what's going on.
HEATHER: Yeah, absolutely answers the question. And that's the whole goal of this conversation today. And the conversations that will happen on this podcast in general is bridging the space between conceptually understanding that talking about mental health is helpful and important and necessary,
JILL: and helps your bottom line
HEATHER: and helps the bottom line, right? Yeah, absolutely. We're talking about work. And then bridging between that space and a space where when the anxiety comes up, what am I doing about it? When I am navigating a depressive episode, how do I communicate that to my team, whether I'm in a leadership position or I'm a member of a team, the communication is still deeply necessary. And ultimately for people who are in leadership positions- I think this goes for everybody, which is knowing yourself having that physical literacy be astute enough that you can start to sense patterns. You can start to put some support elements in place. And you can put together a structure or a plan so that if and when a crisis moment does pop up or occur, you don't - in crisis- need to know how to navigate, how to solve the crisis. Because I think that's the biggest, I think that's the biggest hurdle to or the biggest mountain to climb is that we ask people who are in a moment of desperation, what it is they need or want. And they don't know because they're in that crisis moment. And so what ends up happening is it's a leave of absence, it's FMLA. It's…I need a mental health day. Mental Health days, in my opinion, are great in concept. But if I have slipped into a deep depressive episode, and the mountain of things that I have missed deadlines on has grown so large, that I feel like I can't show up to work today, taking a day on the couch isn't going to shrink that mountain.
JILL: The thing that I think is, I see over and over in the key decision makers and executive leaders C suite folks, is that they see that person who needs the time off or FMLA as them and they don't consider the impact that me as a leader, me as a VP, or whatever role I am - I am making, I'm creating an environment where this person would feel psychologically safe, where they would feel they can contribute where they're seen. And, frankly, it's going to require a lot of humility. It's going to require a bit of pill swallowing, jagged pill swallowing, and it won't be ironic. Alanis Morissette. Thank you.
But, you know, for that person who's on FMLA, to feel like it's okay for them to be able to talk about their mental health in the workplace or do things that make them feel better? What's required for that is those execs to have a shit ton of humility, and that's a clinical word, in this case, a shit ton of humility around what role are they doing or not doing to contribute to a safe place? And competence? will not be the answer here, you won't know what this is you're going to learn from folks. So. And yes, a one mental health day isn't going to do it.
And our system isn't set up to support a place where - a workplace - where people won't have to hit the empty tank, like our workplace is not set up for - to support mental health, emotional wellness, and well being.
HEATHER: What specifically are you speaking to?
JILL: Broad brushstroke business is there to make money, right, and if we're going to make money, our concept here in America, as a capitalist structure is pedal to the metal is productivity is continuing to do do do sometimes with less, less less, depending on what industry are in. And that sheer setup theory concept system will not allow for much space for how emotion and things that aren't tactile and rational - how that contributes to making money. There's gotta be understanding that rest actually helps work.
HEATHER: In my experience, when I do get pushback, specifically from people at an executive level, regardless of their identity. It's usually coming from a place of at least it sounds like it's coming from a place of not knowing whether or not people are quote, unquote, taking advantage of the system. So there's a there's a trust issue, there's absolutely a fundamental trust issue. And my argument and response to them often in relationship to that trust issue is what what environment was created, where people have had to perpetually tell you half truths or complete blatant lies, to leave early to take some time off? Right.
So then people are saying, Oh, I have to leave today. I have the soccer game that I forgot about for my seven year old.
JILL: And it's really a psychiatry appointment.
HEATHER: Yes. And it's really a psychiatry appointment. And I've done it myself. I mean, I've made it what I've just needed a day off. I've made some excuse or, you know, this endless bowel issue or whatever it is. You know, and as someone who has led people in multiple different industries, I can smell it on them.
JILL: Oh, yeah.
HEATHER: I know, when someone is telling me not what's actually going on, but what they know I can't argue with so that they can have the time away to rest.
JILL: Part of the reason it's this way is because of the way that our medical system is set up, there are bodies, there are minds or brains, and then there are teeth, and then their eyes, you go to an eye doctor to go get your glasses and in separate insurance, right, and then you're gonna go to your dentist, which you may or may not have insurance, which they don't listen on your medical system, right, then you go to your doctor, but then you go to your psych-. Okay, the way that we see that mental health, addiction, when we continue to say that they are medical issues but treat them not as medical issues, but as moral based issues like value based kind of things. This is where people will continue to make excuses about why I don't have the space to come to work or why I want to work from home today. And our medical system, you know, when you think about that actually becomes sort of a relative backbone in regards to how systems and businesses work. So yeah, like, part of the way that businesses work this way that we're not going to bring mental health, or issues related to my stomach, you know, or my brain into work is because they are taboo, they are separate from health.
JILL: it is and it's like, I specialize in working in addiction. And my, my hope and vision and mission is to end the war on drugs, right? And we talk about addiction being a medical issue, but we treat it with like morality, and punishment, not intervention of treatment. And that's really fascinating to me.
HEATHER: Jill, thank you so much.
JILL: It's my true pleasure. I hope to come back in the very near future.
HEATHER: Oh my gosh, every week.
HEATHER: We did it. We spent 30 minutes talking about mental health. And you can do it too. Spending just a few minutes a day talking about thinking about putting words to what it is you're experiencing, will change your life, your relationships, and maybe even your job. Visit Heather bodie.com where you can stay connected, sign up for our newsletter, you can get access to show notes, bonus content, all kinds of stuff. And thanks for joining me. Remember, you don't have to be an expert to talk about mental health at work. I'll see you next week.