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Wellness Interview with Nancy Alexander – Red River College’s Vice President HR and Sustainability

August 14, 2013

NancyPhotoNancy Alexander (Vice-President, Human Resource Services and Sustainability) has an extensive background in human resource management and environmental management. Nancy leads RRC’s Human Resource Services, Environmental Health & Safety Services, and Sustainability departments.

Mike Krywy (Chair of the Wellness Committee) spoke with Nancy about her Wellness beliefs, practices and strategies for fostering a Wellness culture at Red River College.

Who are some of the people in your life that you look up to as Wellness role models?

My mother — who turned 80 this year and is still extremely active every day — is my main role model. She is an amazing woman with so much energy. She loves to fish, she takes care of a huge garden, she loves to cook (especially perogies!), she picks berries and wild mushrooms. I come from a commercial fishing family, and my mom was always busy, whether it was getting ready for the season, or cooking food for lots of people.

She’s also an avid traveler, wandering throughout Manitoba and numerous countries worldwide. For her 80th birthday we recently took a trip to Bryce Canyon National Park, where we rode mules down 1,000-foot canyons and toured the desert to see wildflowers from sunup to sundown. Typically she’ll go out visiting friends throughout rural Manitoba, spend the day adventuring and visiting festivals, then get together with friends for coffee and talk into the late hours.

My adult children are also great role models, as they regularly exercise, eat healthy, and are continuous learners.

Finally, my husband is a role model for his supportiveness towards his large extended family and his practice of mindfulness. He is always reminding me of the reality of things, especially being mindful of the present moment. He believes that one should establish mindfulness in one’s day-to-day life, maintaining as much as possible a calm awareness of one’s body, feelings, and mind. I try to carry this out in my own day-to-day life, as well.

Wellness is sometimes broken up into physical, mental and spiritual aspects. How do you try to balance these areas in terms of your own personal wellness?

As you say, wellness is multi-faceted — physical, mental, social and emotional are all part of it. If people feel good physically and emotionally they are productive, and they interact in a positive way with people and the environment, both at work and at home.

I try to keep balanced by spending time outside, in nature. I really enjoy gardening, fishing and anything that gets me out into the natural environment, such as berry-picking and camping. I pick a wide variety of wild mushrooms like morels, field mushrooms, pidpenky, red tops, and so on. Being out in nature is great, as it helps me to put things in perspective. I’m not thinking about work because I have to pay attention to other things — walking in a forest, desert or prairie involves all of our senses.

For me, these activities cover all three areas of Wellness, particularly because they usually involve friends and family. This past weekend, we were out picking Lecinnum mushrooms (“red tops”) for hours — once in the sunshine and later in the pouring rain. Then we went fishing. Watching cranes and eagles fly low over the Red River and hearing their calls gives me an incredible sense of wellbeing. Pulling an anchor out of the Red River bottom isn’t bad for your physical side either.

NancyPhoto4I also enjoy gardening.  Many of the plants in my gardens are valued because they are a constant reminder to me of the people who gave them to me. I will often bring plants to my neighbors or to work and share them as they’ve been shared with me.

 

 

Some people will seek “creative” activities as part of their Wellness mix, whether this is writing, photography, acting, gardening or storytelling. Are there any creative activities that help you maintain a sense of wellness?

NancyPhoto1Gardening is my favorite pastime. I also keep heritage chickens — Buff Orpingtons, French Morans, Barred Rocks, Polish Cochin cross — and it is really enjoyable looking after them.

I also like to tell stories, particularly if there is a moral to them. I will tell you one wellness story that I first heard back when I was in university.

 

“A young child asked his grandfather about how to deal with feelings he had been experiencing—– anger, bitterness and sadness. Grandfather said, ‘At one time I realized I had two wolves inside of me — a good wolf who represented happiness, humor, understanding and wellbeing towards others, and a bad wolf who represented anger, resentment, bitterness and sadness. Now I only have one wolf.’ The child asked, ‘Which wolf was that?’ Grandfather said, ‘The one that survived is the one that I fed.'”

I think this story underlines that good and bad things happen to us all the time, but we have a choice in how we react.

One of my favourite Chinese proverbs — which you can see in the artwork on my wall is, “If you keep a green bough in your heart, the singing bird will come.” I truly believe this, if I have a positive attitude,  happiness will follow. Also, that keeping an open mind and listening with empathy is very important in all our relations.

Given how busy life is, do you have any strategies for “making time” for Wellness activities, as opposed to “taking time”?

I struggle with this as much as anybody else but luckily many of my wellness activities are tied to nature, and thus a season (such as berry picking and ice fishing) so I have to do them when the opportunity presents itself and when the time is right.

As a past co-Chair of the Wellness Committee as well as being the Chair of the People Plan — what are your thoughts about the evolution of the Committee? What has it done well?

I think the committee has evolved to have a broad definition of Wellness that includes having a balanced life. The Committee has done a good job of striving to engage all stakeholders in actively shaping Wellness in the workplace.

The next step in the evolution of the Committee is to help people to think in innovative ways — this promotes development of future leaders. The premise is that we want to produce more Wellness leaders, not more followers. The blog is actually a good example of many people coming out and leading by sharing their thoughts and ideas about wellness.

Finally, open and continuous communication is important. So the Committee will need to continue to listen to staff and hear what their views of wellness are and engage them in their vision.

In what ways can the College continue to build upon the Wellness culture on campus?

Achieving work-life balance depends more than anything on supportive front-line management. They can make the greatest difference as people tend to spend most of their time with their immediate working groups.

Secondly, I think there’s a need to clearly link Wellness strategies to strategic College goals and to the People Plan. For example, it would be beneficial to integrate Wellness into the organizations’ planning processes, so that eventually all management decisions take Wellness into account.

Thirdly, ongoing support is required, such as allocating resources that ensure continuity to Wellness-related actions. Providing training, especially to managers at all levels, may help to sustain the initiative and embed Wellness into how the organization operates. We have to remember that many managers are new at that role, and they may not have experience handling complex staffing issues and relationships. So having a forum for managers to learn from each other, as well as training, can help people become better managers and build effective teams. We’re also rolling out a new program in the late fall called “Envision” that focuses on leadership at all levels. So there are other opportunities there. This change to the organization requires extensive and ongoing learning and innovation.

Overall, the Wellness Committee (and People Plan Committee) has a leadership role in all this, setting the direction, aligning people, motivating and inspiring.

Do you think that organizational strategies and processes that encourage more inter-departmental working relationships could also benefit Staff Wellness?

Making connections with other people is important to our health and well-being. Interacting with others helps us to learn how to listen, give constructive feedback, and communicate clearly. It also promotes individual and community well-being. We need to develop positive relationships at work, after all we spend a great deal of our time there.

How can the College help support Student Wellness?

Students benefit from Staff Wellness. A healthy learning environment equally supports students by creating sustainable ways of learning and creativity. At the very least, we should share Wellness information online and include students in Wellness events when it is possible.

Do you have any final thoughts?

NancyPhoto5As I mentioned earlier, I derive so much of my personal wellness by spending time “in nature”.  I also think that to be able to really care about sustainability we need to spend meaningful time in natural environments.  There is so much beauty all around us, where you can look down and see dew on a dandelion early in the morning, and be amazed by it. The more you look, the more you begin to see.

It reminds me of a recent walk I had with a friend who’s a bird-lover. I walk through the forest with my eyes on the ground looking for mushrooms, while my friend is scanning the trees for birds. We joke that we’re lucky we don’t bump into a bear along the way since neither of us is looking straight ahead. I’m sure there is a good wellness moral in there as well (laughing).

Thanks for your time