How to Build Social Wellness in the Workplace: An Interview with a Books@Work Participant
September 19, 2018 | Maredith Sheridan
Today’s interview features Karyn Newton, a three-time participant in Case Western Reserve University’s Books@Work programs. CWRU delivers Books@Work as part of a wellness initiative to encourage community and social connection between faculty and staff on campus. Karyn works in the Office for Inclusion, Diversity and Equal Opportunity. She is also pursuing her master’s degree in World Literature at the university.
Karyn, you’ve participated in three different Books@Work programs, meeting weekly for nearly a year. What sticks with you most about the experience?
My experience changed over time because there were different people in each group. But in the third group, we read James McBride’s The Color of Water, [a novel about a biracial man whose white mother passes as black.] There were a number of minority participants and many viewpoints about the book. Coming from a white, middle-class suburban background, it was interesting to hear from women of color who have had different experiences in their lives than – obviously – I’ve had. It was eye-opening. It felt very safe in that space. We were all really interested in hearing what others had to say. And if it didn’t gel with your own feelings, everybody respected that.
Conversations about issues like race can be uncomfortable in a work setting. Why do you think your discussion unfolded in a safe and productive way?
I think in an everyday office setting, you’re not necessarily going to bring these issues to the forefront, especially if they are contentious. In the Books@Work setting, each facilitator was very clear that we all come from different backgrounds. We’re all going to perceive this material differently, but it’s important that we remain respectful. We may not agree with each other, but we’re not going to have heated arguments about it.
Also, the book is a tool. It brings these tough issues forward. That makes it more comfortable because you’re not just bringing things up at random. The book is the topic of our conversation, and it’s not coming up out of the blue.
The program at CWRU is offered as part of the university’s wellness program, specifically as an initiative to improve social and community wellness for faculty and staff. What does social wellness mean to you?
I would say that social wellness is building relationships among people who may not necessarily have an opportunity to interact, and making it easier to grow those relationships. Here at Case, we are very siloed. We tend to cluster together in the groups that we are with every day. Books@Work creates an opportunity for you to meet people across campus. It’s nice to be able to build those bridges.
The discussions of the issues in these books always, inevitably, brings something out that you may not have expected from somebody else. Just knowing somebody on a semi-superficial level is not going to get you into their way of thinking as well as listening to them work through some of the issues in the books.
In Books@Work, you often meet people with very different outlooks. You may have never thought of it that way, but talking to them, you find that it’s really interesting. It’s just nice to build those kind of social relationships and not just professional relationships – although Books@Work does both.
How would you convince decision makers in another company that discussing books and short stories is a valuable use of their time?
That’s a great question. I think it’s a great use of time because you’re telling your employees that building relationships and working through tough issues is important. You’re showing that you value diversity of thought and the free expression of different opinions. Books@Work really allows people to express themselves in a space that’s safe and less contentious than a debate or a forum where things can get combative.
You’re telling your employees, “We want you to feel that your voice is being heard, that your opinions matter to us. How you feel about these issues is valuable – and you’re valuable.”
Image: Maria Primachenko, Wild Bull and Raven Are Friends, 1983, [Fair Use] via WikiArt.org
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Maredith Sheridan is a Development Communications Associate at the Cleveland Orchestra and a part-time member of the Books@Work team. She continues to write posts for our blog.