STAR² Center Talks Workforce Success Podcast

As burnout, compassion fatigue, and moral distress continue to affect the health center workforce, the third season of the STAR² Center Talks Workforce Success podcast presents insights, lessons learned, and first-hand experience in navigating and overcoming the challenges of these issues from those working in the field. In this episode, ACU’s Helen Rhea Vernier interviews Desireé Kelly, Workforce Strategies and Evaluations Manager at the Tennessee Primary Care Association in Nashville, TN about living with grace for one’s self and others as a form of self care, how organizational leaders can model self-care behavior, the importance of caring for teammates as a form of self-care, and how to effectively plan for self-care beautifully through the chaos.

During this episode, Dr. Kelly references her book, “My  Beautiful, Organized Chaos Strategies and Self-Care WorkbookYou can redesign your self-care routine and organize your life through the variety of activities, strategies, and reflection opportunities. This book can be purchased by clicking on this link.

Listen to other podcasts in this series.

Full Transcript: Living with Grace and Planning for Self-Care Through Chaos

Helen Rhea Vernier: Welcome to the fifth and final episode of the third season of The STAR² Center Talks Workforce Success Podcast series. I’m your host Helen Rhea Vernier, training specialist at Association of Clinicians for the Underserved. This season we’re focusing on employee self care and exploring how those in the field are engaging in successful, sustainable, organizationally supported self care and the impact that has on retention and recruitment. Today I’m talking to Dr. Desireé Kelly, workforce strategies and evaluations manager at the Tennessee Primary Care Association in Nashville, Tennessee. Thank you so much for being here.

Dr. Desireé Kelly: Thank you. Absolutely. So thank you for that amazing introduction. I am the workforce strategies and evaluation manager at Tennessee Primary Care Association, which you’ll hear me call TPCA. And let me just tell you a little bit about our organization. It is a membership association of community health centers serving all populations in Tennessee, regardless of their ability to pay. TPCA membership is comprised of 30 nonprofit primary care clinic organizations that operate more than 200 clinic sites. TPCA improves access to primary healthcare through leadership, advocacy and support as a voice of community health centers.

Dr. Desireé Kelly: One of the things I would like to add is that TPCA was founded in 1976 and unites health centers and other providers of care in an effort to improve access for the medically underserved. So we are a bridge between community needs and the decision makers at the federal state and local levels. In my role as a workforce strategies and evaluation manager I help develop and manage the TPCA health professions training initiatives, provide training and technical assistance and facilitate collaborations that result in programming that benefits Tennessee’s health centers. Now that is a mouthful, right? As this professional I have expertise in recruitment and retention strategies, strategic development, executive coaching, and developing workplace wellness programs to help employees thrive and Helen, I love that I have the opportunity to do this work every day at TPCA.

Helen Rhea Vernier: That’s so awesome. Thank you so much for sharing, for giving that background and thank you for all the work you’re doing. Given all that background what does self-care mean to you?

Dr. Desireé Kelly: Helen, I really, really love this question. It’s important to remember that everyone’s self care regimen is different, is personal, is based on what they need so for me, it is important to practice grace and kindness for myself. I define self care as taking care of myself by using all the knowledge and resources I have available to me at the moment and that’s in collaboration with medical and healthcare professionals.

Helen Rhea Vernier: Awesome. So if you don’t mind sharing, what are some of your self care activities then?

Dr. Desireé Kelly: I definitely do not mind. Thank you for asking. My self care regimen is simple and balanced and it has been a process over the years getting this to a good place for me. So for me it looks like podcasts, audio books, music, talking to cherished friends and family members, walking outside every blue moon to breathe the air and be mindful of my surroundings. Enjoying a funny movie. I am such a movie person. Every genre, except horror, that brings stress. That’s not self-care. And then creating my own special spa day. I protect my downtime fiercely. I am transparent about my boundaries and this helps me protect myself from toxicity and unnecessary stressors.

Helen Rhea Vernier: I love that list. One of my favorite things about doing this podcast has been hearing all the different things that people do as their self care routine so I love that. Thank you.

Dr. Desireé Kelly: Of course.

Helen Rhea Vernier: All right. So when we were setting up this interview you mentioned creating a self care plan. Can you tell us about that?

Dr. Desireé Kelly: Absolutely. So bear with me because I can talk about self care all day long. It is a passion project, but self care is healthcare. It is imperative to reduce stress, improve mental health, and balance work and family responsibilities. Regardless of your strategy sometimes the most important thing to do is to take a step back and take care of yourself. In 2020, when jobs in Tennessee started to pivot to remote due to COVID, I developed a workbook that encompassed every strategy and promising practice to help women manage their stressors and create their personal self care plan. It’s called My Beautiful Organized Chaos, Strategies and Self Care Workbook. Now this is how I develop my personal self care routine. This process helped me organize my life through activities, strategies and reflection opportunities and I wanted to share it with the world.

Over the decades I observe one important factor when it comes to self care. It is not prioritized. Our lives can be more fulfilling when we practice self care strategies and set boundaries than minimize daily stressors. So my top three daily practices include practicing grace in all of my spaces with other people, but specifically focusing on myself because I can’t give you grace if I’m not giving it to myself. Prayer and words of affirmations, which is major for me and appreciating the silence because there’s power in the pause. The pause helps you reevaluate, refocus, take a deep breath. Those are some things that have really helped me.

Helen Rhea Vernier: That’s so beautiful. I really love all of those.

Dr. Desireé Kelly: Thank you.

Helen Rhea Vernier: All right. So pivoting a little, how does TPCA as an organization support employee self care?

Dr. Desireé Kelly: So at TPCA we have an amazing self care culture. Libby Thurman is TPCA’s CEO and she normalizes self care and often models the behavior she wants to see in the organization. And we know how important that is. It’s different when you have a boss that says, take off, do your work and life balance, but then doesn’t practice it. But seeing her practice it herself says, oh my gosh, we can do this and this is our culture and this is okay. So generally everyone works to create an environment where people openly celebrate each other’s wins and support each other through the tough times. And that’s important. TPCA has a Culture Club and they work hard to take a strategic approach to shaping attitudes and behaviors in the workplace in order to shift workplace culture in a meaningful way. And that’s important. Helen, I have never worked for an organization that encourages work and life balance like TPCA and that’s important.

Helen Rhea Vernier: Yeah, absolutely. Can you tell me more about the Culture Club you mentioned?

Dr. Desireé Kelly: Absolutely. So our Culture Club is a volunteer based organization and they bring a different light of information for different meetings or events. Like if we want to celebrate someone’s birthday, anniversary or if somebody’s just having a bad day and we want to wrap our arms around them close or far, because not everybody likes to be reminded that they’re grieving. So in those situations we might provide little care packets and leave it on their desk, affirmation cards. They work really hard in the organization to make sure that everybody feels valued. One of the things that I like that the Culture Club does after every one of our meetings- they have a question and the question is about any and everything to provide an opportunity for people to bond on different things. It can be… I’m trying to think of one of the ones that really had me laughing.

If you wanted somebody else on Mount Rushmore, who would you want and why? And it just gives you insight into that person’s thinking and way to laugh. If you had a superhero power, what would it be? And it’s just a moment for us to get out of our heads and bond and connect. They do a lot to help support the employees and make sure everybody is thriving. I didn’t want us to take credit for it, but one of the things that we actually do is “code lavender”. And we took that from a nurses’ group and I don’t even remember where the nurses’ group are, but what happened is they’d had so many deaths at the oncoming of COVID that when they saw a nurse struggling they would call a code lavender and the nurses would go support that nurse for five, 10 minutes however that nurse see fit. If you want hugs, if you want to vent, if you want to take a walk, if you want to cry.

And I thought, man, how can we use that in our organization? So I brought it to the Culture Club and that’s how we effectively help our staff who are struggling because we’ve had staff that have had deaths in the family, various barriers and challenges just because of life, not to mention what COVID has cost life and so when they did that it was kind of amazing because it lets people know, number one, if you want me to cry with you I’m going to cry with you, but if you want me to take a step back and just leave you some chocolate or some tea or some affirmations, we can do that as well and that’s real workplace support.

Helen Rhea Vernier: I think that, that idea of we’ll meet whatever your stated need is, is so cool and important.

Dr. Desireé Kelly: It is.

Helen Rhea Vernier: That’s so cool. Yeah. I don’t think I’ve heard of another organization with that kind of group specifically. Of course other folks have different kinds of things, but that sounds like a really cool opportunity and option for an organization. That’s awesome.

Dr. Desireé Kelly: Absolutely.

Helen Rhea Vernier: All right. So how can organizations underscore the importance of self care without placing undue responsibility and burden on individuals?

Dr. Desireé Kelly: This is a great question. So leaders and employees who are supported in taking care of themselves while achieving the goals of the organization, they tend to be more motivated, engaged, and they’ll perform better. In order to produce wellbeing in the workforce leaders should try to create a culture that promotes and enables self care. Like it’s okay to take a moment away from your desk. It’s okay not to eat lunch at your desk. Matter of fact, encourage it. Go into the cafeteria, little workspace that you can bond and talk to other employees for a moment on your lunch break. So one of the most effective methods is when executive leadership models the behavior they actually want to see in the organization, I think is what I’m trying to say.

Helen Rhea Vernier: Yeah. I love too that perspective of like it doesn’t have to be this huge thing. It can be, self care can be a small moment of honoring yourself as a person who needs and deserves breaks.

Dr. Desireé Kelly: That’s it, that’s it. I love that. And one of the things, as everybody is coming back into the office with offices who are doing that, you’re putting down those barriers, trying to relax in the midst of a pandemic, but we still have to un-silo ourselves because we were so in that stage of, oh, masks, protection, stay a certain feet away from us, but now you have the opportunity to get out the office a little bit, have that connectedness with your employees and your staff and TPCA does a really great job with that. So I know I find myself two or three times a week going out and searching out employees and colleagues that I have not seen for that week and say, hey, how are you doing? Just wanted to say, hi. I’m missing you, going back to the office. I just wanted to let you know that you were thought about and I found that keeps me connected even in this space that we’re trying to maneuver.

Helen Rhea Vernier: Absolutely. That makes a lot of sense. All right. So how, again, this is bit of a pivot, but how are diversity, equity and inclusion and staff wellness or employee self care linked?

Dr. Desireé Kelly: So, and this of course is my professional opinion, but workforce diversity and inclusion are closely linked to employee mental health. Why? Why do we think that? Well, there’s an emotional tax. It’s one of the biggest threats to wellness. Whenever employees feel different from their colleagues because of gender, race, ethnicity, they pay an emotional tax. The emotional tax hurts mental health and wellbeing. So when you have an inclusive, diverse workplace culture that promotes employees belonging, safety, and purpose, it can’t do anything but boost productivity. Companies, organizations, they often treat workplace wellness and JEDI initiatives separately, but they’re both important and they could and should exist in harmony with each other.

Inclusion and diversity are essential, essential to have an engaged workforce as well as a strong supportive wellness culture. People’s mental health and wellbeing are directly affected by diversity issues, lack of representation and support as well as microaggressions, biases in the workplace and racial violence outside the workplace. They affect everyone’s overall wellbeing. Whether they deal with it intentionally or unintentionally, it affects you. So when it comes to building DEI initiatives, employers can have a big impact by acknowledging that link between mental health, financial wellness and overall wellbeing. So when employees take the time to understand their employees’ unique needs and meeting them on a personal level, it can contribute to improved wellbeing across the organization. I’ve seen it happen.

Helen Rhea Vernier: That makes a lot of sense. All right, is there anything else you’d like to share with our audience before we wrap up?

Dr. Desireé Kelly: Helen, thank you so much for this opportunity. I am a big advocate of self care and could probably really literally talk about it all day. I’ve did a lot of different speaking engagements and wellness presentations, but one thing that I want to leave with the listeners, make time for yourself. Small actions can have big results on your mental health and self care. So follow these four easy steps, give yourself credit. You are really doing the best that you can. Tackle stressors one at a time, be kind to yourself, ask for help and that looks like your supportive circle, your clinical therapist, your medical doctors. Make sure that you are taking the best care of you because there’s only one of you. Helen, thank you so much for letting me share some of my practices and expertise. It’s been a dream come true to be a speaker on this podcast.

Helen Rhea Vernier: Thank you so much. I know I personally will be listening to this, especially that last part when I need those affirmations. So thank you so much for joining us and sharing that wisdom and expertise. It’s really been such a pleasure to chat with you.

Dr. Desireé Kelly: You too.

Helen Rhea Vernier: Listeners, thank you for tuning in. We hope today’s conversation provided you with ideas, suggestions, and insights into ways you can approach, encourage and organizationally support employee self care, wellness and resilience at your organization. Be sure to check out all of our free workforce tools and resources found at