How to ensure well-being in government

How to ensure well-being in government

By Marcela Popowich

  • The problem: How and when to think about your well-being.
  • Why it matters: It makes you a better human, in all of your roles.
  • The solution: Make the time to reflect.

What is well-being in government? For each public servant, this is different. Different based on things like your gender, the colour of your skin, the privileges you have or don’t, your personality, your life circumstances and finally, where you are working.

Like many, I didn’t think I would end up in government. I had dreams of becoming a lawyer or a politician – I saw both as ways of making real change. For reasons of circumstance, I ended up in government. As a young public servant it met the needs I identified as being most important at that time – pay, benefits, pension, opportunities for advancement and I got to work with some cool and different people, including he who would eventually be my husband. My husband and I built a life together while working within one department of approximately 150 people, for 14 years. Those people were our second family. We experienced our dating years, our marriage and then both our kids with most of them.

My well-being meant being connected to people and I was connected to my colleagues who were (and are still) my friends. My well-being meant being connected to the organisation and feeling that we could meet our organisation’s goals together and I did. I moved up the corporate ladder and got time off with my children. I had the privilege of being off for a year with each of them and I could take time off when needed to take care of them.

Getting comfortable… too comfortable

Given my life circumstances, I wanted for a long time to feel the stability and the feeling of camaraderie that only staying in an organisation for as long as I did could give me. But staying that long also meant that I eventually needed a new challenge and a new environment. Well-being in the government meant I was able to apply for a micro-mission with the Federal Youth Network (FYN). I got it and my department let me go, understanding that I needed and wanted this opportunity.


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Then the pandemic happened. In the last 19 months, I’ve reflected a lot about my well-being. I thought of how I defined this throughout my years and how for much of it my well-being was second to those whom I defined as more important. Working from home during the pandemic forced me to really think about what it means to be well, what I need from my daily interactions to feel fulfilled. This reflection is constant, and I’m making minor or major adjustments as I continue to learn, but right now my well-being means:

  1. I want to feel connected to the organisation I’m working for,
  2. I want to have authentic relationships with people,
  3. I want to be a better human being and I want to make a difference, and
  4. My well-being isn’t second to anyone, but that I couldn’t ignore the well-being of those around me – namely those that had been historically marginalised.

“Working as a public servant, I have the power to make or influence change.”

Pivoting to a new normal

Well-being in the government means I’m connected to the work I’m doing. The team I’m on was able to pivot and change how we were doing things to be able to connect with other public servants. We’ve been able to help others learn how to connect, stay connected and remain engaged during these, often emotional and chaotic, times. I feel connected to our mandate and believe that we have added, and continue to add, value to the public service.

This past year I struggled with making authentic relationships, mainly because I was stuck at home and having all the different feelings we’ve all had around the pandemic – fear, loneliness, sorrow, gratitude, pure joy and more – sometimes all of these in one day. How do you begin to build authentic relationships when you’re part of a new team? I started by participating in One Team Gov Virtual coffee chats. It’s here where I began to feel less alone – other public servants who were talking about the same things I was feeling. I began to build relationships with them. I began to take the advice FYN was parcelling out – and reaching out via technology for coffee chats, Zoom paint nights and trivia games. But my reflection has also helped me come to terms that WFH on a permanent basis is not my thing. That a hybrid style, because I do enjoy the flexibility of it, is likely what I will need in the coming future.

Being honest and true to yourself

It was hard to acknowledge some of the pieces of myself I was ashamed of. It was hard to put myself first. It was hard to talk about my life, to forgive and let go. Self-reflection was hard for me, and it wasn’t done in a moment. This took time. It’s important for me to acknowledge that I was in a safe space, both mentally and physically, to take that time to reflect. Well-being meant I had done some hard work and that I had to do harder work – unlearn what I had erroneously learned. Admit that the truths I believed in were wrong. So, I went on a learning journey. Well-being in the government meant my organisation gave me that space, time, and opportunity.

Working as a public servant, I have the power to make or influence change. Change that is within my scope. My journey has allowed me to realise that I might not be setting the world on fire with what I do, but I can certainly be a pebble and cause ripples. Well-being for me has included working with government communities and networks that need my help. Through my position, I’ve been able to provide a platform to these groups doing important work for equity-seeking groups. I’m most proud of the relationships I’ve developed with people in these communities. And I appreciate that my job gave me the flexibility to use my skills to help.

If I’ve made this sound easy, it hasn’t been. I’ve been a public servant for twentyish years. I’ve had moments of clarity but I’ve never had the time like I did these past 19 months (plus a couple of coaching sessions!) to really make me think about my own well-being. I’ve sometimes had to stand up for what I needed. I’ve been very fortunate to have great managers and when they haven’t been great, fortunate to have great colleagues to help me through.

Well-being will mean different things at different times. Our needs change as we change. Well-being in the government means that the government can, and should, change with you.

*Marcela Popowich is Virtual Event Lead at Federal Youth Network.

*This article first appeared on the apolitical.co website

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