January 3, 2024
Mental health strategies for a happy, healthy 2024
Interview by Julia Harmsworth

into the new year, it’s more important than ever to have a mental health check-in — with ourselves, to see how we’re doing and what we need to address, and with our employees and peers, to understand how we can support them.

Jim Paluch, a long-time friend of Landscape Ontario, author and motivational speaker, is passionate about dissolving the stigma around mental health to help individuals grow their businesses and excel as professionals. He released his book The Depressed Motivational Speaker in 2022, drawing from his own personal experiences with mental health.

Paluch is bringing his insights to Landscape Ontario’s Peer to Peer Network workshop on Jan. 8. The event will help landscape and horticulture professionals build resilience under stress and leverage community support. We spoke with Paluch about his perspective and approach to promoting mental health.

How did you get involved in the mental health sphere?

I have battled the challenge of depression all my life. I’ve always read about it, and I’ve always studied it, and I’ve always observed. Over the 30-plus years of working with companies in the landscape profession, I heard lots of stories about what people were battling themselves, or in their family or [grieving for] someone close to them that they lost to mental health issues. And I thought, “I’ll write a book, and I’ll use my experiences.” It gave me a chance to put out some ideas and thoughts on how we can get better at beating this demon — this depression — by trying different approaches.

I am not a mental health professional. What I’m doing is putting some ideas out there that make us think, “What if I did try thinking in that way, and using that strategy? What could it do to my ability to battle depression, and help others learn?”

What do you see as the biggest mental health issues facing landscape and horticulture professionals right now?

I think at the owners/managers level, it’s such a wonderful profession, while at the same time, it’s a grueling profession. There are so many elements, from weather to finding employees, to dealing with customers, to weather, and weather, and weather. I believe every person that gets into the landscape profession and goes on to start their own business or move up in the organization battles something of significance.

We get into the profession because we love getting our hands dirty and creating beautiful spaces and growing things. Then as the business grows, we have to move away from that first love and fight the battles of running a business. It causes this loss, and wondering, “Hey, this used to be fun.” That starts to create worry or thoughts in our head that can take away the joy of landscaping. So it is a challenging business.

In your experience, how can landscape and horticulture professionals prioritize their own mental health?

The priority we all need to work towards is realizing that this is a real challenge. [Mental health issues] can affect our health, our life, our family, the people around us, our business, and we have to believe it’s real. We have to see that. We have to be willing to talk about it. And I think that’s happening more, as sports figures and famous people are talking about their mental health.

The challenge is, we don’t need to just accept it. The priority is realizing, “Okay, this is something I’m battling, now what’s my strategy?” Just like, what’s my strategy for creating more sales? What’s my strategy for managing my finances? Depression can be a response to something, and if we can learn to manage that response in a more positive way, then we live happier, healthier lives.

How can business owners prioritize the mental health of their employees?

There certainly has to be a culture of trust. How can you create a culture of trust? I talk about all of us getting better as a team. Consistency in staff meetings and reviews and one-on-ones and communicating and training — all of those things that build that culture of trust — are important. So, mental health just becomes something that we can talk about, like we can talk about safety on a job site or proper horticulture techniques.

That first strategy is for business owners to build their own resilience enough to create trust. I used to say, every time I got on an airplane, I would get the greatest motivational speech from the flight attendant up front: in case of an emergency and the oxygen masks come down, put it on yourself first before you help someone else. We have to make sure that we are doing the things that keep us healthy and in a place where we are able to have an impact on others.

How does prioritizing mental health benefit a business as a whole?

It seems like it should be an obvious answer, but if it were an obvious answer, we’d probably do more of it. If we are feeling good about ourselves, if we’re being honest, if we’re having that communication, we are naturally going to perform better in our roles, whether it’s the designer, or the foreperson or the owner.

We can come in with a facade, pretending to be strong while inside we’re feeling weak, and that’s going to come through in different ways. But if we are proactively working on our mental health, it’s going to help us perform better in everything — as a better parent, a better spouse and a better business partner. Anything that we do to improve ourselves, whether it’s mental or physical, is going to reflect in our day-to-day performance.

Why is it so important to prioritize conversations about mental health?

Misery loves company. If we prioritize conversations, we learn to talk about it. It’s going to take practice, so prioritizing it helps us to get better at it. It helps us to realize that we’re not alone, and maybe to help another person realize that they’re not alone. Sometimes it’s just being a good ear to somebody and listening to how they’re feeling. Having the conversations can challenge ourselves and others to say, “What are you going to do about it?” That’s where the strategies come into place.

Can you give me a sneak peek at the conversation you’ll be facilitating at the Peer to Peer Summit in January?

The conversation I hope we’re able to bring out at the event is about those strategies of moving forward. I’ll present those strategies in a conversational way to the group, and then I’ll step back and allow the tables to talk about what’s something they need to do next, in their business or in their personal life. I’ll ask, “What do you need to do next to move you a little further to where you want to be in your mental health and the mental health of your team?” It’s about getting information, discussing it, understanding it, creating knowledge, having confidence, taking action and moving forward.

It's a pretty special thing that Landscape Ontario is willing to do to create this day, because what’s already been created in the Peer to Peer Network is that sense of trust. It’s going to be an exciting, great day.

We asked our members: How does being in the landscape/horticulture profession affect your mental health or influence your mental health strategies?

“A walk in nature is the first step toward joy and mental peace for me. At work, each day I look forward to immersing myself in the outdoors, allowing our green space to refresh my mental energy and health. It’s a form of distraction theory. Being outdoors allows me to be one with nature and come alive outside. Our landscapes, whether they’re expansive natural settings or small green backyard gardens, have a profound impact on mental wellness.”Rohan Harrison, grounds department lead at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto

“The positives are also the negatives. The fact that it’s seasonal is a positive for me because I get that light at the end of the tunnel where I get to reboot and refresh, and be with my family more. The negative is that nature doesn’t wait, so if it’s going to rain tomorrow, you need to cover up everything today. It pushes you beyond your comfort zone, and you’re going to be overstretched.” —Jonas Spring, Toronto Chapter rep and owner of Ecoman in Toronto

What strategies do you use to prioritize your mental health?

“Definitely one of them is scheduling time [to check in on myself]. I find in this industry whether we’re landscapers, landscape designers or horticulturists, we don’t have [a lot of] time. So actually scheduling in a mental health afternoon — I like Mental Health Mondays — where it’s just a check-in: What’s going well, what’s not going well? What should I focus on? But then having some regular schedule, so daily, whether it’s journaling, meditating — there’s so many things.” Heather Jerrard, landscape designer and owner of My Landscape Artist in London, Ont.

“My strategies are really to make sure I’m checking in on myself. I have to be aware of some key indicators that I’m experiencing more stress, or I’m feeling more anxious or I’m feeling more unsettled. For example, if I’m being very, very indecisive — I know that for me, that’s one of those indicators.” —Guinevere Kern, horticultural therapist at Homewood Health in Guelph, Ont.

What strategies do you use to prioritize the mental health of your employees?

 “It’s very important to give your employees time to reflect, learn and express themselves. Give them options and opportunities so that they aren’t just performing a task; they’re contributing, learning and growing, because if they’re not doing that, they will stagnate and be very frustrated. And then, treating them as a human being. The simple questions in life — “how are you today?” and “what’d you do on the weekend?” — create community conversation.” —Ed Hansen, LO president and chair of TEC Canada

“Some advice is to consider mental health as part of workplace health and safety, from a preventative standpoint — as well as one that is about creating that really important workplace culture that we want to continue to foster, and be able to attract folks and support them in the workplace. It’s something that affects every single person in varying degrees at varying times, and opening up the conversation is the first step.” —Guinevere Kern, horticultural therapist at Homewood Health in Guelph, Ont.