From Stressed to Strong with Laurie A. Watkins
Laurie A. Watkins was burnt out. On some level, she knew it but wasn’t ready to acknowledge the consequences her lifestyle was having on her health and well-being. She ignored the inner voice telling her to change her ways. She ignored the visible signs of her imminent collapse – the fatigue, the cramps, and the dizziness that rose up in might, causing her to swerve her car to the side of the road moments before she crashed – all of it was squelched and buried beneath the drumbeat of success and stoicism.
It’s a familiar malady afflicting many ambitious Americans, this incessant belief that in order to succeed, one must forfeit health and self-care. No one wants to be the person caught in the gym or on the golf course when they could be at work. They don’t dare take a sick day lest they be labeled as weak, and they sure as hell are not going to admit to fatigue. Instead they accept the constant exhaustion and tension headaches. They bear their exhaustion as a badge of honor. They cram their mouths with caffeine and sugar-laden sweets to feel a momentary boost in energy, and then more caffeine when that rush crashes. Once they finally leave the office, it’s straight to the bar or the home liquor cabinet to calm their maxed-out nerves before retreating into troubled sleep. Eventually they find themselves exactly where Laure did.
She was just 28 years old but her body would have sworn she was twice that. Grey hairs screamed it. Stress and unwellness poured out of her body and onto her face in an angry complexion. She was unemployed and uninspired, single and very, very unwell. Laurie Watkins, recently a star in the Obama campaign, was teetering on the brink of Has-Been.
Her survival instinct kicked in, pushing Laurie A. Watkns to seek and accept a new position at the Pentagon.
It was a Hail Mary move, relocating from Florida to our nation’s capital, and it paid off not just in terms of her career but in building a new life for herself.
Her office mates were not much different than those on the campaign trail. They were driven and prone to unhealthy lifestyles. It was familiar to Laurie. She fit right in. Then one day a female colleague extended the invitation that sparked a flame, that turned into a roaring fire within Laurie.
“Do you want to come work out with me?”
Laurie had never been to the Pentagon Athletic Center (PAC). It was a whole new world. All around her were high ranking military and government officials working out next to subordinates. Far from the donut-gorging, coffee-slugging inhabitants of the inner offices, the PAC is home to a community of people as committed to their own personal health and well-being as they are to their jobs. They view exercise and nutrition as part of their jobs, for it is when they are at their physical best that their minds are clearest, and they are able to excel in their work.
It was fascinating. It was also intimidating. Laurie tried her best to complete the Workout of the Day, posted on the wall, in the midst of this bevy. But all she could focus on were the dozens of eyes she was positive were locked on her and the other 3 women who dared venture into this male-dominated arena. Her friend sensed Laurie’s discomfort.
“Laurie,” her friend said,” They may be looking. They will probably never stop. But I guarantee you they respect the hell out of us for being down here at 6 a.m. and working out.”
Laurie made it through the workout. She returned to the PAC regularly after that. Self-consciousness plagued her for a time, but slowly her friend’s words sunk in and slowly Laurie found them to be true.
“It’s about respect,” says Laurie. True leaders and achievers respect those who work hard to keep themselves at their physical and mental peaks. Demeanor and appearance speak volumes about a person long before that person utters a word. Assessments are made in snap judgments, and those judged to shirk their own well-being can also be assumed to under-prioritize their job, or underperform at it. They can be seen as weak and liabilities.
Over time Laurie immersed herself in the PAC culture. She added nutrition and other core management protocols into her own self-care regimen. She started feeling better. She started performing better at work. She introduced healthier options into the daily morning briefing breakfast options, encouraging her office mates to sample the benefits of nutritious foods. It was not always easy but to Laurie, the diet changes made sense, as she wanted to give her body the proper fuel and nutrition it needs to meet the demands of the intense Crossfit workouts.
Life was great again. Laurie was on top of her game in DC. She was healthier than ever. She was fit and sharp, and committed to staying that way. There was no going back for her.
Then her commitment was tested not once, but twice.
First, Laurie was asked to return to Florida and resume her role in President Obama’s campaign.
It was a gut-wrenching decision for her; could she return to the same environment, with many of the same people, and withstand the lure of falling back into artificial well-being?
Laurie strengthened her resolve and returned to the work she was passionate about.
Unfortunately a supervisor in her new office seemed equally committed to derailing Laurie’s progress.
She refers to him as “the office bully,” opting to keep his identity anonymous. Her bully, perhaps threatened by the strong, confident woman in his ranks or perhaps feeling her strength spotlighted his own weaknesses, locked on to Laurie. The entire office had a front row seat to his campaign against her health and well-being.
Campaign hours are not 9-5. Laurie’s workday started when most people are grabbing that last cup of coffee on their way out the door, or stuck in the morning commute. They ended when most people were clearing dinner dishes from the table. So if she wanted to energize her mind and body for those long days, she would sometimes have to schedule her gym time during office hours.
Laurie had more than one cell phone to assure she remained accessible. She’d go to her workout, clean back up, and report back to work more charged up and with a sharper mind than her colleagues who remained hunched over their desks all day. If anything, her work showed the same jolt of energy that her body did. Still, the bully wasn’t having it.
At first his technique was passive-aggressive. He’d track the days she left for the gym. Then he scheduled meetings or last-minute “priority” jobs that needed her attention, to throw her off her schedule. When Laurie outmaneuvered his tactics, he became openly hostile until one day he called her out in front of the entire office.
Laurie half-smiles as she remembers the moment. She’d almost made it out the door, gym bag over her shoulder when the bully charged her. In a rage, he screamed at her right there. “If you go I’m going to fire you.”
Anyone subjected to regular torment and bully tactics has their limit. For Laurie this was it. He’d made this battle public. She hadn’t started this silly war but she was going to end it right there and then.
“Go right ahead,” she shot right back at him, as loudly as he’d done, “ I’m going to the gym and you can’t stop me.”
She didn’t get fired that day or the next. Her bully had outed himself and his pettiness, and come out the Loser. Just like the lunch money bully who finally gets punched by a victim, his power over her had vanished.
It wasn’t so much about the bullying for Laurie. She’s been working in the high-pressure political world for a long time and knows how to handle herself around all sorts of personalities. It was instead about her commitment to herself and her own well-being. “You have to guard your time and covet it like you would anything else,” says Laurie. It’s a valuable lesson she passes on to her individual and corporate clients today.
“We have one life. There’s a lot to cram into this one life,” she says. It’s important to maximize our own potential, and to do so we must commit to self-care.
Laurie Watkins took these hard-learned lessons and used them to replot her own course in life.
Instead of a washed-up version of herself, she’s become the best version of herself.
Laurie’s passion for her own well-being is something she is also passionate about helping others find for themselves. “I can recognize very quickly in someone now, the threshold where they mostly aren’t aware they’re on the verge of breakdown,” she says.
She recognized it in many of her colleagues on the second campaign. Tempers were flaring. Sick days abounded. Laurie used to be in the thick of that cycle. This time she knew how to break it.
With a little bit of work, Laurie brought in a massage therapist to the office. No sooner had she sent the schedule options out than every 20-minute slot was filled. Before Laurie made her way downstairs to the conference room that had been converted into a temporary spa environment for her own massage, a parade of refreshed co-workers had ambled by her desk to thank her for arranging that.
For some, it was the only friendly human touch they’d felt in a long while. For others, it was the physical release of acids in neglected muscles, and the soothing escape from pressure that left them visibly changed upon their return.
That night there were no angry exchanges among colleagues. The office door barely fluttered at closing time, as most were so engrossed in and inspired by their work again that they didn’t even notice the clock.
Laurie never doubted the benefits of innovative thinking in the office. Now her colleagues felt it too. And it’s another lesson she imparts to corporate clients. “Your people, when healthy and happy, are more productive.” She winces a bit to whittle it down to dollars and cents but, in the corporate world, that’s what keeps it going. So Laurie details the reduced costs and increased profits shown by companies that invest in employee well-being.
Laurie is no longer in the political trenches, professionally. Today she’s her own boss with her own self-designed courses on health and well-being. She’s the author of a book on the topic, and she’s a personal and corporate coach and trainer who brings her insight and experience into her work.
Although she’s no longer solely focused in the political arena, Laurie still does her part to make a difference. Well aware of the dangerous divide being fed in this country, Laurie boldly invites people from the opposite sides of politics to a place of common ground. She extends opportunities for these people to engage in civil discourse and encourages the practice of understanding what is feeding the anger, so that we may all work together to ease it.
“We have an incredible country that we live in,” she says. And she’s doing her part to help keep it that way.