Danita Johnson-Hughes

When Dr. Danita Johnson Hughes joined Edgewater Systems in Gary, Indiana, it needed a leader. The behavioral health facility was on the verge of closing its doors. Thanks in part to her leadership as its CEO, within a year the organization was back on track, fully licensed and newly accredited.

Dr. Hughes, who earned her PhD in Human Services (now PhD in Human and Social Services) in 2002, is now working to expand the organization in response to the community’s need for additional services. Edgewater Systems plans to formalize a partnership with a primary healthcare practice to bring practitioners into its locations and begin staffing primary care locations with mental health professionals. Edgewater Systems is also expanding by building new locations across Indiana. “We’re always trying to be responsive to community needs,” she explains. “Part of that is consistently paying attention to national trends, like the push for integrated healthcare.”

Dr. Hughes readily admits she could not have reached this point of success without an extraordinarily tight-knit team to support the organization at every level. How did they do it? By focusing on wellness and morale in the team’s regular interactions. Here, she shares a few ideas to build morale at any workplace:

Encourage employees to take care of themselves. “I’m an avid workout person,” Dr. Hughes says. Despite her busy schedule, she visits the health club several times a week and also runs a few times a week. “Working out is my time,” she says. “It not only reduces my overall stress level, but it also allows me to think while I run, which helps me process everything I take in.” Go beyond self-care, she urges, by regularly encouraging employees to do the same or by starting a workplace wellness program.

Act as a strong team. Support one another. Offer support and ask for help. Dr. Hughes suggests regular meetings among staff to encourage clear, frequent conversation to avoid any bumps in the road. “One-on-one or group meetings allow colleagues to work things out more quickly,” she says.

Prioritize in-service training and instruction. “I’m really big on giving people the tools they need to work. We need to be sure they are equipped to do a good job,” Dr. Hughes shares. “We’re here to help people develop not only so our clients reach the highest level of function they can attain, but also to promote from within.”

Always remember it’s a careful balance. By earning her doctorate, Dr. Hughes learned to more deeply respect not only her colleagues, but also the complexity of the situations she faced. As she received comments from her committee members about her dissertation, she realized she shouldn’t be frustrated. “It made me look at things from someone else’s perspective and helped me realize they want you to truly earn your degree. It was a good experience. It helped me set my standards higher for myself—and our staff.”

In April, staff from Edgewater Systems accepted the Calumet College of St. Joseph’s Corporate Leadership Award for its leadership, spirit, and commitment to improving the quality of life of individuals in the community.

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