posted on Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Q&A with Keynote Speaker Sarah Noll Wilson

"We think about health and wellness as only HR’s job. We tend to approach it like it is an initiative instead of deeply held belief in our culture." 

Sarah Noll Wilson transforms teams, leaders and audiences through one-on-one coaching, workshops and events. The Healthiest State Initiative is excited for Noll Wilson to share her leadership development prowess with attendees as the keynote speaker at our 2019 Annual Conference: Putting Awareness into Action on May 14.

REGISTER: Sign-up to attend the 2019 Annual Conference

This year’s conference is focused on mental health and aims to empower Iowans in attendance, to not just talk about mental health, but to cultivate a workplace that better supports an employee’s mental health. Noll Wilson is uniquely qualified to present at this event, because in addition to her experience working in corporate talent development, she also lives with a panic disorder. 


Sarah Noll Wilson leads a leadership workshop. She is the keynote speaker for the 2019 Healthiest State Initiative Annual Conference.

Noll Wilson offered a preview of her keynote address, which will tap into both her personal and professional experience, ahead of the Annual Conference.

Healthiest State Initiative: Tell us about the first time you realized you had a passion for coaching and developing leaders.

Sarah Noll Wilson: My very first memories of wanting to help people show up more powerfully as leaders was planted when I was 19 years old. At this time, I was a day camp director and certified ropes course instructor. When I wasn’t working with kids, I was leading corporate teams through different obstacles to work on their communication, connection and courage. I remember thinking “Is it possible to do this for a living?” I was an undergraduate theatre major at the time so the world of business was far away from my reality. Fairly quickly after starting my work at an insurance company I began technical training. While I loved to help people learn, my passion wasn’t to help people process more contracts, it was to help them have a better relationship with themselves and with others. The rest is history.

RELATED: Why talking about mental health in the workplace matters

HSI: How did you realize you had a panic disorder? 

SNW: I visited a therapist shortly after my first full panic attack which was followed up by mini attacks for weeks. I finally went because I felt so broken, hopeless, and horribly unsettled. The first time she explained anxiety and panic attacks to me I remember leaving the appointment and sobbing in my car. Having the initial diagnosis was a relief, like a burden lifted off my shoulders because now the unknown was known. Not only was it known but there were things we could do to help it get better.

About a month later I was officially diagnosed with panic disorder. At the time of that diagnoses I will admit that I was nervous. What if I never learn to manage these? What if I get panic attacks while speaking? What if impacts my ability to be successful? What if, what if, what if? It took a lot of work over that first year for me to answer those "what ifs" and to have a different relationship with my mind.

HSI: Did the diagnosis affect your career like you thought it would?

SNW: This is going to feel strange for some people to hear, but having panic was the best thing for myself and my career. I want to explain this a bit further: Yes, the first year I was miserable. I was showing up and doing the work, but was hiding my daily tears from everyone. While my boss was amazing, I didn’t want her to think differently of me. So I hid my diagnosis, which was the hardest thing I had ever had to manage in my life. There were more days than I can count that I had to leave the office simply to find a safe place to cry, to work through an attack or to call my husband to calm me down. I say it was the best thing that ever happened because through my experience I learned mindfulness. I learned about self-care and self-compassion. I grew through a daily gratitude practice. Most importantly I learned how to be curious with my body and my thoughts which has opened up this incredible world of curiosity of others. Someday I will write a humorous survival guide to panic attacks called “If it weren’t for my panic, I’d be going crazy.” *wink* 

MAKE IT OK: How you can reduce stigma of mental illness

HSI: Why do you think the topic of this conference is necessary?

SNW: Millions of people suffer directly or are impacted indirectly by mental health challenges. I suspect that number is even higher because we are still in a time where people are embarrassed to talk about their experiences. I’ve witnessed first hand how people respond negatively or unintentionally towards those with mental health challenges. I’ve seen people fired because their mental health was impacting their work.


People spend most of their time at work. Which means we have the greatest opportunity to help people grow and thrive as people and professionals. I am so happy we are talking more about this topic and that we are exploring new solutions. But we need to do more than just talk. We need to educate ourselves and our leaders. We need to make bold moves in changing how we deal with stress in the work place.

Every company should have a focused interest in the mental well being of their team members. We know that our mental health impacts our physical health, it impacts our productivity, our ability to innovate and create, it impacts how we connect to others, and most importantly it impacts how we see ourselves. Companies need us at our best and we deserve to be at our best.

HSI: What do you think is the biggest obstacle in creating workplaces that support an employees’ physical and mental health?

SNW:  I don’t know if this is the biggest obstacle, but certainly one I’ve experienced is that often we think about health and wellness as only HR’s job. We tend to approach it like it is an initiative instead of deeply held belief in our culture. You cannot support employees' physical and mental health with a Lunch & Learn once a year while their manager is expecting them to work 60+ hours per week. To truly support the well being of our people, we first have to care about them as people. We need to understand the beautiful complexity of what it means to be human.

HSI: What can conference attendees expect from your keynote address?

SNW: This isn’t going to be your every day keynote where I talk at you. The challenge of supporting mental health in the workplace is real and it needs real solutions. My goal is to help everyone reflect, discover, and define specific actions we can do to truly create a culture where supporting mental health is the norm and not just an initiative. Not only will we all be inspired by this interactive experience, but we will leave with powerful actions to create transformative change.

2019 Annual Conference: Putting Awareness into Action

The 2019 Annual Conference will feature:

  • Sarah Noll Wilson, M.S., CPCC, executive coach and transformer of teams, who will deliver an interactive keynote address
  • Iowa companies of various sizes and industries that have implemented wellness programs supportive of mental health
  • Influential Iowans — Steve Karlin and Lyndsey Fennelly — who have courageously shared their stories of mental illness.

Register for the 2019 Annual Conference at www.IowaHealthiestState.com/Conference.