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Project Your Voice: Talking About Putting Mental Health First with Dana Johnston

By March 2, 2023April 25th, 2023Projection

This is the fifth post in our “Project Your Voice” series. In this Q&A, we sat down with Dana Johnston, associate director of convention operations and corporate relations at the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA). Having battled a serious mental illness herself, Dana has made it a point to keep mental health and better care of human resources in the conversation among events industry professionals.

Q: How did you get started in the meetings industry?

A: Prior to my work in events, I had a successful career in sales and account management roles. But, when I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, I had to pivot. I was very sick for several years, and my doctors told me I may never work again. Determined to move forward with my life, I stepped into a low-stress administrative assistant role for one of my previous clients, IDSA. By chance, my desk was positioned near the offices of the meetings and education team. As I overheard different conversations and got a better understanding of what they did for the association, I realized I could thrive in that environment. Eventually, a position opened up, and I worked my way up from a meetings assistant to associate director.

For me, working at a mission-oriented association brings together skills from my previous line of work and my goals for a healthy future. I help produce non-dues revenue for the association in the form of convention partnerships with industry partners. I’m still in a high-pressure, high-reward environment. Thankfully, I am well now and, although I will always live with Bipolar Disorder, I have a great care team and am surrounded by support, so I’m able to have a normal, beautiful life.

Q: Was there a person who helped guide you making the transition to this industry?

A: John Buckley, Director of Convention Operations and Corporate Relations for IDSA, first came on my radar back in my administrative assistant days. I could hear the way he talked to and coached his team, in a supportive and caring manner. I have reported to John in various capacities throughout the years, and it has been incredible to have him teaching and supporting me along the way. John sees me as a person first, and his employee second. This type of leadership style helps everyone thrive, and the association flourish as a result.

Q: What do you love about this industry, and what do you find most challenging?

A: The answer is the same for both. No event is ever the same, so event professionals have to learn, adapt and grow with every new obstacle. I love that every year and every conference is different. I’m always in a new city, with a new venue, building everything from the ground up. For someone who likes variety in their work, it’s amazing.

At the same time, that constant change is the hardest part of the job. If you aren’t comfortable with relearning, re-exploring, and finding new vendors, partners and contacts every year, that can be difficult.

Another difficult aspect of this industry are the times and seasons where we work an almost intolerable number of hours. I strongly believe that the meetings industry needs to get much better at properly right-sizing their staff so that doesn’t happen. I became a founding member of a group called Event Minds Matter, which launched last year, in an effort to tackle this problem and champion mental fitness within the industry.

Q: How did you come to find that group? What is its mission?

A: I found Event Minds Matter through a post from Julius Solaris on LinkedIn and thought ‘yes, sign me up for that conversation.’ We always need awareness around mental health, but I believe that everyone in this industry recognizes that the stress and unhealthy habits are there. Our group wants to move beyond that, and help everyone understand that consistently working beyond our capacity is not acceptable or sustainable over the course of a multi-decade career.

The vision of Event Minds Matter is evolving as we meet and talk to people. Right now, we are helping individuals take charge of their own self-care. For example, we encourage people to mark their calendar with mindful breaks, such as going on a 15-minute walk outside to get some fresh air, deep breathing, or anything to help reset so they can come back and focus for the next 2-3 hours of work. We are also working on identifying organizations that are doing things to support their teams really well, and highlighting those so others can follow good examples. We know change is sometimes slower than we would like, and we’re starting with teaching people how to take care of themselves.

Q: What is your advice for others who are considering choosing a path in this industry?

A: The best advice I can give anyone in any career is if you want to try something, try it! Stay six months, stay a year, stay five years, stay 14 years (like me), but if you never give it a shot, you will never discover what you are passionate about.

If you find you love it and want to grow within the events industry, find yourself a mentor. If you can’t find someone within your own network, there are many options available to put you in touch with the right person. Your local PCMA chapter, ASAE and MPI all have mentor programs, so that is a great place to start. Don’t get discouraged if you have one or two less-than-ideal experiences with a mentor. Sometimes it takes a few tries to find someone you get along with, who understands you, and who understands what you need.

I spent my first decade in this industry without a formal mentor, and in hindsight, I should have done it much earlier. I now have several people I rely on for quarterly check-ins and have even used formal coaching to help move past my weaknesses and highlight/play to my strengths. A mentor can help you see the gifts and potential that you may not see in yourself.

Q: Is there anything that you wish you would have done differently?

A: In addition to finding a mentor sooner, I also wish I would have joined professional organizations like PCMA on day one. My organization probably would have supported that had I expressed an interest. Getting involved and finding both mentors and peers you can learn from and be inspired by is really important.

I also think it helps make you a better professional because it exposes you to so much more of the events world. I may work for an association as the event planner, but understanding what the hotel staff, AV and technology team is doing, and learning how they all work together, you get a better understanding of how the industry functions. That’s really important so you don’t have blinders on and become too focused on your role alone. It’s a big industry with a ton of opportunities. Like spokes on a wheel, we all have to work together in order to make each event successful.

Q: What was the experience for you like during the pandemic, given that you represent infectious disease professionals?

A: It was busy! We had to aggregate a lot of resources for our members and pivot from an in-person event to hosting a virtual one very, very rapidly. We have such a strong team, and we were fortunate that it was successful, but it wasn’t easy.

In addition to three board meetings, two fellow training meetings, and a handful of regional events, we focus on our annual IDWeek, a large event with five association partners and close to 11,000 attendees.

My biggest takeaway from this challenge was that communication is everything. You cannot over communicate. With your team, your vendor partners, industry partners, sponsors, and anyone else you work with, it’s all about communication. You need to convey information in a timely, detailed, honest manner. The better communicator you can become, the more successful you will be.

Q: What is your hope for the future? Are there areas you think the industry still needs to improve?

A: We have to come up with more sustainable models for both events and the professionals running them.

From an environmental standpoint, we need to stop and consider what we are doing to the planet with each event we host. I’m not an expert, but I think it’s important to consider changes we can make so that our footprint shrinks without taking away from the experience.

My main concern, however, is creating a culture of work that is sustainable for our mental fitness and for the next generation. Globally, we were promised shorter work days and a better work/life balance with the advancement of technology, but it has actually gotten worse. I think we need to look at that and ask, “Is one person on our team doing the work that three humans did 35 years ago?” If the answer to that is yes, we have a problem. And we definitely do have a problem.

Sustainability of both our natural resources and our human resources are the most important things we can focus on moving forward.

If you or anyone from your organization would like to be a contributor to the “Project Your Voice” series, please let us know at

More from “Project Your Voice”

[Part One] Talking About Inclusion, Diversity and Finding Your Niche with Josh Henry, SPIE
[Part Two] Talking About Connection and Responsibility with Cassie Mancera, AAOMS
[Part Three] Talking About Making a Collective Impact with Paula Eichenbrenner, AMCP Foundation
[Part Four] Talking About Growth Through Facing Down Your Fears with Yolanda Simmons Battle, AHIMA
[Part Six] Talking About the Power of Meetings with Karen Cuviello, Projection