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“How can replace poor habits with good? ” Madelaine Claire Weiss and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

My own take is that the mere validation — that people existed and mattered — made all the difference in the world. Today there are companies taking this kind of respect and care for the work and life well-being of their people to new levels. As a part of my series about the “5 Ways […]

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My own take is that the mere validation — that people existed and mattered — made all the difference in the world. Today there are companies taking this kind of respect and care for the work and life well-being of their people to new levels.

As a part of my series about the “5 Ways That Businesses Can Help Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees” I had the pleasure of interviewing Madelaine Claire Weiss.

Madelaine Claire Weiss, LICSW, MBA, BCC (Board Certified Executive, Career, Life Coach), is a blogger, podcast guest expert, co-author in Handbook of Stressful Transition Across the Lifespan, and author of the forthcoming Getting to G.R.E.A.T: 5-Step Strategy for Work and Life…Based on Science and True Stories (including her own.) She is formerly a group mental health practice Administrative Director and Psychotherapist, a corporate Chief Organizational Development Officer, and Associate Director of the Anatomical Gift Program at Harvard Medical School. At Harvard, Madelaine spoke before the Joint Committee on the Status of Women, and designed and delivered training programs for the Center for Workplace Learning and Performance. Madelaine lives in Washington, DC, where she enjoys her family and private practice clients.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Mywork life began in a medical laboratory the University of PA, Graduate Hospital. Early on, I worked in clinical chemistry labs, a university cardiac catheter research lab, the USDA Biological Control Lab… But there was always a pull to the people, so with each career change I moved closer and closer to them.

Along the way, I was also learning everything I could, from every angle I could find, about ‘Why we are the way we are and how it matters in everyday life.’ Eventually, I went back to school for psychology. Brain enthusiast that I am, I took an independent study in brain physiology as an undergrad, and even spent a summer vacation dissecting one. I went on to study organizational behavior for my MBA, fell in love with evolutionary psychology, mindfulness, and Advaita Vedanta Pre-Hindu tradition, which I study and practice to this day.

And here is what I think just might explain the inevitability of the work I do now: When I was 15 years old my father died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Spirited as I was, I was pretty sure he died of me until well into my adulthood when my mother said, “No honey, it wasn’t you; it was work.”

Maybe you will agree that it is not exactly rocket science that I now devote myself completely to helping high achievers learn how to manage their minds so they can have happier, healthier, productive lives — maintaining high achievement without burning out. It is a deeply satisfying privilege and pleasure to do this work.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

That’s a tough one because there have been so many interesting experiences along the way. One that comes to mind, however, is when I was working as Associate Director, Anatomical Gift Program, Harvard Medical School, and was asked to address the first-year medical students at the memorial service for their cadavers.

For this occasion, I presented a composite of who their donors were, e.g., age ranges and occupations, and gave a few anecdotes in their donor’s own words. Oh how the donors always loved to tell me that they were going to Harvard whatever it took. And, oh how the students enjoyed hearing it too.

Then, separate from that, so no donor could be identified, I would read off first names only for each of the donors in that year’s donor class. Before I did that, however, I asked the room full of students to please fall still, either by closing their eyes or simply gazing downward if they cared to — and then to breathe, gently in through the nose, out through the nose…

And when they did, especially the first time, I felt positively stunned by the sea of calm on their typically overworked faces. Oh my, I thought, they’re actually doing this. What if in helping them to find stillness in that moment, I laid hands upon countless other lives too. Given how many lives each of these students would touch, personally and professionally over the course of their lives, I looked at their beautiful faces, and simply thought Wow.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

What would I recommend to my colleagues, and everyone else for that matter, so they don’t burn out? Just that: Fall Still. And then breathe in a particular way called Polyvagal Breathing: In through the nose, out through the nose, belly out on the in breath, belly in on the outbreath…

Dr. Stephen Porges introduced Polyvagal Breathing to the masses. In fact, I teach this type of breathing to my clients routinely, and have an instruction sheet for it called “Power Breathing” in the pulldown on my website at https://madelaineweiss.com/

The reason I call it “Power Breathing” is because it doesn’t just calm the body and the mind, settling down our cortisol levels so we don’t get sick. It does that too but, in so doing, brings the executive brain back online.

We want the emotional brain to provide data not directives. If we want the very best decisions from ourselves and each other, then we want the higher brain in charge — and “Power Breathing” gives us that.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

Leaders need to realize that we, themselves included, are all peas in a pod trying to get through the day in the best ways we know how. Some of us are more artful than others, but just about everyone can learn, and the ones who can’t or won’t need to be helped to find another environment for themselves that works better for all.

As Dr. Atul Gawande tells us in his Ted Talk that, if you want to get great at something, get a coach. Everyone at every level of every organization would do well to have a coach.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“Life is what our thoughts make It.” Marcus Aurelius.

Multi-millionaire and billionaire marketing gurus say that success in business and in life is 80% mindset. One fessed up just the other day that he may say 80%, as in 80/20 rule, Pareto Principle, people like to fit things into that — but more and more people these days are getting that mindset is the whole thing.

The idea that ‘we get what we think we deserve’ is powerfully healing for my clients. It’s like the weight of the world is lifted off their shoulders when they finally get that they can fool most of the people most of the time, but they can’t fool themselves. Cleaning it up delights them and assures them that there really is goodness inside themselves deserving of good things.

As per your request about how the quote applied in my own life, a long time ago after I delivered my honors thesis to the faculty, they said, “We doubt that she knows what a brilliant job she has done,” and they were right. It was only with enough of that kind of hard work, and validation for it, that my thoughts about my own intelligence allowed me a life of intellectual contribution and enjoyment.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. In recent years many companies have begun offering mental health programs for their employees. For the sake of inspiring others, we would love to hear about five steps or initiatives that companies have taken to help improve or optimize their employees mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each?

As Chief Organizational Development Officer, I introduced a newsletter, personal interviews, a performance appraisal instrument, and an employee satisfaction survey. None of this was as sophisticated as we would find today. Still, employee satisfaction went from 4.8–9.0 (scale 1–10), in no time at all.

My own take is that the mere validation — that people existed and mattered — made all the difference in the world. Today there are companies taking this kind of respect and care for the work and life well-being of their people to new levels.

Cigna, a global health services and solutions company with 74,000 employees, is now partnering with Healthy Companies, which aims to provide Cigna with experiences, insight, and tools from their ‘Whole Person Health Strategy’. Both companies believe that, for companies to thrive in our chaotic environment, whole person health, inside and outside of the company, has to take center stage for leaders, teams, and employees alike. They call the new capabilities “Grounded and Conscious,” and I am right there with them in that.

In my forthcoming Getting to G.R.E.A.T. 5-Step Strategy for Work and Life, the G stands for Grounded. A great life depends on a great fit between who we are and the environments in which we love and work. And when I asked myself what it is that is working for my clients, whether that client found a better fitting environment on the other side of the country or the world, or learned to fall in love with exactly where they are, reverse engineering revealed this 5-Step Strategy common to all:

– Grounding in the belief that a great life is possible — through a great environmental fit.

– Recognizing that fitness begins with and requires knowing who we are — internal environment. — Exploring out of the box alternatives and possibilities — external environment.

– Acting on a new environmental vision — there is no success without action.

– Tackling the mind’s normal, natural resistance to change — so it doesn’t get in the way.

Let’s call her Linda. Linda was as down as she could be when she reached out to me. As the primary breadwinner for her family, she could not even imagine how she was going to generate sufficient income to support her family and be happy and healthy too.

– Grounding: Linda was in enough pain that she took a leap of faith that together we would figure this out, faith that I carried for her until she could carry it herself.

– Recognizing: Linda recognized that her family meant more to her than anything else in the world, and that her current position was nourishing to them.

– Exploring: Linda explored dreams she hadn’t dared to dream including not 1 but 2 side hustles.

– Acting: At the completion of our work, Linda was appreciating her day job, had set up the legal and business particulars for the first side hustle, looking forward to the second when the time is right, with the whole family happily involved.

– Tackling: Linda knows there can be times of doubt or fatigue, but feels she now has tools to get her energy and spirits back up if and when they temporarily dip.

Companies can make a review of this 5-Step Strategy for Work and Life a part of each and every performance evaluation and development plan.

These ideas are wonderful, but sadly they are not yet commonplace. What strategies would you suggest to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?

Grassroots. I do understand how hard it can be for employees to speak truth to power. But, even before the pandemic, we knew that 83% of American workers suffer from work-stress, with 120,000 dying from work-stress related causes each year. Mindset is everything, and we simply cannot expect others to care about us if we don’t care about ourselves. So we have to start thinking and talking work/life alignment out loud.

The Ancients have a rule of thumb for speech: True, Kind, Necessary, Beneficial. With a constructive tone, I think talking about health and well-being for companies, leaders, teams, and employees passes that test.

From your experience or research, what are different steps that each of us as individuals, as a community and as a society, can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling stressed, depressed, anxious and having other mental health issues? Can you explain?

If there is a magic bullet to help us support each other as individuals and communities, it is empathy or validation. People feel better and do better when they know they are not alone, and the best way to know that is to feel from another that we have been heard and understood.

One way to convey this understanding is to repeat back what we have heard. But we may not always hear or understand correctly, so it helps to preface our comments with something like “Please correct me if I am wrong, but if I hear you correctly, sounds like you are saying…”

It is important to also resist giving advice without permission to do so, certainly not to tell other people what we think they should do. So instead we can say something like, “I’m having some thoughts, would you like to hear them,” and then we are gracious whether the answer is yes or no.

And, of course, when we are truly concerned about the immediate welfare of another, we support the other in getting professional help and, if necessary, arrange intervention for appropriate and necessary care.

Habits can play a huge role in mental wellness. What are the best strategies you would suggest to develop good healthy habits for optimal mental wellness that can replace any poor habits?

How can replace poor habits with good? The brain is like a garden. Every time we try something new, we build new neural connections. The more we water these connections by repeating the good habit thoughts and behaviors, the stronger the new neural connections and good habits grow. And what we don’t water (the old bad habit neural constellation) grows weak and withers away. Sleep is when the dead weeds get cleaned up, so if you are sleep challenged, here is a piece I wrote to help out with that. And studies show that outside support with friends, family, or professional assist can help a whole lot to keep us on track.

Do you use any meditation, breathing or mind-calming practices that promote your mental wellbeing? We’d love to hear about all of them. How have they impacted your own life?

In addition to regular use of the polyvagal breathing that we already discussed for on the spot clear, calm, focused higher order thinking — I do have a regular daily meditation practice for long term brain fitness that I have been practicing for 20 years.

Although my meditative state is still not at all as I imagine it to be for the Buddhist monks, it is clear to me that it doesn’t have to be, as I have grown happier, healthier, steadier on my feet than ever before as each year goes by.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

How People Change, by Allen Wheelis,is a book I read years ago. Wheelis was a psychoanalyst whose answer to how people change was pretty much — they just do. This went against the grain of traditional psychotherapy because it was a departure from insight, as the ‘be all and end all’ of the talking cure, in favor of action instead.

Over time, it seemed to me, too, that people talk too much and that, as William James said, “Action does not guarantee happiness, but there is no happiness without action.” So now, all of our sessions end with action steps, not so big that they overwhelm and nothing happens, and not so little that they fail to motivate and inspire, but just right to keep us moving along in the direction we want to go. And, as more than an aside, it’s way more fun!

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I could start a movement, I would call it Good Company. This is an Advaita Vedanta concept. Good Company is not just about people. It refers to the books we read, the music we listen to, the shows we watch, the wine we drink, the food we eat, the thoughts we think and, yes, the people with whom we choose to spend our time.

In all things, the finest quality we can arrange and afford. If everyone held the bar this high, would it elevate us all. I’m thinking that it would. I know it has for me. And, I would love to hear from anyone who would like to try this and let us know what you’ve found.

What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?

I am currently posting from my blog every week. Anyone can join in from my website at https://madelaineweiss.com/ where you can also find book announcements, and links to my Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

And thank you so much for the privilege and the pleasure to engage with your audience and you.

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