Understand & empathize: Anxiety can manifest differently across people. Some may socially withdraw and self-soothe. Others may project irritability. To truly help, you must be aware of others’ reactions, be open to empathizing, and take the time to anticipate how they may respond to you offering support.
As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Kara Fasone.
Dr. Kara Fasone is an experienced HR & Talent Development professional and an adjunct professor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. She has a PhD in Industrial Organizational Psychology and a passion for pushing others to reach their fullest potentials. She practices a people-focused and data-driven approach to exploring workplace behavior and building incredible employee experiences.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! 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?
Growing up, I’d hoped to find a career that would allow me to help others. I eventually discovered my career “sweet spot” by aligning my personal mission — helping others to live happier, healthier, and more productive lives — to my professional strengths. This led me to study human behavior in the workplace and use that knowledge to help organizations maximize the performance, productivity, engagement, and overall wellness of their most important asset: their people.
While completing my PhD in Industrial Organizational (I/O) Psychology, I spent a great deal of time researching workplace wellness. I built and validated a behavior-based wellness inventory which allows organizations to identify areas of opportunity related to enhancing employee wellness. I’m an advocate of a holistic wellness approach, which means expanding beyond the most obvious dimension of physical health and acknowledging the importance of less outwardly tangible dimensions, like emotional and intellectual wellness.
In the US, full-time employees spend an average of 8.5+ hours each day in the office or working remotely. This massive time investment presents an opportunity — or, in my opinion, an obligation — for employers to invest in employee health and wellbeing.
I’m excited to share some nuggets from both my wellness research and my professional experience throughout this interview!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
An important lesson I learned fairly early in my career is that mindfulness > multitasking. In our fast-paced and ever changing world, we can be fooled into believing that multitasking is the only way to manage our monstrous to-do lists. Guilty as charged! That was my exact mindset when I scored my first job out of college.
I was a perpetual over-achiever and “yes” woman. This oftentimes led to an overbooked calendar, working lunches, and late nights in the office. To balance my busy schedule, I found myself multitasking. You know … sending an email during a meeting or drafting a report while attending a training. I thought I was being efficient, but I was actually dividing my energy among too many tasks, and thus decreasing my effectiveness overall.
Truthfully, nobody can multitask. In reality, your brain is rapidly switching from one thing to the next which results in divided attention, lost information, and increasing time demands as your mind orients to a new task every few minutes.
While I still live by the mantra “better to be busy than bored”, I’ve recognized the value of using mindfulness to increase both my efficiency and effectiveness. There’s a misconception that mindfulness and related practices, such as meditation, require a person to completely empty their mind. That’s simply not true! Rather, mindfulness hinges on cultivating focus, calm, and non-judgement, all factors that can help you stay motivated and productive at work.
As a workplace psychologist, practicing mindfulness has made me a better person and better employee. I’ve led multiple mindfulness workshops across organizations and I’m excited to share how others can use mindfulness techniques to stay balanced and minimize the impact of workplace stressors.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Building a positive work environment is a crucial responsibility of leaders. In fact, a Deloitte report revealed that 94% of surveyed executives and 88% of surveyed employees believe a strong corporate culture is important to a business’ success.
I work with leaders regularly on how to build high-engagement work cultures, and our conversations typically revolve around three common themes and corresponding actions:
Clarity: To maximize motivation and enable high performance, team members must know where they’re going, envision how they can make an impact, and have access to the information required to pivot and adapt when necessary.
Leaders can create clarity by:
- Reinforcing the mission and goals of the organization, making a clear connection to team projects and initiatives.
- Communicating organization-wide and team-specific changes proactively and transparently.
- Providing continuous feedback for individual team members, acknowledging strengths and clarifying growth opportunities.
Caring: A Harvard Business Review study reported 58% of surveyed employees claim they would trust a stranger over their boss. To me, that’s a disheartening statistic, especially when strong relationships can be forged by simply treating others like human beings. In other words, employees want to know that their leaders care about them as both people and professionals.
Leaders can show caring by:
- Getting to know employees personally (e.g., remembering birthdays or pets) and professionally (e.g., probing into and following up on one’s career aspirations).
- Acting with empathy when giving tough feedback or communicating unfavorable organizational updates.
- Adopting a player-coach mindset and being willing to join the front line to contribute alongside the team in especially hectic or stressful times.
Competence: The Gallup-12 is a concise collection of survey items designed to measure employee engagement. One of the Gallup-12 items reads, “My fellow employees are committed to doing quality work.” This item taps into a respondent’s perception of the competence and commitment of his or her team members. Put simply, many employees care about working with capable colleagues.
Leaders can build team competence by:
- Emphasizing the importance of continuous learning and partnering with team members to identify learning experiences and/or opportunities.
- Securing the necessary tooling (e.g., a central shared drive, project management platform) and building norms (e.g., weekly stand-up meetings, status update cadences) to facilitate effective team collaboration.
While this may seem like a massive undertaking, leaders can make smaller incremental changes over time to build a strong and sustainable team culture. One small step leaders can take is to print out and post the following visual aid as a reminder of ways in which they can enhance their team dynamics.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I’d recommend any of psychologist and researcher Brené Brown’s books, but one that has resonated with me is “Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts”. As a new-ish leader, this book was important in helping me to understand how to set aside comfort and choose to lead with courage.
As a leader, you’re oftentimes asked to handle challenging situations or lead difficult conversations. Brené shared stories and insights that helped me to tap into my vulnerability in a way that allowed me to empathize and connect more directly with the teams I was supporting.
While reading this book, I was faced with a situation in which a colleague I was informally mentoring discovered they did not receive the promotion they were hoping for. I used this as an opportunity to prove to myself that I can provide impactful and constructive feedback to a person I considered to be both a friend and a mentee.
While the conversation felt uncomfortable at the start, I learned if I embrace vulnerability and communicate my intentions difficult situations become much less intimidating.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?
When I first began my own mindfulness and stress management journey, I made a handful of assumptions that proved to be false. It’s easy to dismiss the concept of mindfulness as New Age or “woo woo”, but there’s a growing body of empirical evidence that shows the mental and physical benefits of practicing mindfulness (more on this later!).
Jon Kabat-Zinn, considered by many the father of secular mindfulness, first brought mindfulness into his clinical stress-reduction practice in the early 90s. Over the past two decades, the concept of “mindfulness” has become increasingly mainstream and has slowly been integrated into the workplace. At its core, mindfulness is a state of focused and non-judgmental attention to the present. It has been more formally defined as “the basic human ability to be fully present and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”
When considering mindfulness and its application in daily life, it’s important to consider the following 7 pillars, first outlined by Jon Kabat-Zinn:
Non-Judging — Resisting the urge to see the world in terms of “black vs. white” or “good vs. bad”.
Example in the workplace: Recognizing that a “needs improvement” performance rating is not inherently “bad”, but rather an opportunity to hone one’s skills and grow professionally.
Patience — Accepting the present reality without becoming too transfixed on a future state.
Example in the workplace: Fully experiencing professional growth by committing to mastering one’s current role in lieu of obsessing over that next promotion.
Beginner’s Mind — Harnessing one’s innate curiosity and treating each moment as a unique experience.
Example in the workplace: Resisting the urge to jump straight into a project and instead asking probing questions of stakeholders to show curiosity and ensure the root problem is being solved for.
Trust — Trusting in your personal expertise and intuition.
Example in the workplace: Making the conscious decision to not compare your success at work to the success of others’ and identifying strategies to help you overcome the experience of the “Imposter Syndrome”.
Non-Striving — Celebrating and building off your personal strengths without striving unnecessarily to be something or someone who you’re not meant to be.
Example in the workplace: Embracing principles of positive psychology to identify and regularly exercise your strengths at work, opposed to obsessing over your weaknesses.
Acceptance — Acknowledging our biases and accepting perspectives or decisions that we may not fully agree with.
Example in the workplace: Researching and discussing an organization-wide change instead of immediately dismissing it because it feels uncomfortable or foreign.
Letting go — Knowing when to set aside tasks or come to terms with conditions that are outside of one’s control.
Example in the workplace: Not taking a poor response to a project rollout personally by acknowledging that change is inherently challenging and identifying lessons learned.
This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?
I could write an entire report on the benefits of mindfulness, but I’ll keep it short and sweet.
- Enables Stress Reduction: A 2017 survey of over 2,000 employees found that workers feel stressed by factors both in and outside of the workplace, such as struggling to balance work and personal lives, job security, workload and other interpersonal issues. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) training programs have been implemented by employers in hopes of easing the stress, and they’ve yielded promising results. One study showed that participants who completed a MBSR program reported less perceived stress, improved physical and emotional health, enhanced sleep, better health-related habits, and more self-compassion.
- Enhances Creative Problem Solving: Whether brainstorming a communication strategy or putting together recommendations for a new product feature, we’re faced with novel challenges at work every day. A mindfulness practice known as open-monitoring (OM) meditation has been shown to promote divergent thinking, which allows rapid generation of new ideas.
- Improves Focus: Studies show that mindfulness meditation training can improve one’s ability to focus on one thing at a time and help curb our tendency to succumb to the many distractions of modern life. Honing your focus helps you to avoid multitasking by placing an emphasis on mono-tasking. In other words, a focused mind is a productive mind.
- Build Emotional Intelligence: Job success extends beyond having a large network or a high IQ. In fact, the biggest predictor of professional performance is one’s emotional intelligence. According to researcher Peerayuth Charoensukmongkol, practicing mindfulness enables you to increase emotional intelligence in three major ways:
- Mindfulness improves your ability to comprehend your own emotions (building self-awareness!);
- Mindfulness helps you recognize the emotions of people around you (building social awareness!);
- Mindfulness strengthens your ability to govern your own emotions (exercising self-management!).
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.
As cheesy as it sounds, you can work towards becoming A.W.A.R.E.
The world can be a scary and uncertain place, but you can adopt some of the strategies below to find your own sense of calm amidst the uncertainty.
- Ask questions: it’s difficult to minimize your stress when you’re not sure what exactly is causing it in the first place. With so many potential stressors in these hectic times, it can be helpful to pause and reflect on what’s bothering you. Not sure where to start? Check out this list of 23 questions you can ask yourself when you’re feeling stressed out.
You may realize that your feelings of stress are intrapersonal (e.g., setting unachievable goals or committing to unrealistic timelines) or interpersonal (e.g., harboring a grudge toward a close friend or feeling unappreciated by a boss). Ultimately, this awareness will help you better understand your options to mitigate this stress.
- Work wisely: a major source of stress for many is finding work-life balance. This can be especially challenging when working remotely, since not having a dedicated office space can blur the line between work and life.
A few strategies I use to make my work-life divide distinct include: sticking to a regular morning routine, making a daily to-do list that prioritizes the top 3 tasks or projects I’d like to complete, communicating boundaries to my team members (e.g., I’ll take lunch meetings, but know that I’ll be taking my midday walk at this time), and designating a separate work space away from my bed or couch!
- Accept and adapt: Let’s face it. There are things that you cannot control, and that’s simply a part of everyday life. Perhaps a child or pet likes to crash your Zoom meeting or your favorite restaurant is temporarily closed as a COVID-19 precaution. These small inconveniences along with bigger disturbances can create a great deal of stress — if you let them get to you, that is.
Instead of fretting over things you can’t control, focus your energy on those that you can. Perhaps you can bond with a fellow parent or cat-lover at the end of the “crashed” Zoom call or you can use this time as an opportunity to expand your palate and order delivery from a new restaurant.
When managing stress, mindset matters.
- Reach out for support: remember, you’re not going through this alone. While you may be experiencing stressors that are unique to you, that does not mean you have to struggle with stress solo. Social support has been shown to effectively minimize stress AND improve one’s physical health.
And there are plenty of ways to seek support, including soliciting:
- Emotional Social Support: seeking out a friend, family member, or trusted professional who can actively listen and validate your feelings and experiences.
- Informational Social Support: identifying information or resources that can help you better understand a challenge you’re faced with. Helpful information may be found from trained therapists or other experts, books, or online courses.
- Tangible Social Support: reaching out to your network to swap resources, either material or financial. This can involve offering to share childcare duties, helping a friend move, or even bringing prepared dinners to a grieving family.
- Connection-Driven Social Support: finding ways to create a sense of belonging and social connection with those you are close to. This means spending time with friends and family, whether in small group settings or virtually.
- Exercise mindfulness daily: mindfulness practices can look very different for each individual. The most important piece of your mindfulness practice is consistency. Choose a few strategies that you feel confident integrating into your day-to-day routine.
- Intentional breathwork
- Daily meditation sessions
- Mindful eating & savoring
- Frequent walks outside (without your phone!)
- Gratitude journaling
- Committing to a daily 1-hr “technology sabbatical”
From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
There are a number of ways we can help others cope with anxiety. I’m happy to share a few things to consider, though I wouldn’t label them as “steps”. You can practice the following strategies in any order.
- Understand & empathize: Anxiety can manifest differently across people. Some may socially withdraw and self-soothe. Others may project irritability. To truly help, you must be aware of others’ reactions, be open to empathizing, and take the time to anticipate how they may respond to you offering support.
- Offer advice, when appropriate: Sometimes, others just need an ear to vent to. If you see an opportunity to share your own story or provide a suggestion to help ease another’s anxiety, be sure to ask permission first. Pushing your feelings and beliefs onto another person may create an even deeper state of anxiety.
- Leverage questions: Don’t underestimate the power of questions! Generally, anxious people have a natural bias towards thinking about worst-case scenarios. To help them get some perspective on this, you can use a technique where you ask them to consider three questions:
- What’s the worst that could happen?
- What’s the best that could happen?
- What’s most realistic or likely?
- Know when to escalate: While it’s important to be a resource for an anxious family member or friend, there are times when a trained mental health professional can provide more impactful support. If you notice a trend or particularly persistent feelings of stress or anxiety, don’t hesitate to recommend that someone seek the help of a professional.
- Take care of yourself, too: Keeping yourself happy and healthy is the first step to ensuring that you’re willing and able to help others through tough times. Focus on yourself in order to better support others.
What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?
Since I’m a self-proclaimed wellness nerd, I have quite a few recommendations. I’ve listed my favorite mindfulness tools and resources, below. I hope they provide just as much value to you as they have for me!
Phone & Desktop Apps:
- Headspace: an app that includes hundreds of themed meditation sessions designed to help you de-stress, rid yourself of anxiety, improve your focus via guided meditations.
- Calm: an app that shares similarities with Headspace in its meditation session offerings, but also offers multi-day mindfulness and meditation courses.
- The Science of Well-Being: a top-rated course facilitated by a Yale professor. In this course, you can expect to engage in a series of challenges designed to increase your own happiness and build more productive habits.
- Mindful Leader MBSR Training: an 8-week course intended to help you deepen your practice and understanding of mindfulness through rigorous practice & community driven learning.
Other Mindfulness Exercises:
- Daily gratitude journaling: All you need is a pencil, paper, and 5 minutes before bed to complete this mindfulness exercise. I use the 3–2–1 framework, which encourages me to reflect on three things I’m grateful for, two things that went well during the day, and 1one thing I wonder or could improve upon.
- Mindful breathing: You can practice breathing exercises as part of a broader meditation regimen or you can engage in mindful breathing as a quick way to calm down during an emotionally-charged situation or before a stressful presentation at work.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“When people talk, listen completely.” — Ernest Hemingway
A theme throughout this interview has been focus. Rooting yourself in the present moment when completing tasks is one way to practice mindfulness at work. Perhaps more importantly is rooting yourself in the present moment when interacting with your colleagues, whether it be your manager, team members, or clients.
The most valuable skill I’ve learned in my professional life is active listening. Listening to others not only opens you up to a host of diverse perspectives and learning opportunities, it allows you to empathize and understand where others are coming from.
As an HR professional, my ability to empathize and meet stakeholders “where they’re at” is critical to offering relevant guidance, gaining buy-in to key people programs or organizational changes, and building trusting relationships with employees across all levels of the organization.
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. 🙂
I’d love to make mental health a more mainstream consideration in the workplace. While many employers offer access to employee assistance programs (EAPs), it still seems to be somewhat of a “check-the-box” type of offering. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 264 million people worldwide suffer from depression, one of the leading causes of disability, with many of these people also suffering from symptoms of anxiety.
As I’d shared earlier, my life mission is to help everyone I touch to live happier, healthier, and more productive lives. Since we spend nearly a third of our waking hours at our jobs, it’s not surprising that the workplace presents ample opportunity to help people increase their well-being and sense of self.
My vision goes beyond EAPs and conventional wellness programs. I’d love to see more flexible work policies, manager education on how to help employees manage stress and prioritize work-life balance, and safe spaces in which mental health can be discussed opposed to stigmatized.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
Feel free to connect with me via my LinkedIn page. I’m always happy to connect with individuals who are passionate about workplace wellness and organizational development!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!