Following up her closing keynote at the Canadian Society of Association Executives’ annual conference — where she shared tools rooted in neuroscience to spark innovation, connection, and resilience — Dr. Shimi Kang spoke with CSAE’s Association Magazine on why employees’ happiness and well-being at work is so important. She also shared tips on how to increase employee wellness in our own workplaces.
Shimi is a Harvard-trained physician and researcher, as well as a bestselling author, who draws on her 20+ years of clinical experience to share insight into the science behind optimizing human intelligence. She shares practical tools with audiences to help cultivate key 21st century skills, including resilience, connection, creativity, and more.
With Association Magazine, Shimi explores why happiness at work matters, why work-life balance is an outdated way of thinking, and how we can combat stress to prioritize our health and wellness.
Association Magazine: You have asserted that it is more important than ever to be happy at your workplace. Why do you think that is the case — and what do you see as the biggest barriers?
Dr. Shimi Kang: We have to move away from the concept of “work-life balance” as, essentially, there is only one life, and work makes up a large component of it. I say this because I’m concerned if there is too much of a false separation, people won’t apply wellness techniques to the workplace and/or falsely think they can save positive communication, mindfulness techniques, downtime, and a play mindset for weekends and holidays. Ultimately, that belief will erode our overall health, happiness, and self-motivation.
AM: What supports can people put into place to address the barriers?
SK: The biggest support is a workplace culture of wellness. This includes a consistent infusion of concepts such as empathy, self-care, positive communication, anti-bullying policies, destigmatizing the use of sick days, maternity/parental leave, and an overall positive workplace community.
Additional supports such as bringing specific wellness and resilience activities into the workplace are also vital. However, in the end, everyone is responsible for their own health and well-being. Just like it’s not the doctor that makes you healthy or the teacher that makes you learn, it’s ultimately our responsibility to be healthy and learn.
AM: Your work shows/examines/explores the role that technology plays in influencing our happiness and productivity. Can you explain some of the key insights your research has shown about technology’s impact?
SK: Yes, I believe technology and understanding how to optimize its benefits while minimizing its drawback is a new key life skill for this moment in time.
The research is clear; technology use can have massive drawbacks — such as blue light connects to sleep and metabolic disturbance, and social media links to anxiety, depression, and body image issues. Technology even impacts our posture causing neck and back issues as well as worsening the pre-existing crisis of sedentary behaviour.
I use the metaphor of a “tech diet.” Just like the foods we consume impacts our bodies, the technology we consume impacts our minds.
In my upcoming book The Tech Solution, I explain how we metabolize technology consumption into six basic neurochemicals using this metaphor.
It is best to avoid toxic tech (cortisol), such as online comparisons, cyber bullying, and addictive gaming like gambling; minimize and monitor junk tech (dopamine), such as mindless scrolling; and optimize healthy tech (serotonin), such as positive connection, creative pursuits, and access to knowledge that was previously inaccessible.
AM: If it came down to three essential things that would help increase happiness and well-being at work, what would you recommend?
SK: That’s easy! The three categories are play, others, and downtime.
“Play” means adopting a play mindset like trying new things and being comfortable with mistakes.
“Others” means nurturing and building a positive social community through our connection with others.
“Downtime” means ensuring regular breaks, mindfulness, and contemplative practices throughout the day.
These three categories correlate with our “three brains” — “gut brain”, which responds to downtime, “heart brain”, which responds to positive social connections, and our “head brain”, which responds to cognitive stimulation.
AM: You encourage kids to become comfortable with making mistakes. As a researcher and thought leader, how have mistakes figured into your own development?
SK: I am a scientist, entrepreneur, author, and mother of three. I don’t believe any of these roles can be attempted without being comfortable with mistakes, trying new things, adapting, pivoting, and trying again.
AM: In your book The Dolphin Parent, you talked about the concept of “dolphin parenting” as a balanced alternative to authoritative “tiger” parenting and permissive “jellyfish” parenting. Do you think this concept can be applied to workplace leadership?
SK: Absolutely. This metaphor applies to the three types of interpersonal relationships and can be applied to any setting.
A jellyfish boss is overly permissive, lacking authority, with not enough rules and guidelines.
A tiger boss is authoritarian — micromanaging, too directive, and instructive.
The dolphin boss has a good balance — is authoritative, firm, and flexible, with clear rules and expectations while allowing flexibility for individual style and personality.
AM: When you are stressed, do you have any particular techniques to calm down and focus?
SK: Breathe! It’s impossible to focus on breathing and be triggering the stress response at the same time. Plus, there are receptors in the top and bottom of our lungs when repeatedly stretched send a signal to our nervous system that we are OK.