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Expert Interview: Dale Atkins, Ph.D.

May 21 2019 / by Mari Ryan

In this Expert Interview, AdvancingWellness CEO Mari Ryan and Dr. Dale Atkins explore kindness in the workplace and the link to well-being. Dr. Atkins is a licensed psychologist, an author, and a speaker.

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Interview with Dale Atkins

Mari Ryan: Welcome to the Workplace Wellbeing Essentials Series. I'm Mari Ryan, I'm the CEO and founder of Advancing Wellness. It's my pleasure to welcome you to this expert interview, where we explore topics that impact employee wellbeing. My guest today is Dr. Dale Atkins.

Dr. Atkins is a licensed psychologist, an author, and a speaker. She has more than 40 years of experience as a relationship expert, focusing on families, wellness, managing stress, and living a balanced, meaningful life. She is also the author of this fabulous book, The Kindness Advantage: Cultivating Compassionate and Connected Children, Everyday Ideas for Raising Kids Who Care. Welcome, Dale, I’m so delighted to have you here.

Dale Atkins: Mari, thank you. It’s my pleasure to be with you today.

Mari Ryan: Great. So, this book is interesting in that it’s written for parents and it’s about creating compassionate and connected children. We know that the research shows that connections and social engagement are key to successful, fulfilling lives, and yet, we have never been more disconnected, or less connected, than we are now. Connection is one of the elements that we use in the wellbeing model that we refer to in our work. I’d love to spend our time together exploring this relationship between kindness and connection. Even though you’ve written this book for parents and children, certainly there is a relationship to the workplace. Let’s explore this a little bit.

Let’s start with why kindness is so important in our life?

Dale Atkins: Kindness is so important in our life because we are social beings and we need to be connected and when we are connected, we want to respond and we want to be responded to by the people around us. It’s part of the way we are wired to be empathetic, to be kind, to be compassionate, and what we like to think of is we have everyday opportunities to be kind and to be compassionate, and we just want to help people look through a lens of kindness. I say “we” because I co-authored that book with Amanda Salzhauer and we did quite a lot of research, and a lot of it showed that even children as young as three months old respond when other people are kind to them, or when they feel that someone else is in distress. They prefer people who are kind to those who are not, they prefer helpers to hinderers. Yes, we did write the book for parents and grandparents of young children, but what we noted is that everywhere we speak, people want to be able to generalize these principals to the workplace and their everyday lives.

We are social beings. We need to be connected, and you’re right, we’ve never been less connected, but we have ways to ensure that we stay connected because it is who we are as human beings.

Mari Ryan: Excellent – love it, love that definition. How is kindness linked to our wellbeing?

Dale Atkins: In many ways. First of all, and I think the most important, is kindness gives our life meaning and purpose, and a sense of fulfillment. When we are kind to others – and by the way, it isn’t only to other people; it’s kind to the environment, it’s kind to animals, it’s kind to ourselves – but let’s talk about being kind to others. When we are kind to others, we get a release of endorphins in our brain and it’s almost like a mild morphine high. It has come to be known as “the helpers high.” We get this flood of endorphins, which makes us feel good, and it also gives us the impetus to do more kind deeds.

Interestingly, the recipient of our kindness also wants to do more good and more kind things, and even if your are watching someone do a kind deed, you can also experience this flood of endorphins. In that regard, it’s wonderful for our emotional and mental health, and our wellbeing in the way we look at the world. We start to look at the world through that lens of kindness more positively.

Additionally, it’s been shown in many research studies, both for children and adults, that our physical health improves when we are kind. Kindness is linked to happiness, and so when we are happy, we also feel better, we have a better attitude, we are, as I said before, more positive, but there are some significant studies that link to blood pressure, to reducing blood pressure, to happier hearts, to a go-around, general feeling of enhanced wellbeing.

In the book, we talk quite a little bit about that, the particular physical responses that people get when they are kind.

Mari Ryan: That’s wonderful.

Dale Atkins: The other thing, by the way, our social relationships are better because when you try to be kind and you want to be kind, you connect – going back to your first question – you connect with people. You develop a relationship, even, Mari, if it’s just a relationship with someone you may not see again, that momentary relationship. The person who gives you your coffee, the person who helps bag your groceries, the person you hold the door, when you make eye contact, when you say, “thank you,” when you say, “have a good day,” or “gee, you’re looking springy today.” These kinds of encounters help us to feel better as they help other people feel better.

Mari Ryan: It’s so interesting to hear how simple that is, and if everyone were doing this every day, what a different world we would live in.

Dale Atkins: It’s so true. You know, all of us were probably raised with some form of the Golden Rule, do unto others as you would like them to do unto you. If we try to live our lives that way, and asked ourselves that question from the moment we got up, how would I like someone to treat me today, how can I treat someone that way, and where will I find the opportunities to do that? I think that you are right; our world would be a much different place and we would monitor what we say, we would connect in a very different way, and most importantly, we would be role models for our children, our teenagers, people in the workplace. People watch us all the time, and we are always on display. So, why not be a model for being kind?

Mari Ryan: I love it. Let’s talk a little bit, I’m curious about “let’s take this into the workplace setting.” What does a culture of kindness look like in a workplace?

Dale Atkins: A culture of kindness in a workplace looks like there are people who like coming to work, there are people who enjoy the people they are working with, they respect the people they work with, and they feel they are respected. It looks like the people who are there are recognized for who they are; they are not cogs in a wheel. They are joined together for a collaborative environment in a collaborative environment, perhaps on a collaborative project, but they are all motivated to work towards a common goal, and again, that reinforces that feeling of connection.

A kind workplace looks good. People walk in and they say, wow, there is something about the energy in this place that feel welcoming. It feels affirming. It feels positive. It’s a workplace that helps by mentoring, and wants people to mentor and be mentored. It’s a workplace where people are very often, not just once a year at their review, but very often reminded of why their contribution is meaningful, and what they did specifically, and what it is about them with their uniqueness that brought something special to the completion of this project, or that made it easier for others who might have been out and they really brought up the slack.

The recognition is not just from managers, which is important, the recognition from peers. Peer recognition is so unbelievably valuable, especially when people are working from home, when they are not necessarily in the same physical place, so their peers are constantly keeping them engaged, that we are all feeling a part of something instead of apart from something. That recognition, the uniqueness, wanting people to bring their whole self to the office, and recognizing that we don’t have to be totally conforming. Yes, we have a goal, but we all are achieving this goal in our own unique way.

Mari Ryan: I love it. I’m curious what you might suggest to employers to do and what actions they can take if they wanted to create a culture of kindness in their workplace.

Dale Atkins: There is a magnificent neuropsychologist who works out the University of Wisconsin, his name is Ritchie Davidson. He is most known for his studies in meditation, and monitoring the brain of meditating monks. One of the things he talks about now is wellbeing in the workplace, and I think that people who are leaders in businesses and in work really have a lot to learn from what his studies show us. He wants, and he suggests, that we remember four key elements of wellbeing in the workplace; one of them is resilience. How … and I’m going to answer your question from the perspective of the employer, or the manager. How can we encourage resiliency in our workers? How do we help them to recover and learn from mistakes that they made? Are we chastising? Are we punitive? Or, are we encouraging and using it as an opportunity to help them learn from the situation, and then help them recover. When we are resilient, we go back in. We’re not scared and we don’t shy away from something, we say, okay, this is what I did last time. I know I can do it again, but I’m going to do it differently.

The second is to have a positive outlook. What we know is that people who are kind to others generally have a more positive outlook about other people. They are less suspicious, and so their employer wants to try and build a trustworthy environment, a collaborative environment, and less transactional and more relational environment, so that it’s not just what can you do for me and what can I do for you, but how can we, together, build a relationship that will last a while and where we can learn about each other and trust that when you say you’re going to get me something by Friday at noon, I know that I can depend on that, and if you’re not going to do it, you’re going to let me know beforehand, and you’re going to say this is what I need from you. So, we have trust building in those relationships and we’re positive.

The others have to do with focused attention. As an employer, try to have – and this is really hard – the least distracting environment because with all the pings, the dings, and the interruptions, it’s hard for workers to maintain a thought and to try and follow a thought. If we are constantly being interrupted and if we are expected to respond to this email immediately as soon as it comes in, or text, when really we’re working on something and need to be creative, we have to give our workers an opportunity to have the space they need to do their work. Then the whole idea of generosity, and I spoke about that a little before, be generous. Be appreciative, and lead from the top as far as being a role model. Learn how to control your own emotions in a positive way. Give positive feedback, not drive-by recognition, but stand with someone and say, this is why what you did makes such a difference.

I think employers have a tremendous opportunity, and a tremendous responsibility, to be the model that they want to have, and when they notice there is a problem among the workers, to try and deal with it in a positive way and not let bullying and undermining and undercutting, and all of these kinds of behaviors become the norm and have them not be acceptable, whether it’s people feeling uncomfortable because of language that’s used, or certain kinds of jokes, whatever it is. An environment where people are comfortable and respected and recognized, is an environment where workers are motivated.

Mari Ryan: It is so consistent with the approach that I take in the work that I do with organizations, and it sounds like the purpose and the values that drive that organization are all part of what it takes to create that type of wonderful workplace. Who wouldn’t want to work in a place like you just described? I hope we can impact the people to think differently about what goes on in their workplace and try to make some changes that would make it much kinder and gentler workplace.

Dale Atkins: It also affects the bottom line, and that’s what so many business people want to know, that people who are happier at work produce better and they are more efficient and they are less likely to be worried about what’s going on. They are less likely to be distracted and shopping online when they are at their work because their attention is focused.

Mari Ryan: Absolutely. It sounds like it would benefit everyone, and certainly not just the individual wellbeing of people, but the wellbeing of the organization as well.

Dale Atkins: Mari, I have one more thing that came to mind, if I may?

Mari Ryan: Sure.

Dale Atkins: It has to do with what employers can do. They can encourage people to take care of themselves. They can encourage it not only in the workplace, but also outside of the workplace. One of the things that I really encourage employers to do is during lunchtime, or perhaps early, or later, but mostly during lunchtime, to have lunch-and-learn meetings. They can poll their employees and say, what are the things that you are most interested in learning about, and how can we provide that opportunity? For 45 minutes, people have a chance to take off their work hat and put on their adult-child-of-an-aging-parent hat and learn about that, or parenting with kindness, or learning about some insurance thing that they need to know. Whatever it is. How to maximize their sleep. How to maximize their workout. Really encourage people to be healthy in and out of work, and to change what is going on near the coffee machine, and also offer some healthy snacks, and encourage people to be their best selves and their whole selves. The Cleveland Clinic has a great model for how they are encouraging people to be healthy. They go to where to stop smoking, and they go to where the people are, and they take it from there. I think that, again, encouraging a healthy workplace with workers who are encouraged to be kind to themselves, to take off the time they need to, to be the people they are in the rest of their lives so they can come to work as fully integrated, healthy human beings.

Mari Ryan: All great suggestions, thank you, and very, again, consistent with the awareness and education programs that we encourage employers to offer. Dale, if our audience wants to learn more about you, how can they get in touch with you?

Dale Atkins: Amanda Salzhauer and I, who wrote the book, have a book website, and it’s www.thekindnessadvantagebook.com, and then I have my own website, which is drdaleatkins.com. I welcome people getting in touch and asking questions and sharing their stories about what works in their workplaces, and what works with the kindness in their lives, and how it’s changed them.

Mari Ryan: Thank you so much for spending time with me today, Dale, this is such a lovely conversation and thanks for all you are doing to bring more kindness into the world.

Dale Atkins: Mari, thank you. Thank your for the opportunity to talk with you. Take good care.

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Topics: Worksite Wellness, Wellbeing, worksite wellbeing, workplace wellbeing, wellness, employee wellness, worksite well-being, mental health, hr, employee well-being, human resources, corporate wellness, mental well-being, kindness, compassion

Mari Ryan

Written by Mari Ryan

Mari Ryan is the CEO/founder of AdvancingWellness and is a recognized expert in the field of workplace well-being strategy.