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Lifestyle Medicine Is About Empowering Us To Take Better Control Of Our Health And Wellbeing: Dr. Parneet Pal, Chief Science Officer, Wisdom Labs

Mindfulness at its core is the ability to pay full attention in the present moment, with a sense of curiosity and kindness, so that you can then respond skillfully to whatever may be coming up for you at that moment, rather than with a knee-jerk reaction

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Dr. Parneet Pal is the Chief Science Officer at Wisdom Labs, a San Francisco-based company solving for stress, burnout, anxiety, and loneliness in the workplace. As a Columbia and Harvard trained physician, she focuses on the intersection of lifestyle medicine, behavior change, and technology. She provides the health and medicine expertise towards content and product development, teaches both in-person and digital programs, and leads the company’s research efforts. 

Wisdom Labs believes in building wiser workplaces using the science of mindfulness, resilience, compassion and emotional intelligence. Their focus is lasting behavior change in organizations using a comprehensive suite of in-person, virtual and digital products. Co-founded by social entrepreneur Cory Smith, the company boasts of industry stalwarts such as Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach as advisors, amongst many others. 

In an in-depth conversation with BW Businessworld, she shares insights into the workings at Wisdom Labs, the tools for wiser workplaces and her own personal journey. 

You have a background in medicine, what brought you to the corporate world?

I’ve had the good fortune of training at some of the premier medical institutions in the world. However, by the end of medical residency, I realized that we were very good at treating people when they were sick, but there was very little talk about prevention. And when you look at healthcare costs – not just in the United States, but globally – they are primarily attributed to the aftermath of chronic lifestyle-related disease. This refers to conditions like heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer, autoimmune disorders, some mood disorders etc.

The good news is that the research clearly shows that up to 80-90% of these diseases are completely preventable when we pay attention to what we eat, how we move, sleep and manage our stress – in other words, our lifestyle.

So, I decided to move away from clinical practice and focus my efforts on the business of preventive wellbeing – how could I help as many people as possible stay well and not fall sick in the first place. And since we spend most of our waking lives at work, if we can create healthier workplaces, this translates to a lower chronic disease burden and fewer healthcare costs.

The name Wisdom Labs for a solutions provider is an interesting one. How did it come about?

Our name symbolizes our mission of solving for stress, burnout, anxiety, and loneliness by creating wiser workplaces, which lead to greater wellbeing. We’re also interested in long-term behavior change in organizations – not just a one-off training workshop or lecture. To do this, we use the emerging science of mindfulness, resilience, compassion and emotional intelligence. In the past twenty-five years or so, there has been a lot of ground-breaking research into ancient wisdom mind training techniques like meditation and how they apply to our everyday 21st century lives. That’s where the “wisdom” part of our name comes from – how these practices help us stay well and make the best decisions for ourselves, our companies and the planet. At the same time, we are a “lab” in that we acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers yet; that we thrive on iterating and testing the solutions and data to see what works best; and we stay updated on the science and translate it to practical applications (through our digital products and in-person training) that everyone at work can easily adopt.

What does lifestyle medicine mean? What are the merits of subscribing to it for an organisation?

As I mentioned earlier, the majority of healthcare costs today go towards treating and managing the chronic lifestyle-related disease. These are illnesses that result from sub-optimal daily lifestyle behaviors – like the foods we eat, whether or not we exercise, how much sleep we get and how we manage our stress and emotions. The great news is that all of these behaviors are changeable – so just because you may have a high risk for diabetes or heart disease, for example, you can often prevent those illnesses by changing your lifestyle. This is what lifestyle medicine is about – empowering us to take better control of our health and wellbeing. It’s a growing interdisciplinary field where many different kinds of health providers work together - physicians, nurses, dietitians, personal trainers, psychologists, health coaches etc.

For organizations, investing in lifestyle medicine practices for their employees is meaningful on so many levels. First, a healthier workforce means lower healthcare costs – especially for self-ensured employers. Second, a healthier workforce means lower absenteeism, presenteeism, turnover and higher productivity. Third, taking care of your employees is more important than ever in the workplace if you want to stay competitive as a business: it sends a message that you value your workforce and are paying attention to creating a thriving culture – all significantly crucial aspects for hiring and retaining the best talent.

Corporate leadership tends to view terms such as meditation and mindfulness as mumbo-jumbo, how do you explain and package it for greater outreach?

I agree that there is a lot of confusion and misconception around the words meditation and mindfulness in the business world. This is why we lead with the science and stay secular in our approach. We refer to the research that shows many health benefits (lower stress and burnout, less anxiety, improved immunity, better ability to change lifestyle habits) as well as organisational benefits (better focus, attention, performance, engagement, emotional intelligence, compassion and interpersonal communication and relationships).

For any corporate leader who is concerned about the wellbeing of their workplace - and frankly, their own as well – we explain that at its root, meditation simply means training your mind to become familiar with its habitual patterns. Just like you train your body with physical exercise, meditation helps train your mind for optimal wellbeing. Mindfulness at its core is the ability to pay full attention in the present moment, with a sense of curiosity and kindness, so that you can then respond skillfully to whatever may be coming up for you at that moment, rather than with a knee-jerk reaction.

Just like you strengthen your muscles with regular exercise, we now know from the research that daily consistent practice helps strengthen brain networks that build our focus, attention, emotional intelligence, decision making, memory and ability to give back and relate to others authentically.

According to old-school thinking, one is taught to be guarded and diplomatic, whereas you talk about authentic relationships. What are the hallmarks and importance of authenticity?

Recent organizational research points to “psychological safety” as one of the most important qualities of effective teams in any business. This means that there is a level of trust and respect among co-workers that allow them to show up authentically – as themselves – at work. These teams are not afraid of making mistakes or failing – because they know that is part of the learning process, and their teammates have their back. They have a growth mindset and are highly empathic and compassionate – being considerate of others needs beyond their own. For the company, these teams turn out to be the most collaborative and innovative. As leaders, they turn out to be the ones that are most admired. 

To develop more authenticity, we need to practice vulnerability. A small way to start is by sharing something personal with your co-workers that they may not be aware of – such as a funny childhood memory or a time when you made a mistake that served you well or even how you spent time with your family over the weekend. This usually signals to the other person that it is okay for them to do the same – and hopefully over time this builds a stronger and meaningful connection. We learn that we are as imperfect or flawed as anyone else we work with, and we can extend forgiveness and compassion to ourselves and others (rather than trying to maintain a façade of perfection).

What is your personal mindfulness practice?

I start my day with anywhere from 15-30 minutes of meditation. I vary the technique depending on what I most need that day – an attention practice, a more body awareness practice or a compassion practice. I always include some deep breathing and setting an intention for the day. Throughout the day, I try to integrate as many mindful moments as I can at work e.g. taking a breath before I check my phone; sending wishes of goodwill silently in my mind as I walk by co-workers or even strangers on the street; savouring the taste of my tea or coffee; listening with care during one-one meetings. I usually end the day with a deep relaxation or gratitude meditation before bed. 

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