Are You Getting Enough Recovery Breaks As You Work? (Johann Berlin on the Making Positive Psychology Work Podcast)

Interviewer

Hey there and welcome to making positive psychology work, the weekly podcast where we uncover tested practical ways to help you intelligently apply the latest research in human flourishing. So together, we can better navigate the incredible challenges and opportunities faced by workplaces. I’m your host, Michelle McQuaid. What you probably don’t know about me is that one of my favorite ways to relax is to write songs and sing them on the piano. Not very well, mind you, but good enough for an audience of just myself oh, yeah. Thank you so much for joining me for lesson number 147 and making positive psychology work. I’m so glad you’re here because today we’re talking to Johann Berlin, who is the CEO of the TLEX Institute. Who worked with fortune 500 companies to create resilience in businesses by using restorative techniques and authentic engagement to strengthen the energy and connections between individuals, teams and organizations to achieve greater purpose. Featured in the Harvard Business Review, The New York Times and Washington Post among many other publications. Johann has shared his work at TEDx in London and with leading universities all over the world. But what you probably don’t know about Johann is that he loves studying and singing send script, which is an ancient vedic text welcome, Johann.

Johann Berlin

Great to be on the show.

Interviewer

Johann, it’s wonderful to have you with us and I have to ask, how do you learn in ancient Vedic texts like Sanskrit?

Johann Berlin

Yeah, it’s actually you learn through call and response in through writing. So it’s less of you worried less about the structure in the early days though there are people who are certainly experts in that as well. But the way that I learned was writing it, saying it and then hearing it and doing that repetitively and in the Vedic tradition is one which is an oral tradition that’s lived on for many thousands of years.

Interviewer

Johann having listened to the call and response of a group of people reciting Sanskrit together and the beauty of the harmonizing effect that occurs between people. I can imagine that it’s a wonderful restorative well-being intervention, would that be right?

Johann Berlin

There’s a sort of somatic activation and also like a mental sinking that happens. And I’ve just found I feel less fragmented. I feel less of that kind of in my own world space whenever I do that and it’s one of the reasons it’s a tool that I found that personally, I don’t teach that anywhere that I’ve found it’s been very helpful for me.

Interviewer

Johann it sounds wonderful and I know a lot of your work with organizations all over the world helps to teach leaders. That despite expecting our bodies and brains to behave like machines that can run on a constant steady energy stream throughout the day. That in fact, like every other living system, our energy ebbs and flows and that this has a direct impact on our levels of creativity and productivity. So making space for recovery is not a nice to have. But I have to have it if we’re going to do our best work. But I’m curious,

given that the World Health Organization has just declared that burnout is a workplace phenomenon that impacts how well people are able to perform. Why do you think so many of us are still struggling to make space for recovery while we’re going about our work?

Johann Berlin

I think there’s a couple things that are top of mind for that. One is that we’re social creatures. And we associated and assimilate into the cultures that we’re in to a certain extent. So you could almost say that there’s a sort of a mindlessness to it. And there’s an intentionality in certain workplaces around getting people to associate and assimilate toward working really late hours. For example, or a being expected to respond to an email in the middle of the night. And what happens is, when we see everybody else doing this around us, we tend to be more socially focused in that way than individually focused at least whenever it comes to self-care. And so that’s one thing. The other thing I would say is that we live in rapidly changing environments. It’s commonplace that smartphones. You know, you carry a basically a work computer around in your pocket, but it’s actually quite revolutionary. I mean, if you think about 10s, of thousands of years of evolution and then suddenly, you know, you’re being bombarded with all this threats, rewards, urgent requests and the sort of norms. And this has happened with other technological revolutions sort of transformations as well. We’re not really adapted to that at this particular stage, to have healthy norms and patterns around that. And I think those two things combined, are putting us in a very unique period in human history, where we are bombarded and our brains are essentially hijacked. And so much of our experience in life is external and sensory experience and digital dopamine and so that inner world, that’s the magic world, that emotional world is so easily overlooked. Whenever are all the stimuli were getting in so much of it, that by the time we have space to ourselves, we’re probably past capacity to your point, we’re probably shutting down and not optimal in that sense. But I think I think this will change. I think that eventually norms will catch up the question that is, so when you think about the future of work for me. Is technology sort of on a trajectory of evolution, which is in a certain perpetual motion, if you will. And what I wonder is how much intentionality do we actually have around the human experience. Beyond companies fighting for your screen time essentially and your digital trying to pull you into digital journeys on their platforms. And so we have to decide as a group or to some extent in small groups, what do we value. And if we value those other worlds I was describing the somatic the emotional, the spiritual, the mental, the cognitive experiences. Then we should create new habits and rituals in such that we can build buffers around it.

Interviewer

Johann I think prioritizing and protecting time for what we value in our days is such an important step in an increasingly connected and busy world. And I love your point about the digital dopamine challenge we all face. So we’ll be sure to include those insights in today’s making it work cheat sheet which our listeners can download at MichellemcQuaid.com/podcast147. And I think it’s a great challenge for us to think about how do we make recovery a social norm in workplaces. Like I’ve seen Linda Lisa global construction company do so well here in Australia. We’re taking regular breaks to move to recover into a well together. So no chocolates there on the workshop tables is just part of the way that they work together each day. So Johann you have other great examples of workplaces where the social norm of recovery spaces has just become part of the way people work well together.

Johann Berlin

Yeah, I think there definitely are. There’s actually a company that I do a lot of work with there in Australia called Cooper Investors. It’s one of the top longitudinal investment firms in in Australia and I would argue with the world and this learning to build rituals around taking breaks. Understanding, neuroscience, understanding decision making, when you’re educated on those things. Then it doesn’t feel like a cop out whenever somebody wants to take a break or whenever somebody wants to pause before an important decision versus pressing through. And also learning to read different signals. I mean, what’s fascinating is that we think that we’re rational and I would argue science really says that we’re not. Or at least an overwhelming body of evidence suggests that emotion drives feeling and then thought and then expression. So into intuition or expert pattern recognition are forms of intelligence. Emotion is a form of intelligence, right? Having a spiritual quotient is a form of strength for many people many, many people. All of these signals are important and learning to read them helps you navigate and understand like, different things that you’re picking up on beyond just getting into sort of intellectual arguments about what you should and shouldn’t do. Yeah I mean, there are certainly companies and they would be in a better place to work, sort of field but I think when it comes to mental health and human flourishing, which is you mentioned in your opening, I think this is particularly challenging because memory is associative. And we think of mental health as mental illness and this is one of those Topics where I feel because of that. Most people don’t feel safe sharing when they’re not flourishing and really are asking for what they need in that respect. Because in many respects, especially here in the States, what people think it’s gonna mean to management or to leadership is that. Well, this is the pace we go out and you can’t cut it. And there is some truth to that fear to be frank. And so where I find that it works well, is when you have leaders who are centered around their people first and are willing to have short term inconveniences. Taking a long term perspective on developing and nurturing you know, people who really feel connected to the work that they’re doing who really feel connected to showing up and it’s a two way street, right? Every company wants their employees to care about them. But if we asked does every company do you really care about their employees? Well, the answer would surely be no, every company does not. So I think that leaders who understand that leaders that are more human centered in the workplace actually can bring out that true inspiration that true emotional connection to their employees. And that in turn builds employees can have more empathy and connection to the customers that they serve. Because if you’re overworked, how can you tap into your empathy around the customer. A customer experience, you’re just going to be reactive to it or you’re just going to be copings to like, get through the challenging moment. Or if you’re doing advanced problem solving if you’re bombarded if you’re in chronic stress. We know you know the scientists in medical journals all over the world for decades now have been telling us that we’re not at our optimal. So I think it requires leaders who are willing to hold ground on that. And then it also requires people modeling that for their peers. And so there’s a bottom up in sort of top down thing, if you’re not courageous enough to model it, then probably other people aren’t going to be either. And so it’s that kind of joint effort that I think needs to happen in the mental health space and human flourishing space and it’s a challenging dilemma.

Interviewer

I agree and Johann I think being able to listen to the somatic, emotional and neurological signals our brains and bodies are sending us at work is something that most of us struggle with on a busy day. So any suggestions for how we can better notice and acknowledge when we’re struggling at work and how to create the rituals and habits we might need them for recovery breaks?

Johann Berlin


Well I think there’s one thing in particular and it has to do with self-care and physiological states of functioning. So, if we are in, to your point about the challenge of reading the signals. If we are in a stress response, or what is called a sympathetic response. Our ability to cope, perceive and regulate is going to be seriously impaired. And we’ll probably just going to keep pushing through pushing harder. And what happens in this dynamic is that this becomes a compounding situation. Where if you have lots of people doing that, then you end up with organizations that are closed that are defensive. Unnecessary conflicts because people are miss reading emails, which by the way, are an incredibly complex thing. There’s no non-conscious cues in an email and most how we get our signals from people as a non-conscious cues. So that you can call this like a closed defensive reactive sort of space on on one end of the spectrum. And on the other, you can have an open, expanded flexible, you can even call it agile state of physiological functioning. And that is what researchers called vagal tone and it has to do with your parasympathetic system. And one of the ways that we can flip it if we notice to your point, what do we do when we notice and I love The definition of the word responsibility. We think of it, at least here at least at the house I grew up on it has to do with guilt and like falling on the sword sort of thing. But it actually means the ability to respond. And so when some part of you becomes aware of those signals, some part of you is also not on the level of the problem, because it’s observing. And when you become aware that then you have choice. And so then it’s a matter of, well, what do you do and one of the ways to flip from that very close state to that open state is the breath. And the breath is very powerful in this sense. It’s one of the only parts of the autonomic nervous system that we can control and it also corresponds heavily with emotion, like breathing patterns and emotion like when you’re angry, you breathe heavy or when you’re sad. You breathe out long exhales or when you’re scared you choke up and vice versa when you do controlled breathing. You can also change the way you feel, but in particular, flipping Increasing your vagal tone and as a way to circuit break out of that more reactive kind of closed stress place. Now there’s two sides to this one is in an acute moment where you can choose to kind of shift the challenges, we’re dealing with lots of chronic fatigue and stimuli overload. So what you also need to do is you need to invest in time, where you can just regulate down fully and decompress. So what I like to how I like to think about this is both immersive, like really immersive experiences where you can get some of the fatigue out, get deep rest and restore your senses. And then on the flip side is micro so micro habituation and both are really important. And you know, if you just store up a bunch of fatigue, stress, emotion and then go and decompress. And many people like that they like having you know, having an intense kind of cathartic transformational experience or whatever and you don’t then habituate that in small micro bursts. Like bring those things into cycles of development, you don’t usually end up with sustained change. Getting in that more open expanded state is very important. It has to do with more than more immersive self-care and the micro habituation. But it also has to there’s also this link between that state of functioning, that the more open expanded in emotion because so much of what we’re doing is we’re reading the cues around us. And if we are stressed, we are probably going to read those cues wrong. And that is probably going to compound this into more of a stress response. And so you can just imagine a spiral down in that. So yeah, I would say both planning micro and doing immersive. And we were talking about technology and the thing that really excites me there is that so much of the way technology is being used is to find intuitive ways to improve your life and you know, hijack your brain. But we can also choose to use technology in other ways. Like the heart rate variability and the predictive analytics around like when you should take a restorative break in your schedule. And so I’m very hopeful and excited about that as well. I don’t think technology is all of this solution. But I think since it is such a big part of our life, maybe we can use some of that intelligence in the reverse way that it’s being used right now.

Interviewer

Johann I absolutely share your hope that the future of wearable devices might help to nudge us to notice the biological or emotional signals we might be missing at work. And I noticed having worked with a group of leaders who will heart rate monitors for several days, while keeping an online diary. And then were given reports that are plotted their you stress versus their distress over the course of those days. That having that data was so eye opening for them, that making time for recovery breaks amidst all the business has actually become a companywide imperative. And one of my favorite reasons research based recovery micro rituals that we shared with them was noticing when they’re in distress and using their inner critic perhaps to beat themselves up. That instead of continuing to choose to go down that path, to reach for self-compassion by placing one hand over the opposite risk skin on skin and then just breathing slowly for a few minutes to trigger some oxytocin back into their bodies. And I really love this micro intervention because I can do it under a table in a meeting or behind my back while I’m teaching in a room full of people. So I can just have that moment of recovery while everyone else continues on around me. But do you think these kind of rituals Johann really provide recovery for us? Or are there other things that you’d be recommending our listeners try instead?

Johann Berlin

Well, we teach a lot of meditation and breathing and yeah I think, I mean, I think you have to find what works.

Interviewer

In whatever crazy life you’re living.

Johann Berlin

Exactly like if you’re a parent, whatever. You could salvage a minute you know then you do it. But yeah, I think I think a lot of it has to do with what we honor. And we chase what we honor; we put value on what we honor. And if we honor ourselves, then we’ll find that time. It’s just being intentional about what am I putting honor on what am I. What am I putting a high value on? Because that is how I will pursue my life until many of us end up as the workers in our life and not the designers. And sure, there are parts of our life which we can’t control which are out of our hands. In fact, I would argue most of it is out of our hands that the whole idea of the control is part of the problem. But if we become the designer of our life and we choose what matters to us within the spaces that we have, then it becomes straightforward in that sense. And then it’s a matter of honoring those things where we say that they’re valuable but do we honor them do we do we treat them with a certain Important, like we would treat anything else? Like the desires that we pursue around the house or promotion or car or in this endless chase for these external validations. And they bring us temporary joy and then they’re fleeting and we’re on to the next one. So if we flip that around, either in a collective norm or an individual norm, that’s a big step in that direction.

Interviewer

Yeah, yeah and I think that’s so important that we become the designers of our own lives and find ways to honor what we valued. To that end you’ve recently proposed a fairly radical idea for leaders, that love should be what matters most for them. And while I agree fully personally, in my experience, this idea raises a few eyebrows at most leadership tables when we suggest it with latest peering that there’ll be seen a soft or taken advantage of. So why do you think love should be what matters most to them? And how do we convince them of that?

Johann Berlin

Yeah, well what do we normally think of let’s go to the association. Right like so what do we normally think of when we think of love, we usually think of family, friends, maybe a pet that we love going on runs with. Being in nature, a place that feels very special to us, or maybe we have some memories associated with it. But in that Forbes article you mentioned, what is mental health epidemic that’s happening in our country and also in our companies, by the lack of love for the affective side of the human soul work for you. What is the 60 plus percent of people feel actively disengaged from their work? I think it’s 80 something percent this according to Gallup numbers, feel emotionally disconnected from their work, but a lack of love for what you’re doing. And what is the social isolation that we’re seeing, but a lack of kind of caring amongst people that that feeling that we belong. Which is so much of what we feel whenever we feel that feeling of love. Right the boundary and separation is less and the connectedness in the belongingness is more. And then I just think it’s if you look at it that way, then love should be at the center. But then also just thinking about well, like what will what is the alternative? To have workplaces, which are not human centered. Well, then who are they for? If they’re not, you know and products that are not conducive to that. And this goes back to the design question. Beyond profit, what end goal are we designing toward? And I think really great companies that will endear in this age of transformation that we’re in are the ones that will become both technology and human centered simultaneously. And why does this have to be such a zero sum game. Like what we’re seeing through the symptoms that we see in society. It doesn’t have to be that to some degree a choice and a choice that we’re all participating in, to some extent if we’re not thinking about it differently. So I think it’s going to be a way that companies and brands really differentiate themselves in more and more. We can tell sound a signal on these things, whether it’s green washing or whether it’s you know, companies that have a great value statement, but people are deeply unhappy in them. More and more people kind of see that that authenticity matters for customers and for employees. And so hopefully, things will continue trending that way. And I feel that they are to some extent. I feel the advancements that kind of exponential digital transformations that we’re going to which we can’t even fathom actually. They are forcing us to really grapple with these questions. And I certainly want to participate toward this, but it will, it’ll lead to break through on that front where you we can have you know, flourishing in the missions of these organizations but also in the people that are in them.

Johann Berlin

I hope so as well and with love in mind, Johann I have to ask at this point. Are you ready for the lightning round?
Ready to go.

Interviewer

So I’m curious then of all the well-being practices that you play with what makes the biggest difference in your own life and why?

Johann Berlin

There’s a practice called Sudarshan Kriya, which was created by a humanitarian spiritual leader out of India named Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. And it’s something about the rhythms of breath and also the different lengths, so short cycles, past cycles. And there’s something about that where I just feel harmonized after I do it. And I grew up around many things. So my father actually did his PhD on meditation. He was one of the first and self-directed PhDs in California. So I grew up around all these different modalities and approaches and did like keto when I was a kid and both my parents are psychologists. So I was exposed to many, many, many things. And yeah did Chi Gong, Tai Chi, etc. and for some reason, this particular technique really stuck with for me. I feel it kind of leads you to a place of relaxed alertness. So there are many like types of mindfulness that focus on executive function and concentrating. And there are also many like mantra based approaches which, which I also like that are more effortless. And then you benefit from that in your sensory experience. But in particular with this one, I like that there’s also a physical element to breathing. And so for me, that’s been helpful. And I’ve been able, whenever I was learning to meditate, it really helped me build a strong foundation.

Interviewer

That sounds amazing perhaps you can send us a link or something. If people want to learn more about that particular practice that they can go and check out Johann in addition to your own TED Talk, which will include in today’s making it work cheat sheet for our listeners, is there another book a TED talk or a podcast that you’d particularly recommend for our listeners who want to learn more about bringing out the best in people in workplaces?

Johann Berlin

So in terms of books, I’ll give something that’s a bit divergent and it’s where we started. I love this idea. Have you ever heard of the word sutra?

Interviewer

Yes, of course.

Johann Berlin

So sutra means to sow and I love the distinction between an intellectual idea and a wonder, or question and a wonder. And a wonder can take so many like a line of inquiry or an open ended question, or a deep inquiry can take so many lines and permutations in life. And there are certain sutras which can apply in any situation. You know like, for example, the present moment is inevitable. It just is and that reframe can bring us back to the moment. I particularly love a book called The Bhakti Sutras, which is this again, this is not something I would do with my work, but in terms of my own personal transformation. There’s something to its aphorisms of the heart. And so we were talking about love, but it’s not like an intellectual idea, or just that a kind of an effective emotion. It’s, it’s actually a line of like subtle inquiry into that. And I feel especially for like as a healthy masculine male. There’s something about exploring that text that was very beneficial for me personally. Another podcast, which I love is I mean, I love many. There’s one called less known one, which I was on that earlier this year, called this Courageous life. And it was a he was a graduate of Marty Segman’s program. But what I love about that is he really focuses on vulnerable moments and challenges and overcoming them and think there’s something so beautiful and imperfection, creating room for imperfection.

Interviewer

Yeah, I think we all need a little room for imperfection, so we’ll be sure to add a link to the book and to the podcast into today’s cheat sheet for our listeners as well. And lastly, Johann if there was one thing that you wished everybody thought about when it comes to bringing out the best in themselves and others at work What would it be?

Johann Berlin

I would say know that kindness is generative human moments create a certain elevation effect. And so often we think of things in terms of what we get in what we give. But just knowing whenever you do those sort of pro-social things, create room for imperfection in other people, as well as ourselves. What that does is it can have a cascading effect across organizations and across networks. And even small you know, you’d think people talk about the butterfly effect, even small things can have a massive difference. And so I think, just creating a little more kindness, a little more than room for imperfection. It doesn’t seem like a big thing but it actually can be and I talked about that in my TED talk but I would say it’s a simple thing. But it’s a it can be a highly it can create a positive contagion, which can impact is more than what meets the eye.

Interviewer

Absolutely I think remembering that kindness is generative. It’s a great one for us today as we step out into the world. Johann, thank you so much for joining us today.

Johann Berlin

Yeah, it was a pleasure and thank you for all you do and for your interest in other people and including me and I really appreciate the insights that you’re sharing. As I mentioned before, I’d come across your podcast before we spoke and it’s wonderful the things that you’re uplifting

Interviewer

You so welcome,and thank you for listening as a small gift for joining us today. If you head on over to the making positive psychology work Facebook group. You’ll find a bonus tip that Johann has left for us on how to improve your recovery by getting a great night’s sleep. And what new research is finding about the benefits of spending time in nature. Just search making positive psychology work on Facebook and you’ll find your gift waiting for you. For more information about your hands wonderful work, visit TLEX institute.com. And of course as always, we’ll be sure to put those URLs into today’s making it work cheat sheet along with your Johanninsights at michellemcquade.com/podcast147 that’s Michellemcquaid.com/podcast147. You’ve listening to making positive psychology work with Michelle McQuaid. If you Johann’s ideas helpful today and you’d like to pay forward his generosity, then be sure to share this podcast with a friend or colleague to help improve our workplaces. After all as JK Rowling wisely said, “It is our choices that show what we truly are far more than our abilities”. Until next time, take care.

Johann Berlin

Johann Berlin is a serial entrepreneur, international keynote speaker and leadership consultant specialized in human and organizational development, mental health and well-being, and sustainable business and investing. Johann is CEO of TLEX Institute, providing over 1 million digital users with evidence-based leadership, breathwork and emotional intelligence training. His clients include top business schools like Harvard Business Schools and Fortune 500 companies like Amazon and Microsoft. A leadership writer at Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Real Leaders and Huffington Post, Johann is also Consulting Chief Learning Officer for Cooper Investors, a $13 billion private equity fund where he is integrating values-based investing principles into the firm’s culture fund. He is also Consulting Chief Learning Officer at Total Brain where he develops mental health and well-being content for clinicians, large consumer groups, and organizations. Johann is a leading voice on human-centered leadership, founding the Future of Humans at Work conference and podcast. Previously, he served as CEO and co-founder of Sustainable CitySolutions and was SVP of Sustainability and Strategy for JDI. As a board member, executive advisor and community volunteer, Johann is passionate about social ventures dedicated to resilient schools, local economy, prisoner rehabilitation, and youth leadership. Johann's TEDx talk has been viewed over 100,000 times.

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