010: Tara Healey – Mindfulness at Work, Beyond the Misconceptions


Join our discussion and learn how to apply mindfulness in the workplace.  Where else are you investing in an employee program with a 99.9% satisfaction rate?

Tara Healey is the founder and director of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care’s Mind the Moment program. 

Tara initially joined Harvard Pilgrim as a health educator and organizational development professional in its HR department, a position which she occupied for over 20 years. She brought a mindfulness course to Harvard Pilgrim’s own staff members in 2006, long before mindfulness had hit the mainstream

ERH:   Today I am excited to be here with Tara Healey. She is the Program Director of Mindfulness-Based Learning at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. They have an excellent program called Mind the Moment. It’s a suite of mindfulness courses that you can choose from and available to any employer, large or small. Tara is going to talk more about those programs with us today.

I have been following Tara for a while. I actually worked at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care years ago. I’m very excited to have you here today, so welcome.

Tara Healey:   I’m delighted to be here. Thank you for asking.

ERH:   There are many roads we could go down with your vast experience as a leader in the field of mindfulness nationally, but I think we decided that we will focus on employers today. With some of the work that I’m doing, I’ve learned that it can be a little bit confusing for employers to know how to start out. Mindfulness is a word we hear more and more about. So, Tara perhaps you can share what it is and how you might begin a program, with a large or small company.

Tara Healey:   Yes. I could start with the definition of it, because it’s one of those terms that is defined in a variety of different ways by a variety of different teachers and people connected with this practice, all clicking towards the same thing. It’s one of those words that’s a little tricky to define. It’s like if somebody asked you to define art… Not the easiest thing to actually speak to.

 Mindfulness falls into a similar category, but to keep it somewhat simple … essentially it’s a two-part definition. I say mindfulness is just a quality of mind that is awake but is aware, is alert, and that knows it. It’s kind of like a massive cognition. A helpful way to think about it is we’re all locked in thoughts throughout the day. We are sort of hijacked by memories and planning and stories, but often there’s this moment when we wake up from it and we’re like, “Whoa, where was I?”

ERH:   Yes

Tara Healey:   Right? And that moment of waking up is … You are now awake, you are aware, you are alert, and you know it, right? The second part of the definition has to do with a particular attitude in the mind toward whatever is happening within and around you. It’s an attitude of receptivity, curiosity, interest. When I put the definitions together, essentially mindfulness is a quality of mind that is awake, that is aware, that is alert, and that knows that with receptivity, interest, and curiosity.

 When I’m teaching, Elizabeth, I really elaborate on that much more. I provide examples. I take people through different practices. The place where meditation fits in … Because people will often say, “What’s the difference between mindfulness and meditation? How do they work together?” I think of mindfulness as the quality of mind, the sort of wakeful quality of mind that has a receptivity and an interest in terms of the quality.

 Meditation is the tool or the technique that we employ on a daily basis to help calibrate or steady the mind. Mindfulness just simply does its job best on a steady platform, so mindfulness has this capacity to see with greater clarity how things are, not how we think they should be or wish they were. That sense of clarity really works … It just works best when the platform of the mind is steady.

 I love thinking of meditation, just bringing attention back over and over again to a breath or a word or something else, but something that will anchor your attention. It’s kind of like a bicep curl for the brain. You come back over and over again to a particular breath sensation or word and then you allow that coming back over and over again to steady your mind, and over time it does. Mindfulness now has a platform to do its job more effectively. Does that make sense?

ERH:   Yes. That really helps.  What about in a work environment, do you find that people are afraid of those words?  Afraid of mindfulness and meditation and what they might mean?

Tara Healey:   Yes. In fact, there’s so much misconception, and unfortunately, it’s like mindfulness and meditation … It has a bit of a PR problem because of the ’60s. Fortunately, it’s really none of the things that people think it is. Part of what I do, especially in a work environment, is to demystify it and to talk about what it is, and also that it’s an empirical practice. You don’t … You want to test it for yourself, so if you feel like this has some value, you’ve read about it, you’ve heard about it and you feel like it has some value for you and you decide to practice it, over time you want to see what’s your direct experience.

 A good way to do that is how are you engaging and relating to things that have caused you strife or difficulty? How are you relating to that coworker whenever you see him or her your buttons are pushed? Do you have a little more space, a little bit more ease? Are you able to be a little bit more skillful and careful in your words?

It’s kind of like the more we practice … I always say the practice and the benefits are proportional, so if you practice a little you are going to see a little bit of change in your life. People say, “How do I know it’s working?” Then I will often say, “How’s your life going? What do you notice?” because we’re all wired so differently. Something that might bother you might not bother me.

We’re really looking at how we are engaging with all the various aspects of our lives, having things we wish we didn’t have, wanting things we can’t have, and how are we relating to just some of the natural ebb and flow of being human.

ERH:   Right, which is home and work, right? We bring our whole selves to the office in whatever we’re doing.

Tara Healey:   We do. That’s right. That’s right. With mindfulness, there are layers and it’s a nuanced practice where you understand deeper and deeper levels over time, but in more of just a simple, accessible way. It increases the gap between impulse and action. We have a little bit more space, a little bit more room.

Just to give you an example, I was talking to a physician today who’s the medical director of a large practice and he’s very interested in mindfulness. He’s been practicing for seven years.  I asked him, “How did you get into it?”  He said he had a horrible day, really, really bad; lots of phone calls and just a number of things went wrong, and he was driving to meet his son and brother-in-law. They were going to a game at the Garden and there was this man behind him frantically waving and gesturing. He said he was like a crazy man.

They got to the light and he pulled up next to him and the doctor who I’m talking to today said he put down the window and he screamed and he swore, the doctor did. He was so stressed from his day that he literally gestured to him He said, “I’m not even going to tell you what I said. The man who was crazy trying to get my attention looked at me and said, ‘Your headlights are out.'”

He just … It changed his life. It’s so amazing because he was contracted from his workday and had so much piled on and he knows his son and brother-in-law are waiting for him and there’s this crazy lunatic behind him, but the man simply wanted to keep him safe and said, “Look, your headlights are not on.”

ERH:   How nice of the man to still say that after the gestures.

Tara Healey:   Yeah. It’s like he realized in that moment the need to really get his emotions and his life in more balance … And mindfulness has been an enormous component of that. That increasing the gap between impulse and action made me think of it, that you start to see that contraction and that anger building up and you’re able to kind of work with it before it gets to that boiling over.

ERH:   I read an interesting statistic from recently, that 25% of people responded that they felt like they just wanted to scream out loud at work because they were so stressed.

Tara Healey:  Yeah. That’s a lot. That’s a high percentage.

ERH:   One out of four would like to scream at work if they could.

So, let’s say I’m an HR or wellness manager in a 10 person, or even a 100 person company and we have wellness programs, but I am noticing that people seem to still be stressed out and I think that we might be able to benefit from a mindfulness program or a conversation. How do I go about that with you? What would you talk to me about?

Tara Healey:   Mindfulness is not a cure all. You have to be really careful of putting it into a system where morale is incredibly low and the overall system is in need of things that mindfulness cannot address. I think it could anger people to have something like this brought into an environment that is not yet ready for it because they have other, let’s say structural or other things that need to be addressed.

That’s the first thing I try to get a better sense of… where’s the culture? What’s your story? What’s going on? I also worked in HR. My tenure at Harvard Pilgrim was as an organizational development consultant, so I also have like the lens of HR. I think that one of the best ways, once I get a better sense of their culture and what they’re looking for and why they’re interested in mindfulness, is I usually recommend that people start with just a one hour or a 90-minute introduction to mindfulness and to gauge the interest. It’s not anything that you could ever make mandatory.

ERH:   In fact, that’s been proven not necessarily a great thing; making everybody go to a mindfulness retreat, for instance, as a first step.

Tara Healey:   Oh, yeah. That’s the kiss of death on that one. I think that helping [companies] with promotion and the marketing and just see who shows up … And the thing that I’ve noticed, and this is with over 11 years of teaching (we starting bringing it out to corporations around 2008), is that you will always get people who are already meditators coming because they’re curious. They haven’t necessarily come out [to their coworkers] saying, “Oh, I do this,” but they see that it’s being offered at their company.

Typically what happens is that we get… sometimes standing room only. People are curious because I think that science is helping legitimize this practice, so … It’s on the cover of Time magazine and Scientific American. You start to see this in certain areas where it’s in the high tech world and in businesses that might be more skeptical. It’s becoming more normal.

You do the one hour, you see who comes, and then from that, we usually do a six-week intro. The first class is an introduction to mindfulness and the following weeks we unpack it. You go into various practices. And you continue to introduce mindfulness and repetition in this practice, which is incredibly valuable and part of the learning process.

Weeks two, three, four, five and six introduce various meditative practices, we talk about the impact of stress on the body and how mindfulness can mitigate the impacts of stress.

There’s a mindful listening communication piece. There’s an introduction to walking meditation and doing body scans and how you do sitting meditation. The last class is a wrap-up that also includes resources for people so that they can follow up on their own. They’re introduced to books and links and apps and meditation centers. There’s also a four-week 2.0 program, so if a company is like wow, we had a lot of interest, people liked it; a month or two later we’ll do the four-week program and have that same group come back and revisit.

ERH:   What have you recorded in terms of impacts and satisfaction with the companies? I’ve heard a few statistics and was quite impressed.

Tara Healey:   Yeah. There are a few things out there. I have two good friends, Chris Lyddy and Darren Good, who are both management folks and interested in meditation and studying meditation. Even if people Googled their names, they would see a recent report on the impact of mindfulness in the workplace.

ERH:   Great.

Tara Healey: The other thing I can say from our own experience is that we started to collect data very early on. We did surveys pre, post, and then six months out. We’ve asked a series of questions around balance, how they manage disruption, whether they’re able to still treat their colleagues with dignity and respect even amidst a busy workday; and how do they assess that ability? We also ask about their focus at work, and their ability to remain focused.

The bottom line is that all of these measures around focus and the ability to maintain a sense of respect with your peers, even when you’re under pressure, the ability to listen; all of those trended in a positive direction. We now have 11 years of data.

I think the most challenging thing for people is keeping up with the practice, because it’s not so easy, and one of the things that makes it a bit tricky is when we remove all the typical things we’re distracted by and we’re sitting with ourselves in this particular way, a lot comes up, so people feel anxious or they have memories or they’re rehashing conversations that maybe weren’t all that pleasant, but the instruction on how to manage that and how to work with discourse of thought and how to work with anxiety is all part of the mindfulness instruction.

ERH:  To me, I feel like if you’ve got the tools and the fact that you are doing it with a group of people, there’s a reason they’re together. It’s a big word because “together” is what makes it okay.  If you’re putting forth a program, even if you’re in a large company, you will know a few people that you can go and speak with about something that might be coming up. Do you find that people do that?

Tara Healey:   They do. You see somebody in the cafeteria and even just the mere visual of somebody within a class reminds you just to notice okay, where am I now? How am I feeling? Where’s my breath? Where are my thoughts? Where am I? It’s almost is like the bell of mindfulness. You see a person and it triggers that.  In fact, many people tell us that they don’t want the classes to end.

To address that, one thing we have [at Harvard Pilgrim] is, one Monday a month we offer a guided meditation that’s open to anybody in the building from 10:00 till 10:30 and I lead it. People call in, but people come in person and look forward to it. It’s an opportunity to practice with others and sit right next to somebody else who’s meditating and dealing with their own story lines, which are different from yours, but no less unsettling. I mean all of us just have them… Sometimes there are mundane thoughts that are just kind of random, like where did that come from?

We’re dealing with the whole mix, but I really emphasize the group component. Even the physician I mentioned earlier today was saying that they were scheduling lunches for physicians to eat together and that that group was performing really well and having more ease and looking forward to just a shared meal.

I also think that we have habit patterns of mind that this practice can help break; well, the ones that we don’t think are that useful. The rushing and the frantic doing can be just a habit pattern. I mean, that’s not to diminish the fact that we have incredibly busy lives and families and full-time employment. There are also times when we don’t have to go the rapid speed we are, but it’s how we’ve been operating without looking at it, so it’s how the mind naturally inclines. Whatever we incline our mind toward, we train. Mindfulness helps to uncouple that habit pattern.

ERH:   It’s a beautiful gift [to break unwanted patterns]. When practicing breaks with a group of people that I worked with in my last role in HR, we started out with five minute afternoon stretching and then at some point somebody said, “Why don’t we all bring our lunch together and eat in the lunchroom?” They said they had not done that practice regularly in several years, and it took 15 minutes, right?

You bring your lunch, you eat, say a few words and connect with each other, and then head back to your desk. It really didn’t take as long as people thought it might.  In just two weeks, everyone was talking more around the office and smiling more.

We forget how siloed we are.  Even though we are sitting next to someone in an office, often we are not connecting because we are tethered to our jobs and other people through technology.  

Tara Healey:   That’s right, and I love tethered, because that’s what happens. The practice actually helps us see… do I really need to check my phone now? Checking the phone is a habit pattern, and it doesn’t need to be checked as often as it is. In this practice, you actually begin to see the impulse arise. You experience it physically, like what does that impulse … What’s going on? Then you don’t check.

You’re just with the impulse to check, but you don’t actually check. The impulse actually goes away. It has an impermanent nature, so you start to learn that that’s true for moods and emotions, all of these things. They have an arising, they have a life, and they pass. Even an itch I often have people practice with and say, “Don’t scratch it.”

If you’re meditating and all of a sudden you get an itch, bring your attention to the itch, hang out with it for a bit. Don’t scratch it, and you will see that whether or not you scratch it, it will go away. It’s actually a really significant thing to understand, is this changing nature of thought, emotion, body sensations just in terms of living a more useful, peaceful life.

ERH:   That’s so true. If we were to say one thing that we haven’t talked about already for employers, what would you say to an employer that feels like this might be insurmountable?  Let’s say their leadership isn’t engaged, which to me is such a huge thing, what would you say to that employer before we sign off today?

Tara Healey:   I think it’s an important question. There are a couple of things. One is that we deliberately did not start with senior leadership 11 years ago. We actually mixed it up by age, race, gender and level in the company, with the idea of leveling the playing field. We’re in this room, we’re around a shared humanity, all the titles go out the window, so it’s a true mix.

That proved to be really valuable … What happened is it went viral in our company and it started to trickle up to senior leaders, who were like, “What is happening?” It was like one of those crazy situations where you could never have even planned it.

ERH:   That’s great.

Tara Healey:   Our VP of HR, she said, “Let’s do it and not tell anyone.”

ERH:   Sometimes it’s okay to do that if you know it’s not breaking your budget and it’s just a small investment, mostly of time, right?

Tara Healey:   That’s what it is. It’s a small investment of time that you get back in clarity. I think that … in this day and age, it’s a little different. Senior leaders are more engaged than they were 11 years ago, but a lot of companies when we share our story, they say, “We want to start that way too. That sounds great.”

ERH:   Even if the leadership might be interested, that diversity of all levels within the organization is probably a really important way to unfold anyway.

Tara Healey:   Yeah. It was truly organic and it just made its way up the chain actually to our CEO. It was really interesting. The other thing is when I look at all the feedback that we’ve gotten over 11 years, almost 100% of people, so it’s like 99.9% of people say that taking this class was a very good use of their time.

ERH:   That’s a huge statistic. Wow.

Tara Healey:   I know, it is.  It’s kind of remarkable. The comments that I would also share that is a theme is that people feel really proud of their organization for offering something that is so cutting edge and not necessarily the norm. I have so many comments where people say, “I feel so proud to work for Harvard Pilgrim, that they would offer something like this to support their employees.”

ERH:   That’s beautiful, Tara.  So we will put a link on the podcast website, but for now what’s the best place to learn more if someone wants to look right this second?

Tara Healey:   Harvardpilgrim.org/mindfulness. If you’re already a member of Harvard Pilgrim you will log in as a member, and then you’ll have access to videos.   You have access to a three, 10, 20 and 30-minute guided meditation, a body scan, sitting practice using the breath, and other resources. If you’re not a member of Harvard Pilgrim, there’s a three-minute guided practice and contact information for people who want more.

ERH:   That’s great. I have looked at your site and I did the guided meditation, which is excellent.

Tara Healey:   Good. Good. Thank you.

ERH:    Thank you so much. We really appreciate you joining the Art of the Break.

Tara Healey:   I was delighted to be asked.

ERH: You can learn more about Mind the Moment programs and Tara Healey’s work at Harvardpilgrim.org/mindfulness. Thank you for spending time with the Art of the Break. I hope you learned even one thing to make your workday better or something to inspire you to help your team or employees.