Stress Response: The Business Impact of Mindfulness with Sean Tolram (2/2)

Sean Tolram, our guest this week in episode 266, became a people manager because he truly enjoys helping others. In this episode, Sean will describe the gaps he needed to fill after taking on the role of managing technical people, the mindset shifts he adopted, and the impact of mindfulness principles on his team’s performance which eventually led to becoming head of mindfulness. We will also discuss the human stress response, business cases for wellbeing programs, and practical tips for using mindfulness to lower stress levels.

Original Recording Date: 02-10-2024

Sean Tolram is Head of Mindfulness at HSBC. If you missed the first part of our discussion with Sean, check out Episode 265.

Topics – Transition to People Management, Mindset Shifts and Becoming Less Technical, Defining Mindfulness, Shifting to Full-Time Work on Mindfulness and Wellbeing, A Business Case for Wellbeing, Stress Reduction Tips

2:38 – Transition to People Management

  • Nick suggests the act of clarifying and simplifying your message is part of working with higher level leaders.
  • People management isn’t something Sean went looking for. He left IBM after no longer enjoying it there.
  • Sean started working for British Home Stores as a developer focused on building an e-commerce site.
    • “I wasn’t looking to be a manager or to manage a team. I was just looking to do my job. But then, as time went on, I found that I was really enjoying helping other people…. And it was from doing that that I then became known as somebody who is able to make other people better.” – Sean Tolram, on transitioning to people management
    • Sean spent time with some of the younger people on the team who were struggling. As a result those people were able to perform better, and their managers noticed. The people Sean had helped had told their managers he helped them.
    • For example, Sean taught one member of the team HTML after work in multiple short sessions. Putting him into a team became associated with people becoming better at certain things.
    • “When I think back now I realize that that was the point where I stopped chasing the money and chasing the promotions and I just stopped thinking about it. Prior to that when I was at IBM it was all about how to do I get rich…. At that point when I stopped thinking about that and I just started enjoying my work and enjoying the people that I was with, I realized that I enjoyed helping other people. That then led me into management roles…. I didn’t really go after it, but it was through the behaviors that I was showing that I put myself in that position.” – Sean Tolram
      • As the organization grew and restructured, people knew Sean was able to do the work of a people manager and put him in that role.
    • Are helping others to build technical as well as not technical skills looked upon equally as relatable experience or evidence that we are capable of being people leaders?
      • Sean would say yes and feels he was not good in his earlier career at managing up but good at working with his team. In fact managing up is still something he finds difficult to do well. Sean sought improvement in this area by forcing himself into areas of discomfort.
      • Sean eventually became a bridge between his team and senior management and would relay messages from senior management to his team.
      • “So it was all those little things that added up where it was kind of management type behaviors even though I wasn’t called a manager that then led to me being given that role.” – Sean Tolram
    • How is the way you manage up different for a front-line people manager compared to an individual contributor?
      • Part of this was learning what senior management do and do not care about. Sean was making the mistake of providing too much information.
      • Earlier in his career, Sean needed to provide a lot of specifics to his front line manager. He might provide, for example, details on what was done and the problems and challenges along the way.
      • “Managing upwards to senior management…it’s all about cutting out the fluff and getting straight to the point because that’s all they want.” – Sean Tolram
      • Sean suggests we need to work out the big impactful statements or headlines to share with senior management. For example, providing a slide deck full of information might be something they (senior management) decide not to read or do not remember.
      • Instead of communicating with everyone the same way, Sean had to change the way he communicated with his leaders to make it more effective and to achieve what he wanted to achieve.
      • At the time Sean was not seeking feedback from peers on how to better communicate with management (though he wishes he had been). Sean applied the concepts of testing and learning on the job to the social environment at work much like he did in his scientific study days and later when he was writing code. It took some time using this method, but Sean learned.

10:00 – Mindset Shifts and Becoming Less Technical

  • Sean tells us the teams he was managing were getting larger, and he went through a significant shift of mindset as a result.
    • “And it became less about me. So it became less about the work that I could deliver and more about the people because it was the performance of those people that was reflecting on me. So if the team were not performing well, even if I was, it doesn’t matter. It’s my team. If the team make a mistake, if there’s an error that goes live on the website, it’s not the fault of the person who made the error, it’s my responsibility because I’m heading up the team.” – Sean Tolram
    • Sean had to then start to think about supporting people to perform well / to the best of their ability. He knew there were talented people on his team but did not feel they were performing as well as they could be. Many errors were making it to the company’s production website during his time at HSBC.
  • Sean started reading books on people management and trying different things, but nothing seemed to work.
    • Then Sean began implementing principles of mindfulness to help people understand the impact of stress and how to deal with it.
    • Sean found that his team and many others he looked at were operating in a constant state of stress. At the time teams were measured on the number of daily updates they could make to the company website, and due to this choice of metric updates to the website were getting made that maybe should not have been.
    • Sean was in a position to change this. He slowed things down, allowed people to take breaks if they needed them, and enabled team members to think about whether they should push out their updates. This reduced the error rate by about 50%, and all they had done was introduce principles of mindfulness.
    • “So it wasn’t that we were all going off and meditating for hours. It was more around understanding how our brains worked and creating an environment where our brains could be at their best.” – Sean Tolram
  • Sean tells us he was surprised at enjoying people management so much and ended up leaving his technical skills behind.
    • He didn’t want to go back to being a designer or developer. Rather than be a specialist, Sean was more interested in helping others develop specialties in certain areas.
    • Sean enjoyed bringing teams together and getting them to collectively work toward a goal. Additionally, he enjoyed seeing people improve and enjoy the careers they wanted to achieve.
    • Sean had that same feeling as when he discovered HTML and it felt both easy and natural. Managing people and helping them with the challenges we have discussed felt like what he was supposed to be doing the whole time.
  • Was Sean concerned at all about becoming less technical?
    • Sean did struggle with that a bit. Our skills can get outdated quickly, and returning to individual contributor after a couple of years as a manager would require some learning and training to sharpen skills.
    • Sean thought about what he wanted to do for the rest of his career, and he found it to be an easy decision about what he enjoyed most (the work in management). But he acknowledges it won’t be an easy decision for everyone.
      • For those technical aspects of interest and that brought Sean enjoyment, he has been able to keep up with them over time.
      • Sean mentions doing freelance web development on his own time as a way to keep up with the technical side. It’s turned into more of a hobby he says.
      • Nick mentions the podcast being a hobby that allows him to meet and learn from new people.
  • Nick appreciates Sean’s emphasis on giving his team permission to care for themselves by taking a break when needed.
    • Nick recounts a situation where he encouraged a people leader to take time off because they were sick and emphasized the need to model that behavior for the people on their team. Nick says until he worked for a manager who modeled this behavior and communicated to the team it was ok to operate that way he felt far more pressure to work despite being sick.
    • Sean tells us the attitude and personality of the front line manager can impact the entire team. The manager being in states of panic or calm will affect the team accordingly.
    • “And I do see people management as a skill like learning a language or learning a musical instrument. There’s all these elements that have to be learned…. So I think it’s really important to treat it as a skill. Read the books. Do as much as you can to become an amazing people manager because at the end of the day you’re there to serve your people in the best possible way. And you need to continue developing that ability so that you can do the best for them.” – Sean Tolram
      • Sean says we might not find ourselves in a management position because we’re good at managing people.

17:40 – Defining Mindfulness

  • “Mindfulness is about having awareness of what’s going on so that you can make decisions about how you live your life. It’s that awareness.” – Sean Tolram
  • We often live each day on autopilot and let things happen to us without control of our attention. In a typical work day we might get contacted via e-mail, instant message, a phone call, or by other communication channels.
    • Sean references a study done that highlighted workers in the 1970s might get 3 inputs per day (a phone call or other interruption). For us today it’s more like 300!
    • This creates information overload for our brains and an inability to get to everything.
    • Mindfulness can help us notice when we are being distracted and bring focus back to where we want it to be.
  • Sean has used mindfulness to help with public speaking, for example. It helps him recognize symptoms of stress like faster heartbeat and rise in body temperature. He stresses the importance of practicing so we can notice these things are happening earlier (maybe before standing up to speak / being put on queue to speak).
    • Noticing allows us to apply tools to calm ourselves or put us in the right state of mind to do a presentation or have a conversation with someone.
  • Suppose you’re in a meeting and someone says something that triggers you. This engages what Sean calls the primitive brain, and we go into fight or flight mode. We might snap back verbally at someone and regret it later.
    • With mindfulness we can develop an ability to create a gap before we respond to situations that will allow us to pause, take a breath, think logically and respond rather than react.
    • Sean gives the example of receiving an e-mail from someone who is critical of you with other people copied.
    • There are many more applications in the workplace for mindfulness.
  • Mindfulness is not a new concept and has origins in the Buddhist religion.
    • In the 1970s mindfulness was brought to the West and made more accessible to others.
    • Today mindfulness is being used by different companies, by Navy Seals, and elite athletes. Sean mentions even his kids use mindfulness in school today and that it is becoming more mainstream once people see the benefits.
    • Along these same lines we have to be careful. Mindfulness cannot make all of our problems disappear.
    • “It may make you more aware of your problems and how they’re affecting you. But what I always says is that then gives you information that you can use to make decisions to make decisions about what you do next.” – Sean Tolram, on mindfulness as an information source
  • What do we mean by mindfulness practice? Are mindfulness and meditation the same thing?
    • Sean says mindfulness is something we can do in the moment when we need it. For example if we’re getting upset in traffic or because someone jumped in front of us in line somewhere, we can do a breathing practice or a body scan right then and there to notice tight or tense muscles. We can even practice mindfulness while doing the dishes.
    • As one progresses in mindfulness, meditation is a part of it. We might dedicate 10, 20, or 30 minutes even to meditate. What this really means is taking time to sit and focus on your breath, and when you get distracted, notice and make a decision to redirect attention back the breath. This is a mindfulness practice.
      • The dedicated practice for a period of time is meditation, while mindfulness can be done in the moment.
    • "We say mindfulness is a gym for the brain, and that’s like doing reps in the gym for the brain…noticing you’ve been distracted and then bringing your attention back…… The more you practice that, the easier and more automatic it becomes so you can then apply it in those tough situations when you need it the most. " – Sean Tolram, on a mindfulness practice
    • The above aligns with some of the books Nick has read, such as:
      • The Way of the SEAL by Mark Divine Allyson Machate talks about having a mind gym that we visit to practice
      • Peak Mind by Amishi Jha discusses the result of studies which found that 12 minutes of meditation per day is the sweet spot of dedicated time that can improve your decision making in any walk of life
    • Nick feels like there may be a misconception out there about what meditation is and means. Apps like Calm have made it more accessible.
    • Sean shares that he was doing mindfulness during our interview since it started. In the moments when Nick was talking.
      • “In the moments when you’re talking, I’m noticing signs of stress in myself. Because this is an unusual situation for me…but being on a podcast, unusual situation, my brain is saying potential danger, potential danger. So I’m noticing my shoulders are raised slightly. I can kind of feel like every now and again I’m starting to talk a little bit faster than I normally would do…. So when you’re speaking, I’m doing a very kind of discrete mindfulness exercise just to kind of bring myself back down and maintain a certain level so that I can speak to in a clear and coherent way.” – Sean Tolram, on the live practice of mindfulness
      • Sean tells us it is difficult to switch on mindfulness in the moment, but he’s able to do it because he has put in the practice.

26:40 – Shifting to Full-Time Work on Mindfulness and Wellbeing

  • In Sean’s previous role at HSBC, he managed the teams who put out content across HSBC websites. It was high pressure, and Sean saw a number of people who would burn out or get sick due to work.
    • These people would take time off work, get treatment, and then end up in the same situation again.
    • Despite Sean giving his teams the chance to take better care of themselves, they often would chose not to do so. When he would notice people not taking lunch breaks Sean would speak to people and try to make them comfortable taking those breaks. But there were team members who just couldn’t do it or were not comfortable taking the lunch breaks because of their experiences with the cultures of previous teams.
    • Sean realized we often go through our education and learn almost nothing about how our brains work. Once we are put into the world of work which isn’t necessarily optimized for our brains (i.e. might put our brains in a state of threat), we might not have the tools or skills to function well in that environment.
    • Sean became a manager because he enjoyed helping people. He found after teaching people about the way their brain works and how to create a brain friendly environment, it was helping people more than anything else.
  • Sean then got further into mindfulness because it helped him do the thing he enjoyed – helping other people. Sean tells us it was more luck becoming Head of Mindfulness than any one thing he did.
    • He became known eventually as the mindfulness guy. People knew it was something Sean was passionate about practicing because he let senior management know he was using mindfulness to help others and the results it was producing.
    • When the pandemic hit, many organizations wanted a way to support employee wellbeing. HBSC decided at the time to create a permanent mindfulness team after seeing the positive results Sean had communicated to senior management. Sean was asked to head up the mindfulness team.
      • Thinking back he feels this was a lot of being at the right place at the right time and a little bit of luck. It was also because others knew about the work he had been doing.
    • Where would a mindfulness department fall from an organizational structure standpoint?
      • Sean says right now his department is separate from HR because of the source of their funding, and this allows his team to operate across all areas of the company (HSBC) without limitations.
      • Nick sees a similarity here to when Sean was in HTML design and decided to work with other people in development, testing, etc. Th external organization to other groups allows looking at benefits of mindfulness to people across the company while examining challenges which may be specific to someone’s role, location, or job function.
      • In other organizations concerned about employee wellbeing (a big focus in the corporate world at the time of this recording), this function may reside within HR. Lately Sean is hearing discussions of why wellbeing should reside outside HR so it can have a greater organizational impact.

32:58 – A Business Case for Wellbeing

  • What if a listener does not have a wellbeing program at their company?
    • Sean says in his case they were doing mindfulness already and reporting on the results. There’s nothing to prevent people from doing it if they have the time and interest, but be sure to report on the results of the work you’re doing to prove the worth.
    • More and more studies highlight the link between health and wellbeing, performance at work, and organizational results. Check out actual studies on the internet to help create a compelling case that can impact a company’s bottom line.
    • “If you just look at the stats for stress, stress is one of the biggest causes of long-term absence from work. When you’re stressed, lots of things happen…. It has an impact on your health, and you can become ill. When you become ill, you need to take time off work. That then leads to absenteeism. Also it leads to staff turnover…. When you plug some numbers in you can see the cost of stress to an organization on average, and the numbers are massive.” – Sean Tolram
      • Sean also mentions presenteeism. This is when people are at work but not able to perform to the best of their ability.
  • Nick thinks creating a business case is the next iteration of managing up for Sean.
    • Proposing new ideas to leaders can be scary, and it is something we have to overcome.
    • People in leadership positions want passionate individuals to suggest new ideas. We need to remember this can be a way to make a senior leader’s job easier because they can’t get to everything. You can prove you have thought something through with your business case.
    • Sean gives an example of getting an instant message from his direct line manager about chatting for 5 minutes and the stress response this can trigger.
      • The stress response often has to do with social hierarchy and fear of being kicked out of the troop. There are primitive reasons for this, and they are not easy to overcome.
      • We’re trying to go against our natural human instincts, and it will be different for every person. As we have discussed, it’s noticing when these things happen and deciding to do something about it.
    • We also have to navigate organizational constructs like management chains and whether our direct line manager would support us communicating with a skip level manager.

37:29 – Stress Reduction Tips

  • It helps to understand at a biological level what happens when we’re stressed.
    • Your brain has sensed danger and reacted as if you are faced with a wild animal. But it likely is not a wild animal. It could be a manager or a colleague.
    • The stress response is not in and of itself a bad thing. When in a state of stress, our blood rushes to muscles in our arms and legs and our bodies flood with adrenaline and cortisol. Our pupils dilate, we breathe faster, and we start pumping more blood throughout the body.
    • “It’s almost like a superpower where you’re being primed to fight or run away.” – Sean Tolram, on the stress response
      • When you hear stories of someone picking up a car to save someone else, for example, that’s the stress response in action.
    • We can start to recognize stress symptoms as they appear. In fact, Sean did this right before dialing in for the podcast recording. He did a 2 minute mindfulness practice to help calm himself.
      • When we are stressed our breathing is more likely to speed up because we are tying to get more oxygen.
      • “Just the act of breathing is a really simple way to reduce the levels of stress….but there’s science behind it….By consciously slowing down your breath you’re signaling to the brain ‘I’m ok. I’m not in danger….’ That then creates a cascade that can calm down your nervous system and move you into a more relaxed state… If we’re looking for just one really quick, simple thing that we can do reduce stress, it would e to focus on your breathing and just to notice what’s happening with your breath.” – Sean Tolram
      • We can make our exhale longer than our inhale to help relax ourselves and slow down our breathing as well. Some people like to count, perhaps counting to 3 while they inhale and 4 while they exhale.
      • Another technique is a quick body scan. Sean gives the example of focusing his attention on his shoulders and easing the tension in them during our recording. We can use body scans to understand how parts of our body react during times of stress and then relax those areas if we want to. It’s the awareness that is key.
  • Book recommendations from Sean:
    • Your Brain at Work by David Rock
      • Sean tells us this is very practical and shows how mindfulness can be applied in the working environment.
    • How to Be a Productivity Ninja by Graham Allcott
      • This is not a mindfulness book and discusses how to value your time, manage your inbox, and manage your calendar. To Sean it’s a book about mindful working.
  • The best way to follow up with Sean is to contact him on LinkedIn – Sean Tolram.
    • Sean gets contacted by organizations who want to start a mindfulness program but are unsure where to begin, and individuals sometimes contact him for personal coaching or mentoring.

Mentioned in the Outro

Contact the Hosts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *