Episode 310

Dr. Esther Sternberg, Medical Researcher and Author of WELL AT WORK

Published on: 1st April, 2024

Welcome back, listeners, to "Your World of Creativity", where we explore the journeys and insights of creative practitioners worldwide. Today, I'm honored to have Dr. Esther Sternberg as our guest, exploring the intersection of integrative medicine and workplace well-being.

Dr. Sternberg's book, *Well at Work: Creating Wellbeing in Any Workspace*, offers a comprehensive exploration of integrative health principles applied to the workplace, blending storytelling with scientific evidence to engage readers in a transformative journey.

Listen in the episode as she reads from a chapter in the book.

Key Points from the Episode:

- Dr. Sternberg's journey from rheumatology to research, emphasizing the impact of stress on health and well-being.

- The pivotal role of workplace design in influencing stress levels and overall well-being, illustrated through studies with the General Services Administration.

- The evolution of workplace dynamics post-COVID, highlighting the importance of community and collaboration.

- The concept of an "ecosystem of work" and the need for balance between in-person and remote work.

- Dr. Sternberg's approach to collaborative research, emphasizing multidisciplinary teams and shared insights.

Key Quote:

"The greatest source of creativity is at the interface between different disciplines."

For more insights from Dr. Sternberg and to dive deeper into the discussion, check out the full episode on Your World of Creativity podcast. Don't forget to subscribe for future episodes and unlock the potential of your creativity journey!


  Welcome back, friends, to our podcast, Your World of Creativity, where we travel around the world talking to creative practitioners of all kinds about how they get inspired and organize those ideas, but also how they gain the confidence and the connections to launch their work out into the world. And today I'm so glad to have as my guest, Dr. Esther Sternberg.

She's the author of a new book, Well at Work, Creating Wellbeing in Any Workspace. Dr. Sternberg, welcome to the show.

It's a pleasure to be here. Thank

you. Well, you have quite a background and a journey from the field of integrative medicine into workplace well being, and now chairing the Andrew Weil Chair of Research in Integrative Medicine.

Well, this thought of integrative, and certainly how it applies to the workplace, tell us more about how you came to that, . Direction.

It's a long journey. Yeah. Buckle up. Yeah. I'll try to shorten it. So I'm a physician. I was trained as a rheumatologist and arthritis doc and I was going to go into practice and be a rheumatology consultant in the family practice clinic where I worked after shortly after graduating from my internship medical school.

But then I fell into a research career. And I went to the National Institutes of Health, where I was for 26 years, I was a senior scientist and section chief there. And I discovered that the part of the brain that controls the stress response, the hypothalamus, is very important in susceptibility to autoimmune inflammatory diseases like arthritis.

at the NIH, back in the year:

Kevin Kampscher, then Research Director for the GSA, knew that I was working on stress and came to me as a sister agency and asked if I could help him measure the impacts of that massive amount of space on the health, well being, and performance of his office workers. Mainly the stress response and other aspects related to the stress response.

So back in the year:

And we also collected the saliva for salivary cortisol, the stress hormone. And we measured the stress response in people when they were in the old. space before it was retrofitted. So they were high wall cubicles, six foot high wall cubicles. It was dark. It was musty. There was poor airflow. There was no circadian, no sunlight, no views to the outside and high mechanical noise.

So how many people have worked in that kind of setting before? And and then we measured them when they were in the new space, which was open office design. It was light and airy and beautiful views to the outside and lots of sunlight coming in and lots of choices of where to sit and low mechanical noise.

And to my surprise, and I do not know why I was surprised. They were significantly less stressed when they were in the new space compared to the old space. Even when they went home at night, even while they were sleeping. And that's the stress response as measured by these wearable devices. But when we asked them, were you stressed in the old space or the new space, they were not subjectively aware of it.

So interesting that you had to literally wire us up to know that we were less stressed. I couldn't really tell as an individual. So interesting.

Well, it's because we get used to things. It's called habituation. And if we didn't get used to the environment or stressful experiences, we'd be constantly stressed.

It wouldn't be healthy. So we do get used to things, but we don't get used to them enough to that your physiological response still has to work very hard to keep you in balance if you're in a stressful situation like that. So when I moved to the University of Arizona to head up the research program for the Andrew Wiles Center for Integrative Medicine, I continued working with Kevin Kampscher, who by then was Director of High Performance Federal Green Buildings, Chief Sustainability Officer For the White House, for the General Services Administration, and we use state of the art wearable devices, a small chest worn device about the size of a quarter to measure heart rate variability, that's the stress and relaxation response.

movement posture and sleep quality. And we worked with a company in the Bay Area called Aclima who had developed methods and devices to continuously measure in real time up to 11 different environmental attributes, light, sound, temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds, and so on.

And we also Analyze the spatial layout of where the workers were, we're working and using big data analytics. We were able to connect the stress response, the movement, the sleep quality with all of those features of the built environment. And we once again found that people in the open office design, which was light and airy and low mechanical noise and lots of views they were significantly less stressed than people who were in the open office.

private offices. We found that people in this open office design moved more during the day. They were less stressed when they went home at night. They were less stressed during the night. They were in a better mood and less fatigued the next day when they woke up and they had better sleep quality. So we continued to analyze all that data and now that information is informing post COVID reentry for the federal government.

of workplace designs back in:

arted working on this back in:

make health of their workers a priority. They'd say, oh yeah, this is important, but we don't have the money to to do anything about it. And but COVID, the silver lining of COVID is that organizations around the world suddenly realized how important it was to design their office spaces, to design and operate their office spaces in such a way that the people would be happy, healthy, and productive.

And, during COVID, we saw all those animations of viruses being spewed through the ventilation system and and so on. And that's absolutely critical to have, you frequent air turnover and good ventilation and good filtration. But what's really important to remember, and this is the point of the book, is that protecting yourself from a virus or how, whether you get sick from a virus and how sick you get depends on the dose to which you're exposed, the duration of exposure and your own resilience.

And fixing the ventilation, masking, distancing. filtration, all of that will mitigate or reduce the dose and duration of exposure. But it's through integrative health and what I describe in the book, the seven domains of integrative health, that you will maintain and optimize your resilience so that when It's not if, it's when you're exposed to any infectious agent, a virus, a flu, whatever, you will be your healthiest self to be able to fight that infection.

And thinking about those seven domains, tenets and guideposts for architects, just a couple of episodes back, I spoke with an architect in Oslo, Norway, talking about sustainability, but also the people impact of their designs. And it's interesting that your work has also been reviewed and endorsed by the American Institute of Architects.

But this idea that you could design in, these seven domains and use these as a yardstick to how well we're helping people. In these workspaces.

Yes. And, in your email ahead of the podcast, you asked how does one come up with these ideas? And what happened when we started designing the new building?

So Dr. Andrew, while I'm sure you're familiar with his, He's a pioneer in integrative health and he we started designing a new building. It's now actually a complex of buildings to house the Andrew Weill Center for Integrative Medicine. And he asked me to convene a committee of architects and building experts to work with the architects.

Of of record who were designing the building to be sure that the building really embedded integrative health. And in so in the 1st, I created this committee and it consisted of the Dean of the College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture, several Faculty members from the college and my colleagues from the U.

S. General Services Administration, Kevin Kampscher and Brian Gilligan, who's a sustainability expert. And we convened the first meeting, which was to try to figure out how to embed these these basically how to embed integrative health into the building. And I had, I knew about an app that the center had developed one of the center staff, Molly Burke, who runs the IT and and educational platforms, the online educational platforms, and who helped create the app.

She came up with this seven domains idea and together with others at the center, whom I describe in the book, Dr. Rocky Crocker and Victoria Mazes and others, had created this image, this diagram of the seven domains, which is sleep resilience, environment, movement, relationships, spirituality, and nutrition.

And I suddenly had the idea that's the way to convey the concept to the architects. So I made a PowerPoint slide with that image. And then we went around that circle. It looks like a daisy. It's a circle. And we said, okay, what are the aspects of the built environment that will help with sleep?

Well, light, bright circadian morning light movement during the day, as we had discovered in our research less stress. How do you embed all that into the built ? Environment.

And so that's what the book is about. And the middle chapters of the book really talk about each of those domains and how you embed them into the built environment. But it came about the, if you, if we want to talk about creativity and how I had that idea, it was taking information that was, grounded in one discipline and merging it with information that we had discovered in another discipline.

And to me, that is the greatest source of creativity is at the interface between different disciplines.

And as continuing on our creative front, the writing style of the book, of course, I knew it would be scientifically based and there'd be lots of references but it caught me. There's a style of here's a story and here's an opinion.

I go, Oh, that's very nice. A story and an opinion. Then boom, here comes the data. Here comes the scientific references. It's you're not going to get bored. If I were just an opinion in this book so I liked the flow and the kind of roller coaster that brings, lay people like myself interested.

So it was that a purposeful writing style, I guess I'll ask you that as an author.

at the time, that was back in:

So the editor of the Scientific American books had read an article that I'd written for the Scientific American about the science of the mind body connection. And He came to me in Washington, D. C. and asked if I would write a book for the lay public in a style that the lay public would want to read, not that they have to read to pass an exam.

to tell you. That was back in:

Fortunately, they've changed their style too. But my belief from back then, so that's like over 25 years ago, is is that We as scientists and physicians, if we want to convey these complex ideas to the lay public, we need to do it in a compelling and interesting way, and not so that you have to pass an exam, and also not that it should be boring.

And so that's really why I, all my three books and healing spaces, the science of place and well being is the same. I like to start off with stories and then move into the data that supports the stories.

Yeah, it really helped layer the anecdotal. Here's some examples with the hard facts. It was a really good combination.

This is an excerpt from the spirituality chapter in my book, Well at Work, Creating Well Being in Any Workspace. The practice of gratitude has echoes in many traditions. In Jewish observance, a prayer is recited every morning thanking God for awakening, and blessings are recited at the start and end of every meal to thank God for providing food and sustenance. Christianity, a similar gratitude prayer, the rituals of saying grace, starts every meal. Gratitude practice is so embedded in Western culture that it is at the core of America's most beloved holidays, Thanksgiving. Yet how many of us take the time to intentionally feel gratitude on a regular basis?

If you can't find a moment or a place to do this in the middle of a busy work day, try stepping outside before you start your day to look all around you. Take in the horizon, the larger and smaller things you see, a tree, a leaf, the reflection of light on the leaves or on a building's windows and doors.

Feel the crunch of gravel or the smooth pavement under your feet and the brush of wind on your sleeve. Listen to the rush of traffic or the birds chirping. Breathe deeply and slowly. Try to consciously feel gratitude for all that is around you and for all the people in your life who are meaningful to you, including those at work.

This mindfulness and gratitude practice is moving your stress response back along that rainbow, allowing you to start the day at a calmer place so that when the stresses of the day do hit, you won't fall over the edge into anxiety and distress. At the same time, the gratitude practice is triggering those feel good dopamine reward pathways in the brain, and the feel good endorphin pathways too, all of which help to reduce the stress response. From the brain's point of view, enhancing the positive is a more effective way to reduce stress than trying to reduce the negative.

I think of Oscar Wilde's quote from Lady Windermere's fan, we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

That notion gave me a sense of hope and peace and calm.

I'm Dr. Esther Sternberg, and that was an excerpt from my book, Well at Work, Creating Wellbeing in Any Workspace. 


  We've been talking mainly about buildings and office spaces, but I think about even I'm working in the Eagle cafe and bakery today. People are working at home. What about these other workspaces?

What can we think about the wellbeing of workers who aren't in a traditional office?

Well, this is another post COVID result is that we are at a juncture now in redefining the workplace. And the workplace, as I say in the book it used to be the crystal towers. Everybody in lockstep went 9 a.

m. to 5 p. m. And you sat at your cubicle or your desk or your private office, and then you went home. And now those cubicle walls, those private office walls have shrunk to the size of you. Your smartphone. You don't need to be in any one place anymore. You can be on a boat in the middle of a lake.

You can be in a coffee shop, as you said. So there's a concept of an ecosystem of work where people can work where they are most productive, where they thrive. And of course, working from home and the hybrid. Work from the office is also part of the ecosystem, but we're at a juncture where there's a question.

bes did a survey in summer of:

Something over 67 percent of people would look for another job if they could not work hybrid. And something in the range of 37 percent would take a pay cut. in order to work hybrid. That's an enormous number. And what's happening is that organizations are shrinking their footprints because they don't need so much space, rental space.

And the downtowns are dying because people are not there. And the shops and the restaurants and the bars and so on are closing. So it is a huge problem. But the question is, then why do you need the office space? Well, there's one thing that's missing if you're working from home, and that's being together with people and community.

And I talk about community in the book and talk about creativity and that being together in person really enhances that creative spark and that sense of culture, that sense of community, that sense of support that comes from your other people. co workers. And you don't get that on on video conferencing.

And in fact the downside of video conferencing is there is a burnout from it. People get burnt out. They get lonely. Loneliness is bad for your health. So there needs to be some kind of balance between in person and and remote work.

Yes. And you talked about the impact on, say, downtown, center city real estate with all the offices being basically abandoned during that era.

But I'm just now reading in the business press about cities converting a lot of this empty commercial space. Office space into housing. Yes, since there's such a specially affordable housing or, housing of those without homes at this point. What do you think is the impact of retrofitting? You know what was meant to be a workplace into a living space?


I think it's great. I think there has to be a way to retrofit these spaces for other purposes. You're not going to take down all these. Office towers from an architectural point of view, and I'm not an architect, but it is hard to retrofit some of these spaces because of the plumbing and the, everything is centralized in an office tower.

You have the bathrooms in the middle and you may not have, you don't have open operable windows. And so it's difficult, but there are certainly many buildings where you can do that.

Well, it's exciting times as we think about the evolving, not only the space itself, the building itself, but how we continue to evolve as communities.

And I'm glad you brought up this idea of community, but we often talk about collaboration on this show and you have named a lot of people that help contribute and collaborate with your work. How do you find that idea of Well, sometimes it's idea ownership, a lot of people have good ideas and they want to propel those ideas, but you find a way to team up and work and kind of co publish a lot of these things, don't you?

astor did it, way back in the:

So you really can't take these massive amounts of data and make any sense of them without a multidisciplinary team. And so I also wanted to get that across in the book. And that's why at the beginning of the book, so the book is, I like to talk about it as a sandwich, the middle. talks about those seven domains of integrative health.

There's seven chapters, each one devoted to a domain. But the beginning is is the characters who came together to do this work. And so I described each of, I call them characters. They're my colleagues, but they, they laugh when I say you're one of the characters in the book. So I described them and And then I described the place where we did the research and and then I put in the action.

So it's a movie script. And when when my editor first read the book, she said she loved that first part. Where I described the characters, it was like the Marvel universe. So now I tell my colleagues, you're part of the Marvel universe, and they just love that. There you go.

The crime fighting bad building fighting.

That's great. . That's right. Well,

what a wonderful conversation. My guest has been Dr. Esther Sternberg. She's author of a terrific book, Well at Work, Creating Wellbeing in Any Workspace. Well, I'll put all the connections and links and everything you have for the book, Dr. Sternberg, in the show notes so people can find you.

But thanks so much for a wonderful conversation. It's been a lot like the book. You've had great stories and then you've shared data.

Thank you so much. It's really been a pleasure.

You're welcome. And listeners come back again next time. We've stamped our creative passports in Tucson, Arizona today on the campus of the University of Arizona, but we're going to continue our around the world travels to talk to creative practitioners everywhere about how they get inspired and how they organize ideas and a lot like we've heard today and then ultimately collaborate, find confidence and connections to launch their work out into the world.

So until next time, I'm Mark Stinson, and we'll keep unlocking your world of creativity. We'll see you next time.

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About the Podcast

Your World of Creativity
Catalyst of Inspiration, Stories, and Tools to Get Your Work Out Into the World
On YOUR WORLD OF CREATIVITY, best-selling author and global brand innovator, Mark Stinson introduces you to some of the world’s leading creative talent from publishing, film, animation, music, restaurants, medical research, and more.

In every episode, you'll discover:
- How to tap into your most original thinking.
- Inspiration from the experts’ own experience.
- Specific tools, exercises, and formulas to organize your ideas.
- And most of all, you’ll learn how to make connections

 and create opportunities to publish, post, record, display, sell, market, and promote
 your creative work.

Listen for the latest insights for creative people who want to stop questioning themselves and overcome obstacles to launch their creative endeavors out into the world.

Connect with Mark at www.Mark-Stinson.com

About your host

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Mark Stinson

Mark Stinson has earned the reputation as a “brand innovator” -- an experienced marketer, persuasive writer, dynamic presenter, and skilled facilitator. His work includes brand strategy and creative workshops. He has contributed to the launches of more than 150 brands, with a focus on health, science, and technology companies. Mark has worked with clients ranging from global corporations to entrepreneurial start-ups. He is a recipient of the Brand Leadership Award from the Asia Brand Congress and was included in the PharmaVoice 100 Most Inspiring People in the Life-Sciences Industry.