Research has shown that happier employees are less stressed, more productive and altruistic, and better at leading teams and solving problems.
But what does this mean in tangible terms? And what steps and simple activities can be incorporated into already-busy schedules without adding to — or getting in the way of — our actual work?
These questions were among those discussed on Nov. 28 and 29 at the Office of Academic Career Development Health Sciences’ annual Women in Medicine and Science Forum. Nearly 200 registrants — mostly but not exclusively women — attended each of the sessions held at the University Club over the two-day event.
Building on the success and momentum of last year’s Year of Healthy U initiatives, the forum focused on the academic research and scientific findings related to wellness, including using mindfulness meditation to reduce stress, practicing breathing exercises to enhance rest and refining communication styles to better suit audiences.
Ann Thompson, vice dean of Pitt’s School of Medicine and professor of critical care medicine, briefly introduced this year’s forum, which was titled “Building Career Success and Satisfaction.” Thompson, who chaired the forum’s planning committee, noted that the forum has evolved in format and length over the years. All of the panelists and presenters are women — most of them Pitt faculty. Open to all members of the Pitt community, the forum aims to foster a culture of personal and professional development. “There aren’t any topics discussed that are relevant only to women,” said Thompson.
The event was a first for some participants, but many had attended in previous years. Jennifer Woodward, vice chancellor for research operations, professor of surgery and immunology, has served on the event’s steering committee since 2010. “The University of Pittsburgh has an awesome group of women in medicine and science, both trainees and faculty, and I look forward each year to having the opportunity to network and learn from them,” she said.
For Lillian Emlet, clinical associate professor of critical care medicine and emergency medicine, this year’s forum marked her 10th attending the event. “It’s a great opportunity to nurture yourself, and I appreciate that it’s local. It shows what a wide range of people Pitt attracts, and it helps to break down silos that can form in the workplace.”
A common theme throughout the conference was how one can rethink concepts like happiness, grit, rejection and wellness. Presenters and panelists returned again and again to the idea that these ideas are not inherent qualities people naturally possess, but are skills and traits that can be developed, nurtured and improved through practice.
In their sessions, faculty members didn’t just advance through PowerPoint presentations and discuss research. Many also created hands-on experiences for participants, guiding attendees through meditation techniques that helped to make research about intangible ideas like mindfulness more concrete.
In fact, two sessions incorporated breathing exercises to demonstrate ways to develop mindfulness, which Carol Greco, associate professor of psychiatry, rehabilitation science and technology, and physical therapy in the School of Medicine, defined as “anchoring to the present moment.” In her session “Navigating the Stormy Seas of Academia: Mindfulness Anchors for Stress Reduction,” she noted those anchors can be found in awareness of breath or by focusing on sound or physical sensation.
Layla Banihashemi, assistant professor of psychiatry, further discussed breathing in her presentation “Breathing Room: Creating Space for Rest in Everyday Moments.” In addition to changing neural activity and heart rate response, slow breathing can increase comfort, relaxation and pleasantness, as well as reduce anxiety, depression and anger.
Yasemin Kalender, a graduate student in the Pittsburgh Quantum Institute attending the forum for her second year, thought the breathing exercises made the event engaging and involving, and joked that they were “a double dose of yoga” after she had worked out during the lunch break.
Tips for Remembering to Make Activity Part of Your Day
- Use your phone or wearable to prompt you to get up and move when you've been sitting too long.
- Use cues like an alarm, email reminder or even an hourglass to stand and move.
- Put a sticker or Post-It note saying "Get up!" on your computer monitor, or use an action figure to remind you.
- Keep track of your activity by using check marks on a pad of paper, a personal calendar or a habit app on your smartphone.
Together, Kelliann Davis, associate chair for the Department of Health and Physical Activity in the School of Education, and Bethany Barone Gibbs, associate professor, presented “Earning an ‘A’ for Your Workday: Awareness and Activity for a Healthy Life,” which highlighted steps that can be incorporated into office life to cultivate wellness. While getting involved in activities like Be Fit Pitt can provide accountability, Davis and Gibbs suggested making smaller adjustments — as simple as moving your trash can across your office — to encourage getting up and moving around during the workday.
In “’Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance’ by Angela Duckworth,” a panel moderated by Erroline Williams, a leadership consultant and professional coach, Thompson was joined by Jasmien Roosenboom, postdoctoral associate in the School of Dental Medicine; Sophia Choukas-Bradley, assistant professor of psychology in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences; and Cecelia Yates, associate professor in the School of Nursing, School of Medicine and McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
The panelists agreed that grit is one factor among several, like talent and personality, that factor into success. They also said that for women, grit can sometimes be misunderstood — just as assertiveness can be perceived instead as aggression — so it’s important to find a communication style that resonates with your audience.
The forum also featured time for one-on-one career development consultations in which participants could have their CVs reviewed, request referrals and discuss career aspirations with faculty members from across campus.
“To be a part of a forum where women are willing and eager to give and receive is empowering for me,” said Woodward. “I am inspired by those who present at the forum, and leave re-energized both professionally and personally each year.”