Creating a Sane Work Environment with Dr. Nadine Burke Harris

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris is founder and CEO of the California-based Center for Youth Wellness, a start-up, so to speak, that’s positioned at the frontier of an emerging field of medicine—toxic stress.

As a pediatrician, Dr. Burke Harris has a practice in Bayview, where she has received international attention for her work exploring the physical manifestation of stress in children in the clinic’s low-income neighbourhood.

Her credentials are impressive—a medical degree from UC Davis and a Masters in Public Health from Harvard—and the accolades she’s received for her work speak for themselves: Hillary Clinton appointed Dr. Burke Harris as an expert advisor to the Too Small To Fail initiative and Google recently awarded her a $3-million grant to expand her research. But Dr. Burke Harris is more than a physician with a scientific bent. She’s got a genuine joie de vivre that draws you in and puts both her patients and their parents at ease. She presides over her clinic in designer heels, but is frequently seen kneeling on the ground to look her tiny charges in the eye. Her boisterous laugh echoes through the halls and when she talks about the problem of toxic stress, she does it with such passion that people stop and listen.

While Dr. Burke Harris notes that the effects of stress are different between adults and the children she treats—children’s developing bodies and brains makes them more susceptible to long-term implications—it’s no secret that chronic stress affects adults, too, and can wreak havoc on even the most seasoned professional when left unaddressed for extended periods of time.

In the midst of growing her clinic, treating patients and making it home in time for dinner with her three boys, we snagged some time with Dr. Burke Harris to talk about managing stress and keeping things sane in the workplace.

Stress affects you professionally
High stress decreases the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for judgment and executive functions like memory, reasoning and problem solving. Stress management and a healthy work environment can improve your decision making on the job.

Keep it positive and in perspective
The American Academy of Pediatrics categorizes stress in three ways: positive stress (the kind that pumps you up to do well in a basketball game), tolerable stress (more intense, like a bad break-up) and toxic stress (really severe stress that comes from abuse, neglect or the death of a loved one). I try to keep my work in the realm of positive stress. At our organization, the environment is very supportive, but, ironically, it’s also really stressful in certain ways. We’re on the frontier of an emerging field of medicine and there aren’t a lot of clear roadmaps. There’s not a medical specialty in toxic stress. We’re creating this. It’s not firmly established yet. We’re a start-up. There’s a lot of pressure. Some people, when faced with deadlines, can feel negatively overwhelmed. But I look at it in the sense of, “Wow. There is so much I want to do. How do I prioritize what I want to accomplish?” I work really hard and have long hours. I travel a lot. But it’s joyful work because we have the opportunity to contribute to solving one of the nation’s biggest health problems right now and that’s pretty exciting.

Fuel for the fire
We work in a very challenged community. It’s really hard sometimes to hear the stories of our families and patients. There are times when I walk out of an exam room and I put my head down in my office and I cry. The number of patients I’ve had whose fathers have been murdered, I’ve lost count. It’s not three or five or 10 or 15. It’s a lot. For me, that’s fuel. I take that burning indignation that I feel when I see kids who are going through these challenges and not getting resources to support them or protect their health and I turn that into fuel for the fire. That’s what gets me out there, speaking nationally, trying to raise money.

Work doesn’t happen in the absence of life
I’m a big believer in the idea of “physician, heal thyself.” I meditate, I work out regularly—I switch it up between yoga and pilates—and I try to have a healthy diet. Chronic stress increases the risk of health-damaging habits like smoking and excessive drinking. If I know I’ve got something rough going on, I’ll decrease my alcohol intake and I’ll eat really well: lean proteins, low carbs, less inflammatory foods. It makes a world of difference.

Get a hobby
There is more than enough work to do and for folks who are really ambitious and want to distinguish themselves, it’s easy to get into the office super early and work until 7:30 at night. There’s nothing wrong with working long hours if it’s a project you’re passionate about and you want to accomplish something. The way to build in sanity, however, so that you can sustain yourself, is to cultivate hobbies and things you care about outside the office. Schedule in a trip, join a soccer team—the practice schedule alone will ensure you get out on a regular basis. You may think you don’t have the time, but once you find a hobby and commit to it, you will restructure your schedule around it. Work will fill every crack and crevice that it can. Build in some time for yourself that’s off limits.

Make time for self-care
I honestly feel like there are not that many situations where you cannot find a little bit of time for self care. Schedule a spa day on the weekend. Get a girlfriend to help you out. Find some way to get regular self-care. If life is really, really that crazy busy that you can’t step away for an afternoon, you need to think about how you’re setting your priorities.

Lean on your support
Anne-Marie Slaughter said that who you marry is one of the most important decisions you make. My husband is the CEO of a solar energy company. He also does more than 50-percent of the tasks at home. Being an entrepreneur himself, he’s launched a bunch of companies and he knows what it’s like when you’re in start-up phase. He’s like, “Babe, if you have to work late, I’ll cover.” We also have family nearby, who do a lot of babysitting when we have to travel or go to evening events. I would not be working at the level I am, if I didn’t have these supports. I would have to scale back.

Don’t put work and family in conflict—work cannot win
I put family first. Everyone who works with me knows that my family is my priority. I’ve had meetings with donors where I say, “I can’t do that. I need to be at home at that time to be with my family.” I feel great about the amount of time that I put into work because I know where my boundaries lie.

Give yourself grace
My son recently had a preschool event in the middle of the day and we were the only parents who didn’t go. I felt so sad, but you can’t make everything. You make the things that are important to you. Either my husband or I are home every single day at 5:00. We almost always have dinner together. I’m a pretty hands-on mom, I love to spend a lot of time with my kids, but I’m not going to go to stuff in the middle of the day—and I forgive myself for that.

Manage yourself
We don’t have to do everything at once. Take on as much as you can comfortably do within the context of the boundaries of what your family needs and you feel able to accomplish.

Women who lead: It’s up to you
Oftentimes, when we have women in charge, we see leadership clearly establishing some type of balance between work and family. I have heard that when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, she led by example: not sending emails after 7:00 at night, going home at a certain time—even if she was just leaving to work from home—not setting the expectation that her team was required to work around the clock. As leaders, our success comes from guiding a team toward outcomes, whatever those outcomes may be. We need sustainability in order to do that. Create a culture of sustainability and you can maintain a high-performance environment where folks are able to care for themselves and feel like the organization sees it as a priority to have a sane work-life balance.

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