Future Hospitality

#27: Supporting Mindfulness & Brain Health Throughout Your Organization: Dr. Romie Mushtaq

May 18, 2021

Dustin Myers: Dr. Romie, thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: It’s great to be here with you all at the Future Hospitality Podcast. I bet this is a first, when you started the podcast, thinking that you’d bring a brain doctor on, huh?

Dustin Myers: Well, yeah, that wasn’t necessarily in the original plan, but I’m really thankful that we got connected and we get to get some of your perspective on wellness in the hospitality industry. I think it’ll be really intriguing for our listeners.

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: Well, thank you all for having me. It’s an honor. I serve currently as a Chief Wellness Officer and a consulting role for Evolution Hospitality where everybody knows me as their homie, Dr. Romie.

Dustin Myers: Nice. I love it. So yeah, just for our listeners who maybe aren’t familiar with you, can you give us a little background on your professional journey and just kind of how you got to where you are right now?

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: Yeah. So I was raised as a young girl with one success mantra, “We have one doctor and you will become a doctor.” And so I went to medical school and I entered neurology at a time where less than 5% of brain doctors in the United States were women. I had a passion for brain science and loved practicing. I think my one Achilles heel was I did not manage my stress very well as a brain doctor and I was burning and churning, I think the way everybody in the hospitality industry is as you just kind of churn through the day and burn the midnight oil and do whatever it takes to get through and where stress is a badge of honor. The stress had a negative impact on my overall health.

And if people have seen my TED Talk, The Powerful Secret of Your Breath, from about five, six years ago, they know is I ended up very sick and the stress took me under and ended up in life-saving surgery about a decade ago. And at that point, I found my path for my own healing to integrative medicine and mindfulness and somewhere in my healing journey, recovering, I had that aha moment like, “Oh my gosh! I didn’t go through this so that I could heal,” but it was, “How was I going to change the narrative around how we’re delivering brain and mental health in the United States?

As I delve in further, I realized, “Well, by the time somebody has a problem with their brain function or their mood, any neurologist, psychiatrist, psychologist is going to say, ‘Gosh, I wish I could have met you 10 steps ago on the journey.’” And when you look at the data, BC, Before COVID, the root cause of stress and illness was primarily our jobs. So I founded my company and now I act as CEO and founder of brainSHIFT at Work with a mission of how are we going to improve the brain and mental health of the American workforce, so that we are reducing stress, reducing illness, promoting wellness, and reducing the burden of sick care and the health care system.

And so that’s how I ended up on this journey. So I now speak and consult professionally for a living, largely Fortune 500 companies, professional athletes, global associations hire me now to speak, consult, create, customized wellness experiences that tie in with their culture and the perfect marriage was myself, my mission and Evolution Hospitality where I’m now serving as their chief wellness officer.

Jeremy Wells: Yeah, that’s a cool story to hear, kind of the evolution and how you came into contact with evolution. I’m curious. Did you ever think kind of early on in your career that what you were doing in the mental health area would collide with hospitality in the way that it has?

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: You want to sound intelligent as an entrepreneur and say, “This was in my head five-year plan all along,” but I wouldn’t be authentic. And the one thing I know at Evolution Hospitality is we talk about servant leadership and mindful leadership and being authentic. I had a vision as an entrepreneur and I had to have an incredible amount of trust. You can imagine, like when I started this journey and Evolution Hospitality first brought me in as their keynote speaker for their annual leadership conference, mindfulness wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is today.

Now the market is flooded with apps and reminders on our watches to pause and breathe. But back then, imagine, it was insane to think of brain doctor is coming in to train you on mindfulness to manage your stress. And so no, did I know? But I knew that regardless of the industry, when you looked at the organizational psychology data, people were not managing stress well at all. And gosh, if you’re an HR professional, listening to this, you know that. Health insurance numbers are telling you that the number of doctor’s office visits, the increased number of people billing for auto-immune diseases, diabetes, being overweight, high blood pressure, that’s all related to not managing our stress.

So I think, no, did I honestly know I would end up in hospitality? No, but I’m a firm believer as an entrepreneur when you are serving a mission that is larger than yourself, the universe will align to bring you the people who are ready for what you need at that moment. And it’s been an amazing partnership.

Dustin Myers: That’s really fascinating. And I’m curious to learn a little bit more about your position being chief wellness officer. That’s not something you hear all the time. I think it’s a very forward-thinking move by Evolution. What do you think an intentional wellness program adds to the hospitality concept? And maybe give us a little bit of a peek into how that specific title and new initiative came about.

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: I will. I think that’s about a three-part question. So I’m going to break it down for you if that’s okay. That’s what happens when you bring a recovering neurotic neurologist on here to your podcast. So the first thing is you were right. It’s absolutely a visionary role, not only in hospitality, but I would say in all of corporate America. I was one of the very first physicians appointed in this role. Other companies had put HR professionals at this type of a role to be in charge of wellness, but to be a physician to scale. And I really want to pause and think of one of the founders and the previous president of Evolution Hospitality, John Murphy here. 

I think it started because of Evo, which we call it, is 10 years old and their ethos, their culture was built on wellness. So this wasn’t just an idea promoted by HR. This was embedded in the culture, but they knew they needed a way to organize it. You fast forward to 2015, they invited me, or ’16, I can’t remember, invited me to speak at their annual leadership conference and introduce the concept of mindfulness. I shared my authentic story and it took and the message and I remember getting a call back from their leadership team saying, “What else can we do to continue to work with you?” So I over time consulted with them and that gave me an opportunity to learn about their culture and how the unique stressors in hospitality.

So I think I just started consulting, doing executive coaching, introducing programs. We did a research study for my book with them. And in 2018, I think Murph, John Murphy, decided, “Let’s make this role official, bring you in as one of our leaders and chief wellness officer with the mission to scale customized mindfulness program and the customized wellness program.” And so I will proudly tell you, because this is not my doing, this is all of us. So we have a guiding principle that none of us is as good as all of us. The entire leadership team came on board, our program, Power of Pause. Within 18 months, we had over 70% adaptation rate of mindfulness, both at the corporate office and our properties and had trained over 80 evil, mindful guides.

So I’m training other leaders in the company to now disseminate the mindfulness program at their properties. And so that’s how that worked. And now, I knew I had to come up with something innovative, given what hospitality is undergoing. So we’ve just launched the brainSHIFT at Work Program at Evolution Hospitality, but known as brainSHIFT at Evo, which is a customized wellness program based in brain science mindfulness and integrative medicine. So that’s been my journey and I didn’t do it alone. I think what the difference is or how it’s forward thinking is you bring a name and a face in for someone that is going to be part of the team and create this changes.

It’s very different. I say that my company, we don’t just deliver programs, we create cultural movements, and that’s exactly what we were able to do in partnership with the leadership at Evo. It’s different than an HR team, that’s like, “Oh, let’s do a seminar, a webinar, or a live program on weight loss.” And maybe you get 5% of the company to attend and you’re not really sure if anybody followed through, right? We want results. We want tangible results. And so that’s what my current role is. And I think my heart is 100% in with the entire hospitality industry. When I see the devastation that’s happened in the industry over the last year, due to the pandemic.

Dustin Myers: That’s really fascinating. So the primary focus is on empowering and helping the internal team. Is that right? Or is there any aspect that directly or indirectly interacts with the guests?

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: A little bit of both. So my primary role as chief wellness officer was to improve the wellbeing and mind, body, and spirit of our evolutionaries, all of our employees. And before the pandemic, that was over 7,000 team members. That was my primary role and focus. The idea is we invest in our people and that creates results and that was measurable. We believe that we want every individual to show up their full potential, whether it’s at work or at home, both. And so my goal was always to do that. Now did it certainly spill over into the culture of all of the different hotels that we have? Evolution Hospitality is a predominantly lifestyle focused, a hospitality company and lifestyle hotel, so independent properties. So. Yeah. Did it spill over? Absolutely.

When you walk into a hotel and the front desk staff and the manager on duty and the F&B teams have a sense of calm and a sense of connection that mindfulness brings. Of course, it intrigues and guests can tell the difference. And many times we’ve heard stories from multiple of our hotels that the team is doing their Power of Pause in a lobby or public area and guests join in on the mindfulness program. So yeah, I think it’s truly a cultural revolution and I’m so proud of all of our fellow evolutionaries who are taking part in this.

Jeremy Wells: Awesome. Thank you for sharing all that. I would like to even just for myself and I’m sure maybe some people listening, if you could unpack a little bit more about the differences between mindfulness and wellness and what those, how you kind of describe or define those two separately.

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: Well, I think mindfulness is the key or I think the secret sauce to being well and healthy in your brain and mind and for your physical health and your spirit, your spirit being your sense of connection, your sense of purpose. And we started with mindfulness knowing that it would foster health and those three areas, as well as a foster servant leadership or mindful leadership and improve our leadership skills. So that’s why we picked mindfulness and created an entirely separate program known as the Power of Pause to train people on mindfulness routines, both at work and at home.

So mindfulness is defined as bringing your brain to present centered awareness. I’ve looked at mindfulness, and meditation is one of the tools or controlled breathing to be mindful is as a brain training, to be able to set your brain to a channel of calm, regardless of the chaos that’s going on in your workday or in your personal life. And that’s what mindfulness does for us. I feel so thankful because I think over the last year, how many of our fellow evolutionaries as all over hospitality were furloughed. And they would reach out and tell me it was this, it was the Power of Pause that kept me sane or kept me hopeful or kept me connected with everybody at Evolution Hospitality.

So like I said, it was a cultural movement and mindfulness that helped people with a tool to manage their stress and manage their emotions. And who doesn’t need that? Especially in today’s world. Now your question about wellness, we’re very thoughtful in wellness and look at it from different areas. So this was prior to my arrival, but when the company was founded, they created a wellness triangle that covers the mindfulness, nutrition, exercise, sleep, a sense of community. So it’s my job now to take that ethos and create programs that foster and move that forward. And so that’s what it is. It’s so much more than putting everybody on a certain type of diet or just demanding everybody exercise. You’re lucky if 10% of people follow through. So that’s what it means.

Jeremy Wells: Yeah, I love what you mentioned earlier, programming versus like creating a cultural movement. We see this type of thing all the time in the work we do as well, in the branding spaces. It’s important to get people aligned behind a vision and a mission for an organization, but it can’t just be people in a boardroom creating these strategies or these game plans. It has to actually be implemented. And as you mentioned earlier, you and your team want to see tangible results from that. I love the thinking of, you just mentioned kind of the word tool, I think, creating a tool for people to use when it comes to these routines or this concept of Power of Pause that you were mentioning. Just out of curiosity, if there’s any sort of routine or exercise that you could kind of share with us and our listeners. I don’t know how long these take or anything, but just maybe a little quick snapshot of what that looks like.

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: What we trained people to do is now become an integral part of my brainSHIFT at Work Program that we take to other companies. And so mindfulness needs to be tailored to every industry. So for instance, this morning I was virtually teaching about 50 school districts in the State of Massachusetts. And we came up with what we call a “brain break” at 10:00 and 2:00 for their students and teachers. And Evolution Hospitality, we know at hotels people typically have stand-ups. So a particular guided meditation is done to start off every standup meeting. And that corporate office, we start the Power of Pause or a mindful minute before every meeting. It gives everybody a chance to put down their cell phones and put down their paper and stop talking. And everybody becomes focused on being present with each other.

So now you feel the sense of connection and that nobody feels left out on the team. And when you can all come to a place of calm together, meditating together for just three to five minutes, the feedback we got was stand-up meetings were more efficient and people were leaving happier. Everybody felt seen and heard, and it was calm and there was less conflict or improved communication with that. I think the same thing happens with meetings as well, sit-down meetings.

And so that’s how that was implemented. Now at nighttime, we did the study initially, a first of its kind at Evolution Hospitality, asking everyone to do digital detox and measuring the benefits of that. And I go over those in my Power of Pause lectures that we give around the world now and show those results and then give people a guided meditation or a way to meditate at night. And if people want to try an example of it, who are listening to this podcast and we can give you the link, they can go to my website, drromie.com/test, and take the Busy Brain Test and get personalized recommendations that are based on really what I learned to teach at scale and Evolution Hospitality. So all of that is there just on my website at drromie.com for free, because we are committed to help individuals and teams improve their brain function and mental function. So yeah.

Dustin Myers: Yeah, thanks for explaining some of that. I think it’s really, really interesting, especially the digital detox that you brought up. I think people maybe in my age demographic who have grown up with just screens, everywhere, screens in our pockets, and we’re really struggling to figure out, “Is this healthy and how much it’s healthy and what can we do to really live life the way it’s meant to be lived, where technology is a tool and not something that controls us?”

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: Yeah. Well, what I’ll tell you, I think it’s a fallacy to think it’s just millennials. When I look or Gen Z, when I look at the literature now, organizational psychology, medical literature, and mental health literature, even before the pandemic, I think technology was taking over everybody’s lives. If you were working or in school or dinner, regardless of your age demographic. And now obviously in our virtual world where children are virtually schooling and you may be having more, since we can’t gather, we’re having more meetings on Zoom personally and professionally, our screen time has been elevated and it is both a blessing and a curse. Isn’t it? And so that’s why we specifically looked at the benefits of digital detox.

There’s all these medical studies that look at what happens in individual brains and animal brains when you’re sitting in front of a screen late at night, but this was one of the first of its kind studies that was done in a large group of people in the workplace. And what we found overall was in 21 days of doing digital detox for 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime, people fell asleep easier, they stayed asleep, but more importantly, they woke up feeling more energized, and it was that simple.

Dustin Myers: Yeah. That’s really fascinating. I’m curious. So your primary goal is towards the internal, towards the evolutionaries within the company. I’m curious your thoughts on how some of this thinking and strategy could be applied to a guest. And as we’re looking to enhance guest experiences across different types of properties, what aspects of this might you see this being applicable?

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: Yeah. I mean, I think a lot of brands are already implementing different wellness programs and mindfulness-based programs beyond the spa, right? You want guests, especially in today’s a pandemic world, to feel at ease. Traveling is a little bit more stressful for so many different reasons and people want to create that oasis. So it always starts with your team that if your team is calm and feeling well on arrival, that energy permeates through the entire property. The people make the business. And so that’s number one. But two, yeah, we work with companies in so many different, outside of evolution hospitality in tourism and travel and beyond. My clients are in finance, fintech. So this is not just about one company, but it translates. And so it should be able to translate to your guests, whether that means when we do gather for business meetings and gatherings again, implementing mindfulness and meditation stations in meetings. People need to decompress.

I saw that as a popular trend in the meeting and industry space, whether you have an expert like myself, leading meditation in the mornings, whether you partner with one of the well-known companies to set up a meditation bubble or chairs with headphones in your meeting space in a quiet zone. So it can translate to meetings and I think it can translate to the individual guest experience. We see many brands that are trying to test partnering with apps and other ideas to give guests that mindful pause and ability to calm down after a day of travel or business meetings.

Jeremy Wells: Dr. Romie, I would be curious, as we’re talking about all these different initiatives and these really unique innovative things that you and Evolution are involved with, as you are looking at the results that you’re getting from these efforts, what sort of measurable things are you looking at to see how effective they are or like the results that you’re getting? What sort of KPIs are you guys tracking or what sort of things on that front?

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: Yeah, thank you. I think initially a lot of it was looking at just adaptation. And so we had to really rely on leaders of different divisions in the corporate office, as well as our GMs, AGMs, director of sales, and to see and ask and survey. So it had to start out very simple like that. And as we scaled and trained our Evo mindful guides and gave them additional mindful leadership training, the KPIs we were measuring was those evil, mindful guides, did they see an improvement in their 360 evaluations? And the answer was yes. And their leadership skills and their EQ, emotional intelligence, number one.

Number two, we measured the results directly in the annual associate opinion surveys and in specifically measuring culture and whether what employees felt about Power of Pause and had it been implemented there. And so we could see not only the requests that people wanted a personal Dr. Romie visit and a Power of Pause training, but that the associates at every level complementing the program and saying that it had helped make them happy at work and had helped their team dynamics.

So those were the initial surveys we were looking at. As I take brainSHIFT at Work into Evolution Hospitality and other companies, we actually have internal built tests in health and wellness, known scales that look at stress and sleep, et cetera, and labs. And so we can measure from week one to week eight improvement in stress scores across areas such as your sleep and your physical health and your mental health and your emotions. So we can actually see that.

One of the key things I say is half the battle and that brainSHIFT at Work is getting your employees to make a wellness check with their primary care doctor. And we know the last KPI for someone listening that’s an HR thinking, “Okay, how do I justify this in the financials?” We know that if you can get your employee to go see their primary care doctor and get a wellness lab check, that’s it. All they need to do. It doesn’t matter what their previous state of health was. If they go see their primary care doctor, at least once a year, preferably more, but at least once a year, if they’re healthy, we know the average insurance cost per employee can go down $300 to $3,200 a year because we can catch a lot of silent diseases, et cetera. And so really those are the three areas is we looked at individuals 360 evaluations who went through our evil, mindful guide training. We looked at associate opinion surveys improvement and the key we looked was the culture and the value they thought their wellness program bought and then three was this wellness program and the ability to get people healthy.

Dustin Myers: That’s really cool to see how you’re able to track and even from a financial standpoint, how it affects the bottom line, which is always a topic on some people’s minds.

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: As it should be, right?

Dustin Myers: Yeah.

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: I mean you don’t want to bring in a wellness program that’s not well thought out and not have results to show for it. Otherwise, it just becomes something superficial and employees will see that. If you’re just trying to do it because it’s trendy right now, but if you’re actually getting measurable results, then you’re going to have a happier workforce and we need that today, especially.

Dustin Myers: Absolutely. Yeah, we’ve definitely seen this becoming more prevalent, more on the forefront of people’s minds. Do you think that’s going to continue into the future? Or how do you see that playing out?

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: Yeah. Well, I’ll speak to this just from running my company and my speakers’ bureaus will tell you the same. It was a tough sell or a unique seller or almost a taboo subject to say, “Hey, you’re looking for a unique speaker for your annual conference. We have a brain doctor that’s going to come shake things up and talk to you about how to measure your stress and mindfulness.” And before the pandemic, people thought that was odd. Like we’re a finance company. We’re a hospitality company. We’re a travel. We’re a tech. Okay. We’ll give it a try. And of course, they would experience it and conversations would occur.

Now AC, After COVID in our COVID world, it has become apparent whether you’re in hospitality working at the frontline or working from home. Our mental health is suffering. You look at the 2020 American Psychology Association polls. The rate of mental health in women, more than men, especially has skyrocketed that 90% of all women are experiencing some type of psychological psychiatric symptom. And the reason I say women, being mindful that two men are hosting me on your podcast, Jeremy, is that women are more likely to be at the front lines in hospitality. In hospitality, women are more likely to have lost their jobs or taken pay cuts.

And so I’m worried as a female leader in the hospitality and running my own company of the impact. And so I think across the board, it’s a conversation that everybody’s having. We’ve been very busy giving virtual presentations to multiple teams and companies on areas around sleep and stress management and managing mood and building resilience. So I think this is the way of the future is if you want to continue to survive as a company, you have to put the wellness of your employees at the forefront.

Jeremy Wells: Definitely. Yeah. I think that a lot of people, and we’ve had this topic come up in other podcasts in the past, but there are certain things that some might consider a trend in the industry. And I think this is one of those things that’s not really a trend. It’s a trajectory for the industry and our culture and society at large.

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. Because you see some of the first companies like Google and Target who adapted mindfulness around 10, 12 years ago. Right? You could have thought it was a trend then or it was unique, certainly, and then you looked at, when I gave my TED Talk in 2014 and in 2015, it went viral and companies started to call and they wanted to hear more, that was the start of the trend and so much so at that time that Walter Thompson put it in their trends reports that mindfulness was one of the top 10 trends of that year. And you’ve since then have seen this plethora of apps and resources and training and every industry from medicine to law and in MBA schools talking about the role of mindfulness and wellness.

So this is not a trend. This is, to your point, a trajectory that we’re on. And I think the pandemic has just sped up the need to integrate it. So the companies that are falling behind are the ones that never had it on their radar to consider the wellness of their employees to begin with. If companies had a transactional relationship with their team members, they’re going to find that as hospitality and hotels opened back up and travel resumes, they might find it hard to recruit employees back. And certainly, with the competitions, somebody is going to go to a place where they know that their company values their wellbeing. And so I think this is here to stay in hospitality and beyond.

Jeremy Wells: Yeah. So good. Yeah. You mentioned a term that was funny to me, but I think it’s good is After COVID, AC, kind of leading into the next couple of questions here. We always like to ask our guests as we kind of wrap up the podcast is talking about like the future and thinking ahead with everything this world has gone through over the last 12 months, what are some things that just excite you about the hospitality industry as it relates to what you’re doing? Or just in general, what are you excited about the future in this industry?

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: Well, I’m going to say this is and it’s largely based on my inspiring journey with Evolution Hospitality and our parent company, Aimbridge, I’m excited that they already had the jumpstart on thinking about the importance of your company culture beyond just words on a website, but actually how we were going to live and breathe it and that we planted the seeds for mindfulness and wellness. What we did at that point, under the leadership and vision of our previous president and the entire leadership team that’s there, was visionary.

Now to see where we can grow this and create a company of leaders that are managing their stress, resilient and healthy in the face of a pandemic is really gives me hope. And I know that if we can do it at Evolution Hospitality, that it can translate to industries, all industries, just even beyond the hospitality. And I think that’s what excites me. And the next thing that excites me is that we’re finally having open and honest conversations. It’s no longer taboo to talk about your brain function, your memory, your sleep or your mood, your mental health, and knowing that innovators in healthcare like myself can now partner with organizations to say, “Here is a program we can measure and deliver results and let’s help to stave off the brain and mental health crisis that is happening in the United States. And if we can start in the workplace and we start with our employees and we show them that we care, well, then everybody wins.” That’s what gets me out of bed every morning.

Dustin Myers: That’s really exciting. We are thankful that you took the time to speak with us. Thank you for sharing your personal journey with all of this and how that affected your career trajectory. I think it’s really exciting to see what you’re doing with Evolution and get to see how that resonates with different companies and just brings awareness to this whole topic. I think it’s much needed and it’s exciting to see a progress being made in this area.

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: Well, thank you both for having me and we look forward to continuing the conversation.

Dustin Myers: If people want to find out more about the work that you’re doing, where can they go?

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: Yeah, my website is drromie.com. If you go there on the front of it, you can take a stress test and see where you are. Do you have a busy brain? Take a four-minute test and see if brain drain is draining you of your sanity and sleep and we give you personalized solutions. You’ll hear, see a lot of the things that we’ve worked on there, internally, at Evolution Hospitality and at Dr. Romie on social media. Join the conversation. It’s time to brainSHIFT.

Dustin Myers: That’s awesome. I’m going to go take the test now.

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: Yes. And I’ve had such a great time with you all, but I’ll give you some personalized recommendations. Let me know how you do.

Dustin Myers: I appreciate it.