Journey to Your Best Self
The Practical Benefits of Emotional Intelligence and Mindfulness
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Industrial hygienist Tim Paz met Amy McCae, a mindfulness training expert and life coach, through LinkedIn, a platform mainly used for professional networking. Through several discussions and subsequent sharing of information, Amy has learned more about the field of industrial hygiene, and Tim has learned more about the many benefits of mindfulness and emotional intelligence, or EI.
A key theme of Amy and Tim’s discussions was the potential for OEHS professionals to use mindfulness and EI to address challenges in both their personal lives and in their jobs. In simple terms, EI is the capacity of individuals to understand their emotions and to sustain empathetic relationships. EI is sometimes said to have four components or “domains”; these are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management.
Tim and Amy agreed to recreate their discussions for The Synergist. The following exchange has been edited for length and clarity.
TIM PAZ (TP): How do you define emotional intelligence?
AMY MCCAE (AMC): Emotional intelligence is essentially the capability to know and understand your own and others’ emotions and make decisions based on that knowledge. Put another way, EI is bringing intelligence to your emotions. Applied EI can be thought of as making your emotions work for you instead of against you.
TP: How do you define mindfulness and meditation, and what are their benefits?
AMC: There are several definitions of mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, a scientist, writer, and meditation teacher, defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” According to the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California – Berkeley, mindfulness is “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, body sensations, and surrounding environment through a gentle, nurturing lens.” Other names for mindfulness include awareness, attention training, concentration, observation, and consciousness.
Meditation and its various forms are mental training practices that may lead to a heightened state of awareness. Mindfulness meditation, in particular, is just one of the various mindfulness- based practices done for a longer period of time.
When people practice mindfulness, they tap into their ability to cultivate learning, growing, and healing, gaining a better understanding of who they are. Any performance-based job benefits from greater awareness brought to the critical elements that lead to optimal productivity and safety. A commitment to mindfulness practice can lead to a reduction in stress, improved health, better relationships, and more resilience.
TP: What does mindfulness have to do with emotional intelligence?
AMC: In his book Search Inside Yourself, Chade-Meng Tan writes that self-awareness and mindfulness have the same definition. Self-awareness is a key aspect of emotional intelligence. All emotions can be thought of as impulses to act. The root of the word emotion is movere, the Latin verb “to move,” and with the e- prefix—emovere—it implies to “move away.” Mindfulness allows us to slow down our natural tendency to react to emotions, helping us to avoid saying or doing something that we will later regret. As you can see, mindfulness, self-awareness, and emotional intelligence are all interconnected.
TP: What is the biggest misconception about mindfulness?
AMC: That you must be religious or a monk on a mountain chanting “Om” to practice mindfulness, or that you even have to formally meditate. Anyone can simply pause and notice what is happening in the moment.
TP: How can emotional intelligence help others?
AMC: I want others to know that we can all prevent emotions from taking control over our actions. We can bring intelligence to our emotions, and thus bring civility to our communities and spread kindness throughout our collective spheres of influence so that we are in a better position to protect employees and the community from workplace and environmental stressors. We all must start with ourselves by committing to discover what emotional intelligence is, understand why it is important, and learn how to develop EI to improve our personal and professional lives, and more importantly, to make this world a better place for all. People who commit to EI will benefit from improved decision-making, better risk and safety management, and empathetic leadership for better communication.
TP: How do you think people in my field can benefit from mindfulness and EI?
AMC: So much of what an IH professional does starts from empathy and compassion. Communicating about science with employees at all levels of the organization requires skills in communication, leadership, collaboration, teamwork, negotiation, and listening. Emotional intelligence and mindfulness will help prepare you to deal with the technical aspects of the job.
TP: Have you seen an increased interest in mindfulness since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic?
AMC: Yes, I believe that self-care has become more vital than ever. The realization of what really matters and how much we have control over, I am sure, has contributed to that increased interest. Mindfulness has the capacity to cultivate compassion because you are practicing being present and allowing whatever arises to be, and doing so without passing judgment on what you’re experiencing.
TP: Do you have any exercises or tips my peers can put into practice to increase their mindfulness?
AMC: I recommend the “RAIN” method for dealing with difficult emotions. RAIN stands for recognizing what you are feeling and experiencing, accepting those feelings, investigating why you’re feeling that way, and allowing a natural awareness of your feelings.
“Mindful breathing” is a method often taught to front-line medical personnel. It may also be useful for OEHS professionals in stressful circumstances. The method has the following steps:
  • Close your eyes if it is safe to do so. Sit straight with your feet flat on the floor.
  • Take a deep breath so your belly expands.
  • Hold that breath for as long as it is comfortable.
  • Exhale very slowly for as long as you can.
  • Take another deep breath into your belly.
  • Hold that breath for as long as it is comfortable.
  • Exhale very slowly.
  • Repeat six to nine times.
Technically, we practice mindful breathing in various ways, but the most “mindful” way is to allow the breath to be what it is and just witness it. There is no controlling. According to the author Daniel Goleman, research shows that this technique shifts the body from a fight-or-flight response to a relaxed state.
AMC: Can you give a recent example of a situation where emotional intelligence was helpful?
TP: In early January, I watched the siege of the U.S. Capitol on television. I am the senior industrial hygienist for the Architect of the Capitol, and I felt shock, disbelief, anger, sadness, and heartbreak as I watched what was happening at my workplace. Using EI, I was able to recognize and label my emotions, which is the first step in preventing the amygdala, the part of the brain’s limbic system involved in emotional responses, from being hijacked.
I’m more intentional in my decision-making because I know what my core values are and what my purpose is in the world. EI has helped me improve communication, build relationships, and develop better outcomes. I’m more patient with people. I feel that I’m better equipped to handle high stress situations like chemical spills, injury investigations, and other incidents. I am also more confident in giving presentations. Before presenting, I practice vocal warmups such as tongue twisters. The mind is not good at multi-tasking, so instead of worrying about giving the presentation, I’m more focused on making sure my voice is at its best by reciting my vocal warmups.
AMC: Are there other applications of emotional intelligence to IH?
TP: I believe that we should incorporate EI and mindfulness concepts into our health and safety training. I don’t think anyone would disagree that a worker who is less stressed and free from distractions is a safer employee. AMC: Which is your favorite domain of emotional intelligence?
TP: I have learned that self-awareness is the ability to understand who we are and how we fit into the world around us. People with high self-awareness know who they are and what they want to accomplish, and seek out others’ opinions. They are happier, make smarter decisions, have better relationships, are more creative and confident, and make more effective leaders.
Critical feedback, even when it is painful to hear, is essential to gaining that understanding. Self-aware people welcome all feedback because they know that it is a gift that can be used to identify areas of weakness. The important thing to know is that self-awareness can be developed.
If necessary, find a loving critic, a close confidante who has your best interest at heart. Ask for candid feedback and use that information to make any necessary changes. It is not easy to hear that you are not good at something, but it is part of the process of continuous improvement. After providing a briefing to employees about air sampling results, I sometimes ask for feedback from one or two people afterwards. How was the delivery? Did I use too many technical terms that were not easily understood? Did I answer questions effectively? How could the briefing have been improved? I do the same thing if I am giving a presentation to executives.
Back in high school, I remember opening my yearbook and finding, to my surprise, that the senior class had named me “class reliable.” While I did not appreciate that title at the time, I now realize that this was a form of feedback and have used it as motivation to maintain this reputation throughout my career. This is so important to me that I added “customer experience” as one of my core values.
AMC: How long have you been practicing mindfulness, and have you noticed any benefits in your line of work?
TP: I have been practicing mindfulness for about five years now. I start my day with a ten-minute mindfulness meditation practice. My watch reminds me on the hour to do a minute or so of mindful breathing. I’m also doing daily yoga over my lunch break along with other forms of exercise. By using breathing techniques when necessary, I have more control over my emotions.
When describing mindfulness, I like to use the analogy of the Etch-A-Sketch, the mechanical drawing toy from my childhood. There were two knobs on the front of the frame in the lower corners. Twisting the knobs would allow you to create line-based graphic images. To erase the picture, you simply turned the toy upside down and shook it. That is the best way I can describe what mindfulness meditation does for me. It is like the equivalent of shaking your mind to clear it of all those thoughts, leaving you with less anxiety, increased clarity, a feeling of more calm, increased attention, and focus.
IH and OEHS professionals experience emotional ups and downs in their line of work. Having the ability to use your EI toolkit when the need arises will make you a more well-rounded health and safety professional and a more effective leader. For example, the results of some samples recently came back from the lab, and they did not make a lot of sense. When I shared the results with the team, one individual questioned them. Instead of getting angry or defensive, I thanked him for expressing concern and agreed that human error or a mix-up in the laboratory were possible explanations. I offered to repeat the sampling at a later time.
Good scientists welcome scrutiny of their findings. We need more humility in our profession: we need to know our strengths and weaknesses, be comfortable with saying “I don’t know,” have an open mind when assessing new workplace exposure concerns and try our best to remove the bias that comes from experience, have a quiet ego, and recognize that it is not all about us, that we are all part of something bigger. I challenge my IH colleagues to recognize that our effectiveness depends less on how much we know and more on listening, thinking, and building trust and relationships necessary for cultivating a safer and healthier workplace.
AMC: Do you know any fellow IHs who are also benefiting from mindfulness?
TP: Subena Colligan, CIH, CSP, a current member of the board of directors for the Board of Global EHS Credentialing, and I have often communicated with one another about the benefits of mindfulness. She expressed it this way: “I believe mindfulness is the muscle that makes me my best self and allows me to show up for others. When we show up as our best selves, we are able to better protect people and the environment.” Kelly Fernandes, MS, CIH, is also a BGC board director and an advocate for mindfulness. Kelly has told me, “Learning to incorporate mindfulness tools into my life has provided me with opportunities to explore my resilience, compassion, empathy, and strength. Giving myself permission to explore my thoughts and feelings has helped me grow as an individual and better serve my community.” One day the three of us would like to offer a professional development course on mindfulness for IH and OEHS professionals.
AMC: How can social awareness help you as an industrial hygienist?
TP: Empathy plays a big part in social awareness. Being empathetic can help IH and OEHS professionals gain a deeper understanding of social injustice, racism, and other barriers that some employees deal with in the real world. We must recognize that sometimes it is especially hard for certain segments of the workforce to bring their best selves to work.
We need to broaden our traditional definition of safety to include psychological safety. Employees should be able to work in an environment where they feel free to express concerns or ideas for improvement without fear of pushback or reprisals. Mitigating fear in the workplace requires psychological safety. Without it, everything we are trying to accomplish as safety and health professionals is undermined. Supervisors need to understand the negative impact on employee morale and well-being of cultivating a workplace full of fear and intimidation. Like many of my peers, I am seeing increased attention focused on the connection between mental health and worker safety.
AMC: What is the industry doing to encourage IHs to embrace emotional intelligence and other non-technical skills?
TP: Larry Sloan, the CEO of AIHA and a champion of EI, has delivered various presentations on emotional intelligence to local sections, students, and other corporate entities over the past several years. Mr. Sloan’s presentation at AIHA’s 2019 Leadership Workshop was attended by future leaders of the profession. AIHA has also offered several professional development webinars and education sessions on EI at its national conference over the last few years. Many of these presentations were created by AIHA’s Leadership and Management, Student and Early Career Professionals, and Mentoring and Professional Development Committees. AIHA’s mentoring program is a way for mentors to coach mentees on the fundamentals of EI. Lastly, AIHA’s Core Competencies for the Practice of Industrial/Occupational Hygiene was updated in 2018 to include non-technical skills such as teamwork, communication, influencing and advocacy, listening, and relationship building. The original edition, published in 2012, listed only technical core competencies. AMC: Do you have any advice for others who are interested in learning about EI but may think it would take too much time and effort?
TP: The good news is that we are all able to improve our emotional intelligence; it is not fixed. Unfortunately, you cannot increase your EI by simply taking a course or reading a book on the subject. It is a lifelong journey that requires a commitment to consistent learning and personal growth, seeking feedback and acting on it, and building relationships based on trust and mutual respect. For me, EI is that handy tool I use to make sure that I know where I am going. If I start to go astray or lose control of my emotions, my mission statement, core values, knowledge of my strengths and weaknesses, and ability to use feedback will help me get back on the right path. I think of emotional intelligence as a compass on the journey to my best self. Hopefully, others who read this article will as well. Take care of yourself. Tune in and be present. Show people that you care.
TIM PAZ, CIH, is a senior industrial hygienist at the Architect of the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
AMY MCCAE trains individuals and organizations to reduce stress and improve well-being through mindfulness and emotional intelligence-based practices. She holds over sixteen certifications related to mind-body wellness. For more information, visit or
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