A conversation with Shawn Ashkanasy

June 29, 20210 CommentMental health , Mindset

Who is the character that is Shawn Ashkanasy?

A friend and contributor to Active & Thriving, a PHD candidate, an enigma who took the initiative to create his own wellbeing role at the Royal Children’s Hospital. Also, a passionate free diver.

We sat down to chat with Shawn about what it means to implement meaningful wellbeing programs, and how to integrate them into different company cultures in a way that avoids tokenism and embraces true connectivity.

“It’s less about the program and activity and more about the climate that you’re actually creating,” he shares. “I’m not just simply interested in delivering a bunch of facts to people, but I really try to bring it back to the human and who we are, and what does it feel like – not necessarily what does it think like.” 

Shawn is currently undertaking his PhD through the School of Business and Economics at Monash in Management, but used his previous position as a Ward-based Health and Wellbeing Coach at the Royal Children’s Hospital to inspire his research pursuits. Beginning his work there as a trauma-informed yoga teacher, he soon found his role was rapidly evolving into something far more expansive.

“I had to quickly develop that role because as professionals, we go into these organisations, these contexts with our own set of ideas about wellbeing – about how and when and who practices it, and so on. I then realised it didn’t fit with the culture and I needed to completely modify my thinking in the practice.” 

Gratefully referring to a strong level of trust built with his team and employers, Shawn describes a work environment where his leadership was recognised and encouraged.

“In the end, it became less and less about yoga and instead more about conversations in health, including a space where people became comfortable and felt safe to talk. To talk about things that are important, and often with a person who wasn’t a colleague, supervisor or manager to see if they felt more open. That role was amazing and so I transformed it into something much larger.”

Shawn credits this experience as a driving force behind his decision to undertake a management-oriented PhD that focuses on effective program delivery. Having also been influenced by his supervisor’s work in inclusion and diversity studies, particularly neurodiversity, he cites a strong foundation of existing research that beckons further inquiry. Introducing what he calls a radical new approach to wellbeing that is practice-first, Shawn’s focus is on the space between what managers believe wellbeing is versus how it is actually practiced by employees. Providing an alternative to a traditional approach that looks at wellbeing promotion, intervention or even measurement of wellbeing, there’s an emphasis instead on looking at existing company culture to guide what will be the most effective next steps. “With that understanding of what’s actually getting practiced, we can then start to look at how we can use that to develop leaders to really facilitate the wellbeing of their teams and their staff.“

Looking to the future, Shawn reflects on the importance of wellbeing in a post-pandemic era. “It’s definitely at the forefront of people’s minds. A lot of people are looking for answers, and the amount of content out there is a lot.” The discussion calls to mind the proliferation of listicle-style content, Buzzfeed-esque bullet point-smattered blog posts delivered in a way that may intend to be digestible, but is often received as shallow and prescriptive. With 5-step programs, life hacks, and instructional guides across the internet all promising to transform some (or all) aspects of your wellbeing, it can be more than a little disillusioning. “It comes back again to how wellbeing is marketed and sold, and I often blame the medium for this”, says Shawn. “I think that [a lot of] content is very misleading because ultimately, it’s a process. It takes time and even when I work with my one-on-one clients, sometimes they feel disappointment, like “why is this stuff not working?” – because it doesn’t work like that. It’s about awareness, patience and compassion.”

So – free diving? Shawn’s passions outside of his research somehow still circle back to his ethos and attitude towards wellbeing.

“I’m very much driven by purpose and meaning, and I always find a way to integrate my personal interests with my professional interests. Ideas and insights definitely get translated, and so at the moment my passion is free diving. With that comes a lot of work in understanding your breath, your breath’s relationship to your mental and physical health, and using the breath as a point of enquiry into how you are physically but increasingly how you are psychologically as well.”

“I try to bring that to the way that I work professionally as well. The insights I gain from my own self practice and experimentation inform the way that I also work with my clients.”

And if there’s one thing Shawn’s learnt that he wants everyone to take away from his work?

“Patience,” he says after a moment of thought.

“Patience, self-compassion, and curiosity”.