Episode 8

Tan Le

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Protecting Your Brain at Work with with EMOTIV CEO Tan Le

We use our brains every moment of every day. We plan, strategize, and empathize! But how often do we think about brain health as People Leaders? This week on the podcast, Katelin Holloway explores the science of your brain at work with EMOTIV founder and CEO, Tan Le. Tan is a technology innovator and entrepreneur. She received the prestigious 2018 Innovation Research Interchange Achievement Award as a pioneering leader in the development of mobile EEG – a test that detects abnormalities in your brain waves, or in the electrical activity of your brain. Her company EMOTIV develops wearables that give workers brain metrics to encourage cognitive and mental well-being. Tan Le shares her tips on… How to reduce workplace errors and encourage cognitive resilience The difference between good and bad stress and the effect on our brains Why wellness programs need to be personalized How to improve employee breaksHow to foster connection with the incoming workforce Trends on Gen Z employee engagement How we can level up our messaging (spoiler alert: it includes using video!)

Katelin Holloway, HOST: You're listening to All Hands, a podcast brought to you by Lattice, where people strategy is business strategy. I'm your host, Katelin Holloway.

Tan Le, GUEST: We do spend a huge chunk of our lives at work, and if you look at the World Health Organization, one of the things that has emerged in the 21st century is that workplace stress is considered now the health epidemic of the 21st century.

Katelin Holloway: We use our brains every moment of every day. We plan, strategize, empathize, but how often as people leaders, are we thinking about brain health, both of ourselves and our employees? Do we have policies or systems in place that may harm our brains? How can everyone work better with the way your individual brain operates? Well, that's what we're diving into this week on All Hands. Tan Le, founder and CEO of EMOTIV, joins us to dig into the science of your brain at work. Her company, EMOTIV, develops wearables that give workers brain metrics to encourage cognitive and mental wellbeing. Tan is a technology innovator and entrepreneur on top of being a business executive and sought after speaker. She received the prestigious 2018 Innovation Research Interchange Achievement Award as a pioneering leader in the development of mobile EEG, which is a test that detects abnormalities in your brainwaves or in the electrical activity of your brain. Now that is serious business. Tan, welcome to All Hands.

Tan Le: Katelin, I am so excited to be here and to join you on this podcast. I am super excited to just talk about the things that we're both equally passionate about.

Katelin Holloway: So as the founder and CEO of Emotive, you've been passionate about studying the brain and making EEGs, which is a medical test that examines the electrical activity of your brain, more accessible for a long time now. So tell me, what is your fascination with our brains? Can we start there?

Tan Le: How could you not be intrinsically fascinated by this one organ? It's three pounds, right? Think about it. We all have one, but it is the center of the self. It's the center of our personal universe. It defines our perceptions, our experience of the world around us, and yet at the same time, we know so little about it. And so my desire was to figure out how do we actually learn more about this incredible organ that is designed to evolve and adapt based on our life experiences? And we track so much about ourselves these days, especially back about 10 years ago, there was a massive wearables movement when we started to track so much about our physical health, but what we don't know very much about, our brains. And so that was the why I started to look into this space, and I wanted to study brains in context because the context matters.

We want to look at how the brain works in all of its various environments and use cases, and we don't want to just study brains when there's something wrong with it, because that... When I first started EMOTIV, we only studied brains if you have a medical condition, if there's something wrong, if you have a sleep problem, if you have a traumatic brain injury, but if you're a happy, healthy individual going back your day, we would actually not have any idea of how your brain is changing, developing, evolving throughout the course of life. And then let's say something happens, which so often it does. In fact, the burden of neurological impairments affects one in every three individuals. So when you think about that, it's a terrifying number because one in three of us, so in my family, there's three of us, one of us will be impacted at some point in our life by some sort of neurological impairment. That figure really terrified me when I put it in those terms, and I thought, "Wow, we've got to do something about it.

Katelin Holloway: Yeah, have abso-freakin-lutly. That number also scares me. I have four folks that are in my immediate family here in this household, and I think it's fascinating to your point how little work we really have done in this space, and even with my... I have two little boys, and the amount that I'm talking to them about mental health or even just the mechanics of their brain. We talk about the amygdala hijack in our household.

Tan Le: Oh, wow, that's great. Okay, calm down. Right?

Katelin Holloway: Your frontal cortex gets flipped, and you get hijacked, man.

Tan Le: I love it.

Katelin Holloway: These conversations, obviously, they aren't happening in every household. We're total dorks in this house, but for good reason because we're trying to explain to little humans like this organ is a really critical part of how our system works, our consciousness, how we show up, how we engage with one another, to your point, and something that I really love about the work that you are doing at EMOTIV is you said it when you were talking about the brain just a moment ago, which is in context, right? And what you're saying very specifically is let's think about the brain at work.

Tan Le: Yes.

Katelin Holloway: At work is a really fascinating perspective or approach to take, and how we are learning about our own brain. So why did you choose that context?

Tan Le: So we actually studied the brain in almost every context, trekking up a mountain, in a classroom when people have specific brain conditions, but one area where we spend a huge chunk of our lives, whether we want to or not, is at work, and if you think about the workplace with COVID, it has changed so much. So many of us now are working in hybrid environments where we spend some time working at home, some time working together in an office environment or in some combination of that. And so one, there is a massive change in how and where we work and the relationship that we have towards work, and then the second thing is we do spend a huge chunk of our lives at work. And if you look at the World Health Organization, one of the things that has emerged in the 21st century is that workplace stress is considered now the health epidemic of the 21st century, right? And so workplace stress is a massive challenge for so many people, and unfortunately with any form of mental wellbeing, sometimes it can be a taboo. It can be very difficult.

For the longest time, most people have struggled to even grapple with how do I share this with my family, with even the people I'm most closest to, let alone in a workplace context where I'm expected to be at my personal professional best? And so it's certainly a big challenge and we wanted to be able to empower individuals within the workplace to, one, better understand how they can learn more about their brain and how it works in the context of where they're spending a majority of their time, but also have the empowerment to then take control of their own neurological wellbeing, and that's really important because if we can take control of our own neurological wellbeing, we're empowered to make better choices about how we spend our day.

Katelin Holloway: I love this so much and I'm learning new terms as you're helping to explain this. I've been in the business of people for a very long time, and it's only really been in the last maybe not even 10 years, that we've even talked about mental health as a topic within the workplace, and I have yet though to come across anyone actually talking about our brains as an organ and something that goes beyond, "Hey, we, your employer, care about how you show up at work, and we want to make sure you're bringing your whole self to work, and we're taking care of you, and here are your benefits."

Tan Le: Yes.

Katelin Holloway: That's about as far as it goes, but you're actually talking about the brain as an organ, as something to be better understood, and it's not one broad stroke for everyone. This is how does your brain specifically show up under times of stress, under times of joy, under all of these different conditions within the workplace. And so I know that you talked about workplace stress, but what are some of the other challenges that our brains face in the workplace?

Tan Le: So there's a lot of interesting dynamics at play in the workplace. So the equipment that we have that we use every day, depending on how well that functions actually, not surprisingly if we think about it, actually has a role to play in the stress that we feel in the workplace. So imagine a very clunky set of tools that an employee has to work through every single day. That clunkiness creates friction, which also causes anxiety and stress. And what we actually found is that older generational people, I guess because we were exposed to more clunky interfaces, have a higher tolerance for them than the younger digital natives who grew up with the iPhone, where the interfaces are very seamless and very intuitive. And so their capacity to deal with clunky, poor performing tech is very low. And so it creates a much higher degree of stress for those individuals than it would for an older generation.

So there is definitely a generational element here in terms of our comfort levels with technology, and then the associated stress that causes. What you said a moment ago about individualized understanding and really taking into account the personalized nature of so many of these options that we provide to employees is really important because one of the things that we found is that people do have very explicit preferences when it comes to work and their work environment, and when we do take into consideration their explicit preferences, their engagement and their cognitive load also is very different, and the way they show up to those tasks. And that at the same time, there are also very generalizable themes that we can learn from that environment. We can start to think about within this spectrum of mental wellbeing generally, the other dimension of that is safety.

So how do we actually stave off accidents? If you think about some of the industrialized workplaces where paying attention, where distraction, fatigue can be very, very good, early predictors of accidents, actually it's a far superior predictor of accident than almost any other measurement because repetitive injury is only one cause of accidents in the workplace, but if you think about distraction and fatigue in certain environments, those are very, very high correlates to triggers for accidents. So that dimension is a very interesting one, and the other dimension is around the performance spectrum. So by understanding my own mental neurological wellbeing, can I make better choices so that I can stay in an optimal state for longer? Can I take specific breaks that are really tuned to me?

Generally speaking, we found that meditation has provided a very, very robust form of restoration for the brain in a lot of individuals, but if you can actually tailor breaks specifically to an individual, then their performance enhances even more. So meditation, whilst it works for statistically speaking a large number of people, it doesn't necessarily work 100% for all people, because some people may struggle to kind of get into that meditative state. For those people you could recommend slightly different breaks, and what we found in a recent study we did is that when we recommend specific breaks that's tuned to an individual, their individual performance improves by 7%, and if you think about that in the context of in individual, that's essentially three hours of enhanced performance in a week, and you think, "Oh, okay, three hours that I get back." That's pretty nice for me when I think about 7% improvement in my time.

So when we look at the individual, right? So I said three hours of extra productive time if we're looking at 7% improvement. So if you're thinking about a group of 30 employees, so you, Katelin, mentioned that you work with some of these early stage companies, and say we're working with an 30 person startup organization. 30 employees has a bonus of two weeks of extra time for the company each week, right? So you're gaining back every week two weeks of productive time, and then if we extrapolate that to a 1,000 employees where we have lots of organizations with a thousand employees, they're getting back over a year's worth of productive time in a week. So every week if you have 1,000 employees, just by improving people's breaks and helping them stay in an optimal state for 7% of the time sounds like a really tiny little number, right?

Katelin Holloway: Right. It's not.

Tan Le: But it translates to a year, a whole year's worth of productive time. It adds up so much, and so it's staggering. When we think about the cost, the human cost of mental wellbeing, and just being burnt out, and feeling stress, and having anxiety, and all of the other ancillary cost of not being able to engage your employees, and then you think about the performance opportunity, it's staggering how much we have to gain by really caring and investing in employee wellness.

Katelin Holloway: I'm so glad that you brought those stats up, because the cost relative to implementing a proactive personalized wellness plan versus the time that you get back, especially in an economy that looks the way it looks today, if you were to tell my 30 person company that they could get back two weeks for every week of just simply investing in both time and a little bit of money, and I could argue that you could do anything on any budget that could try to get and squeeze that 7% out. You are not only then impacting your business results and those returns, you're also doing the right thing by the people so that you can reduce turnover. You can reduce accident, and I don't care if you're operating a forklift or you are tippy tapping on the keys into ChatGPT. Mistakes are costly. They are costly, right?

Tan Le: You have an engaged workforce that says, "Wow, the organization is encouraging me to take a break when I need it. The fact that if I take a break, I'm going to win back more value to the organization is it almost feels counterintuitive, but we're not machines. We as human beings need to pay attention when we need to, but also need to restore those attentional networks, and they do get very, very fatigued over time, and so it's really important that we invest the time to take the breaks when we need them.

Katelin Holloway: Absolutely. And so let's talk tactics for a second. You've shared already some great kind of pro tips. You've woven them in very lovely and organically into building a solid workplace wellness program. You've talked about being proactive. You've talked about it being personalized, but what do you consider, if there are any, additional hallmarks of a really informed workplace wellness program? What are some tactics we can share with our audience?

Tan Le: So I think that the first thing that people need to understand when you're thinking about work is that humans need a challenge. We talk about stress as if it's just all bad, but in fact there is good stress and there's bad stress. The good stress happens where right before a performance or before a talk, before an investor presentation, before some important meeting that you're pitching something, you're going to feel stressed, and you need to feel stressed because your brain is going to be on high alert. You're going to be really, really focused, and it will help you elevate your performance so that you can show up in the best possible way, and that type of stress is actually really, really good for you, and the opposite of that is when you have a job that actually doesn't stress you at all, and that's not what I'm advocating for at all.

The brain is a system that craves the ability to learn, and it needs to learn new things, novelty, challenge, diversity. These are the three hallmarks of what our brains need in order to preserve its cognitive resilience. So if you give someone a job that is so monotonous that they're doing the same exact thing every single day with no challenge, that is actually not only going to bore them to death, but it's also not healthy for their brains. And so it's not about advocating for monotonous, repetitive work. It's about making sure that people have the right challenge. So it's about finding that unique balance so that the person can stay in that optimal state, and that's really hard to do unless you have tools that can actually help you understand what's happening to the individual.

Katelin Holloway: Right.

Tan Le: I mean, we're talking to a people function here. That's the hardest part about motivating people is that everyone is different. Your currency is different, right? Some people are motivated by a title. Some people are motivated by compensation. Some people are motivated by purpose and impact, but I think one of the things that you can take away as a general rule is that every human in order to preserve cognitive resilience needs some form of diversity, challenge, and novelty in terms of the tasks that they perform. Otherwise, it's just not healthy for the brain.

Katelin Holloway: Right. And I think about that all the time in the workplace with the exact example that you're using, which is identifying the individual needs and everyone's level of skill mastery to engage them. We want you to be challenged just enough to be engaged, but not so much that you give up, and it becomes deflating, and to relate that back to the brain is really cool. Let's talk about a motive just for a moment for those of us listening in that aren't familiar with the work that you're doing. You spoke earlier about this new wave of wearables where now suddenly we're very comfortable. I'm wearing an Apple Watch, and I'm pointing to it. I love it. Please tell me what I'm doing. Please tell me when I can do these things.

I'm tracking things on my phone. It's very normal, but your technology specifically can measure brain metrics in a way for as much as we're looking at our steps or our heart rate. So can you tell us a little bit more about EMOTIV, both what the actual tool is, what the actual hardware is, and then how people are using it specifically in the workplace?

Tan Le: Yeah. So the tool essentially is an electroencephalography. So it's an EEG for short, much easier to say, and it measures electrical fluctuations that result from neurons in your brain firing. When that happens, there's a chemical reaction that takes place, and that emits an electrical impulse. And so we can measure those changes in voltage fluctuations noninvasively, so you don't have to put anything in your brain, and now we've made them easy enough to wear every day, so that they now kind of take the form of headphones, which is really amazing. So these headphones have audio. It has mic, and it has brain recording, and that really makes a big difference because now we can actually measure what's happening in the brain.

We can stream it to a computer, and then we can start to decode what the metrics are. When are you paying attention? What's the cognitive load associated with this particular task, and then are you stressed by the work? Those are the kind of raw metrics that we can measure, and then we can translate that into different brain states, whether you are optimal, whether you're in intense state, distracted, or wondering state. And this is really, really helpful because in a snapshot you can look at your brain, and we measure different brain states, different cognitive states, and we're only getting started. I expect that this technology will continue to evolve quite rapidly from here, and we'll be able to add a lot of additional metrics, which will then continue to empower individuals as they're using this technology.

Katelin Holloway: It's so cool. I wish sometimes that this podcast wasn't a podcast, and it had video, because I want our audience to visualize what this device looks like. When you hold them up, they truly look like over the ear headsets. So as if you were getting on an airplane, and you were going to go and listen to your favorite podcast, which is All Hands, obviously, you're putting these on, right? And to know that they're multifunctional is really cool too. And so my immediate thought when I first saw them, it was like, "Oh my god, this is so cool," but I want to ask a potentially spicy question here, which is how do we walk the line of giving employees the information they need in order to optimize their workflows and mental health while also respecting their privacy as their employer? So if I were to get a motive for my team, for example, I'm doing it because I want them to optimize their personal health and wellness.

Tan Le: Yes.

Katelin Holloway: I can for sure tell you there's got to be someone to say, "Excuse me, ma'am. Excuse me, what are you going to do with my data?"

Tan Le: Well, actually, you don't get your employee's data. So the data belongs to the employee and always stays that way. Employees can choose if they want to share a de-identified aggregated dataset with the employer, but we will not... Even if you opt in to share, if it doesn't reach an anonymity threshold, it still won't be shared. So we have what we consider a double two triggers. The first trigger is does the employee consent to any form of data sharing? You have as the employee full control over what, when, how you share, and then if you do share, but your group is too small, and we can't preserve your anonymity when that data is shared, it still won't be shared, and so we believe that that provides a lot of comfort to an employee because the intention of this tool is not to create a scenario where an employer has information about you that you're not comfortable with them having.

The intention is to empower individuals in a workplace to take better control and better care of their neurological wellbeing because this is one of the most important things that we can do in the 21st century, right? As we've done with our physical health, so now we are living much longer, healthier lives, we're eating better, but I think what we need to do next is start to take care of our neurological wellbeing in the same way because as we live much longer lives, our biological brain isn't built to last 100 years, and if we want to start living that long as a society, we're going to need to start really seriously caring for our brain to preserve its cognitive resilience, because, quite frankly, I don't want to live until 112 if I can't actually recognize my loved ones, and have a conversation, and be present. It's truly not worth it. It's not about preserving the physical body.

It's about preserving the seed of the self, and it goes back to what we talked about. This is the one thing that defines who we are, and so if we can look after it, if we can cherish it, and nurture it, and protect it, and improve its resilience, we will have so much more to benefit from its enjoyment of this wonderful, incredible organ, which really is the most sophisticated learning apparatus we know, right? In the known universe.

Katelin Holloway: What a beautiful, beautiful button you just put on our conversation, Tan. I really appreciate that you're doing all of this for a reason, and that is to improve the quality of life, to improve the quality of being, and belonging, and really the curse, and blessing, and privilege that it is to be human, right? So thank you so much for sharing, and thank you for doing this work. It's really cool.

Tan Le: Thank you. I love it. It's my life's calling.

Katelin Holloway: I can tell. And I'm so glad.

Tan Le: So with that and that beautiful sentiment that we're ending on, are you ready for rapid fire?

Katelin Holloway: Yes, let's do this rapid fire. Excellent. Let's light up a different part of our brain, right? Get some new neural pathways cooking in here. So first one, this is an easy one, I hope. What is your favorite brain fact?

Tan Le: Oh.

Katelin Holloway: You've dropped a few today, like the brain is three pounds. That was new. What else you got for us?

Tan Le: It consumes the most energy in our body.

Katelin Holloway: Really?

Tan Le: Even though it's this tiny, uh-huh.

Katelin Holloway: Makes sense, actually checks out. That sucker is working overtime for me constantly.

Tan Le: Yes, exactly.

Katelin Holloway: Makes sense.Number two, what is the most interesting use of EMOTIV technology that you've come across so far?

Tan Le: Oh, most interesting use? I would say my favorite use is for kids with cerebral palsy. There's a group called BCI for Kids, and they use our technology, the mental commands portion of our APIs to allow kids to draw, create music, and it is amazing. There's this little kid, this little boy named John. You can find him on Instagram. It's called Brain Paint by John. Oh my goodness, it is beautiful, and I'm lucky enough to have some of his artwork at home. Oh, it's really wonderful. It's really wonderful. That's my favorite.

Katelin Holloway: That is so sweet. I am going to do my best to remain not in tears, so I'm not going to look it up right now, but I will definitely look it up tonight. That is so beautiful, and what an incredible impact. That must feel really good.

Tan Le: It feels wonderful. It feels wonderful, and I love it. I love it. I love how he smiles.

Katelin Holloway: Well, that leads very well into my last rapid fire question for you. This one is about you. When was the last time you were deeply proud of something you have accomplished?

Tan Le: Okay, this is a little naughty, but I was so, so proud when I was inducted to the National Portrait Gallery in Australia. I was so excited because it's such a beautiful portrait. So that was a moment where I kind of feel like, "Wow," from being a boat refugee from Vietnam and adopting Australia as my home, and then now finally finding a home, a permanent place in the Portrait Gallery was a very special moment.

Katelin Holloway: That's a huge accomplishment. Well, Tan, we are proud of you too. Thank you so much for sharing so generously with us today. We are so happy to have had you on the show, and I'm really excited for our listeners to get to know you a little bit more and to start to be curious about their own brains.

Tan Le: Yes, Yes. I am hoping that they'll get curious, and we can help more people.

Katelin Holloway: That's exactly what our goal is in all that we do. It's so true. Tan. Thank you so much for joining us on All Hands, and please, please keep leading authentically.

Tan Le: Thank You. Katelin.

Katelin Holloway: All Hands is produced by Lattice in partnership with Pod People. Special thanks to our production team, Christine Swore, Annette Cardwell, Rachel King, Amy Machado, Hannah Petterson, Danielle Roth, David Zwick, Carter Wogan, and Michael Aquino. I'll see an next time on All Hands. Until then, my friends, please keep leading authentically.

About the Guest

podcast guest

Tan Le

Tan Le is Founder & CEO of EMOTIV, a neuroinformatics company advancing understanding of the human brain using electroencephalography (EEG). She is a technology innovator, entrepreneur, business executive and sought-after speaker.

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