Deepak Chopra on Corporate Wellbeing, Employee Burnout, AI’s Power to Heal
With almost 100 books to his name on topics ranging from meditation to metaphysics, Deepak Chopra has reached a vast general audience in the last three decades, propelled by celebrity endorsements of the Oprah Winfrey kind. Though he’s clashed with scientists and doctors for some of his “New Age” teachings over the years, his emphasis on mindfulness and wellbeing—and the link between employee health and the success of a company—have piqued the interest of the corporate community.
Roberta Dressen, CEO of Minnesota’s med-tech trade group Medical Alley, explained Dr. Chopra’s draw.
“The primary reason we invited Dr. Chopra is because of the work that Medical Alley has been doing the last three years, particularly our emphasis on mental health as it impacts the workforce across the health care ecosystem that we serve,” says Dressen. “We had been focusing originally on post-pandemic when we started in 2021; this year, we moved to the next step to look at burnout, passion, purpose.”
Dressen had been exposed to Dr. Chopra’s work at the Lake Nona Impact Forum, an annual gathering of CEOs, health care innovators, and thought leaders. “I’ve watched the evolution of his work, what he’s doing in this space, and what I’d call a real ability to apply it, particularly for folks who are at an executive level of management—they can grab on to it and both use it professionally and integrate it personally.”
Before taking the stage at The Depot in downtown Minneapolis for Medical Alley’s annual event on May 11, he sat down for a speed-interviewing session at Mara in his signature crystal-studded glasses and red sneakers.
Q. The rate of burnout at work is at an all-time high. More employers seem aware of this, but what can they do to help, should it be their responsibility, and can you point to examples of effective corporate programs?
When you look at wellbeing from a bigger perspective, the following five buckets are very well studied: corporate wellbeing, workplace wellbeing, social wellbeing, physical wellbeing, and financial wellbeing. I’m on the board of Gallup, where we look at the data on these five buckets. Turns out they’re all very intimately related. They all affect each other. Wellbeing in these five buckets is the number one predictor of what will happen to a person, to a business, to a community, to a society, or to a country in the future.
Corporate wellbeing is at an all-time low in the United States. [To improve], it needs the following criteria: First, leadership that is visionary, in terms of the relationship of wellbeing to the success of the company and the success of everyone in the company. If you take care of your employees, everyone else will benefit. That’s the data. If employees are unhappy, customers will be unhappy. If customers are unhappy, investors will be unhappy, and the business will falter. It’s very simple logic but it’s all data driven.
You also need shared vision: a leader who is interested in wellbeing, is an example of wellbeing, and can share his or her vision with the employees and the entire ecosystem. But then the ability of that leader to be emotionally engaged in recruiting everyone to that vision. Then you need maximum diversity in the employee ecosystem. Maximum diversity means diversity of race, of gender, of education, of talent. When I think maximum diversity in a big company, it should include everything from people who are experts in science and technology (these days in AI), but also in storytelling, because people don’t buy products, they don’t buy services, they buy a story that they relate to. So you need storytellers, you need humanitarians.
“Between burnout and actively disengaged employees, the cost to the U.S. economy is about $300 billion.” — Deepak Chopra
The fourth criteria is leveraging and maximizing everybody’s strengths, and creating a system where everyone feels they belong. The data shows that if the leader, the boss, the manager, if he or she ignores the employee, the rate of disengagement is something like 45%. If they don’t ignore, but they criticize, the rate of disengagement falls to 20%. Because people would rather be criticized than ignored. Ignored means you don’t exist. Criticized, at least you’re noticed. And if the leader notices one single strength, authentically, the rate of disengagement falls to less than 1 percent. Between burnout and actively disengaged employees, the cost to the U.S. economy is about $300 billion. Now, this is becoming a trend, so a lot of corporations are joining the bandwagon: they create gyms and meditation rooms and pods and exercise rooms and yoga mattresses, and nobody goes to them. So, it’s not enough to do all of that. Your employees have to feel a sense of belonging, and then, when you offer these things, the effect is much more.
So there’s a science behind this, and burnout [is high] because it seems, at least in this culture, that the purpose of life is work and not joy. I ask myself every day, did evolution design us for work or for joy? All you have to do is look at a child before they’ve been bamboozled by social constructs, and you see joy. And then you send them to kindergarten, the joy is a little less. By the time they get to junior high, there’s no joy, by the time they go to college, they’re stressed out. By the time they get a job, they’re already burned out. I think we live in an insane culture, and if we deny it, then we are joining the insanity.
Q. The arrival of AI has some people excited, and others fearing for their jobs and privacy. How do we preserve our wellbeing while moving forward at breakneck speed? Because there’s no going back. Now that it’s here, it’s here.
The alarmists in the AI field are saying there’s a 10 percent chance that AI will lead to our extinction in less than 10 years. That’s a very high percentage of people in the AI world. Suppose an expert in aviation told you there’s a 10 percent chance the plane would crash. Would you board the flight? You wouldn’t. AI can be used for diabolical purposes. AI is being used internationally for spying, for cyber warfare, it’s already happening. And the problems you mention, that people are fearful that they will lose their jobs, all of those are very relevant questions.
But what you also said is “it’s here and it’s too late.” I believe it’s not only here, but AI is part of our evolution as a human species. If you believe in natural selection, Darwinian, to which I do to some extent, then if you do not adapt, you become irrelevant. Not adapting to AI, you can become extinct. So what do we do with it? I would like to suggest that we don’t use the word AI to mean artificial intelligent but to mean augmented human intelligence, because that’s what it is. It reflects human intelligence collectively, which is a mess. We blame AI, but it’s us who created AI. Who created war? Who created destruction, etc.
“I think if used properly, AI could be a boon to humanity, but it needs some deeper vision of the possibilities that it can be used for.” — Deepak Chopra
So A, it’s unavoidable, B it is here to stay, C, we have to adapt to it, and D, we have to figure out how to use it to create a more just, sustainable, peaceful world, healthier, and joyful world. If AI can destroy the world, it can also heal the world. AI doesn’t have a conscience, it has no consciousness, it doesn’t have human experiences like sexuality, or hunger, or thirst or fear of death, or anything that we call human. But it’s still an extension of our collective intelligence, which is a mess. So, I think, if used properly, AI could be a boon to humanity, but it needs some deeper vision of the possibilities that it can be used for.
Coming to jobs. It’s good if routine jobs are eliminated and people have access to creativity and creating an ecosystem of wellbeing. There are lots of things that you don’t need people to do. A basic contract with a lawyer, AI can do it. So let the lawyers do something that AI can’t do. Precision diagnostics, AI can do it better than any doctor, better than any radiologist. AI can give you the best information on medical treatment; AI can also be used for what we call deep machine learning, and personalizing treatment in medicine. AI can predict disease in the future and tell you how to prevent disease. AI can help your creativity by giving you ideas, although in itself, it is not creative. I can think of a million uses of AI that I would say are divine, that would free us up to evolve in our consciousness, in our relationships, in all the things that humans value. Like empathy, like joy, like compassion, like healing. We can use AI for all that. In my opinion, if used correctly, AI could be a divine gift of evolution.
I even asked AI how to prevent unethical uses by AI, and it gave me a 5-page printout that was very beautiful. So I say, why not use AI to prevent unethical uses of AI? I’m in conversation with the broader AI field, and all these issues are being looked at very deeply. These issues are crucial for the wellbeing of our world, and they’re being addressed, hopefully much faster than right now.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. More from our conversation with Deepak Chopra on health and wellness at mspmag.com.