Interviewed by Tessa Robinson
Meet our WTP7 Talent, Anna Jassem*, International Coordinator at the European Commission. In this interview, Anna discusses the personal and professional benefits of mindfulness, why we need compassionate and courageous leaders and shares her thoughts on the situation of women in Japanese culture
Having worked briefly in the NGO sector, you have now also held several positions at the European Commission. Could you explain a little more to us about your current role?
I'm responsible for cooperation with our key international partners in the unit in charge of consumer product safety. I also coordinate the international activities of the whole Directorate for Consumers. The idea is to ensure that when dealing with our international counterparts, we speak as one voice. Because, of course, in today's ultra-connected world, where you can buy things from all around the world with one click, there are a lot of dangerous products and fraudulent business practices and basically no borders, so no one country can tackle challenges to consumer protection on its own: we need to join our efforts to make an impact.
I have also been leading work on the EU Product Safety Award, an initiative that we launched back in 2019. The aim of it is to shine the light on businesses which, as we say, “go the extra mile” on product safety. By showcasing best practices, we want to inspire all companies to put consumer protection at the heart of what they do. We also aim to raise consumer awareness around product safety and what to look out for when making shopping decisions.
Last but not least, I'm a trained Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher, and I've been guiding regular mindfulness and compassion sessions across our Directorate-General and beyond. I really think that the COVID pandemic and all the turbulence that it's caused has highlighted even more the importance of mental health and this is certainly an area where mindfulness can make a change. We know from rigorous randomised controlled studies that mindfulness training is effective in reducing stress levels, preventing burnout, and increasing overall mental and even physical health!
You mentioned your training in mindfulness-based stress reduction. What motivated you to become a mindfulness teacher and how has it helped you in your own life?
What drew me to mindfulness in the first place was actually my own talent for stress and distraction. I remember that in my pre-mindfulness times, I would constantly feel guilty about doing long hours at the office and then getting home and instead of enjoying family time, still thinking about work. I once read a whole book to my son at bedtime; and when he asked me a question, I couldn’t even tell what the book was about. Mindfulness has allowed me to be more present in whatever I'm doing. This has made me much more productive, resilient and simply happier.
Another benefit of practicing mindfulness is that you're better able to catch your inner critic: the little voice that we all have in our head which tries to convince us that we’re not good enough, something with which women in particular struggle. Being more mindful of this inner monologue has allowed me to become less hard towards myself and consequently, also kinder towards others. You realise that after all, we're all just doing our best to be happy. It's like a virtuous circle!
The final benefit I would mention is that with mindfulness you become more aware of what your body and mind need in a very concrete sense. For me, these are often simple things, like getting enough sleep, physical activity and meaningful human connection. I've also realised that I absolutely need some me-time when I can recuperate from being with people. Again, I think that many women have this notion that self-care is a luxury that they cannot afford when all these other things need to be done. To me, it's about preventative maintenance even if it means getting up 20 minutes earlier to start the day more mindfully. “You can't pour from an empty cup”, as the saying goes.
To me, mindfulness is about preventative maintenance. You can't pour from an empty cup.
You have a background in political science, sociology and European studies. What would you say is the commonality between these subjects and how have they shaped your career path to-date?
I would say that these three disciplines are indeed complementary. Sociology has certainly the widest scope studying human society as a whole, whereas Political Science and European Studies focus specifically on systems of governance at national or international level. All three certainly enhance your critical thinking and analytical skills and give you a broad focus so you can see the underlying relationships between phenomena. I think that my academic background did nudge me towards jobs that involve translating scientific evidence into concrete policy measures. And it also drew me to policy areas where I felt that I might make people's lives a little bit better, be it by improving their health, their safety or economic welfare.
During your maternity leave in Japan, you published a book and a series of articles on Japanese cuisine and culture. What did you observe about the situation for women in Japanese society and how does it differ from Europe, if at all?
Overall, our stay in Japan was an amazing adventure. I was really fascinated by Japanese culture and how different it is from Europe. For the book, I started by inviting myself to Japanese women’s kitchens, and of course, it's at the kitchen table where you have the most important conversations. We shifted very quickly from talking about food to talking about culture and much more.
There were things that I absolutely fell in love with; for instance, the ability to savour the present moment, to sit down and contemplate your bowl of tea with a little ‘wagashi’ sweet. Even in a metropolis like Tokyo, people still very much live according to the rhythm of the seasons, celebrating seasonal ingredients and dishes and harvesting bamboo shoots in the spring. Then there's the whole search for harmony and the importance of family ties, as in many collectivist cultures.
On the other hand, there were things that I didn't appreciate at all. For instance, the rigid conformity, epitomised in the saying that the nail that sticks up needs to get hammered down. But indeed, probably the thing that shocked and saddened me the most is how male dominated Japanese society is. A woman’s social status is defined first by her father and then by her husband. If you're single and childless over 30, you're called ‘makainu’ (literally ‘loser dog’), which indicates your social status. Japan is also apparently the only country in the world where married couples are legally obliged to share the same surname, which of course, in virtually always is the man's surname. You also rarely see both genders mixing. You’ll see groups of men in black suits heading to company drinking parties. Then you’ll have groups of elegantly dressed women playing with their children in the park, but there's no interaction between the two: men belong to the public sphere and women belong to the domestic sphere. Those women who decide to work outside the household typically have part-time or temporary jobs. There’s also a kind of dual track employment system in Japanese companies: a career track and a routine clerical track. Virtually all men are chosen for the career track, whereas women, even those with university degrees, primarily get clerical jobs, photocopying, formatting tables, or answering the phone.
The European Commission aims to have at least 50% female managers by 2024. What do you think are the most important qualities of a good team leader and why?
I would say that in this ‘VUCA’ world of high vulnerability, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, as Marina Niforos taught us, what we most need in leaders are two things: courage and compassion.
Leaders need to be courageous to effect change, to shift and respond to constantly evolving circumstances, to step out of their comfort zone rather than stick to the tried and tested ways of doing things. So it's really about having this growth mindset, or what Brené Brown calls ‘daring greatly’- knowing that you can fail but also that you can learn from failure.
But equally essential is compassion, empathy, kindness, the ability to listen and to see human beings behind job titles. All these qualities that for some reason are called ‘soft skills’, as if they were somehow easier or less important than hard technical skills and KPIs. Yet, they are indispensable for a team to flourish and to become more than just a sum of its members. I truly believe that when people feel valued, empowered and simply happy at work, they are also more engaged, innovative and productive.
I truly believe that when people feel valued, empowered and simply happy at work, they are also more engaged, innovative and productive.
Finally, is there a particular motto that is important to you regarding work or life that you would share with others?
There's this one quote that I like, which I believe is a paraphrase of Marcel Proust’s words from ‘The Prisoner’: "The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." It's this idea that how we interpret things and how we react to them that makes all the difference, and that's also where our freedom lies.
*The information and views set out in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Commission.
Video edited by Tessa Robinson