Subscribe to our monthly newsletter for more insights.

Sign up.
About Us

Stories from the Field: Dr Jacqueline Kerr

April 30, 2024   ·  

Top 1% most-cited scientists worldwide, culture change consultant, wife and mother, and burnout survivor. 

We're fortunate to be joined on our mission to create healthier workplaces by many inspiring individuals on a similar journey. In Stories from the Field, we hear from valued members of the Harkn community about how they got to where they are today.


Lydia: What was your first ever job?  

Jacqueline: My first ever job was some summer work trying to sell double glazing – if you can imagine that – on the phone, commission-based, awful.  

And then I had a job in a pub… and some fun ones – I was one of the first female bouncers at the University of Bristol, so that was a cool one.  

Then when I was living in the South of France for a while I was helping to sell timeshares there.  

So I’ve had some of these really terrible sales jobs, but that actually really helped me later down the line when I was a professor and running research studies.  

I was training students to be able to reach out to participants to ask if they’re interested in taking part in research studies around health. And they’d get nervous, and I’d say, “Listen, you’re not selling them double-glazing or timeshares! You’re asking them to be a part of life-changing research. So, it’s ok, this is not a terrible ask to make.” 

 So that really helped me to give them some perspective.    


Lydia: I love that, especially being the first female bouncer! Am I right in thinking you also did some volunteer work early on?  

Jacqueline: Yes so I think there’s been a through-thread in my life in some ways in terms of some of the volunteer jobs I did. When I was a teenager I volunteered with older adults, and that’s something I followed through with later in life by working on age-friendly cities once I’d become a professor.  

But I always had this feeling of wanting to change the world.  

My first formal job out of university was in advertising, and I really enjoyed the idea of using communication to persuade people to do things. But a lot of the products I was selling were things like pharmaceuticals that I didn’t really believe in. But one of our clients was the local zoo, and that work was all about their conservation programme, and I felt good about that. I thought, OK, if I can use communication tools for social good then that’s something I would like to do.  

So I ended up going and getting a master’s degree in exercise and health science.  Our family has an unfortunate history of heart disease – my grandfather died quite young, so it was something we’d always talked about and being healthy was something I cared about personally.  

To be able to go and study it and have a career in helping others being healthy was great. Part of my motivation was always: ‘How do I prevent someone like my grandfather from dying young?’ Then I got really hooked by the research bug, did a PHD, and carried on with a full research career in the US.  


Life in the public health sector 

Lydia: So you really rose to the top of your game in the public health sphere, you were named in the top 1% of most influential scientific minds in the world – something I’d love to put on my CV. Tell me a little bit about the ups and downs of life in public health?  

Jacqueline: I think people saw how complicated public health is during the pandemic. I’m not saying that we as a public health community necessarily handled it in the best way, but we didn’t have a roadmap. Unfortunately, that became very politicised here in the US – but that can happen, because public health is about populations of people and within populations is political polarisations. So, when we think about hesitancy to have vaccines it’s about trust, and you must recognise where people are at about that rather than judge them. So, we really have to think about individual behaviours, how people influence each other and how organisations influence people, society and policy. 

Public health is very complex – but that’s what I love about it. Because for me it means there are so many points where you could make a change. Whereas if you think about it as only individuals, then it’s only one person that can make a change. Lots of people talk about ‘be the change you want to see,’ and I think well, no! If it’s only you, it might have some ripple effect, but how about ‘we the change we want to see’ - really bringing people together for change.  

So scale is really important in public health, but so is sustainability. We don’t ask people to be physically active without providing them with safe places to be active; it’s about the longevity of the environment that can support it. So that’s the part of the public health space that I find so motivating and so impactful, because it can be at scale and with real sustainability.  

But the challenging part of it is being a research professor. I think people think of professors as comfy and cosy in their ivory towers, but I was very much out doing research in the field – I always went to my communities and embedded myself in their spaces. 

But as a researcher, you’re basically bringing in your own funding and funding your whole research team. So I had a team of about 40 staff and students, and I would bring the money in to support them and then lead the research too. You’re also teaching. You’re also required to do community service. Serving on all the committees I did was great because it helped me understand how I could take my work into policy levels, but it was also a requirement – it's more volunteer time outside of your daily job.  

"Public health is very complex – but that’s what I love about it. Because for me it means there are so many points where you could make a change."

Then you also had to take on leadership within the university. All these different roles were challenging and they all had different parts to them. The teaching role was also mentoring students as well as junior faculty coming through. 

I would often have female students and faculty coming to me for advice because they were working with a male professor and they weren’t getting their needs met. I often felt like I let them down, because I essentially told them my mantra: “Work hard and you’ll get there.” And I didn’t really recognise the systemic barriers we were facing at the time.  

I took on more responsibility within the university – I became Head of Population Health & Prevention in the cancer centre – and every time I moved up that ladder I became more exposed to what I would call very toxic leadership.    

Sometimes I would get a call on a Sunday morning at 7am telling me my work wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t well prepared to deal with that sort of criticism and aggression and interference into my family life. For me, I ended up taking up too much responsibility... my kids were young, my son was being diagnosed on the autism spectrum and I needed to get a different schooling system for him to support him, and I experienced burnout – it was just too much.  

Afterwards I learnt a lot about the maternal wall and the motherhood penalty, particularly in science and medicine. I realised it was no surprise I was exhausted – you're expected to work like you have no kids and parent like you have no job, and that is exhausting.  


Mental health & burnout awareness 


Lydia: There’s a particularly bitter irony to working in these fields where you’re focusing on health and trying to make the world a better place, and you can go on for so long without realising that you yourself are struggling and how many injustices there are in your everyday working life.  

Jacqueline: And I think what’s so important about that is... when companies point the finger at individuals and say, “You are burning out go and do self-care,” I always say when you point the finger you’ve got three fingers pointing back at you, so corporations have to think about that.  

You know, so many people ARE doing self-care. So many people are trying really hard to stay healthy. And lots of people end up having coaching – say within their company – and getting better. Getting back control of their life. Making priorities and making healthy choices.  

And then they know that they have done everything they can do, and what they can so clearly see at that stage (and this happened to me too) is that this is a problem with the organisation – this is a system-level problem.    

So, when you point to the individual and blame them, the organisation is taking no responsibility for their role in the stress.  

And that’s something I’ve recently tried to change my mindset on, because I appreciate that companies do not want to take responsibility for stressing their employees – from so many perspectives that doesn’t work for them. But blaming their employees for not coping well with stress doesn’t work either.  

So I think there’s a space where we can say: “How can companies support the success of their employees more?” It’s just the other side of a coin. What are the things you can do to have more successful employees? That is things like coaching, parental leave policies, pay equity and transparency... there’s so many things you can do.  

"I appreciate that companies do not want to take responsibility for stressing their employees – from so many perspectives that doesn’t work for them. But blaming their employees for not coping well with stress doesn’t work either."

In my own journey I started to really understand what burnout is, how to talk about it, and that you’re not alone. 

I realised that the first step on the 12-point burnout scale is having to prove yourself. That can come from your upbringing, it can come from your own ambition... but it can also come from the fact that women and people of colour are refused promotions more often, so there is an unfair system at play.  

They’re getting less pay for the same work, or less pay for more work – because again they’re often 10/10 capable to do their job, when men will apply to a job being only 6/10 capable. So, women are doing just as well on their performance but they’re not getting the promotions. So, you have to keep proving yourself and that puts you on the path to burnout. It’s sad that that’s inevitable, but that’s also why it needs to come from our policies and practices within the workplace.  


Lydia: What you’ve just illustrated so well is that the causes of burnout lie in the working environment itself. The University of Oxford’s new study has been huge in the UK recently – I know you’ve seen that too – and it really casts doubt on wellness initiatives. Organisations are desperately trying to improve employee wellbeing and know poor wellbeing is impacting their people and their bottom line... but that study really clarified that the key drivers of poor wellbeing at work are things like stress, job insecurity, and blurred responsibilities. People can be as resilient as it gets, but they’re always going to come up against those same challenges unless you tackle them directly.  

So, you faced a very acute set of burnout factors as a working mum at the top of your public health career. I watched your Ted Talk the other day in preparation for this, and one of my favourite bits was the baked alaska analogy for working mothers. You said: “We’re trying to protect this ice cream in the middle while being blowtorched to perfection on the outside – it's a recipe for disaster.” I have to say, that’s a brilliant way to describe something very unpleasant.  

At that time, you were really throwing yourself into researching the challenges for working mums and what can be done to make life better for them. Looking back at your Ted Talk, how far do you feel we’ve come since then?  

Jacqueline: I think it’s become more of a discussion. The plight of mothers came to the fore during Covid. We couldn’t hide any more that we were mothers, and mothers were taking on so much more of the schoolwork and the household work. Unfortunately, many mums were also the ones who had to give up their jobs because they earned less.

We are seeing things improve though, and hybrid work really supports mothers in being able to do their best in both places. Unfortunately, these mandates to go back to the office are really taking us backwards, but luckily lots of people are refusing to accept them. This is not just about parents – it disadvantages any sort of care giver, anyone with an elderly parent that they’re supporting. 

While it does mostly fall to mothers, fathers who are primary caregivers are even more disadvantaged because the expectation for them in the workplace is: “Well you have someone at home to do that for you, why is it you as the father doing that?” So, it really is both.  

I love that part of my podcast, Overcoming Working Mom Burnout, where I interviewed Dads. I learnt so much about the challenges they also face. So, I think it’s so important in this work to consider everyone who has any sort of care constraint.  

"The plight of mothers came to the fore during Covid. We couldn't hide any more that we were mothers, and mothers were taking on so much more of the schoolwork and the household work. Unfortunately, many mums were also the ones who had to give up their jobs because they earned less." 

I think our workplaces are still set up so that merit reviews are based on being able to give more time. But what if people do a really good job within the hours they’re given? What if more isn’t actually better? I think we know from a brain health perspective that doing more doesn’t actually make you a better leader – it doesn’t make your decisions better. We get to the point – especially in burnout – where our decisions are compromised, but because our brain is compromised, we’re not even aware that our decisions are compromised.  

Pay transparency legislation came in this year, and that’s been really fascinating. I’ve heard from so many women where everyone in their team has had their pay revealed, and each time it reveals that the women in the team are being paid less than the men.   

And then they’re having to have these conversations like, “ok, what are we actually going to do about this?” The men are sometimes saying, “that’s terrible, I didn’t know,” but when you actually ask them, “OK so are you willing not to have a bonus this year so we can bring the women up to the same level of pay?” they’re responding with, “Well I’ve worked really hard this year, I deserve that bonus.” 

So, it’s a complicated topic. It’s something we always thought was there, and now it’s really clear on paper that it’s there. And sometimes it’s a female boss who has made those decisions around pay levels, so these are decisions that are made across the board, and we need education on both sides of gender to make this fairer.  

I’m glad we’re having these conversations. There’s still a long way to go, but I think corporate America has a fantastic opportunity at this moment in time to have a competitive advantage by really looking out for its employees and everyone else on the planet. 


Jacqueline's culture change work

Dr Jacqueline Kerr talking about the importance of employee voice in today's workplace, and what Harkn is doing to achieve that.

Lydia: Really interesting. It’s got to be a good thing that conversation is becoming more and more common about all these things – whether it’s gender inequality or burnout.  

That was a great overview of both your personal and professional routes to getting where you are today. So, let’s talk about where you are today: Advising companies on behaviour change and culture change – taking all those learnings from your career in public health and personal experience of burnout and applying them to the corporate world.  

Why don’t you tell us a little about your work? 

Jacqueline: Yes, thank you so much for the opportunity.  

Parts of my work still involves supporting leaders in public health research. I really am glad for that opportunity, because it’s keeping me on the cutting edge of the field.  It’s often female leaders who are struggling in academia, and I’m helping by giving them permission to give up some of these committees they’re on, to prioritise their health, and design research that is more impactful and more likely to get funded.  

We often try and talk about research and forget the stories. That’s something I discovered in my advocacy work – that I could be there as an expert scientist in the room, but when the leaders I train present their personal story with some frameworks and data from me, they make for much more convincing changemakers. So, I think it’s so important to think about how we empower our employees to have a voice – and that’s why I’m so impressed by the work Harkn is doing to achieve that.  

Something else that’s missing in corporate is an understanding of how change in people at scale happens. We understand change management when it comes to bringing in a new software system. But that’s about a short-term ‘changeover’ - it’s not about how you change long-term culture and behaviours so that they’re sustainable and scalable.  

There’s also a band-aid approach in corporate, as we discussed. ‘Here, take this app and it’s going to help your health.’ Research shows apps like that don’t make a long-term difference. I’ve worked with meditation apps, and we found that most people do not engage with an app after the three-month mark. Because if there is not human accountability behind a digital solution then people don’t feel cared for and don’t feel accountable. We need to know two things: that someone cares, and that someone is going to help us do better. And that’s why I think those sorts of solutions aren’t working, and we need organisational-level change.  

I sometimes talk to vendors who are coaches, or they’re doing parental leave programmes in organisations. They’re finding that the individuals they’re working with are getting better and feeling the benefits of the programme, and then want something implemented at the organisational level. When those vendors then try to speak to the CEO, there is still so much reluctance for organisational change. They’re willing to support coaching, parental leave... but not actual organisational change. That’s still a very big resistance inside companies.  

"If there is not human accountability behind a digital solution than people don't feel cared for and don't feel accountable. We need to know two things: that someone cares, and that someone is going to help us do better. And that's why I think those sorts of solutions aren't working, and we need organisational-level change." 

So, faced with that, I try to draw on my other understanding of change which is that it also comes from the ground up – and that’s so important. I’m now really trying to translate my community leadership skills into corporate spaces.  

Take communities of champions, for example. Supporting a network of champions with things like peer learning collaborations.  

That’s where people really study the change process they’re going through, do small experiments, and then review the results of those experiments in learning cycles and consider where else they could use that initiative. It’s all about being flexible and agile, but also very purposeful in understanding why you’re doing what you’re doing.  

That’s how systems change happens: groups of pioneers come together, they form networks, they learn purposefully, and then they share those lessons. 

That’s how an alternative system emerges. It doesn’t have to be from the top down. The stabilisers at the top of the system will always see change as risky, and they’ll have reasons for feeling that way, and they don’t necessarily want to be the leaders of that change. But once they see change happening, evidence-based and working, then they’ll jump on the bandwagon. And I think we have to accept that that’s ok – that's how our models tell us systems change works.  

So, thinking about it bottom-up, and considering what we can learn from community leadership and embed in our companies.  

For example, we’re seeing great progress in sustainability research and there’s lots of solutions there, but we’re still butting up against the same problem. Will consumers accept new packaging? Will companies be able to reduce food waste when there’s local policies in the way?  

If companies support peer learning collaborations in their communities and in their workforce, then we can approach change and communication in a very different way – because we’re no longer relying on top-down initiatives.  

So that’s what I’d love to see: much more of this integral way of thinking about change as a collective community effort and giving people the simple skills that support that to happen.   


Lydia: I want to unpack what you just said about experiments and learning cycles.  

We work with champions networks in each of our client organisations, and we’re starting to support some of those champions in running case studies into how the organisation has been affected by different developments. We use the Good Day Ratio (GDR) so you can literally see a change curve in response to those events.  

It’s really interesting work, but it’s also motivating for those champions and positions them as pioneers within their organisation – motivating others and getting them on board.  

Jacqueline: Yes, because you’re gathering data, but you also have the voices to go with it. In the digital health world, innovators are always talking about the data and how AI will change everything. But data can be interpreted however we want – we can look at a 50% and say glass half full or glass half empty. But when we hear a story, it elicits empathy and that’s when we actually start to support change.  

So Harkn has that combination of data through GDR and the voices and stories to go with it. It’s those stories that really give meaning to case studies. 

With champions networks, it’s not only important to spread a message and be the leaders in learning and promoting change – employees are looking for meaning and purpose at work.  

Back to that University of Oxford Study: the one activity that helped people more than the apps and other mental health interventions was volunteering. Having some role where you are making a difference in someone else’s life. Again, I don’t want companies to be following a checklist counting volunteer hours, but when volunteering is part of a team-building effort – when you’re going out together and respecting what that community has to offer, that can really support us.  


What is a listening organisation? 


Lydia: Final question. At Harkn we talk a lot about the listening organisation, and how redefining the way we listen to our people is central to positive change in the workplace. So we wanted to ask all our interviewees: What does the listening organisation mean to you?  

Jacqueline: Our interpretation is often that people are bad listeners. There’s all this data from employee engagement surveys or live listening tools like Harkn – it's all there in front of you. When we see no action from that, we assume that people aren’t listening. We assume bad intent.  

But what we really need to understand is the fear that people have around change. Partly that’s about understanding who the listeners are and where they’re coming from, because what they hear is going to be filtered through that outlook. Some companies have been trying to make change and are struggling to make progress. They’ve invested in lots of ERGs, for example, but they’re not seeing any outcomes. Partly that’s because they haven’t given them the right skills or equipment or clear expectations – so it’s about giving people the tools and training they need to lead change.  

At the other end of the scale, you could have a leader where it’s just not on their priority list to act on the feedback they’re getting – they've got a whole different set of priorities. We need to understand that. If we judge the listeners too much and don’t understand where they’re coming from, then we’re going to struggle. So, to me, it’s about finding alignment between those priorities.  

To me, a listening organisation is one that listens and is able to take action as well. Because that’s such a big gap there. And Gallup shows it: 92% of employees feel that organisations will not take action on their listening.  


Lydia: Brilliant response – you've set the bar high! 

Thank you so much, Jacqueline.  


Feeling inspired?  

Find out more about how Jacqueline is working to support businesses on her website, where you’ll also find her podcast: Dr. Jacqueline Kerr ( 

To watch the video recording of this interview – and plenty more insightful content besides – visit our YouTube channel: Harkn - YouTube  

We unpacked a wide range of topics in this interview, from diversity and inclusion to mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. If you’d like to discuss any of these areas of workplace culture further with us – or to get involved in the Harkn community – let's have a virtual coffee 






Lydia Blundell
Lydia Blundell

Brand & Content Manager , Connect with Lydia on LinkedIn

InclusionPurposeWellbeingInterviewsHealthy companiesCulture

Further reading