Mindfulness offers a host of benefits to employers and employees alike, reports mindfulness expert and coach Liz Hall.
Not that long ago, meditation was seen widely as the preserve of hippies and saffron-clad monks, unsuited for the business world. Nowadays, a growing number of businesses are recognising what mindfulness has to offer, including Transport for London (TfL), Google, GlaxoSmithKline, the Home Office, the Cabinet Office, KPMG, and PricewaterhouseCoopers.
How mindfulness affects mind and body
- increases activity in a number of brain regions, including those parts involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation and perspective taking;
- improves psychological functions of attention, compassion and empathy;
- activates the parasympathetic nervous system, calming the autonomic nervous system and decreasing cortisol;
- boosts the immune system;
- improves medical conditions including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma, premenstrual syndrome and chronic pain; and
- improves psychological conditions such as anxiety, insomnia, phobias and eating disorders.
Interest in applying mindfulness within the workplace is rising rapidly. In February 2012, hundreds braved the snow to attend the UK’s first Mindfulness at Work conference in Cambridge and many delegates are expected at the Mindfulness4Scotland conference in Edinburgh on 10 March 2013, which will explore practical applications and benefits of mindfulness at work. The Mindfulness in the Workplace and Mindful Leadership LinkedIn group is growing fast – it has more than 2,000 members.
Mindfulness has roots in the Buddhist belief system, although there is a tradition of contemplation within most religions and belief systems, including Christianity.
However, what we are now seeing is a widespread secularisation of the approach, thanks to the work of people such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts medical school.
Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programme has been widely adapted and implemented worldwide, along with a variation referred to as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) that was developed at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre.
The National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence’s recommendation of MBCT as the go-to therapy for recurrent depression has also contributed to mindfulness extending beyond the spiritual arena.
Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in the present moment, non-judgmentally”.
Mindfulness is a way to train the mind, but also includes paying attention to the body and the world around us. It helps us recognise that we are not a slave to our thoughts and that we can choose how we respond, two strands highlighted by the Mental Health Foundation (MHF).
Interest in mindfulness is also growing because people are seeking ways to cope with the challenges, complexities and ambiguity of our times.
Many are not coping – mental health problems are on the rise, with stress topping the league of reasons for long-term sickness absence, according to research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (2011). People are turning to mindfulness as an antidote to all the doing, thinking and struggling, and discovering it offers much more besides.
Benefits include improvements to physical and mental health, with an increased ability to be resilient and manage stress. For employers, this translates into higher productivity and reduced sickness absence levels, among other things.
TfL, for example, has seen the number of days taken off because of stress, anxiety and depression fall by 71% since introducing employees to mindfulness (see case study). Other benefits include heightened emotional intelligence, improved decision-making and strategic-thinking abilities, a heightened ability to focus and enhanced creativity.
Some remain sceptical and believe that mindfulness is just the latest fad, while others are unaware of the benefits or fear being labelled as unprofessional.
As a business journalist and coach, I, too, feared the latter and remained a “closet meditator” for years. However, I soon discovered that many of my clients found mindfulness very helpful. I lay to rest any residual concerns about mixing mindfulness with business after researching my book Mindful Coaching.
My research included a literature review of more than 70 research papers and 80 books, as well as interviews with employers, academics, coaches, trainers, leaders, and mindfulness and neuroscience experts. I also carried out a survey of 156 coaches – the Mindfulness in coaching 2012 survey.
There is plenty of evidence, including from the mental health arena and the field of neuroscience, showing how mindfulness can help reduce stress.
Developing these skills help people become more engaged in their work, more energised and less anxious, and they suffer from fewer symptoms of stress, according to the MHF.
A study of HR managers by the University of Washington in 2012 says that mindfulness helps us experience less stress and increase focus when multitasking.
Helping keep people resiliant
Numerous studies also suggest that mindfulness makes a big difference to our resilience levels.
Daily mindfulness practice
Pick an activity that you do most days or every day, such as eating breakfast or travelling to work. Choose something you have to do anyway, but set the intention to be mindful when doing this activity.
Bringing your attention to the present moment – not dwelling in the past or planning for the future. Instead, being open to and curious about what emerges. Really explore what you find. Remember to be compassionate towards yourself and others.
Your mind will wander off – that’s fine, that’s what minds do. When that happens, gently bring your thoughts back to whatever it is you’re doing and congratulate yourself for noticing your mind has wandered.
You may find you come to relish this time, seeing it as pressing the pause button. You may find you notice more about whatever it is you’re engaged in. Or you may find you encounter “unpleasant” feelings such as boredom or sadness.
Whatever comes up, just notice it, explore it, turn towards it and gently let go, without judgment, but with curiosity and compassion.
Practising mindfulness helps us develop the “attentional control” that is important in resilience and high performance, according to research by David Marchant, a senior lecturer in sport and exercise psychology at Edge Hill University in Scotland.
According to Marchant, although attentional control is well understood and well researched in sports, it is only recently that it has been applied in the working world.
Another study by Kabat-Zinn found that people who had completed an eight-week MBSR programme scored highly on a number of resilient traits. Participants felt happier, more energised and less stressed. They felt their lives were more meaningful, that they had more control over their lives and were more likely to see challenges as opportunities rather than threats.
One of the reasons mindfulness helps people become more resilient, less stressed and more creative is because it brings us into “approach mode”.
When we believe we are under threat, we switch to “avoidance mode” – think running away from a sabre-toothed tiger. But we can often remain stuck there even though we are no longer under a real threat, such as when we have the sensation that an avalanche of emails is as dangerous as the sabre-toothed tiger.
Mindfulness helps people cope with change and uncertainty, avoid rigid or scattered thinking and become more comfortable with not knowing. It improves a person’s ability to respond rather than react and to think more clearly and strategically.
Moving into “approach state” improves confidence and the ability to trust our own decisions, as well as noticing more data.
And those who meditate are more able to make rational rather than emotionally charged decisions, according to research by Kirk et al.
Research by the Institute of Mindful Leadership found that for 93% of leaders surveyed, mindfulness training helped them create space for innovation. Some 89% said it enhanced their ability to listen to themselves and others, and nearly 70% said it helped them think strategically.
Mindfulness helps us make decisions more quickly as well as more rationally, through helping us to let go of our evaluations, according to research by Langer, who also underlines how mindfulness helps us be more creative.
Meditation promotes divergent creative-style thinking, studies such as the one by Colzato et al suggest. It also improves insight into problem solving, according to research by Ostafin and Kassman. Mindfulness helps us to be less self-critical and more curious, to notice new things and give up preconceived mindsets, thus adding fuel to the creativity tank.
It helps employees act more ethically and enhances their emotional intelligence – in particular, self-awareness, self-management and social awareness. It does this through elements including: “checking in” to our emotions, thoughts and bodily sensations on a regular basis; practising attentional control; improving the ability to step back and think and act more rationally; and by enhancing compassion.
One study by business school INSEAD showed that being exposed to mindfulness training and coaching encourages managers and leaders to behave in a more socially responsible way.
Mindfulness is at the heart of a number of popular leadership models, including Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee’s resonant leadership, James Scouller’s three levels of leadership, Otto Scharmer’s theory U and Lee and Roberts’ authentic leadership model.
Making it work
Mindfulness can be introduced into the workplace in a number of ways, including:
- offering it within leadership and management development either explicitly as mindfulness or as modules on emotional intelligence, self-management, resilience, wellbeing and strategic thinking;
- incorporating it into other learning and development programmes;
- putting it into corporate social responsibility initiatives;
- offering mindfulness-based stress management programmes; and
- using it to underpin coaching practice and weaving it into coaching interventions.
Of the coaches responding to the Mindfulness in coaching 2012 survey: 83% reported that they use mindfulness with their clients; 74% shared mindfulness practices with clients to carry out at home; 67% used it themselves in the session; and 64% invited clients to do mindfulness practices with coaching sessions.
Some 76% had no concerns about using mindfulness with clients. They use mindfulness to help clients: become more self-aware (70%); be calmer or less anxious (59%); manage stress (55%); be more centred (55%); manage reactions or responses (51%); gain clarity (47%); improve their wellbeing (45%); be more emotionally intelligent (39%); and see the bigger picture (36%), among other reasons.
Practising mindfulness helps coaches personally to: live more in the moment (74%); become more self-aware (73%); manage or prevent stress (67%); and be more available to their clients (65%).
Getting employees engaged
There is often resistance to mindfulness from individuals because it can be associated with “doing nothing”. As Langer says, we often see inaction as a lack of a certain action rather than reframing our inaction as a choice to go down another route – one of relaxing, refreshing, renewing, reflecting, or even actively “doing nothing”.
Top tips for a mindful workplace
- Sell the benefits and potential impact on the bottom line.
- Highlight the research backing up mindfulness.
- Know your audience and don’t feel obliged to call it mindfulness – for example, you may wish to talk about awareness or presence instead.
- Keep it secular.
- Be realistic about how much time people will be able to or want to set aside for practice.
- Encourage little-and-often practice.
- Set aside a room where employees can meditate or go to take time out undisturbed.
- Offer regular mindfulness training programmes (whatever you call them).
- Include mindfulness within management and leadership development programmes either explicitly or, for example, within a module on emotional intelligence or resilience.
Sometimes people fear becoming disengaged and not enjoying life to the full. But mindfulness is about living life joyfully and more completely. It helps us “just be” and develop a new way of being, but it also helps us “do” more productively.
Often, it is the label that is the problem. It can help to talk instead about stress management, self-awareness, managing emotions or emotional intelligence.
When Google first ran mindfulness training as an MBSR offer, it did not manage to attract many participants because stress was seen as a badge of honour.
However, when it re-branded its Search Inside Yourself programme as a way to develop emotional intelligence, the number of participants suddenly grew. Many of its engineers were already aware of their deficits in this area.
There will be different themes that appeal or have relevance depending on the group targeted. If people are going to be bothered to practice, the relevance must be flagged up – and practice is where it is at.
Liz Hall is editor of Coaching at Work, a trained coach, a mindfulness trainer and workshop facilitator and author of Mindful Coaching.
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