People mostly understand the benefits of mindfulness for personal well-being such as managing mental health, overcoming depression, and dealing with chronic pain. But they often can’t imagine the relevance of mindfulness in the workplace, no one has time to sit and meditate at work, right?
However, increasing numbers of organisations that are now proving that there is a strong business case for mindfulness at work, not just for employee wellbeing, but for improvements in organisational culture and business performance too.
So, what is mindfulness?
I like this definition from John Kabat Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programme.
“Mindfulness is the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally”.
Mindfulness is about paying attention to the moment we’re living while we’re living it, and bringing all of our mental energy and focus into that moment.
As simple as this sounds, research has shown that 47% (1) of the time our minds are not focused on what we’re currently doing, instead they’re ruminating on the past or worrying about the future. Add to that the proliferation of distractions and interruptions that fight for our attention; and the fast paced, changing and complex working environments we work in – that often lend themselves to vain attempts to multi-task; it’s a wonder we’re able to focus and get anything done effectively at work at all!
But what are the benefits of mindfulness in the workplace?
These days people are experiencing so many changes and challenges in the workplace and beyond that they are more stressed than ever. in 2020 the cost of poor mental health to UK businesses was £45 billion, research indicated that 50% of working days were lost through stress and one in six workers experienced mental health problems (2).
Many global organisations, such as Google, SAP, Aetna and Nike, have now embedded mindfulness into their organisational culture, leadership programmes and well-being offerings with impressive results such as 28% reduction in stress levels (3), 18% increase in resilience (4) , 12% increase in focus (5) and a 200% return on investment from mindfulness programmes.(6)
Research from organisations and neuroscientists alike demonstrate that mindfulness in the workplace can have far and wide-reaching benefits including managing levels of stress and burnout, building resilience to change, improving team dynamics and leadership skills, increasing employee engagement and unleashing creativity.
How how can leaders implement mindfulness techniques into the workplace?
Mindfulness isn’t hard to do, and it doesn’t have to take long to do either. It’s an innate human capacity that we all have the ability to do, but it is a practice and as such requires some commitment to using the techniques and bringing a more mindful approach into your life. There are a couple of ways of getting started with bringing mindfulness into an organisation:
Offering mindfulness meditations
Some organisations fully embrace formal mindfulness meditation practices which range from body scans, awareness of breath and focused attention meditations, to cultivating compassion practices and mindful movement sessions.
To be effective, mindfulness meditation requires a level of investment and commitment to strengthen the mindfulness muscle and attention over time. Just like if you want to improve your physical fitness, you’re likely to need to go to the gym more than once to have an impact!
But the research here is compelling. Neuroscientists have proven that when we practise formal mindfulness meditations regularly and consistently over time, we can actually change the neural pathways and networks in our brains leading to improvements in our ability to:
- remain resilient calm in times of crisis
- focus our attention and resist distractions
- connect with and empathise with others
- become aware of our own sense of self in the world (7).
There’s more good news for anyone wanting to try meditation, research has also shown that just 12 minutes a day can make a huge impact on your levels of focus (8) (Peak Mind, Dr. Amishi P. Jha, PHD).
Organisational solutions here may include:
- Running regular mindfulness sessions throughout the working week that staff can drop into when they need to
- Offering mindfulness apps, toolkits and guided meditations on the internal intranet so people can access them in their own time
- Launching mindfulness challenges at certain times of year, for example, during Stress Awareness Month
- Setting up a designated meditation room on site for employees to use when they need to pause and reset.
But there’s a word of warning here too. Mindfulness meditation, especially at work, may not be for everyone. Some employees may feel safe and comfortable practising with colleagues in this way, others may find it uncomfortable or inaccessible, and some may actually find it difficult and even triggering – especially anyone who has been dealing with trauma.
Some people may wish to openly talk and share their experience, others may not want to. Some may find meditating a hugely positive experience right from the start, others may have neutral reactions or confusing, frustrating or challenging experiences.
It’s important to offer people a choice over their participation and options for how to get involved. Ideally, a qualified mindfulness practitioner should be involved to recommend a programme of inclusive, trauma sensitive practices and options, and to provide the necessary support, encouragement and guidance to teams as they experience this new way of being and learn more about the way their bodies and minds react.
Integrating mindfulness micro-practices in daily working life
But how do you fit mindfulness into busy workloads of today, when even 12 minutes can seem unrealistic, or then formal meditation seems like a step too far for you and your organisation?
This is where mindfulness micro-practices come into their own. Short tools and practices that can take from as little as one to five minutes to complete that individuals and teams can integrate into their working day to make a huge difference to their performance and their wellbeing.
These can often be incorporated into your everyday working practices and your organisational culture, so you can all start to feel the benefits of mindfulness at work without finding extra time to meditate.
Here’s a few micro-practices you might like to try with your teams:
- A moment to arrive – At the start of every meeting or group activity, set a timer and invite everyone to simply sit quietly in silence together for a minute or two. People can close their eyes if they like or keep them open, and just focus on the physical sensations of breathing, feeling the breath moving in and out of the body. This gives everyone the chance to physically and metaphorically arrive in the meeting, allows them to catch their breath, stop thinking about the last thing they were doing, and gives their bodies and minds chance to settle and get ready to focus on the meeting ahead.
- Mindful check ins – encourage team members to identify a task they do routinely several times during the working day (for example, logging into the computer, making a hot drink or walking down a corridor) and use it as a reminder to take a mindful check in. So, every time they do the task, they can simply either take a few deep slow breaths, or focus on the physical sensations of their feet on the ground beneath them. Connecting to our breath and our body brings us back into the present moment quickly and easily and can distract us from the overthinking brain.
- Mindful listening – the next time you’re having a conversation with someone engage in mindful listening. Stop everything else you’re doing, focus just on what they’re communicating, paying close attention not only to the words they’re speaking, but also to the tone, values and body language they are expressing too. Notice if you start thinking about your reaction to what you’re hearing or planning what you’re going to say in response. Instead focus on listening from empty in order to fully understand your colleague, rather than listening to respond.
- Taking time out in nature – Encourage your teams to find opportunities to go outside and connect with nature. This can be as simple as taking a walk outside during the lunch break. They can enhance the experience by focusing on the physical sensations of their feet hitting the ground as they take each step, and deepen their awareness by connecting to their surroundings through the 5 senses – what can they see, hear, smell, feel and taste around them? If they’re feeling particularly overwhelmed, invite them to look up at the sky – this helps to bring a wider sense of perspective and optimism to an overwhelmed mind. You could also try having 1-2-1 meetings whilst walking too – this can improve relationships, reduce confrontation and stimulate creativity.
- Giving gratitude – find opportunities to share gratitude at work as often as possible. For example, at the end of the working day, share something specific that you appreciated about your colleagues that day. Everyone likes to feel valued and appreciated at work. You can also reflect on two or three things you’re thankful for each day too, for example, a conversation that went well, something you learnt or achieved or a moment of joy you shared with a customer or colleague.
- Mindful breathing and step by step practices – there are also a wide range of breathing practices such as Box Breathing, and step by step mindfulness exercises such as STOP, that can help right in the moment when you’ve been triggered by a situation or event that you’ve found stressful or challenging. They help you to switch out of, and recover from, the stress response (fight, flight or freeze), and allow you time to pause and check in with yourself, before responding resourcefully rather than reacting emotionally to situations.
Mindfulness, in its many forms, has much to offer the busy, stressful and ever-changing fast paced workplaces of today.
Done right, it can have a significant impact on organisational culture, people results and performance; as well as improving the personal resilience, performance and wellbeing of team members.
There’s a wide variety of choice in how you bring mindfulness into your organisation. Working with a trusted mindfulness facilitator can help you choose the right options for you, that provide a fit for your values, priorities and strategy; and that best address the needs of your own teams.
(1) Killingsworth & Gilbert, A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind Science, 2010
(2) “Mental health and employers: refreshing the case for investment” – Deloitte and Mind, January 2020)
(7) (Altered Traits by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson, Love 2.0 by Barbara Fredrickson, and Calm Clarity by Due Quach)
(8) (Peak Mind, Dr. Amishi P. Jha, PHD