In our hectic, hybrid, multi-tasking and 24/7 world, who has time for mindfulness? Who can afford to stay ‘in the moment’ when there are 101 things waiting to be done in the next 5 minutes?
However, practitioners and businesses are spreading the word that taking time to focus on the here and now can jumpstart both your wellbeing and your performance at work.
So what is mindfulness?
Essentially, mindfulness is the use of a variety of techniques which teach us to notice what’s happening in the present moment, without passing judgement. It’s about absorbing what your senses are telling you (that the breeze is cool, the ground is uneven) and allowing yourself to be curious about those things. Exponents laud it as helping balance day-to-day wellbeing and there’s good evidence to show that it can help reduce pain in certain conditions, relieve anxiety and even alleviate loneliness.
Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism and meditation, and it’s credited with helping those who practise it become more self-aware, feel calmer and less stressed, as well as enabling them to cope with difficult or unhelpful thoughts.
What’s more, from a workplace point of view, studies have shown that mindfulness can be hugely helpful to people who are working from home, helping them disconnect from work when they need to and improving their ability to focus on the task in hand while they are working. It can even help them manage that perennial problem, screen fatigue. And employers who themselves possess a ‘mindful disposition’ have been shown to have better interpersonal skills and relationships with their workers: so a boss with a mindfulness mindset could literally be helping their own workers’ wellbeing.
How to get started
There’s no right or wrong way to practise mindfulness — and the key here is ‘practise’. Cynics might brush off the benefits of mindfulness, by focusing on the amount of time it takes to get in the zone. But there are many ways to become more mindful, and the more you experiment the better. It’s a good idea to set aside regular, short periods of time to practise in a comfortable environment and building up slowly. If you’re especially tight on time you could even just experiment with doing your daily tasks in a more mindful way.
Mindful practices don’t need to be time consuming and can be built into essential parts of your day, such as when you are preparing a hot drink. For example, ‘waking up and smelling the coffee’ can be a great way to get the benefits of mindfulness. Put your phone away when you switch on the kettle, just stand and listen as it boils, watch the steam rise. Then, when you’ve made your drink, enjoy it with a clear head. Sit down comfortably, stand by the window or go out into the garden if you’re at home. But while you’re drinking it, focus on the sensation of it in your mouth, the taste, the smell of it. Practising mindfulness can be as easy as that.
Of course, this is an excellent way for you to build mindfulness into your working day, without feeling you’re putting off one of those all-important tasks in your in-tray. But introducing mindfulness into the workplace isn’t necessarily easy from an employer perspective. Whilst there’s a wealth of evidence that mindfulness is to beneficial many people, there’s also support for the fact that, for some, it can actually cause negative outcomes.
For this reason, Mind cautions that, if you are very unwell, learning a new skill might prove overwhelming, or the exercises themselves might put you in touch with some feelings you are not ready to confront.
Bringing mindfulness to work
Used properly, mindfulness can be a valuable part of a company’s health and wellbeing toolkit — but you do need to be aware that some people find it tricky to get to grips with. Also, mindfulness is typically an individual practice, and you have to find the right format to suit you. So going straight in with a 9am group session for the entire workforce is probably not going to be beneficial for everyone!
Signposting employees to resources that will introduce them to mindfulness and help them start their personal journey is a good start. As a first step, the NHS, or charities like the Mental Health Foundation and Mind, all have excellent information on how to get started and what to expect.
There are also some great mindfulness apps, and I’d encourage anyone to just download one and have a go. Keep experimenting. You might find you don’t like the voice that’s used on a particular app, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get on with another. You might find breathwork, where you concentrate on your in and out breaths, or learning to ‘belly breathe’ difficult — but a body scan (in which you concentrate on the sensations in individual parts of your body) might be more your cup of tea.
Employers who want to encourage mindfulness should really be examining how their company operates. Your overall health and wellbeing strategy should give employees a reasonable work/life balance to provide them with the time and headspace to engage in mindfulness. Encourage employees to take adequate breaks and maybe consider setting aside a quiet room, specifically for calm contemplation.
In addition, some employee benefits, such as insurance policies or employee assistance programmes, may provide access to wellbeing resources which can do more to help employees practise mindfulness.
As part of our Group Income Protection policies, customers can sign up their employees for one of our Wellbeing Checks, a 1-2-1 session with one of our coaches to look at all the aspects of their wellbeing. The employee gets a report containing recommendations to help get them connected with the right tools — mindfulness is one of the things we recommend a lot, to help people cope if they’re struggling at work.
But what if you’re not feeling the buzz?
Unum’s research with Censuswide in October 2022 found that financial worries about the cost-of-living crisis were impacting both physical and mental health; with 40% of employees saying they have low energy, 32% unable to sleep and 25% so worried about their finances they’re feeling depressed.1 If mindfulness techniques aren’t helping employees deal with some of the stresses, are there any other techniques that they could be using to relieve the pressure?
It might sound odd, but it can be very helpful to set aside ‘worry time’, when you give yourself permission to chew over the things that are bothering you.I’d also advocate keeping a notebook by your bed, so you can keep track of what’s on your plate, and ideas for how to deal with them. And don’t be afraid to challenge your thoughts — are you dealing with your own assumption, or are you dealing with facts? It’s one thing to worry that your boss thinks you’re not up to the job, it’s quite another scenario to know that’s actually the case. If it is true, then you can begin to put a plan in place to deal with it. And if you can establish that it’s just your opinion, you can (hopefully) stop worrying about it.
Promoting mindfulness and supporting employee wellbeing
According to the Mental Health Foundation and the London School of Economics2, poor mental health costs the UK economy £117.9 billion annually. The organisations advocate for greater spending and intervention to support people living with mental health conditions, citing the workplace as an “important setting where actions can be taken to promote and protect mental health”.
So, could introducing employees to mindfulness provide this support? With evidence that it can increase focus and concentration, improve memory, boost creativity and enhance workplace satisfaction, the answer would seem to be ‘yes’. Done right, advocates of mindfulness believe that many of its benefits can improve workplace morale, as well as contribute to reduced presenteeism and absenteeism. So it’s worth companies considering putting mindfulness on their agenda — and helping their employees get to grips with getting in touch with the here and now.
- Research conducted by Censuswide 30th September 2022 – 4th October 2022 amongst a nationally representative sample of 3,005 employed people
- The economic case for investing in the prevention of mental health conditions in the UK
As Chief Operating Officer (COO), Liz is responsible for Unum's service operations for brokers and customers. She drives the strategic development of Unum's broker servicing, claims and rehabilitation propositions to deliver the highest levels of service excellence to every customer. Liz considers ensuring her team feels valued, respected and equipped to deliver excellent customer service vital to her role. Liz has been with Unum for 25 years, moving from the US Sales Organisation team to the UK in 2012. Before becoming COO, she ran the Key Accounts Sales Team and was the UK HR Director.