Mindfulness in the Workplace: Be. Here. Now.
Once regarded as New Age or even slightly flaky, mindfulness is now taught in schools, used to treat pain and depression, and increasingly considered an important factor in good business practice.
According to Wendy Quan, founder of The Calm Monkey, its most common definition comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn, the North American father of secular mindfulness: “Paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, to the way things are.”
“The definition doesn’t differ when applied to a work situation, but I would say that the implementation and application of mindfulness at work needs to be done in a particular way,” Quan says. She trains and certifies mindfulness facilitators for the workplace, combining change management with mindfulness to help people and organizations through change.
Growing Leaders Consciousness
Natalie Michael, CPHR, CEO and executive coach at Waterfront Partners in Vancouver, agrees. “I define mindfulness as conscious self-awareness, and there’s a whole spectrum of activities that fit into that, but essentially it’s being aware of your thoughts, feelings and emotions in the present moment. It’s the same concept in all contexts, but the tactics you use in the workplace might be different.”
“My lens is executive development; I coach and work with CEOs to develop their executive leaders,” Michael says. “One of the key pathways to becoming an executive is learning to tolerate and be present and composed when you’re in the hot seat.”
“I believe the tactics associated with mindfulness are key to helping people under pressure to stay composed and in the moment, and to be resilient. It’s very hard to be an executive some days. Being able to let that go when you walk out the door and walk into your home and family is important, but it’s not easy,” adds Michael.
Having Awareness of Your Autopilot
“Mindfulness is being present in the moment; it means focusing your attention so you’re aware of what’s going on
around you, and also what’s going on for you internally — how you’re feeling emotionally and physically, without judgement,” explains Marni Johnson, CPHR, senior vice president of HR and corporate affairs at BlueShore Financial. “For example, being aware that you are feeling frustrated, without criticizing yourself for feeling that way or telling yourself that you ‘shouldn’t’ feel that way.”
“It also means being intentional in your actions — it’s the opposite of behaving on autopilot, where we are going through the motions of something but not giving it our full attention,” Johnson adds. “We can probably all identify with being on autopilot at some point. For example, we arrive at work, but don’t have a recollection of our commute because our minds were somewhere else. Or, we eat lunch at our desks without actually paying attention to what we’re eating.”
Johnson points to a Harvard University study that found people’s minds are wandering about 47 per cent of the time. “We’re either thinking about the past or the future, not the current moment. That means we’re missing out on a lot of what’s going on around us.
“We can’t and shouldn’t ignore the past — we can learn from it — just as we need to think about the future, so we can plan for it. The trick is to apply those thoughts of the past and future to what you’re doing in the present,” says Johnson. “For example, tell yourself ‘I tried that, and it didn’t work,’ rather than dwelling on a mistake that happened in the past, that you can’t change. Instead, plan for what you will do differently next time.”
Casting a Spotlight on Employee Burnout & Stress
In May 2019, the World Health Organization added ‘burnout’ as an occupational phenomenon, though not classified as a medical condition, Quan points out. “In my own words, burnout results from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
Quan identifies three dimensions to burnout:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- reduced professional efficacy.
“Most executives realize that engaged and productive employees are important to a successful business. There’s been so much research on the benefits of mindfulness that it’s hard to ignore,” Quan adds.
“The benefits are clear — to help their employees’ well-being and resiliency — and yes, some would say to keep employees productive so they don’t go off on stress leave. But there is also increased creativity, clarity of thought, better decisions, improved interpersonal interactions and more. It helps with stress reduction or management and encourages mindful leadership.”
“Life has become more stressful in some ways. It feels like we’re constantly bombarded; our technology is designed to foster that addiction to it, with pinging notifications and all the rest,” says Michael. “And the degree of change, both personally and professionally, is mind-boggling for a lot of people. It’s easy to have a lot of anxiety and be worried about our futures. Caring for aging parents, having kids at school, whatever is on our minds: mindfulness helps us root ourselves in the current moment and stop worrying. It extends to all human beings, not just executives.”
“Mindfulness has become more prevalent in the workforce as a way to combat stress,” adds Johnson. “It has an impact on employee engagement and productivity at work, but also on overall well-being, which is important since we don’t leave our ‘personal’ selves at the door when we come to work.”
Pace, Pressure and Uncertainty Leading to Stress
“We’re all aware that the pace of change just keeps increasing at work and in our personal lives. Expectations around response times are increasing. Many of us feel pressure to be ‘always on’ because of the advances in digital technology that allow us to be continuously available at work or at home,” Johnson says. “If we are constantly multi-tasking, our brains are flitting from one to-do to the next and our focus and therefore our productivity suffers. The average Canadian checks their smartphone every 10 minutes — up to 100 times per day. How can we stay focused when there are so many interesting things demanding our attention?”
People are also uncertain about the impact of technology on their jobs, she adds.
“And there’s a requirement to be agile, to be able to switch gears quickly and apply different skills or use different parts of your brain. The world of work requires continuous learning: even if you’re at the top of your game, you won’t stay there if you don’t continue to learn and improve your capabilities. For many people this is exciting, but for others it can be very stressful because learning requires you to step out of your comfort zone,” Johnson explains.
Solutions, Not That Difficult to Implement
For today’s leaders that has become a necessary step.
“Emotionally intelligent leaders, executives and HR professionals know that they should do something about mindfulness,” Quan says. “Some just want to ‘check the box’ that they’ve done something, say, by doing a ‘lunch and
learn’ or a short-term event, but others understand the value of cultivating the practice and making it part of their culture.”
HR and wellness groups usually are the ones who either initiate or approve a mindfulness program, Quan adds, but they’re busy and might not understand the value of mindfulness, so they don’t consider it a priority.
“They don’t know that mindfulness isn’t that difficult to implement — it doesn’t need to cost much or take a lot of resources. Often the best way is to train staff volunteers to run this on breaks; it doesn’t need to be a situation where they hire a mindfulness company and have a full-on, phased rollout approach,” Quan says. “I take employees who want to do this on a volunteer basis during staff breaks, and I train and certify them as mindfulness facilitators, working in a respectful, skillful way. We know the benefits; we can only keep them by having staff continue to practice mindfulness.”
The Benefits of an Open Mind
“We know that one of the key skills for the workforce of the future is emotional intelligence,” Johnson adds. “As our work involves more and more automation, deep human relationships and interactions will be more important than ever. Emotional intelligence involves recognizing and managing your own emotions, understanding others’ emotions and exhibiting empathy, and dealing well with conflict.”
“If you’re being mindful, you’re paying more attention to what the other person is saying and feeling, and you’re more likely to pick up on cues you would otherwise miss,” says Johnson.
Increased creativity and productivity as a result of mindfulness are evident in employee opinion survey results as well as the bottom line.
“Being creative means looking at things differently — with an open mind,” Johnson says. “You can’t be creative if you’re functioning on autopilot (doing the same things you always do, or following established patterns of thinking), or if you’re under a lot of stress or focusing on things you cannot change or control.
“Mindfulness also helps you learn how to manage distractions and maintain focus so you can be more productive. When you allow your mind to take a break, you improve your problem-solving and critical thinking,” Johnson adds.
“Focusing on the present often reduces anxiety. Good planning doesn’t come from fear or self-loathing,” Michael explains. “In my view, mindfulness is partially about realizing that the stories we’re making up in our heads are just thoughts. It helps us tap into our broader awareness, to see that our thoughts are a story or a tape we keep replaying, and it’s usually quite anxiety-provoking. It’s not a or realistic helpful one.
“When we’re interacting with people in stressful situations, we need to reset so we’re not carrying each interaction from the past into the present and into the future” Michael adds. “When we’re mindful, we’re able to reset, take a deep breath, root ourselves in the present and move forward. That’s really important at work because there’s a lot there that’s outside our control.”
Secular, Sensitive and Optional
“Anyone responsible for implementing or facilitating mindfulness practices should be sufficiently trained to do so, whether in a workplace setting or not,” Quan says.
She adds that in order for mindfulness practice to be open and accessible to all, careful consideration must be given to the following:
- Keep it secular: While there’s value in mentioning that some mindfulness practices have roots in Buddhism, practice in the workplace must be secular, meaning without any religion or spirituality;
- Be sensitive to trauma:If someone has experienced past trauma, it’s possible that when practicing mindfulness and meditation, strong feelings may arise. Facilitators must be prepared to deal with them; and
- Let it be optional: Mindfulness practice should always be offered as an option, so people can choose to participate or not.
Introducing mindfulness practice can be as basic as starting meeting with five deep breaths, Michael says. “That alone can change the atmosphere in a room.”
“What I’ve found is that when companies introduce mindfulness practice, it’s one of the most popular things among employees. It often requires a champion or an advocate, someone who talks about it through lens of leadership rather than spirituality, says Michael. “Being able to tie it to business is a more appropriate frame for a mindfulness initiative.”
Many workplaces are encouraging mindfulness throughout their organizations. “It can be something as simple as an employee who’s into this doing a lunch and learn or executive teams doing a meditation challenge,” says Michael. “For example, do a challenge where everyone has to do a 10-minute meditation daily with the Headspace app for a month before an important meeting.”
An App-etite for Mindfulness
At a time when there seems to be an app for everything, it is perhaps unsurprising that there are a variety of mindfulness apps available too: Aura, Buddhify, Calm, Mindfulness Daily, Omvana, Simply Being, and Stop, Breathe and Think are others.
“I find my biggest distraction is my phone,” Michael admits. “Now I grab my phone in the morning and instead of checking email and social media, I set my meditation timer first thing. It reminds me that it’s a choice I make.”
“Many of the large companies like Google are offering mindfulness programs or training to their employees,” Johnson notes. “That’s terrific, but you don’t need a corporate program to get started on developing a mindfulness habit.”
Start Where People Are
As for how HR professionals can help convince those yet skeptical?
“Emphasize that mindfulness practice is not a one-size-fits-all,” Michael says. “Some people associate it with meditating on a mountain, but for people with very hyperactive minds, going for a run or taking five deep breaths will appeal to them. It’s about finding what works for an individual to reset, gain perspective and be present.”
“Meet people where they are,” Quan agrees. “Everyone is unique. Find out why they got interested in it and what they hope to get out of it.”
For HR professionals, introducing mindfulness begins with presenting options, Michael says. “Mindfulness is a never-ending practice; you never arrive,” she adds. “Each individual is on an ongoing journey to bring self-awareness and intention so they can bring their more conscious self to their work and their life. This is one option that’s a very powerful one for leadership development, communication, stress management, fun. It’s one of the options HR can present for curriculum and programs.”
“From an individual perspective, like any new behaviour, it takes practise,” adds Johnson. “At first you can be tempted to say, ‘I tried it and it didn’t work for me,’ but the more you practise it the better you get at it.”
As with any kind of cultural transformation, leadership modelling is also vital. Johnson says. “One way to do this is to end meetings five minutes early and use that time to focus back on the present.”
Wisdoms of Life at Work
“Being mindful allows you to slow down and focus. It’s a way to relax and recharge so you can refocus your energy and attention more effectively. Being more aware of what’s going on around you also leads to a richer life experience, whether that’s fully engaging in a conversation with colleagues, enjoying the cookie you’re having on your break, or noticing the fall colours on the trees,” Johnson says.
All three women practise mindfulness in all parts of their lives, not just at work.
“It’s simply a part of me — who I am and how I live my life, my state of being,” Quan says. “I had started to practice it years ago but didn’t have a lot of training or experience with it. A 2010 cancer diagnosis changed how I decided to live my life — now I live it with awareness, intention and a healthy outlook. I deal with stress and life’s ups and downs so much better now.”
“I meditate,” Michael says. “The more stressed I am, the more I meditate. It’s a way to calm myself. Sometimes it’s also simply going for a walk. If I find I’m ruminating in my mind, I’ll do something to get me outside my head and into my body.”
“My extracurricular activities require intense focus and living in the moment,” Johnson explains. “As a flautist performing in an orchestra, if I let my mind wander, I will play wrong notes or miss a cue. That’s required me to develop the discipline to stay in the present moment. It’s like a mini-vacation because my mind is only on my music and not on work.”
A Healthy Step Forward
“I find it helpful to go for short walks at least a couple of times a day — even if only for five minutes. I don’t listen to music or podcasts; I just pay attention to what’s going on around me. I set myself reminders. It really helps to take a few minutes to step away from a task and reframe,” says Johnson.
And that translates directly to the world at work, as Johnson notes: “Encouraging mindfulness can have big payoffs for both employee wellbeing and organizational health and outcomes.”
Nancy Painter is an award-winning communication consultant and writer based in Surrey. She is an active member in both the International Association of Business Communicators and the Professional Writers Association of Canada.
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