Mindfulness in the workforce
No longer are workplaces the sole domain of the stressed. Organisations are now more keen to explore the benefits that practising mindfulness brings, both to individuals and groups. Numerous studies have shown that active implementation carries an array of physiological benefits in a workforce, showing empirical evidence for improvement in a range of interpersonal attributes.
Empathy scores go up. Compassion scores go up. Stress levels decrease. It’s simple, mindfulness works. However, it’s not always clear how to encourage it. It goes beyond deep breaths. It’s more than just whale noises in the atrium. To really implement mindfulness, to gain the most from a workforce, it’s first important to truly understand it.
Becoming mindful of mindfulness
At its core, mindfulness is a state of self-awareness. The ability to understand your internal and external environment. A non-judgmental acceptance of the moment. Simply put, it is a way of giving control to a life on autopilot.
As you’re reading this you’ll be focusᴉng on the written word. What you might not be focused on is everything else. But the background noise returns as soon as you become aware of it. By merely saying it, breathing becomes a manual operation, a state of awareness until a person forgets and automatic breath returns. It’s likely you did not notice the inverted ‘i’ in the first line of this paragraph, an example of how oversights come into play even when a task is at hand. When applied to a population, mindfulness not only helps individuals understand themselves. It helps them understand each other.
How to practise mindfulness
Mindfulness is similar to any skill. Every person can become better at it through daily practice. Over time it will become easier to create, filtering upwards to form a working culture. It is often used synonymously with meditation – but on the face of it, this is a little misleading. Namely because mindfulness is one of many tools lying under a much larger umbrella. The ultimate goal to achieve a higher level of consciousness. In this regard, it’s helpful to think of mindfulness as a means of reaching meditation more quickly.
The first step is to create time and space. There is no need for special equipment. Just an area with minimal distraction. The real aim is to focus and let the mind wander, observing where it goes – be it a conversation, a person. An idea. Training your mind to return to the present centers you in the present too. The trick is to become acutely aware of your environment, your thoughts, your emotions, without judgement, without labelling. Doing so gives you control, and frees you from reacting to circumstances whilst engaged in that autopilot mode.
Some companies have already implemented mindfulness in the workplace. When we say ‘some’ we’re referring to serious organisations. We’re talking about the likes of Google, Apple, Proctor and Gamble and Deutsche Bank. Google has even gone as far as to have hired a head of mindfulness, known officially as the “jolly good fellow”. But what do these organisations do differently to others?
Most run mindfulness training programs, normally delivered as a one to two month course. They also encourage employees to take regular breaks, simultaneously engaging in a variety of mindfulness practices. Recognising that every person is different is important: engagement is likely to be higher if there are a range of methods available. Yoga, internal meditation, and guided Tai Chi are all effective options.
Ultimately mindfulness is an individual pursuit. Uptake is a personal choice. By encouraging, not enforcing, it’s possible to maximise employee engagement to a level where new workers will be incentivised to join. Likewise, it’s important to ensure that training fits in with the organisational culture, as there is little benefit in delivering courses if a fixed-mindset is prevalent. Focussing on the tangible benefits is also vital. After all, employees are unlikely to practise mindfulness if they cannot grasp how it is of use to them.
In 2014, the jolly good fellow himself, Chade-Meng Tan, likened mindfulness to physical fitness. In an interview conducted by the Guardian he stated “If you are a company leader who says employees should be encouraged to exercise, nobody looks at you funny,”. He went on to further outline a vision whereby mindfulness was viewed the same way by all employers. “Now that it’s become scientific, it has been demystified. It’s going to be seen as fitness for the mind.”
It appears that Tan has largely been proven right in the subsequent years. More and more studies have acted to underpin the science. Meta-analyses showing significant, consistent, differences in the amount of grey matter between mindfulness practitioners and control groups are now unanimously accepted by the scientific community. Areas of the brain linked to memory consolidation and emotional self-regulation are those that show the biggest differences, with improvements in emotional intelligence bearing out the physical evidence.
Individual benefits are a reward in themselves, fostering a happier, more considerate workplace where workers are incentivised to stay and the best talent more likely to come on-board. However the real reason the biggest players are so keen on it are simple. The bottom line. When General Mills looked into the efficacy of such practice they found, to their delight, that 83 percent of participants claimed they were “taking time each day to optimise [their] personal productivity” – up from 23 percent beforehand. With increased productivity comes tangible business growth, a key driver in perpetuating the cyclical rise of mindfulness.
Finally, Tan’s vision seems to be gathering pace. Businesses, more than ever, are coming around to the many advantages of mindfulness. Gone are the days of bottled emotion. Gone are the days when employers only provided a desk, a paycheck, and a conciliatory get well soon card when the stress got too much. Smart businesses are learning from market leaders, moving forwards with a clear plan and, thanks to people like Tan, a clear mind.
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