As we reach the end of the first quarter of 2017, companies are taking stock and reviewing quarterly results. They review their goals and each employee is encouraged to give a final concerted effort to get projects and deals across the line before quarter-end. This can be a pressurized time of year both inside and outside the workplace. The overwhelming sense of urgency, need and responsibility, can cause undue stress. This can have a ripple effect across large and small organizations alike manifesting itself in unproductive and unhealthy work environments.
The outcome of such stressful environments has motivated some considerate employers to reach out and provide support systems to their employees. The aim of such support systems is to enable high productivity whilst maintaining employee engagement and satisfaction. According to a 2016 report, compiled by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) (1), over two-thirds of employees believe that wellness programs provided by their employers were either an important or very important contributor to job satisfaction.
One of the major wellness tools introduced into the workplace over recent years is mindfulness. Whilst the term may seem new, the technique of mindfulness is steeped in ancient traditions. Entire courses are dedicated to the teaching of mindfulness, but fundamentally, it is the practice of being purposefully aware and present in the moment without associating judgment. Being 'purposefully aware' of the current moment means noticing what one is doing, thinking, feeling or experiencing. It could be noticing the emotions felts when hearing the sounds of people tap on their keyboards; the reaction felt when smelling coffee being brewed; or the response felt when a new message appears in the inbox. It is everything that is happening right now. When the mind begins to drift to thoughts of yesterday or what needs to be done tomorrow, practicing mindfulness actively brings the back to the current moment. Mindfulness also teaches people to take step back from complex situations and enables them to address them in manageable pieces.
Noting its positive impact, a rising number of organizations have invested in mindfulness, as part of their wellness programs. As far back as the 1970s, Johnson and Johnson were enabling employees to practice meditation during their working hours, as part of their wellness programs. Currently, the trend of introducing mindfulness into the workplace is continuing to increase with companies such as Google, KPMG and Unilever offering mindfulness programs to their employees. Since 2007, Google has offered a Leadership Program in Emotional Intelligence training, based in mindfulness. It leads to enhanced self-awareness, greater resilience, more positive mindsets and balanced leadership approaches. The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania has created a “Nursing Renewal Center,” that provides quiet meditation and reading rooms, massage chairs, a refreshment station, yoga classes, and Reiki to all its employees. Mindfulness workshops are one of the many tools Unilever has implemented as part of their strategy to raise awareness around mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.
Research suggests that practicing mindfulness regularly generates a significant, positive impact on emotional wellbeing. Combined results of 39 different published studies show mindfulness-based therapy has a positive impact on both anxiety and mood symptoms (2). A study conducted by Stanford University demonstrated that an 8-week mindfulness course administered to 17 individuals, new to meditation, significantly reduced anxiety. It also leads to real physical changes in the parts of the brain involved in the regulation of emotion learning and memory, self-reflection, and perspective-taking (3). In a randomized controlled trial, 12 primary schools in Australia conducted teacher training in mindfulness principles, followed by implementation of a mindfulness program three days per week. This resulted in significant improvements in well-being, sleep quality, concentration, ability to manage emotions and school behavior among both student and teacher participants (4).
This research is also supported by in the workplace. According to the SHRM 2016 Job Satisfaction and Employee Engagement report, a staggering 99% of employers reported a concern for controlling healthcare costs. It would seem that the risk of high healthcare expenses to organizations are motivating them to seek out low cost preventative measures. Almost 50% of these organizations are exploring the option of creating a culture that promotes health and wellness, giving employees resources needed to live healthier, mental, emotional and physical lifestyles.
So, how can mindfulness practice be introduced into the workday? Find a place to be fully present in the moment; notice your breathing, feel the sensations as this is done; hear the sounds; notice the smells; let go of any thoughts that may arise that are not connected with the here and now. Then, when the mind begins to drift, as it often does; gently, without judgment, bring the mind back to the present moment.
Here is a list of 4 opportunities to incorporate mindfulness into working life:
Before arriving at the desk – When commuting to and from work, take this time to be purposefully present. Resist the urge to start the working day enroute to the office by checking emails or creating to-do lists. Find a quiet place and take 5 minutes to focus on your breathing. Close your eyes and relax. Simply breathe, inhale, exhale and repeat. Any time your mind gets distracted, simply release the distraction by returning the focus to the breathing.
Throughout the work day - Instead of running between meetings, or jumping from one task to another, take a few minutes between events to focus your mind and notice your breathing. Let go of the past, resist the urge to think about the future and pay attention to the here and now. Allow yourself to reset and be fully focused on the task at hand.
Getting off track – Be aware of veering off track; either during meetings or when carrying out work. Focus on bringing your attention back to the matter at hand.
Ending the working day - Then when it’s time to go home, leave the office behind and focus on the pleasure having finished a day’s work.
It is increasingly clear that introducing mindfulness into the workplace is a win/win situation. It makes good business sense for organizations from a cost, employee engagement and satisfaction perspective. For the employee, mindfulness allows us to acquire tools and techniques to empower our own happiness and overall well-being.
Whilst some organizations have embraced this movement, others are yet to begin their journey. Try implementing the tips above and see how they work. People interested in experiencing mindfulness techniques, consider organizations such as the Free Library of Philadelphia. They offer meditation sessions, free to the public.
Stefan G Hofmann, Alice T Sawyer, Ashley a Witt, Diana Oh (2010) The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review., Journal of consulting and clinical psychology 78(2), p. 169-183,pubmed central, doi:10.1037/a0018555
Hölzel, B., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S., Gard, T. & Lazar, S. (2011) Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Neuroimaging. 191. 3643.