Can ‘mindfulness’ help us to perform better at work?

Mindfulness…everyone seems to be talking about it, and it’s a word that can create mixed feelings. While some see it as a New Age, trendy but useless concept, others believe firmly in its ability to create happier and more productive employees and leaders.

Over the past few years, Google, Intel, Adobe, Apple, LinkedIn, Goldman Sachs, the NHS have brought mindfulness and meditation to the workplace. In our fast-paced, high-tech world, it seems companies are increasingly turning to mindfulness to help employees cope with the growing stresses and pressures surrounding them.

But what exactly is mindfulness? In its simplest form, mindfulness means awareness. “It’s the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally,” explains Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) technique, in a video interview. “That sounds pretty simple… but actually when we start paying attention to how much we pay attention, half of the time our minds are all over the place and we have a very hard time sustaining attention.”

It’s a sentiment that I’m sure many of us can relate to, and particularly as the number of digital distractions around us increases. Too often we arrive at our desks in the morning frazzled from a fretful night’s sleep, having rushed to get the kids to school followed by a stressful commute, while having already been bombarded with work messages and demands through our connected devices. It seems logical that much benefit could be had from taking some time out at the start of our day to re-group, reset, relax, and re-assess the problems that have been playing on our mind.

“When you start your day with 20 minutes of stillness, focus, and relaxation, you realise that whatever you may have been worried about that day is small potatoes. In business we’re often dealing with problems of one kind or another; meditation helps reset the way we look at them and spot new solutions,” says a senior consultant at the marketing software company HubSpot.

Silicon Valley has been a champion of the science behind mindfulness for several years. Wisdom 2.0, an annual mindfulness gathering for business leaders, started in 2009 with 325 attendees, and has mushroomed to gatherings of more than 3,000 people, extending to locations all over the world. Google, meanwhile, has an in-house mindfulness program called Search Inside Yourself (which is so popular that the waiting time for enrolment is apparently six-months). The seven-week course was started by a Google engineer and is offered four times a year on the company’s Mountain View campus. Mindfulness is also infiltrating education and in the US, a program called Mindful Schools offers online mindfulness training to teachers, instructing them in how to equip children to concentrate in classrooms and deal with stress. The group has reached more than 300,000 pupils, and educators in 43 countries and 48 states have taken its courses online.

Scientific-based research to prove the benefits of mindfulness and meditation in the workplace is mounting, and here are a few ways in which employees can benefit from it…

Reducing stress and anxiety

The easiest way to become more mindful is through ‘attention’ training. There’s a part of the brain called the amygdala which is activated when we perceive threats (whether it’s a grizzly bear or mounting work deadlines!). This puts us into ‘fight-or-flight’ mode, which can be useful in the wild, but not so helpful within the workplace as this heightened sense of alert can impair our judgement and rational thinking. There is plenty of neurological research to show that with attention training, we can learn how to regulate this part of the brain so that when faced with stressful situations, we can continue to think logically and creatively.

Google’s attention training teaches individuals to stop whatever they are doing and focus on their breath for two minutes. If their attention wanders, they are taught to bring it back gently; the act of which is called meta-attention, as it brings attention to your attention. The other technique is to do nothing and ‘just be’ for two minutes. The more the is practiced, the more experienced an individual can become at preserving calm and focus within a stressful situation, enabling them to act with clarity.

Improving productivity and concentration

Mindfulness encourages individuals to think of their attention as a muscle. As with any muscle, it makes sense to exercise it frequently so that it will strengthen and grow from that exercise.This phenomenon, known as neuroplasticity (i.e. the brain’s ability to reorganise itself by forming new neural connections), shows there are provable benefits to be had from exercising the brain through meditation, to enhance our capacity for self-control and discipline.

A University of Washington study tested the effects of mindfulness-based meditation on the multitasking capabilities of three groups of computer-based knowledge workers. The results, although not conclusive, were encouraging.The paper claims “we found that only those trained in meditation stayed on tasks longer and made fewer task switches, as well as reporting less negative emotion after task performance, as compared with the other two groups. In addition, both the meditation and the relaxation groups showed improved memory for the tasks they performed.” The study went on to say that “focused attention training appears to strengthen one’s ability to notice interruptions without necessarily relinquishing one’s current task. Having such skill might therefore give users the choice to stay with the current task longer, rather than responding to each interruption immediately.”

Mindfulness training can also help us to find clarity on what really matters, so that we learn to avoid the temptation of being pulled into tasks that are of low priority, and instead focus our attention on what really matters. Over time, this will have significant impact on the quality of our output at work.

Building emotional intelligence

The neurological benefits of mindfulness have also been linked to an increase in emotional intelligence, and specifically empathy and self regulation.

Mindfulness can teach us how to frame our emotions differently, so that rather than being swept up in anger, for example, we instead consider it as a passing physiological state. So instead of being inside the emotion, mindfulness shows us how to acknowledge it and then step outside of it, before things get out of control. One technique that’s taught is to carry out a full body scan, where individuals learn to pick up on physical sensations, such as a raised temperature, clenched fists, tense muscles etc, that may indicate some negative response is simmering away within them. This will enable them to label the emotion and think about where it’s come from, and decide rationally what to do next. This may ultimately help individuals to treat particular colleagues (who’ve maybe annoyed them) with more kindness, for example.

Mindfulness expert Mirabai Bush, famous for introducing mindfulness to Google, says: “Introducing mindfulness into the workplace does not prevent conflict from arising or difficult issues from coming up. But when difficult issues do arise… they are more likely to be skilfully acknowledged, held, and responded to by the group. Over time with mindfulness, we learn to develop the inner resources that will help us navigate through difficult, trying, and stressful situations with more ease, comfort, and grace.”

When heated emotions of conflict arise at work, Bush advises to “stop what you are doing. Breathe deeply. Notice how you are experiencing the emotion in your body. Reflect on where the emotion is coming from in your mind (personal history, insecurity, etc). Respond in the most compassionate way.”

So, after reading this article, here are some key questions to ask yourself…

  • Did you skim through this article, struggling to concentrate on the key points being made?
  • When reading a book, do you find it hard to remember the chapter(s) you read the previous day?
  • Do you sometimes find that you don’t recall any specific details of your journey into work?
  • Do you find yourself turning your attention to your smartphone while being in the middle of a conversation with your partner or children?
  • Do you leave a meeting having no clear idea of what has just been discussed?
  • Do you find yourself dwelling on past events, which is holding you back from enjoying daily life?

If you answer ‘yes’ to some or all of these questions, you could maybe benefit from mindfulness. If you decide to give it a go as a result of reading this article, we would love to hear how you get on. I plan to give it a proper go myself!

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