Why leaders should join the mindfulness mission

Mindfulness is sometimes dismissed in business circles as New Age fluff – yet it has a powerful knack for refocusing employees and helping them boost their performance

It’s no exaggeration to say that workplaces often feel like the working definition of chaos. Even when it isn’t necessarily the case that chaos is underway, the busiest phases routinely make us think that it is. The abundance of work that we need to get through during those times is often expressed in our physical actions. Gestures and tics become showier; struts down office corridors or around workstations grow more urgent and emphatic; typing gets aggressively louder – and voices climb in pitch. Those are the symptoms of organisations in full flow, and many workers find them unsettling. Could mindfulness be the cure?

There is growing evidence that it is. But for the most part, there’s still a lot of haziness out there in the workforce about what mindfulness actually is, let alone what it does, or how it works. More sceptical or scornful voices have dismissed mindfulness entirely as New Age vagary that may well have taken root in the self-help sections of our high-street book shops, but was never designed to get a grip on the slippery electricity of the workplace. But this overlooks one of the most basic truths behind mindfulness: in the end, it’s not a collection of floaty or far-fetched mantras – in fact, it’s extremely practical.

Workplace activity of the types I described above can, for many workers, induce stress. Stress automatically leads to a detached state, as the mind strives to seek a refuge from its uncomfortable and debilitating effects. Along with that detached state comes rumination –self-recriminatory thought patterns that psychologists routinely cite as harmful to people’s long-term mental states, as they can fester in between our other thoughts and gradually become habitual. This can happen without the ruminant even realising that they are doing it – but beneath that self-made perception filter, the rumination is slowly picking apart their self-esteem and ability to concentrate.

Those habits of the mind, of course, spawn problems of the body. We all recognise them: tight chests; bunched-up stomach muscles; perspiration; butterflies; shakiness; chills – any one of those would be a nasty obstacle for people who are trying to fulfil their workplace duties to the best of their ability. But more often than not, those who are suffering from stress are presented with at least three or four selections from that maddening menu.

Mindfulness is the art of pressing the reset button; of clearing down those mental and physical ill effects and regaining presence and focus. And who, quite frankly, wouldn’t want that? Given the potential benefits, it seems like a strange set of tools to disdain or laugh off. Yes, it involves an element of meditation – but that’s hardly something to be embarrassed about, particularly when it’s so easy to consider as an offshoot of our other, restful leisure activities, such as taking 40 winks in an armchair. The major difference being that it’s significantly more constructive!

Far from being New Age vagaries, the benefits of mindfulness are clinically proven. Last year, a team from the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia carried out an independent study of a firm that was trialling a simple, online mindfulness-training tool developed by Canadian specialists. The programme’s stripped-down approach to mindfulness asked employees to ‘take five’ in different workplace scenarios – whether they involved attending meetings, talking to colleagues or eating lunch. The object of the ‘take five’ exercise was to encourage staff to use that very short timeframe to either sharpen their focus in work mode, or to meditate and contemplate in break mode.

Texts and emails from the training platform – plus a buddy system that put the workers in mutually supportive pairs – spurred the test subjects to stick at it. By applying the short spells of mindfulness across periods of days or weeks, the workers soon found that they were able to improve their clarity and/or calm across longer stretches of time each day. Opening the door to mindfulness enabled its influence to gradually spread.

According to Sauder professor of organisational behaviour Daniel Skarlicki, workers in the trial boosted their abilities to learn, manage stress and listen to others. “I was sceptical initially as a scientist,” he said. “I was very curious to find out whether a 30-day challenge which is done remotely in small bites would actually have the impact that we’re seeing in some of the other mindfulness programs that we’re studying. But we’ve now discovered through a series of studies and other colleagues throughout the world that it works. It’s not a fad. It’s something that has a tangible payoff for organisations and individuals.”

It’s not the only time in recent years that mindfulness has been put under a scientific microscope. In 2013, US researchers from Rice University and the University of Tulsa found that mindfulness can even help to ease staff churn. In their analysis of the technique within a “dynamic service industry context”, they found evidence for a “positive relationship between workplace mindfulness and job performance” that holds when accounting for all three, classic employee engagement dimensions – namely, vigour, dedication and absorption. In line with that, the researchers also uncovered an inverse relationship between the uptake of workplace mindfulness and staff turnover intentions.

It’s enormously helpful that these research endeavours exist, because it means that you don’t need to just take my word for it. Mindfulness works. And whether you’re a leader of a busy firm full of employees who may be feeling the pangs of stress, or perhaps in need of a safe refuge from those pangs yourself, mindfulness is something that you can offer or take to heart in order to find your way back to daylight. With so much to gain through such simple means, you really have nothing to lose.

Here are some initial steps you can take to focus your thoughts on the mindfulness mission…

1. Write a goal statement
What do you want to achieve with your mindfulness sessions, and how do you want to achieve it? Writing a goal statement will help you to lay down a path so that you know where you’re going.

Write notes on the stress areas that you’re concerned about, and how often you plan to meditate. This is NOT like a massive business plan. It is a page to get yourself up and running. Also, bear in mind that 15 minutes of meditation per day is great.

2. Start (and continue!) doing Morning Pages
As popularised in author and filmmaker Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way – which, itself, is a superb aid to creative thought – Morning Pages simply involves writing three, unedited, stream-of-consciousness pages of freehand prose, first thing each morning.

The end result can be as loose and unstructured as you like – and though it helps to save your pages, they are never to be shown to anyone else. They are your sounding boards, and indeed receptacles, for internal clutter that may be obscuring more ordered thoughts.

3. Keep checking whether you are in your ‘Window of Tolerance’

The Window of Tolerance is a core mindfulness concept. It is a visual ready-reckoner that helps you to check whether you’re in a state of ‘hyper-arousal’ (anxious and panicky), ‘hypo-arousal’ (numb and disconnected), or in your ‘optimal arousal zone’ (settled and focused). The version of the Window above comes from St Michael’s Hospital in Ontario, Canada. For further thoughts on how to use it, check out the Hospital’s online fact sheet.

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Meditative image courtesy of Rares Peicu, via Unsplash