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Mindfulness at Work


What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the art of learning to be in the present moment. So much of our time is spent worrying about the past or the future that we forget to pay attention to what is going on right now. Mindfulness is a way of “being” in the moment with ourselves, our sensations, reactions, thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness is a state that can be activated, once we know how, at anytime, anywhere; and even brief moments of mindfulness have been proven to be effective in enhancing health, well-being, creativity and effectiveness.

Becoming mindful allows us to move away from living and working on “automatic pilot”, to recognise our reactions and what triggers them, and to function more often from a state of wisdom, thus helping us to make better decisions in our lives. Mindfulness at work will help to reduce stress levels, increase focus and concentration and improve performance.

Mindfulness in the workplace

The National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health in the US estimate that stress-related ailments cost companies about $200 billion a year in increased absenteeism, tardiness, and the loss of talented workers.  Between 70% to 90% of employee hospital visits are linked to stress. And job tension is directly tied to a lack of productivity and loss of competitive edge.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the UK, echo these findings. In 2008/09 an estimated 415, 000 workers in Britain, believed that they were experiencing work-related stress at a level that was making them ill. The 2009 Psychosocial Working Conditions (PWC) survey indicated that around 16.7% of all working individuals thought their job was very or extremely stressful.

The annual incidence of work-related mental health problems in Britain in 2008 was approximately 5,126 new cases per year. However, this almost certainly underestimates the true incidence of these conditions in the British workforce. Estimates indicate that self-reported work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounted for an estimated 11.4 million lost working days in Britain in 2008/09.

An increasing number of companies are using mindfulness to address workplace tension. Increasingly overstretched and overburdened employees are using mindfulness to improve the quality of their lives. Many companies are offering free, on-site classes, partly due to compelling findings at the National Institutes of Health, the University of Massachusetts, and the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Harvard University that mindfulness enhances the qualities companies need; such as increased brain-wave activity, enhanced intuition and better concentration.

Mindfulness can help reduce workplace tensions.

People who practice mindfulness at work report an improved ability to communicate clearly and more appropriate reactions to stressful situations. They also report a better ability to handle workplace conflict, Improved teamwork, a better ability to “think out of the box” and in some cases enhanced creativity.

Using mindfulness in the workplace is highly beneficial to organisations and their employees. Mindfulness can help businesses provide a higher standard of customer service by equipping their staff with the skills to respond more appropriately to their daily challenges.  Mindfulness can help employees respond more appropriately to managers and colleagues that they have previously found difficult. A few minutes of mindfulness at the start of a meeting usually leads to improved focus, clearer communication and improved decision making. Teams who practice mindfulness, even for a few minutes a day report improved team working and team relations.

While innovation can’t be manufactured on demand, it can be cultivated both inwardly and outwardly through the practice of mindfulness. Cultivating attention and awareness through mindfulness provides a new way for leaders and their workforce to live all aspects of their lives with a greater sense of skill, connection, openness, and balance.

Examples of Business Organisations and Leaders Using Mindfulness

The most widely documented use of mindfulness in the workplace is by leaders. Modern business leaders are now asked to perform and thrive in a global environment that moves and changes at lightning speed. To become more adaptable and flexible in this environment, leaders need to move beyond familiar or habitual ways of seeing the world and open up to new ways of listening, leading, responding, and innovating.  Studies of Mindfulness in a business context have shown that increases in mindfulness are associated with increased creativity and decreased burnout.

Mindfulness Meditation quiets mental chatter and it lays the foundation for better decision-making and communication.  Mindfulness can be developed by attending mindfulness classes, or via 1:1 coaching from a mindfulness coach in the workplace.

Dave Jakubowski, the vice-president of business development for Internet service provider United Online logs 18-hour days to help his Westlake Village based company hit its quarterly sales targets of around $8 million.

How to cope?

Dave is not a new age kind of guy. ‘I’m in business,” he says, “and I need results.” So he recently turned to implementing minutes of silence into his day. “It’s amazing,” he says of his new mindfulness meditation practice. “I’m able to sort through work challenges in this state of calm much faster than trying to fight through it. And I make fewer mistakes.”

Mindfulness has some high-profile corporate disciples, including Pacific Investment Management, Apple Computer, Yahoo!, Google, McKinsey, Deutsche Bank, Hughes Aircraft, Procter & Gamble, and Starbucks.

AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals in the US offers mindfulness meditation courses aimed at energizing its 5,000 employees during and after marathon meetings.   AstraZeneca now fund research and support mindfulness programmes. In comparison to the cost of employee sickness, mindfulness programs are relatively inexpensive, and can aid employee motivation and retention, as employees often regard mindfulness programmes as a ” job perk”.

In 2006, AOL Time Warner Inc, reduced their sales and marketing group from 850 to 500 people. Mindfulness classes were incorporated to help employees deal with the new working arrangements. As well as helping employees function better at work, the classes were regarded by many as a gesture of thanks for a job well done.

Online auction site eBay encourage mindfulness amongst employees by providing two meditation rooms. Here, employees sit in silence—in minimalist rooms decorated in earth tones, accented with cushy pillows, floor mats and fragrant flower buds—to catch a few critical moments of solitude and to decompress from the myriad stresses of a workday.

A new study suggests mindfulness training can help high-stressed U.S. military groups prepare for deployment to Iraq. The study found that the more time participants spent engaging in daily mindfulness exercises the better their mood and memory, problem solving and control of emotions.

The program, called Mindfulness at Work, aims to cultivate greater psychological resilience or “mental armor” by bolstering mindfulness. The program covered topics of central relevance to the Marines, such as integrating skills to manage stress reactions, increase their resilience to future stressors and improve their unit’s mission effectiveness. Thus, the program blended mindfulness skills training with concrete applications for the operational environment and information and skills about stress, trauma and resilience in the body.

A study of the program found  that, just as daily physical exercise leads to physical fitness, engaging in mindfulness exercises on a regular basis may improve mind-fitness.

Mindfulness is spilling into areas beyond medicine, healthcare, psychology and neuroscience. It’s moving into programs in education with children and college students, parenting, athletics, the legal profession and business. Studies of Mindfulness in a business context have shown that increases in mindfulness are associated with increased creativity and decreased burnout and executive and corporate mindfulness leadership programs are emerging to meet the need.

A 2001 FAA study found that multitasking reduces productivity by as much as 20%-40%, while a study with business men in Korea found practicing mindfulness increased productivity. Pacific Investment Management Co and technology leaders, Apple Computer, Yahoo!, Texas Instruments, Nortel Networks and Google have all already instituted mindfulness training and wellness opportunities on-site.

How do you begin to practice mindfulness in a work or office environment?  In an atmosphere where you may be easily distracted habitually shuttling between the past, future and multiple projects, mindfulness may seem impossible. Mindfulness can be particularly helpful in highly emotional situations. Sometimes when we simply react to a situation, we behave in ways that we know are not necessarily wise, productive, or efficient. When we simply react our actions often miss the mark.

Begin to Practice Mindfulness Right Now

Try this exercise right now. Be aware of the sensations within your body; feel the tensions and tightness within your body.  Feel the weight of your body on the chair and feel your feet on the floor. Be aware of any tightness within your muscles. Now let your muscles relax – fully.  Let the muscles in your legs, arms, stomach, back, chest, and face relax.

Next feel the weight of your body on the chair.  Feel your feet on the floor. Feel the light touch of clothes on your skin.  If your mind wanders, comments or the voice in your head judge’s things be aware of this, don’t try to stop it but come back to the awareness of the sensations in your body and relax fully.

Now bring your attention to listening.  Listen to the sounds close by you.  Just let the sounds come in and pass through your mind.  Listen to the sounds as they arise and pass away.  Now widen your listening to all sounds around you.  Just be aware, relaxed and listen.

Use this exercise whenever you see yourself reacting to or are worried about something.  If someone is talking to you, check the tension within your body, relax it and listen to the sound of their voice.  Do this exercise when you have a free moment or when you are waiting for something or someone. At first this may be a difficult exercise. With practice it will become easier.

And finally there is only one time you can practice mindfulness – and that is now!   Because that is the only time there is.

Ron Cacioppe

Ron Cacioppe is the Managing Director of Integral Development and holds a BSc, an MBA and a PhD. He has taught in the Graduate School of Management at Macquarie University, Curtin University and the University of Western Australia.

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