Sylvia Sage: What is mindfulness practice and why should we welcome it into the workplace?

Stress has become one of the great epidemics of our age. Bupa figures show that nearly 12 million working days are lost to stress every year.

The damaging impact of stress on mental and physical health is now well documented, with stress linked to dozens of conditions, including depression, anxiety, obesity, heart disease, diabetes and gastrointestinal problems.

Bupa figures show that half a million people in the UK suffer from work-related stress to a level that is making them ill.

And stress can be contagious, triggering negative behaviour patterns that impact everyone within an organisation.

This inevitably has a huge impact upon performance. According to the Centre for Mental Health, absence due to stress and mental illness alone costs UK companies c. £26 billion each year.

One classic symptom of stress and anxiety is the inability to focus on a set task. Distracting thoughts get in the way, causing people to skip ineffectually between activities. This inefficient way of working fuels further worry and stress, as the volume of work grows – leading to a spiral of stress and ineffectiveness.

Mindfulness practice can help.

But what is it?

A contemplative practice, mindfulness is historically part of the Hindu, Daoist, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Jewish and other religious traditions.

The early practice of Buddhism in the West was inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist.

Jon Kabat-Zinn incorporated Buddhist mindfulness into his research on stress reduction at UMass Medical School.

The research into relapse prevention in depression of Zindel Segal, John Teasdale and Mark Williams led to the birth of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) in the early 1990s.

The Oxford Mindfulness Centre was founded at Oxford University’s department of Psychiatry in 2008.

In ‘Mindfulness – a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world’, Professor Mark Williams and Danny Penman stress that mindfulness is a practice, a way of being, which unfolds over time, not merely a technique or skill. It requires commitment and wholehearted engagement.

Mindfulness means ‘compassionate and lucid awareness, a sense of knowing what is happening in the external and internal world as it is happening’.

Most of us are more used to mindlessness–when we are not really conscious of what is going on, when we are on ‘auto-pilot’ and more liable to make mistakes.

With practice, mindfulness helps people to become aware of and manage their reactions, to pause and offer a more considered response to a given situation – and this can be hugely valuable in the workplace.

What is it not?

Mindfulness is not about controlling our thoughts. It is about stepping back, being aware of them, and not allowing them to automatically control us.

Mindfulness meditation is not religion – it is a form of mental training.

You don’t need to be physically fit or supple or adopt a particular posture – you can do it almost anywhere and anytime, even on public transport, while walking to work or eating.

You don’t need a lot of time to practice mindfulness – but you do need to practise and stay with it.

How should mindfulness be practiced?

Anyone can learn mindfulness with the appropriate guidance.

We might engage in mindful rituals already but not be aware that this focus is akin to mindfulness – paying conscious attention to our footsteps while walking, admiring a beautiful sunset, observing our own breathing.

Mindfulness is about learnable skills:

  • Consciously paying attention
  • Becoming aware of habitual reactions which may not serve us best, and
  • Learning to react with an open mind and curiosity

 

Mindful being has so many applications in the workplace.

For instance, if we are about to go into what we feel “will be a challenging conversation”, we might enter in the frame of mind that will fulfil our own prophecy and make it just that.

However, if we stop and truly focus on our breath, even for just a moment, we can open up avenues to an entirely different outcome.

Here is an easy exercise to try – the 1-minute breath:

  • Inhale for 20 seconds
  • Hold your breath for 20 seconds
  • Exhale for 20 seconds
  • Repeat as desired

 

What are the benefits?

Mindfulness improves resilience and wellbeing. In becoming more aware of the present moment, we begin to see and experience in a new way.

We learn to see the stream of thoughts that dominate our minds more like a constant flow of traffic. Using mindfulness, we can train ourselves to take a step back and see these thoughts as ‘mental events’ rather than truths.

This awareness allows us to recognise signals of stress and anxiety earlier, so that we may manage them instead of allowing them to control us.

Mindfulness meditation is low cost, it is not complicated, it can be practised even for just a few moments at a time – but it does require guidance, practice and persistence.

Business leaders who practice mindfulness meditation swear by its ability to improve focus, decision-making and productivity.

Founder of the Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington, wrote in a recent blog post: “Stress reduction and mindfulness don’t just make us happier and healthier, they’re a proven competitive advantage for any business.”

Her claim is backed up by research from INSEAD Business School which showed just 15 minutes of mindfulness-based meditation, such as concentrating on breathing, can lead to more rational thinking in business decisions.

Some of the world’s biggest employers such as Google, KPMG and GlaxoSmithKline have introduced mindfulness meditation practice into their workplaces, aware of the benefits it can bring.

With many businesses already offering gym memberships, yoga, free fruit and other health and wellbeing boosting measures, mindfulness meditation training could easily be added to the roster.

In an increasingly knowledge-based economy where a business rises or falls with its human capital, it may be time others followed suit.