12 MINUTE READ
Work related stress costs the UK economy nearly £6.5 billion every year. ‘Presenteeism’ is also rising at an alarming rate, with employees coming to work disengaged, tired, unmotivated, and too stressed to work. This is costing employers dearly. Can mindfulness at work help turn the tide to boost workplace productivity and happiness in an era of information overload?
Today, we live increasingly sedentary lives, but very mentally demanding ones. Technology delivers a constant stream of information to our fingertips, enabling us to work faster and longer – which serves to intensify the pressure we are under. This added pressure leads to stress and anxiety which affects how individuals make decisions and perform tasks both in and out of the office.
Companies of all sizes have been working hard to implement in-office programs that help employees deal with stress, anxiety, and workplace pressures. Alongside making positive changes to work environments, many employers are taking things one step further by introducing mindfulness training programs. Some offices offer quiet meditation spaces while others offer guided sessions to introduce mindful practices into employee’s workdays.
With mindfulness becoming increasingly commonplace in tech, in this post we aim to get you up to speed by providing a comprehensive overview of the topic, including:
- What mindfulness meditation is
- How to practice mindfulness
- Research findings on the therapeutic and cognitive benefits of meditation
- A corporate mindfulness case study at Jaguar Land Rover
- Mindfulness training providers in the UK
- Quick and easy mindfulness exercises you can do in the office
Mindfulness meditation is the most commonly used practice in corporate environments because of its simplicity. Although mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism, you don’t need to buy into anything supernatural to practice it. Essentially, it involves directing your attention to your body and breath to help improve concentration and promote greater awareness of your own thought processes. The practice can be broken down into three main steps:
Sit comfortably in your chair and close your eyes. Keep your back straight but not stiff and your feet flat on the floor.
Focus your full attention on the feeling of your breath coming in and going out. Pick a spot where the breath is most prominent for you – either at the nose, chest, or belly.
Step 3 (This is the hard part)
As soon as you try to do step two your mind is going to wander away from the breath over and over again (probably to all the things you need to get done before the end of the day). This isn’t a problem. As soon as you notice your mind has wandered, you may be tempted to think you’ve failed, but actually, it’s a win. Why? Because every time you start over by redirecting your attention back to your breath it’s like doing a bicep curl for your brain. Your ability to remain calm and sustain focus will increase over time with consistent practice. For a more detailed breakdown of the nuts and bolts of meditation, check out Meditation 101 from Fitness Goat.
Understandably, you may be skeptical whether this practice can deliver a tangible increase in productivity. Furthermore, many leaders may feel somewhat uncomfortable about asking their employees to stop working five minutes a day to watch their breath go in and out. ‘Yes, it’s fine for Buddhists, Hippies, and Russell Brand but why should my sales team be meditating?’ They should be meditating because there is now a growing body of evidence which suggests developing the mindfulness of your workforce is one of the best business strategies you can adopt.
What the science shows
Over the past decade, research into mindfulness meditation has exploded. More than 3,000 studies have been conducted investigating meditation’s potential to produce therapeutic and cognitive benefits. While the results of such studies do not equate to unequivocal proof of the efficacy of meditation, they are impressive nonetheless and definitely worth paying attention to.
- A study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison indicates that the practice of mindfulness reduces the grey-matter density in areas of the brain related with anxiety and stress, such as the amygdala.
- A group of Harvard neuroscientists ran an experiment where 16 people took part in an eight-week mindfulness course, using guided meditations and integration of mindful practices into everyday activities. At the end of the study MRI scans showed increased grey matter concentration in areas of the brain involved in learning and memory, regulating emotions, sense of self, and having perspective. These changes were not found in the control group who did not take part in the mindfulness course.
- A study led by Katherine MacLean of the University of California suggested that during and after meditation training, subjects were more skilled at keeping focus, especially on repetitive and boring tasks.
- Eileen Luders, an assistant professor at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, and colleagues, have found that long-term meditators have larger amounts of gyrification (‘folding’ of the cortex, which may allow the brain to process information faster) than people who do not meditate. Scientists suspect that gyrification is responsible for making the brain better at processing information, making decisions, forming memories and improving attention.
- According to Catherine Kerr of the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging and the Osher Research Centre, “Mindfulness meditation has been reported to enhance numerous mental abilities, including rapid memory recall”.
- Researchers from Nottingham Trent University, UK, found that when participants with issues of stress and low mood underwent meditation training, they experienced improvements in psychological well-being.
The impressive findings listed above represent the tip of the iceberg. This field of research is growing at an almost exponential rate.
It is worth noting that some researchers urge caution when reviewing the results of such studies as many have been shown to be poorly designed. However, moving forward, we can expect to see an increasing amount of rigorous and high-quality research into mindfulness meditation as study designs are refined and improved. This should provide some much-needed clarity on what meditation can and can’t do.
Business Case Study – Jaguar Land Rover
In September 2017 an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness (yes, it exists) recognised Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) for its pioneering efforts in promoting meditation in the workplace. The Mindfulness program at JLR was led by Parham Vasailey, Feature Strategy and Engineering Manager of Autonomous Vehicles.
Over the course of the six-week program several hundred employees from the Product Engineering department had the opportunity to get their first taste of mindfulness meditation. The program was comprised of a full day face-to-face session, four following online webinars, and then a half-day face-to-face session to conclude.
All participants underwent a pre-assessment phase in which they filled out a questionnaire and took an Attention Network Test. The results determined their state of mental health and performance at the beginning of the program. The same measurements were then taken again at the last session.
The results of the Attention Network Test demonstrated objective improvement in mental health and performance for the majority of participants. After only six weeks, the program had shown a quantifiable return on investment. All participants also showed reduction in self-reported stress levels on the questionnaire. Most importantly, each individual who took part in the course left with a tool they can access whenever they are required to master complex situations or deal with challenging times.
Mindfulness training providers
The results of the JLR program provide solid proof of concept for mindfulness in the workplace. If you have been sold on the idea of implementing a similar program at your own company you may be wondering where to start. Going it alone can seem like quite a daunting challenge. Fortunately, there are several trusted training providers who can help you get the ball rolling. Below we have given a short overview of two of leading UK providers:
Breathworks is a not-for-profit social enterprise and leading international mindfulness organisation. Their mindfulness courses, teacher training programmes and products were designed to meet the needs of those living with chronic pain, physical illness, and associated stress. However, they also run specialist tailored programs for businesses wishing to incorporate mindfulness into their work. Breathworks estimate that every £1 spent on their courses produces wider savings of at least £5.76 through:
- Reduced absenteeism
- Reduced need for GP appointments
- Increased productivity while in work
- Increase in energy and positive outlook
Mindfulness at Work aim to help people and businesses become more successful and happier. Their training programmes are designed to make the office a more productive, creative, fulfilling and enjoyable place to be. They have a large number of trainers who have a wide ranging experience of the corporate world. Having had first-hand experience of the pressures of corporate life, they are particularly well-placed to teach mindfulness practices to busy people who would like to find ways to improve their professional abilities and give themselves ‘the edge’.
Simple workplace mindfulness strategies and techniques
Bringing in a training provider offers distinct benefits, but it requires an investment of both time and money. For this reason, many smaller businesses may not be in a position to hire an external training provider. However, there are still some simple initiatives that can be adopted and promoted internally to help cultivate a more mindful working environment. These could include:
One minute meditations
If work starts to feel overwhelming, take a one minute time out. Sit comfortably in your chair and follow the three steps outlined above. You don’t have to close your eyes if you feel uncomfortable with that. If you keep your eyes open, try not to move them around. Pick one spot in front of you and hold your gaze as you meditate. One minute of meditation counts more than you’d think.
It’s easy for minds to wander during conversations. Instead of formulating your reply while your colleague is still talking, tune in and pay closer attention to what they’re saying. Try not to think about your to-do list, your plans for the evening or past conversations – try to give the conversation your undivided attention. As well as helping you to pick up more information, this can also improve the quality of your workplace relationships. People like to feel that their voice is genuinely being heard.
The observation game
Choose any object nearby (a pencil, your computer mouse or even your own hand) and really focus on it for one minute. Pretend you’re seeing it for the first time. Pay close attention to its shape, texture, and construction. This can help you clear your mind and reconnect with those everyday objects we so commonly take for granted.
Take a break in nature
This strategy is weather permitting (in the UK at least). When you go on a coffee or lunch break, take a stroll by yourself through a nearby park or green area. Leave your phone and any other electronic devices in the office and use this time to focus on the natural world around you. This is a healthy exercise for both your mind and your body, as you’ll also benefit from the physical movement and the chance to get a breath of fresh air.
Humans have a “negativity bias.” Essentially, this means we’re much more likely to focus and dwell on something that’s gone wrong than on things that have gone well. Left unchecked, this leads people into an excessively negative and unbalanced way of thinking. Gratitude is the antidote. Plenty of evidence suggests that actively practicing gratitude makes you feel better and has a positive impact on your creativity, health, working relationships, and quality of work. Everyone dislikes certain aspects of their work, and it can be very tempting to focus on these pain points almost exclusively. However, making time to list all the things that are going well at work can help improve resilience and shift you into a more positive frame of mind.
With proven success in the workplace and studies that show how meditation changes the brain for the better, it’s no wonder that more and more companies are jumping on the workplace meditation trend. After all, a happy and calm employee is your best employee!
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