Why mindfulness matters at work

How much down-time did you manage over the long Easter weekend? Did you chill out, spend time with friends and family, watch a film, read a good book? Or were you catching up with emails, reading reports, scrolling through spreadsheets … unable to relax and enjoy the break because you were pre-occupied with work?

If you joined the ranks of the ‘not fully switched off’ this weekend you were certainly not alone. In today’s time-pressured workplaces, being ‘busy’ has almost become a badge of honour. If we’re running around juggling a myriad of tasks, it makes us feel needed, important and successful.

In a new book ‘Mind Time’, however, authors Megan Reitz and Michael Chaskalson argue that the constant cycles of frenetic activity we are immersing ourselves in are actually making us less productive at work, and in many cases are harming our physical and mental health.

The book highlights some important questions for HR, about whether the over-riding culture in the business is encouraging people to the best they can be in a healthy, productive environment – or whether it is leading people to develop unhealthy working habits that are affecting the quality of their decisions and effectively driving them into the ground.

Stress at work is of course not new. It’s long been recognised as one of the top three factors behind spiralling levels of absence in the workplace. But our global, always-on, 24/7 society has taken the problem to a whole new level.

In an attempt to compete and stay profitable, organisations slim down their staff, but expect those left behind to complete the same amount of work – if not more – with less resources. As we increasingly work across geographies and time-lines, work days inevitably get longer. There are endless meetings and a daily avalanche of emails (the average desk worker receives at least 120 emails a day). In the relentless drive for productivity, managers are setting ever more stretching goals – making people feel they are never on top of things and constantly playing catch up.

To a degree, organisations have recognised the pressures their employees are under – witness the rise in corporate well-being programmes encouraging people to get active, eat healthily and look after their mental health.

What these programmes rarely do, however, is encourage people to step off the treadmill, breathe, ground themselves and quiet their minds. In Mind Time, the authors suggest that in fact ten ‘mindful minutes’ a day, practised consistently, could make a measurable difference to people’s health and happiness and their ability to meet the challenges work throws at them calmly and effectively.

Mind time works, says the book, because it helps people build three key capacities which will help them make better decisions, improve working relationships and build resilience. The three capacities are collectively referred to as AIM:

Allowing – an attitude of kindness and acceptance

Inquiry – a curiosity about what is happening in the moment

Meta-awareness – the ability to observe thoughts, feelings, sensations and impulses as they are happening and to see them as temporary and not ‘facts’.

In other words, these capacities help people get out of automatic pilot and respond choicefully rather than react rashly and rapidly to whatever working life presents them with.

In an environment where people are frantically multi-tasking and running just to keep still, it may seem incongruous to suggest that employees go off somewhere quiet and engage in meditative-like practices.

The approach outlined in Mind Time is, however, grounded in academic research – and certainly worthy of consideration by HR people who are increasingly finding themselves dealing with the fall-out from pressurised working environments.

It isn’t about providing a dedicated quiet room or organising meditation sessions in the lunch hour (although you could of course consider doing both of those things) – it’s more about raising awareness of the benefits of mindfulness, signposting employees to useful resources, and offering support and encouragement to those who wish to practice.

If as a practitioner you are feeling uncomfortable with the working environment and expectations being placed on employees, these are some other issues you could also consider:
• Are performance management processes encouraging managers to set unrealistic goals?
• Do managers understand the difference between stretch goals (which encourage people to fulfil their potential) and strain goals (which make them feel that whatever they do, it will never be enough?
• Are your reward policies geared around quantity of output or quality of work?
• Is the organisational culture encouraging unhealthy working practices (multi-tasking, all nighters, emails at midnight)?
• What can you do to encourage senior leaders to role model more healthy working styles?

Mind Time: How 10 mindful minutes can enhance your work, health and happiness, Michael Chaskalson & Megan Reitz, Harper Collins, 2018 https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mind-Time-mindful-minutes-happiness/dp/0008252807/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1522748948&sr=1-1&keywords=mind+time

Free audio downloads of 10 minute mindfulness practices accompany the book and are available via www.mindtime.me

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