Embedding a mindfulness approach at work can increase employees’ mental focus, productivity and creative outputs says Kathleen O’Hara
Zen in the Office
Meditation used to be for gurus and people a little left of center, but the scientific evidence of its benefits has brought it into the 21st century – and increasingly into the office.
And we need it. Employees are bombarded by the equivalent of 174 newspapers of data everyday. At work we send and receive 121 emails each day amounting to over 108.7 billion emails circulating within business every 24 hours. The volume is overwhelming. Employees feel obliged to answer all their emails, but it seems impossible to do get anything else done. Smartphones have become the Swiss army knife of the office with a calculator, browser, email, calendar, voicemail, texter and tweeter. We use them constantly, part of a 21st-century addiction for cramming everything into our spare moments of downtime.
To cope with the demands we’ve become multi-taskers switching between jobs to try and manage the many competing demands. But there’s a fly in the ointment. Although we think we’re doing several things at once, it is a powerful illusion. Multitasking increases the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can over stimulate your brain causing mental fog or scrambled thinking. Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and constantly searching for new stimuli. The more we switch the less we achieve.
But the reality is employers are expecting their staff to do more with less, excel at projects, work long hours, be endless multi-taskers while thinking creatively. As well as balancing all this on top of their personal lives. The results of this expectation and the reality of our busyness creates stress. This shows up as lower productivity, more interpersonal conflicts and absenteeism. Sick leave due to anxiety, depression or stress is up from 25% ten years ago to 33% today. Stress has a direct impact on our ability to work in a productive and healthy way – a wired-out workforce impacts the bottom line of business.
From the Inside Out
Mindfulness is an integrative, mind-body based training that helps people change the way they think and feel about their experiences – especially stressful ones. Mindfulness exercises are ways of paying attention to the present moment, using meditation and techniques such as breathing and yoga. The mind training of meditation helps employees to become more aware of their thoughts, feelings, and body sensations so that instead of being overwhelmed by them, they’re better able to manage them. Practising mindfulness boosts focus and concentration so improving the quality of work.
By mindfulness, individuals are asked to focus their thoughts on one thought or a single concept such as a mantra or relaxing image. An overarching goal is to be firmly affixed to the present moment. This typically means concentrating on the breath — observing each inhalation and exhalation —without consideration to other thoughts. When a ‘stray’ thought arises, the practitioner recognises it and then turns back to the focus of their attention.
Organisations are waking up to the benefits of enabling mindfulness at work. When Lindsay Van Driel, an Intel employee, looked around at her colleagues she saw a group of stressed-out workers who spent long hours trying to manage a never-ending cycle of deadlines, meetings and emails. In 2010, she started an informal meditation lunchtime group at Intel’s Oregon office. Lindsay and about 10 coworkers would meet, stretch and meditate for 45 minutes before getting back to work. As more of her colleagues sought to join the group, she made a case to her bosses to formalise the programme. Intel bought it and today the group has become a nine-week global mindfulness programme called Awake@Intel.
Other global brands such as Google and Apple are also taking an active approach. In Silicon Valley, where the pressure to innovate is particularly strong, they have introduced mindfulness programs which counter-intuitively encourage workers to slow down. Google specifically targets emotional intelligence as well as meditation and has developed the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, a nonprofit mindfulness organisation.
And it is not just big business that is seeing the light. Chris Wade, director engagement at the Motor Neurone Disease Association has recently introduced a meditation programme for volunteers. He is convinced of its benefits: ‘Our volunteers have to support people who are under tremendous stress. Motor Neurone disease (MND) causes people’s bodies to steadily fail, leading to paralysis, difficulties eating and respiratory failure. It is upsetting for the volunteers to witness such suffering, and so we try to equip volunteers to cope. Meditation is a fantastic way in which our volunteers can access a coping mechanism that benefits them but may also enhance their ability to provide better care for people living with MND.’
The Science Bit
So, how does meditation work? The neuroscience is revealing. First, meditation increases the activity of the frontal cortex which is responsible for focus and sustained attention to tasks—allowing us to be less distracted and increase concentration. The second effect is the increase in creativity. This happens because meditation facilitates the shift of activity from the left side of the brain to the right. The right side of the brain is responsible for abstract and intuitive thought, the key drivers of creativity.
Research has also shown that meditation increases the activity in the mid-brain, an area which is responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ response. When activity in that area is increased, we have more control over our response to stress, rather than merely being reactive to it. Less control causes interpersonal conflicts, fearful responses and hasty reactions without thinking of consequences. Meditation enables individuals to manage reactivity and reduce their fear.
Perhaps the most significant benefit of meditation is its ability to improve attention. In 2010, researchers looked at participants who practised focused meditation for five hours each day over three months (which is a lot!). The participants were shown to have an easier time sustaining voluntary attention on a wide range of tasks. Other studies show that 20 minutes a day is all that’s required to get beneficial results, such as stress reduction. Indeed, even a little bit of meditation can help. After 10 days of meditation, people experience significant improvements in contemplative thoughts, and boosts to memory and sustained attention.
Meditation Made Easy
The good news is that getting the benefits of meditation doesn’t require sitting in quiet contemplation for ten years at the top of a Tibetan mountain. There are new techniques created by seasoned meditators that make it possible for employees and managers alike to learn meditation and quickly access its benefits.
One work-based programme that is gaining popularity is the three-step method of Modern Mindfulness. This uses an easy-to-follow formula that most employees can do without feeling embarrassed or part of an ‘alternative’ movement. The three steps are: Relax the body, Calm the mind and Access the creative. The steps work together, first to teach you how to do a quick body scan to relax and let go of tension. Even harden skeptics find this stage useful. This prepares the mind for step two which is to acknowledge thoughts and distractions without allowing them to take over. Then focusing techniques are introduced which helps the mind gain control over thoughts and emotions. By focusing attention you can then move onto the final step. This is less about work and more about letting yourself access the creative, intuitive, flow state that you get from right brain thinking. It’s a nice place to be.
Meditation is one of the best strategies available for managing stress and increasing creativity in the office. The benefits of regular meditation have been shown to reduce anxiety, depression, cardio-vascular disease, lower blood-pressure, increase concentration and improve relationships. It is the counterbalance to the 24/7 office; the yin to our busy yang. In the West we’re not terribly comfortable about getting in touch with our ‘softer’ right-brain side, but this is where clarity and creativity flourish. But it requires organisations to change their mindsets – to recognise that productivity is not just about getting people to do more, but about building in downtime for employees to recharge and create. This pays dividends in the long run. Companies who invest in mindfulness reap the rewards of less stress, increased focus and greater outputs. Plus a healthier, happier workforce.
Kathleen O’Hara MA LPC is a psychotherapist, author, meditator and international expert on trauma, victim services, mindfulness and compassion fatigue. She is a consultant for the Department of Justice in the US and has developed and delivered workshops and trainings in Europe, Canada, Russia and the US. She delivers the three-step Modern Mindfulness Programme and is an avid meditator of 30+ years.
Three steps to a Zen mind
The Modern Mindfulness Programme provides an easy-to-follow route to meditation and mindfulness in the office. The three steps work together to: Relax the body, Calm the mind and Access the creative.
Step one – Relax the body: Find a quite place, a spare office or meeting room, sit comfortably. Breathe and relax. Scan your body for any areas of discomfort or tension emotions. Take long deep breaths imaging all tensions leaving the body as you exhale. This process shifts your brain from high beta brainwaves (stress thinking) to lower beta (more relaxed).
Step two – Calm the mind: Here start to observe the thoughts and distractions that come into your mind. Of which there will be many as our minds love to meander from one thought to another. Acceptance of this is the key. Allow yourself to acknowledge whatever you are thinking and feeling without judging it ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Then it is time to start the meditation proper – you can choose one of several options. Either focus on your breath, visualise a light or repeat a soothing mantra such as ‘calm, peace, clarity’. Start for a few minutes and increase this by a minute or two as you begin to achieve some focus.
Step three – Access the creative: You’ve done the hard work, now it is time to access the creative. At this stage you will be in a calm alpha-wave state and connected to your creative right brain. Significant changes in perception occur because the intuitive, abstract part of your mind is now activated. You are no longer limited by space and time. The real magic of being in this state is that sometimes issues you’ve struggled with seem to miraculously resolve themselves without any ‘effort’ on your part. Science hasn’t fathomed this one yet but seasoned meditators report this benefit. So why not give it a go?