Date posted: 1/12/2016 4 min read

Mindfulness: A simple way to live and lead better

Why do more and more business leaders swear by mindfulness? And could it make your work – and your life – better?

In brief

  • The mindfulness movement has been rapidly embraced by the corporate world as an antidote to escalating stress and anxiety in our working life
  • Studies have found that mindfulness improves decision making and has useful application in leadership training and emotional intelligence
  • A mindfulness-based stress reduction programme is a low-cost, low-risk intervention that can be easily promoted in workplaces to improve employee wellbeing

By Fiona Crawford

The phrase “I’m so busy” has become a badge of honour for many of us, glued as we are to our smartphones and tablets, constantly staring at our laptops or filling our working day with meetings.

Futurist Ross Dawson, writing in Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand’s recent Academic Leadership publication, says: “We are getting closer to the point where we consume more media than we have waking hours in the day, as we use multiple media simultaneously."

But is it possible to give adequate attention to two things at once? Are we multi-tasking or multi-failing? While we constantly fill our lives with activity, what is happening to our brains and our wellbeing?

In response to this, the mindfulness movement has been rapidly embraced by the corporate world as an antidote to escalating stress and anxiety in our working life. But is mindfulness just another trend we have to follow — like eating at the latest restaurant? Instead of filling up our calendars with another activity would we be better off walking the dog, taking the kids to the playground, listening to music, reading a book, or simply sitting in the park doing nothing at all?

Monash University defines mindfulness as “a series of attention training practices and cognitive strategies that can help you unhook from unproductive thought patterns and behaviours. It involves learning to pay attention to the present moment rather than worrying or dwelling in the past. It also involves developing an attitude of friendliness toward yourself, as opposed to criticism or judgement.”

The practice of mindfulness can be achieved through meditation techniques where we train to be aware of events in the present moment, such as our breath, body or sounds.

Dr Craig Hassed is a general practitioner and senior lecturer in the Monash University Department of General Practice where he has introduced innovations into medical education and practice that include holistic, integrative and mind-body medicine. A passionate advocate for mindfulness, he says. “If we’re not living mindfully then collectively and individually we’re living in the dark”.

Hassed practises mindfulness in two half-hour sessions a day. He says it’s important to prioritise Mindfulness Meditation practice otherwise it can be squeezed out as old habits, busyness and a distracted world pull in one direction while mindfulness pulls in the other.  

More important than just putting aside time to practise meditation, says Hassed, is taking mindfulness beyond daily sessions and applying it to life. Mindfulness is a way of living, “it’s not just about sitting in a chair and doing meditation then getting up and being unmindful. Taking our meditation into our day to day life, so that we are present, attentive and engaged, with an open and accepting attitude”.

It is essentially a workout for the brain, exercising, in particular, the part of the brain we use when paying attention. In Mindfulness Meditation we know where our attention is and prioritise where our attention needs to be — in the present. These skills, once learned and practised, are transferrable to the workplace and to education. Its mental health benefits in terms of reducing depression and anxiety are well-documented.

According to Hassed, in an educational context, mindfulness develops the practice of ignoring distractions, disregarding unhelpful self-chatter and focusing on the here and now. Evidence-based research supports the educational benefits of mindfulness. These include improved performance, personal development, enhanced physical and emotional health, reduced stress and the ability to cope more confidently with exam-related demands. There are many studies that show benefits for school and university students, not only from reducing stress and anxiety but in increasing the ability to pay attention and focus, with subsequent improvements in reading comprehension, better working memory and greater ability to avoid distraction.

Research into mindfulness has also unearthed some much broader exciting possibilities in relation to health. Elizabeth Blackburn is an Australian-American researcher who won the Nobel Prize for her work on telomeres – a structure at the end of chromosomes that break down as we age. In the early 2000s, Blackburn began to study whether environmental factors, not just genes, affected telomeres and was surprised to find that stress is a key factor. Other studies have found that diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and stroke have all been linked to shortened telomeres. As a result, reducing stress has become a key strategy in protecting telomeres and a wide range of scientific research has found that one of the most effective interventions is Mindfulness Meditation.

Mindfulness meditation also improves the executive function of the brain, where we process information and regulate emotions. This is perhaps why mindfulness has taken off in the corporate world. Studies have found that mindfulness improves decision making and has useful application in leadership training and emotional intelligence. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review asks: can organisational leaders integrate mindfulness practices into strategic planning processes? The authors argue that by creating “space” through mindfulness, individuals — and organisations — are able to “see past old storylines and habitual patterns that unconsciously guide behaviour” and “choose how to speak and act”. It is, in a sense, a way of learning the skills to think outside the square or develop new insights. In this way, mindfulness has the capacity to foster innovation — perhaps that’s why it’s most often associated in the corporate world with Google and Apple. 

But more traditional businesses also see a compelling business case for mindfulness. By reducing employee stress US companies have been able to reduce health care costs. With the World Health Organisation reporting that stress costs US businesses an estimated A$300b annually, the capacity to reduce stress is an important driver of the adoption of mindfulness in the corporate world. In addition, through greater levels of attention and engagement, organisations report increased productivity.

Mindful meditation also improves the executive function of the brain, where we process information and regulate emotions.

In Australia, the University of Sydney has recently undertaken a pilot study to evaluate whether mindfulness-based practice is effective at reducing stress and increasing workplace engagement for university staff. Researchers from the Brain and Mind Centre worked with the university’s Safety, Health and Wellbeing department to run a mindfulness-based stress reduction research pilot for interested Sydney staff.

Professor Nick Glozier from the university’s Brain and Mind Centre says: “A mindfulness-based stress reduction programme is a low-cost, low-risk intervention that can be easily promoted in workplaces to improve employee wellbeing. It has the potential to be of significant socioeconomic benefit, particularly for large employers”. Participants volunteered to participate in a six-week programme and two main outcomes were measured at the beginning and end of the programme: the participant’s experience of stress, anxiety and mood, as measured by the widely-used Kessler Psychological Distress Scale and work-specific measures of employee wellness and work-engagement. The results of the pilot indicated that participants improved in these areas.

Returning to our original question — is practising mindfulness better than sitting in the park doing nothing at all?

Says Hassed “From the outside, mindfulness looks like a whole lot of nothing but on the inside we’re practising cognitive skills that stand us in good stead in day to day life”.

Perhaps it's worth a try.

This article was first published in the December 2016 issue of Acuity magazine.

Tony Holmwood CA Business Performance Consultant talks mindfulness

  • What does mindfulness at work mean to you?

    Mindfulness is an important tool to coach managers on emotional intelligence and self-awareness so we can better relate to staff. Over-thinking situations, or stress, will likely inhibit our listening ability by missing important nuances in communication. Self-confidence may also be a factor holding us back.

  • How do you practice mindfulness in the workplace?

    Self-reflection and showing vulnerability are important first steps to engaging your feelings and intuition. When you learn to trust your ability and instincts, you can centre yourself in the moment and be evermore present in communication. Trusting your instincts appreciates a lifetime of learning but also promotes a focus on the bigger picture.

  • How does this help you perform better at work?

    Your reasoning skills and emotional intelligence will develop over time as will your strength of character (feelings), individuality and creativity. For managers, leaders and directors, the need to relinquish the detail holds strategic significance. Delegating and allowing staff to own and keep you abreast of the detail develops their self-confidence, enhances listening skills and builds trust. To know trust is to represent trust. Trusting your ability will help you connect your skill set to purpose and strategic objectives through enhanced communication and reasoning.

  • What are your tips for others interested in being mindful at work?

    Let go of the need to be perfect and start showing your true self. Although a catchword in these times, being authentic is a product of your self-awareness and demonstrates you know yourself inside out. Set development goals that include mindfulness and emotional intelligence. If necessary, employ a coach or mentor to help you gain clarity of purpose to appreciate your motivators and passion. It will be money and time well spent.