Can mindfulness make you smarter, kinder and better?
The benefits of mindfulness include better health, less stress and improved mental health. No wonder mindfulness is good for business.
- The practice of mindfulness promotes a calm, open and non-judgmental workplace.
- You can expect to see less stress and conflict, improvements in productivity and better relationships in the workplace.
- IBM, Apple and Google are seeing a positive effect from introducing a mindfulness practice.
By Leo D’Angelo Fisher
Photo Helen White
Imagine a workplace in which you’re not constantly being judged, where nobody takes delight in your mistakes or missteps; an environment in which cooperation and constructive engagement are the norm, decisions are made with clarity and purpose, and team efforts are valued over personal triumphs.
An impossible ideal? No, say adherents of the mindful workplace.
The practice of ‘mindfulness’ – which can include meditation and yoga – encourages a mindset which makes it easier to focus attention and stick to the facts. It promotes an attitude of calm, openness and non-judgement, and enhances clarity and attention to detail, all of which make for better decision-making.
If ever there was a checklist for busy accountants wanting to regain control of their lives and careers, mindfulness ticks all the boxes. But it’s not just accounting firms – including the Big Four – that are encouraging mindfulness techniques in their workplaces. Apple, Goldman Sachs, Google, IBM, McKinsey & Company and Nike are among the big name corporations to have introduced mindfulness programs.
Organisations are recognising the value of investing in the mental wellbeing of their employees, and workplaces are proving particularly receptive to the practice of mindfulness to counter the pressures of stress, anxiety and discord.
Melbourne clinical psychologist Mark Grant says work-related stress, anxiety and depression reflects the pressure-cooker environment of today’s workplaces. “People feel overwhelmed by the demands of their work; they can’t switch off, they feel constantly ‘on’ mentally,” he says.
“The first step [to mindfulness] is to become a friend to yourself.”
“A lot of high achievers work at the expense of themselves and their own health and wellbeing. At the bottom of that is an attitude that work is more important than they are. The first step [to mindfulness] is to become a friend to yourself.”
Grant singles out multi-tasking as “the enemy of mindfulness” and notes accountants are among the most prone to its destructive impacts.
“People are doing one thing and thinking of the next thing or the next half-dozen things that need to be done, which can be natural if you’re working in a busy practice. I see a lot of burnt-out people from the accounting profession,” he says.
Grant recommends simple “everyday mindfulness” exercises, from walking around the block to visiting a park and “just focusing on the sky and sounds around you and give yourself a break”.
Grant says companies that introduce mindfulness programs show in a practical way that they support the good health and wellbeing of their workforce.
“When support for employees’ wellbeing becomes part of an organisation’s culture, the whole tenor of the organisation changes,” he says. Organisations that promote the practice of mindfulness, according to Grant, can expect to see:
- less stress and conflict in the workplace
- improvements in productivity, morale and creative thinking
- better relationships with colleagues
- decreased absenteeism and “presenteeism” (being present at work but not functioning at full capacity due to illness or other medical conditions).
Less stress, more productivity
A mindfulness session with Smiling Mind
Someone who understands the benefits of mindfulness in the workplace is Sydney-based chartered accountant and academic Camille Woods.
This CA’s career has included roles with Peabody Energy, Sydney Ports Corporation and Lendlease. She is chair of NSW Young Chartered Accountants and teaches accounting at the University of Technology Sydney and Macquarie University.
She also runs a corporate yoga and meditation school, Monday Mind.
“I know the stresses and the joys of a corporate environment, so my classes are based around the challenges that office workers face,” she explains.
Woods, who divides her time between corporate training and her academic work, says mindfulness creates pathways to “new ways of thinking”.
“Mindfulness makes people feel more connected and allows them to see things in perspective. Being able to see something from someone else’s point of view and not being judgemental reduces conflict,” she emphasises.
Woods stresses that in a workplace context it’s important to take an organisation-wide approach, ideally with buy-in from senior management.
“If senior management can make people feel that the workplace is welcoming, that there’s not going to be the usual blame game, people will feel they are part of a team and the workplace becomes a less stressful and more productive environment,” she says.
The power of kindness
Clinical psychologist Dr Chantal Hofstee, director of Renew Your Mind in Auckland, believes there is an “epidemic of stress” in workplaces that mindfulness practices can help combat.
“Stress is part of how we live in the West at the moment,” she says. “Stress is not just a work problem. High stress is happening across the board – at work, in families and in relationships.”
“We used to be able to leave our work at work but we can’t do that any more, and that’s not something we can reverse.”
And technology is adding to the stress.
“We used to be able to leave our work at work but we can’t do that any more, and that’s not something we can reverse. Stress in the workplace is completely transferred to the home because we don’t have the buffer any more between home and work life.”
The impact of stress extends all the way to the top.“People in management and leadership are under enormous pressure,” Hofstee says. “Their decisions are incredibly important, so the ability to keep stress under control, to think more clearly and to keep emotions out of decision-making becomes extremely important.”
Employers have a big role to play in encouraging people to improve their mental health and wellbeing, says Hofstee.
“I see employers as part of the solution. When corporates introduce mindfulness to their workplaces it not only provides employees with a valuable tool; it also helps to get the conversation going about mental health.”
For Hofstee, mindfulness is a lot more than meditation sessions; she describes it as “a way of engaging with the world”. That includes encouraging people to be kinder not just to those around them, but to themselves.
“One of the things I emphasise when I do work with corporates is to urge people to be kind to themselves. A lot of people have such a critical, harsh way of talking to themselves, and then they wonder why their mental health is so poor. Not only is stress reduced when you change your inner dialogue but you become more effective, more productive and more strategic because can think more clearly,” she says.
The business benefits of mindfulness
Former marketing executive Jennifer Bishop is convinced that mindfulness benefits the workplace. She started Mindful Life Training in Melbourne three years ago, and shifted from corporate executive to corporate trainer.
“In the US, we have seen mindfulness play an increasingly important role in the workplace as employers recognise the need for employees to have good mental health as well as good physical health,” she says.
Bishop says being able to measure the impact of mindfulness training and practice is essential to its successful take-up by organisations. “We’re not talking about woo-woo here. Measuring change is a fundamental principle of mindfulness,” she says.
Bishop cites the “return on investment” for businesses as employees with less stress and anxiety; better concentration; more accurate decision-making; more patience and enhanced self-awareness.
That was the experience of tech giant IBM when it introduced its mindfulness program in Australia and New Zealand, initially as part of its leadership training. Psychometric monitoring found that participants had improved health, reduced stress, better sleep and better interaction with others. Mindfulness programs are now available to all IBM staff.
Not-for-profit mindfulness and meditation group Smiling Mind places a strong focus on the science and quantifiable benefits of mindfulness.
Clinical psychologist and Smiling Mind CEO Dr Addie Wootten says organisations are right to seek out evidence-based programs before committing to mindfulness training, particularly with the proliferation of mindfulness courses coming on to the market.
“As with anything that grows in popularity very quickly, a lot of organisations are taking on mindfulness training at a surface level to see how people respond,” she says.
“There’s quite a wide variety of people coming from different backgrounds [offering mindfulness training]. This is not a regulated industry so it’s important for organisations to know that evidence-based programs are being delivered by qualified people,” she says.
Smiling Mind has a premium program for businesses, which includes a combination of professional learning for staff and access to an online “workplace learning platform” that includes videos and tailored meditations. Funds raised assist in providing mindfulness programs for schools.
While more businesses are coming to the realisation that workplace-wellness programs are good for their employees and ultimately their bottom lines, data from mental health not-for-profit Beyond Blue suggests there’s still a way to go.
According to research cited by Beyond Blue, 91% of employees believe “mentally healthy” workplaces are important but only 52% believe their workplace fits that description.
Get started with DIY mindfulness
- Make an effort to stop judging yourself so harshly.
- Set aside 20 minutes every morning before you go to work, train yourself to focus on the present moment without distraction.
- Give yourself a break. Go for a walk around the block or park to clear your mind and learn to take in the sights and sounds without distraction.
- When you feel stressed, don’t spend time worrying. Go straight to the solution by asking yourself: ‘What would help in this situation?’
- When you have negative thoughts, don’t dwell on them. Ask yourself: ‘Is this really true? Does it really matter?’
- Being ‘too busy’ is not a reason for not taking up yoga or meditation. It doesn’t have to be every day, just as it’s not necessary to go to the gym seven days a week.
- Remember, mindfulness doesn’t take a lot of practise but it does take practice.
How to introduce mindfulness in the workplace
- Know why you want to introduce mindfulness to your organisation. What problems are you hoping to fix? What outcomes are you hoping to achieve?
- When picking a mindfulness trainer, do your due diligence. What are the qualifications of the people who designed and will be delivering your program?
- Ask for references. What clients has this trainer worked with?
- How will mindfulness be applied in different parts of the organisation? Will the program engage managers and senior leadership?
- When introducing mindfulness programs, it’s best practice to have employees opt in, rather than impose a program on them.
- Some organisations introduce mindfulness progressively or in limited ways, such as in a particular department that needs help or is particularly engaged.
- Leadership take-up of mindfulness is critical as it underlines its value to the rest of the organisation and encourages others to practise mindfulness in the workplace.
- Consider best delivery methods for mindfulness programs: workshops, site visits, reading materials, online modules, tailored versus off-the-shelf.
- If mindfulness programs have been introduced to solve specific problems ensure that it is possible to measure outcomes.
- Mindfulness Works Australia
- Grant & Grant Psychological Services
- Monday Mind
- Smiling Mind
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From the CA library
Available from CA Library: Give yourself a break: the power of self-compassion. Considers the three components of self-compassion, which help us cultivate a growth mindset, be better leaders, and connect with a more authentic self.Read more