Mindfulness In The Workplace

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Making work feel less like work.

By Elliot Owen
Ui Culture

According to the World Health Organization, stress-related costs for American companies reach over $300 billion per year. The stressed employee costs 40 percent more than the unstressed employee (if there’s such a thing). While the concept of mindfulness is hardly new, the corporate workplace, surprisingly, is the latest Western environment in which its benefits are being reaped — by both employer and employee.

Buzzing around the offices of large companies like Google, Target, Safeway, Aetna, and General Mills, mindfulness is steadily being integrated into workplace culture by way of free meditation workshops, yoga classes, and ‘here-and-now’ trainings intended to minimize employee stress.

Stress is linked to behaviors like dishonesty with customers and colleagues, and cutting corners on work tasks, things head honchos everywhere would love to see disappear, but that from a stressed worker’s standpoint might be an instinctual method of self-preservation.

According to M. Valentine, a former mindfulness and meditation curriculum developer at a multi-billion dollar corporation, stress triggers a threat response in our brain that can affect job performance.

“We haven’t been sitting in offices making our living but a short time in our human evolution,” Valentine told Ui Culture.

We’ve mostly been on the move, hunting and gathering what we’re eating on a daily basis. That was the nature of work. Today, we’re behind a computer, but we still experience the same threat signal as back in the day when under physical threat. Now our threat response is triggered with the everyday stress of interpersonal relationships, deadlines, and fear of judgement.

And mindfulness practices, she argues, can mitigate that stress. Clearly, big companies are in agreement. By reducing workforce stress, they’re increasing overall productivity.

It appears as though big enterprises aren’t the only ones lauding the effects of mindfulness; employees are equally impressed. Research shows that mindfulness not only reduces stress, it stabilizes attention spans, strengthens emotional resilience, fosters creativity and innovation, and improves workplace relationships. To summarize, it makes work feel less like trudging through the mud.

So, what exactly is mindfulness?

According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, considered to be the forefather of teaching mindfulness in the West, mindfulness is “The awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”

Sounds like fluffy woo talk, huh? But Valentine, who runs a personal coaching business called Flourishing By Design, is convinced that mindfulness is a simple tool everyone can use.

For me, mindfulness is a play on the words mind-less versus mind-full. The distinction is being deliberately aware of the exact present moment you’re in and not trying to escape or change it. The most grounded, real, and alive you’ll ever be at any moment is the one you’re in.

When Valentine was developing mindfulness coursework for her colleagues, she mulled over how to demystify the concept. She came up with the idea of ‘brain brushing.’

“Mindfulness is your brain’s version of hygiene,” Valentine said.

It helps cleanse the brain’s palate. To process incoming information, your brain is squirting chemicals everywhere. It needs time to be cleaned, time to reset, which is why mindfulness practices are critical. We wouldn’t go without taking showers or brushing our teeth, would we?

Meditation and breathwork exercises are the most common vehicles used in mindfulness practices advocated by large companies. According to one Carnegie Mellon University study, 25 minutes of meditation per day for 3 consecutive days markedly improves people’s resilience under stress.

Even just one minute per day, Valentine said, maybe on your lunch break or in your car before entering the office, can help you better recognize situations for what they are, and move through them easier.

“You can’t control external factors,” she said. “They’re always going to be pinging you. This is about retaining your mental faculty, regulating emotions, and keep perspective so you can control how you show up.”

It sounds like a pretty sweet deal. If you’d have asked the average corporate employee 5 years ago if they could imagine their employer sponsoring practices that make them feel good, well, scoffing would likely ensure.

But mindfulness in the workplace isn’t without its critics.

“There’s a big debate in the Buddhist community about the cooptation of mindfulness in the commercial sense,” Valentine said. “Unfortunately, when we take something and make it a trend, try to fit it into our everyday lives, it can lose some of its historical and cultural relevance.”

Additionally, how mindfulness is peppered throughout company culture can affect how employees orient themselves to it. If a company appears to misuse the practice to get more out of their workforce, employees can view it as something being done to them, not a tool they can use for personal and professional wellbeing.

Whichever way you put it, mindfulness has taken the Western world by storm — another ‘tool’ for the ‘toolbox.’ While it doesn’t fix problems, it seems to help people move through them with more grace, which is saying something when it comes to the sink-or-swim climate of the corporate workplace.

For a simple and quick mindfulness exercise, try One-Moment-Mindfulness, which is also an app available iTunes (iPhone) and Google Play (android).

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