Mindfulness is more present than ever in the media and the workplace. Still, many people have no idea what mindfulness is, or they have a lot of wrong ideas. In this article, I discuss what Mindfulness is, how it fits into our working environment, and what science says about it.
So, what is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a practice in which you give attention to your thoughts, emotions and your body. Practitioners develop awareness of everything that happens in our busy minds and bodies, and how we relate to the world around us. They report improvement in attention, relations and resilience to stress.
Through the practice and awareness of the present moment, practitioners learn to accept their feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. This acceptance leads to more choice in how one will react in difficult situations and conversations.
Why do people start practising Mindfulness?
The most common reasons people start practising mindfulness are to feel more calm and relaxed, and for better concentration. This is really helpful for a lot of people, but others also look for more serious relief. Most commonly they seek to reduce anxiety, regulate emotions more effectively, and to be able to cope with difficult thoughts.
What does science say?
Since the 1970s researchers have been interested in Mindfulness. By now over 7000 papers related to Mindfulness are available in PubMed and this number is growing each year. Reviews of the studies report reduced anxiety, depression, and stress associated with completing a formal Mindfulness course. Because participants gain more insight into what is going on from the inside they become less reactive to triggers of stress. This also leads to more compassion and mutual understanding in communication.
More benefits of Mindfulness are validated by science, and are covered in the rest of the article.
Who practices Mindfulness?
All kinds of people practice mindfulness, regardless of occupation, religion or political preference. They all have in common that they want to learn more about how their inner world operates and how to gain more control of it.
Even Silicon Valley has started introducing Mindfulness into the workplace. Mindfulness, Selflessness, and Compassion are the core mental qualities managers and executives need to develop in the 21st century according to the book The Mind of the Leader. No wonder many companies integrate Mindfulness into their culture these days. Employees of Salesforce, Google, Yahoo, Nike, Pearson, and HBO have access to meditation courses and meditation rooms at work.
It’s not only tech-professionals who turn to Mindfulness and meditation. More than 80% of the world-class performers Tim Ferris interviewed for his book Tools of Titans had some form of daily meditation or mindfulness practice.
In a medical setting, Mindfulness is taught to people who suffer from chronic diseases, depression, and cancer. In countries like England and India, “schools systematically teach mindfulness and are setting up their students to become emotionally intelligent.”
Read on to learn more about how mindfulness is practised, how it helps us to become better leaders in the workplace and what science says about it. Or book a spot for one of my Free Online Introduction Session if you want to experience what Mindfulness is all about, instead of reading dry material.
What is my relation to Mindfulness
I’ve been practising Mindfulness since 2010, I started mainly to gain more control over my thoughts and emotions. But had to take a deeper dive into my Mindfulness practices while facing severe physical issues and the resulting psychological ones. After 8 months of having severe health issues and pain, which somehow were not diagnosable by the many doctors I visited, I got a diagnosis of Post-Infectious Fatigue Syndrome.
A chronic diagnosis. Something that probably stays for a lifetime. It was, as you can imagine, a hard nut to crack. Mindfulness helped me cope with the negative thoughts, emotions, and bodily pain related to the whole process. I learned to accept every aspect of my life in which I had no control, like decreased health and fitness and the outlook of having this for the rest of my life.
Not that I gave up hope, I started to research and implement everything I could to improve my health situation. I’m proud that I made huge progress in my recovery and I’m able to enjoy life just as it is in the present moment.
Mindfulness helped me so much that I decided to teach the practice of Mindfulness to others, in the way that I would like to learn it. From a rational and scientific perspective but still reaching to the depths and warmth of the practice. If you want to read more about how it helped me you can take a look at the about page.
How to practice mindfulness?
“You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day – unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.”Dr. Sukhraj Dhillon
Mindfulness is experiential. You can only learn it through practise. When practising mindfulness we can make a distinction between formal practice and informal practice.
Formal Mindfulness practice consists of exercises in which the attention is trained by focussing on different objects. Many types of exercise exist, ranging in length from a couple of minutes to over an hour. Introduction exercises bring the attention to the breath and the body. More advanced exercises expand this attention to include sounds, thoughts, and emotions. These exercises are mostly guided by a live teacher or by audio recordings. Most people listen to the guidance of these with their eyes closed to avoid distraction. Although, depending on the exercise, someone with experience can also practice without guidance.
Informal Mindfulness practice is about practising mindfulness during day-to-day activities. It helps to create moment-to-moment awareness of what is going on inside us. For example, it can be practised during walking, sports, driving and eating. It can even be practised during social events and conversations. This is where the magic starts to happen. You become less reactive to stress and are able to respond from a balanced state of mind, instead of getting caught up in your emotions.
How to learn Mindfulness?
Mindfulness practice can be learned in various ways, the most common are meditation apps and courses.
- Mindfulness and medical centres all over the world organize live in-person courses. These courses are mostly spread out over several weeks. Mindfulness teachers lead the courses in groups that vary from a few people to 30-40 people. A big advantage is the live support of the teacher and the group while going through the process of learning Mindfulness.
- Some centres and Mindfulness teachers also give Live online courses. People attend from the comfort of their own homes but also have valuable interaction with their teacher to optimize their learning of the practice. You can attend and practice from wherever you are, while still having the personal support from a teacher and the group.
- Meditation apps like Headspace, Calm or Insight Timer (my favourite) are good tools to get an introduction to Mindfulness and all kinds of meditations. They contain various recordings of guided meditations and courses.
- Several good quality pre-recorded Mindfulness courses exist online, some are even free. Palouse Mindfulness is probably the best known one. And the De-Mystifying Mindfulness course is gaining more and more popularity lately. It’s obvious that this approach is very cost-efficient.
- At the workplace different forms of Mindfulness courses and workshops exist, both online and in-person. They range from a short introduction session, to multiple day workshops, to full 8-week courses.
When you consider learning Mindfulness there are a couple of things to take into account:
- The willingness to invest time to learn the practice. The longer the program, the more impact it has on a person. But take into account that personal practice at home and the attitude towards the practice is an even more important factor to success. Participants are suggested to practice daily at home for 30 to 45 minutes over the duration of the course.
- Do you want it to learn by yourself, or do you want the support of an experienced teacher. The downside of learning by yourself is that this approach lacks support from an experienced guide, which can be necessary if one gets deeper into the practice, as explained more in the Is Mindfulness For Everybody? section below.
- Where do you want to study? Do you want to meet people in-person and practice in a group? Or do you want to learn from the safety of your home, without the need to get stuck in traffic.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
The Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course is a standardized 8-week course and the oldest on the market. The MBSR courses can be attended in person or online and are considered the “Gold standard” in the medical world. They are also the most researched format in the western world.
The MBSR course is developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society in Massachusetts. Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, is professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He was the first to introduce Mindfulness in conventional medical settings in the 1970s. Based on his studies of Buddhist meditation he created an 8-week meditation course in a scientific context. He later removed all references to Buddhism and this course became the 8-weeks MBSR course, now taught all over the world.
You can read more on available on-demand courses for professionals on my website if this has sparked some interest.
Mindfulness against workplace stress
“Employees engage with employers and brands when they’re treated as humans worthy of respect.”
― Meghan M. Biro
In Flanders only about half (49,6%) of the jobs are labelled as ‘workable’ according to recent studies into stress by the government (October 2019). In the U.K. a staggering 79% of the employees experience work-related stress. Even more concerning, in the U.S. 75% to 90% of doctor’s visits are related to stress-related complaints. While 80% of the U.S. workforce reports feeling stressed because of ineffective company communication.
Short term stress is related to many negative side effects such as: agitation, bad mood, worry, and a whole range of other emotional and cognitive problems. But it’s not limited to emotional and mental problems. Through the mind-body connection stress has an impact on a physical level as well as a mental one and impacts all organs in the body. Chronic exposure to stress is related to cardiovascular diseases, gastrointestinal problems, mental health issues- the list goes on and on.
Mindfulness gives people awareness of how stress is triggered in the mind and therefore in the body. Practitioners become aware of its negative impacts, both short and long term. With this awareness comes freedom to choose to reduce the triggers and the impact of the triggers.
A review of 209 scientific studies with over 12 thousand subjects validates the idea that Meditation reduces stress. They found that it does not only reduce stress, but also anxiety and depression and confirms it is an effective treatment for various psychological problems. A Cleveland Clinic study also found that Meditation at work reduces stress and boosts morale, showing a 31% decrease in stress levels and a 28% increase in vitality- a measure of how energized a person feels throughout the workday.
Mindfulness not only has an effect on a psychological level, but also improves physical health. It reduces cortisol production and improves autonomic balance and sympathetic nervous system reactivity.
Mindfulness in leadership
Companies worldwide implement Mindfulness into their culture these days. Big giants like Apple, Google and Salesforce, McKinsey & Co, have meditation rooms in their offices and others provide free Meditation courses for their employees. Google even developed its own Mindfulness program, Search Inside Yourself, which is taught all over the world. They aim to “teach practical mindfulness, emotional intelligence and leadership tools to unlock your full potential at work and in life.”
If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm and when it does, there’s room to hear more subtle things – that’s when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more. Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment. You see so much more than you could see before. It’s a discipline; you have to practice it.― Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs was probably one of the first professional leaders to adapt meditation to the work environment. His own practice was based on Zen meditation. Jobs was a dedicated practitioner and claimed that it helped him to tap into his intuition to make radical business decisions. He also talked about how it enabled him to deliver the simplest designs for Apple’s products.
Bill Gates says he uses mediation to improve his focus and to step back and get some ease with whatever thoughts or emotions are present.
The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.― George Bernard Shaw
There is a big discrepancy in how leaders and employees sense their engagement in a company. 77% of leaders think they do a good job of engaging their people. Yet 88% of employees say their leaders do a bad job with engagement. Even worse is the finding that 65% of employees would forego a pay raise to see their leaders fired.
Jacqueline Carter, together with Harvard Business Review, did an assessment of over 35,000 leaders in over 72 different countries. Based on the research she called the situation a leadership crisis. The research found that being mindful, selfless and compassionate are the essential traits of leaders in the 21st century. It also found that leaders who have higher emotional intelligence do a much better job helping people to find meaning, purpose, connection, and genuine happiness in their work. These are the traits one develops while practising mindfulness.
Even more research has been done on mindfulness and leadership. A review of 19 studies indicated encouraging signs that mindfulness and meditation interventions may improve aspects of leaders’/managers’ well- being and resilience, and leadership capability.
Would you like to learn more about how to engage your team with more awareness and a Mindful approach? My most efficient offering is 1-on-1 leadership coaching, for the leaders of the 21-century!
Is Mindfulness For Everybody?
Like all types of training, Mindfulness should be approached carefully. You don’t run a marathon without proper preparation and a careful constructed training plan. The same applies for Mindfulness, and mediation in general.
We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.Albert Einstein
When more awareness is gained about internal processes of the mind and what the current state of the body is, people might feel discomfort at first. Reactions to specific circumstances might not be how they want them to be. And when the body is observed regularly and then the body neglected for a while, a need for attention might become visible. This is quite common and part of the process of gaining more awareness. If you wouldn’t become aware of these things, you wouldn’t be able to change the way you (re)act and how you relate to these situations.
Starting this process requires some courage to become more familiar with your inner world, As well as the willingness to change. This will lead you to change how you react to stressful situations and to take more care of your body. Your behaviour becomes more aligned with your values, and in supporting a healthy body.
Some people are advised not to participate in a Mindfulness course or retreat. Especially people with severe mental issues like psychosis and schizophrenia. For people with other issues, like cancer, substance abuse or severe trauma, specific mindfulness courses exist and are given in a medical setting.
I hope you have gained a better understanding now of what mindfulness is about, and how it can fit into our workplaces. If you want to learn more, please have a look at my online courses or contact me directly with any questions.