Why Mindfulness Matters in the Workplace

We’re more stressed at work than ever before. Leigh Stringer, author of the forthcoming book, The Healthy Workplace, explains how you can create more time and space for mindfulness meditation in your workplace.

A meditation room at WeWork’s Chinatown location in D.C. Image via WeWork.com.

Oppressive email, horrible bosses, excessive workload, and not enough sleep: these are just a few of the reasons we’re more stressed at work than ever before. And as Sharon Salzberg, a world-renowned Buddhist meditation teacher and writer, has said, “It’s hard to give from a source of depletion.”  What to do? Left unmanaged, stress hampers our performance at work and infects our lives outside of it. The good news is that there are specific techniques we can apply to stressful situations as they occur throughout the workday to keep stress in check.

Specific techniques you can apply to stressful situations during your workday

One common method is referred to as the “relaxation response”, a term coined by Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist and the founder of Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine. Dr. Benson describes this response as the ability to encourage the body to release chemicals and brain signals that make our muscles and organs slow down and increase blood flow to the brain — it’s the reversal of the “fight or flight” response. The regular practice of the relaxation response can be an effective treatment for a wide range of stress-related disorders, and there are several methods to elicit the relaxation response including visualization, progressive muscle relaxation, energy healing, acupuncture, massage, breathing techniques, prayer, meditation, tai chi, qi gong, yoga, and meditation.

Mindfulness meditation, in particular, has captured the attention of business leaders, U.S. Congressmen, military commanders, and professional sports teams. There is also a growing list of companies that have adopted mindfulness practices into their stress reduction programs, including Google, Apple, Facebook, LinkedIn, Intel, Aetna, General Mills, Blackrock, Green Mountain Coffee, and Eileen Fisher.

The business world is just beginning to witness the incredible benefits of mindfulness in the workplace.  Mindfulness meditation specifically focuses on concentration and “open awareness”: being objectively aware of what we are thinking and feeling. Mindfulness is found in many contemplative traditions, but is most often identified with the Theravadan Buddhist practice of vipassana, or “insight meditation”. This mindfulness practice is often extended to daily actions, such as eating, walking, driving, or routine tasks.

Below, a labyrinth on Google’s campus in Mountain View, Calif.:

Mindfulness was originally brought to practice in the Western world around 30 years ago and made popular by Eckhart Tolle, a highly influential German-born Canadian who has written extensively on the subject, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and others.  Kabat-Zinn, an MIT-trained molecular biologist, was a student of Buddhist teachers such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Zen master Seung Sahn, and his practice of yoga and studies with Buddhist teachers led him to integrate their teachings with those of Western science. He created a process called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), now commonly offered by medical centers, hospitals, and health insurance organizations.

How mindfulness-based stress reduction works

The essence of MBSR and other related meditation techniques is to help us focus on the present, rather than the past or the future. As Homo sapiens, we have an incredible gift and a curse at the same time. We are self-aware. We can observe our own thoughts, talk to ourselves, perceive how others perceive us and generally stress ourselves out. How exactly? By focusing enormous amounts of time brooding about the past, obsessing over the future, and spending no time enjoying and taking in the “present,” observing and responding to what is happening to us. To quote Dan Harris, ABC News anchor, meditator, and author of 10% Happier, “We live our lives in a fog of projection and rumination.”

Meditation requires that we “work out” our brain muscles in a different way. Instead of trying to think about ten things at once, which is normal for most people, it requires that we focus on only one thing at a time, and with full concentration.

Meditation requires that we “work out” our brain muscles in a different way. Instead of trying to think about ten things at once, which is normal for most people, it requires that we focus on only one thing at a time, and with full concentration, like focusing only on our breathing. This focused practice gives our brain the muscles it needs to focus attention and “respond not react” to events as they unfold in our life. It also helps our minds from wandering, which tends to happen about 47 percent of our waking hours according to a study conducted at Harvard by psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert. “Unlike other animals,” they found, “humans spend a lot of time thinking about what isn’t going on around them: contemplating events that happened in the past, might happen in the future, or may never happen at all. Indeed, mind-wandering appears to be the human brain’s default mode of operation.”

In 2011, different researchers at Harvard did a study scanning the brains of people who were “meditation novices”. After an eight-week MBSR course, participants reported reductions in stress but also were found to have a reduction of gray-matter density in their amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress. So the area in the brain that “stresses out” shrank in these subjects after just eight weeks of meditating for the first time. Also, increased gray-matter density appeared in their hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection. These people became smarter, more thoughtful and nicer because they meditated.  And as compelling as this study is, it is just one of many that are hitting medical journals every day, laying out in the personal and business benefits of spending just a few minutes calming and focusing the mind every day.

How to integrate more mindfulness into your workplace

Is your company interested in creating a meditation initiative? The thing about meditation, according to Joy Rains, a meditation speaker and author who works with organizations to develop their meditation programs, is that it requires time and space, which take some planning for, especially at work.

  1. Create space for meditation at work

    Many offices have meditation or health and wellness rooms that can be used for this purpose. For example, the World Bank has meditation rooms specifically designed for their staff to decompress.  But workplaces also may have other features that can support a meditative practice without necessarily dedicating space to it.  Conference rooms, especially those out of high traffic areas, work really well for seated meditation. My office happens to be located near a park with a labyrinth, which is perfect for a walking meditation.

The Georgetown Waterfront Park in D.C., close to many offices, features a labyrinth. Photo via georgetownwaterfrontpark.org.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration buildings in College Park, Md. have little percussion instrument sounds that beat under a covered walkway between the parking lot and the front of the building, a feature that was not originally designed for meditation, but serves as a focal point for a short sound meditation. Your workplace may have natural or even man-made elements that can serve to pull your mind away from the stress of the day and focus on something else to give it release. The most important requirement for an effective meditation space is that it feels “safe” and free from distraction.

  1. Create time for meditation at work

    Meditation is a helpful stress reduction technique at work anytime, but according to Rains, the ideal time to meditate is before you or your team gets too involved in the workday. The purpose of meditation is to increase awareness. In the early morning hours, you are more aware of what you are feeling as opposed to the end of the day, when you may be too tired to concentrate. Another good time to meditate is after doing some sort of physical activity. Once you have burned off physical energy, it is easier to quiet the mind, especially if you are new at the practice. If you have ever taken a yoga class, you will notice that the sequence of the class generally involves moving in the beginning of the session and a meditation practice at the end for this very reason, and indeed, many yoga practices are designed to prepare the body to sit in meditation without being fidgety.

Resources to help you begin and maintain your mindfulness practice

For many of us — especially for Type A East Coasters like me — slowing down a bit and paying attention, especially at work, takes some practice.  If you are interested in trying mindfulness or other styles of meditation at work, I highly recommend downloading a couple of apps on your phone like Headspace or Buddhify2. They both are guided meditations that can be customized to your workday and some of the sessions are as short at 3 minutes. Also, to learn more about how companies have adopted mindfulness successfully, check bookshelves near you for Mindful Work by David Gelles.

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