The Role of Workplace Mindfulness

HR executives are quickly catching on to just how much potential there is in workplace mindfulness initiatives. In recent years there has been a surge in interest and it really does look like mindfulness at work is about to undergo the same process of acceptance in the office that yoga and massage have.

Just ten to fifteen years ago, presenting the idea of running a lunchtime mindfulness class for employees to the board, would have likely caused more than a few “hippy nonsense” comments.  However, as time has passed the negative mental and physical effects of workplace stress on employees has been shown over and over again. Not to mention the considerable financial impact to companies losing staff time to stress and illness. According to HSE’s latest research stress affects one in five of the working population from the newest recruits, all the way up to the board of directors. It is now the single biggest cause of sickness in the UK and over 105 million days are lost to stress each year – costing UK employers £1.24 billion.

Simultaneously research into the effects of mindfulness at work and in all areas of life has been growing, and now has considerable weight behind it to argue the business case for workplace mindfulness initiatives. When you look at the ways in which stress actually affects employees, and the benefits of practising mindfulness meditation, it’s obvious why it works.

The latest research shows that mindfulness enhances focus and attention, increases self-awareness, as well as awareness of others, and raises levels of resilience and emotional intelligence, which results in a person feeling calmer, happier and more fulfilled overall. At work, stressed employees commonly report feelings of anxiety and being overwhelmed by their workload, feeling unappreciated by colleagues, managers and the company and unable to ask for the support they need for fear of looking like they can’t cope and losing their job.

Introducing workplace mindfulness sessions is effective at combating these issues in so many ways. Firstly and perhaps most importantly, offering mindfulness to employees at work, signals that the company has considered their needs and the fact that they might experience stress at work. This is psychologically significant for employees and gives them the sense that the organisation wants to support them, which can go a very long way to preventing initial stress turning into full blown illness and long term sickness. Feeling stressed is often accompanied by feelings of being alone and unsupported, so the fact that there is somewhere to turn and that your employer has provided that support is significant and inspires employee loyalty.

Secondly feelings of stress at work or in any area of life tend to be characterised by a sense of not being able to cope.  This sense manifests itself in thoughts of exactly that nature, for example “I can’t do this anymore”, “I don’t know how I’m supposed to do this,” “I’m not capable of doing this,” “I can’t manage,” “I need help.” Mindfulness meditation works to combat this in two ways; firstly it helps a person identify that these thoughts are there in the first place, and to understand they are nothing more than that – thoughts. Thoughts aren’t facts and simply by bringing awareness to the thoughts swirling around in the mind creates some relief from the effect the thoughts have.

Mindfulness also helps a person to look at their stress without becoming involved in it, as if they’re watching somebody else experience their stress. This brings perspective on what the actual stressors in a person’s life are, and which are being created by the mind by thoughts of “not being able to cope,” or the like. This is very empowering and it gives a person the chance to stop increasing their stress by running over issues in their mind and magnifying those to overwhelming levels. This is such a simple change to make to the way we relate to stress, yet it doesn’t even occur to most of us until we have been taught.

Mindfulness in the workplace is happening more and more at the moment and I think it has the opportunity to potentially create even greater benefits for employees than yoga or massage. It is so much more than simply a dose of office relaxation or a momentary escape from stress, it actually helps a person understand and manage themselves to such a degree that they don’t get to the point of being stressed out in the first place. With a commitment from employers, mindfulness teachers who understand the workplace and willing staff, mindfulness at work could really be the next big thing.

Author Ashleigh Murphy