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Workplace Wellness: How to Reduce Stress with Mindfulness

Mindfulness is gaining huge popularity in the corporate world. But what on earth is it? Just a trendy buzzword, or something that can actually reduce stress in your life?

Mindfulness is technically a form of meditation, and this fact alone makes many people skeptical. We imagine beautiful models sitting cross-legged on the beach at sunset, praying in a perfectly manicured Zen garden, or doing impossibly flexible yoga poses on a mountain peak.

Luckily the reality of meditation is quite different, especially in the workplace. You don’t need fancy gear, a killer body or dramatic scenery to reap the benefits of mindfulness. All you need is a quiet room!

Even better, regular mindfulness sessions in the workplace can have amazing impacts on the health and happiness of individual staff. And this is bound to have a flow-on effect for your business. Mindfulness programs have also been shown to boost employee morale, productivity and creativity.

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What is mindfulness?

Have you ever caught a bus home from work and barely remembered the journey? Walked into a room without knowing why? Eaten a whole pack of cookies without realising? This is called operating on auto-pilot, and it’s the opposite of mindfulness. In our busy lives it’s easy to fall into auto-pilot as we go about daily routines.

Now instead, imagine eating a freshly baked cookie and being completely absorbed in the feelings and sensations of that moment. The sweet smell, the crunch, the lingering taste of chocolate and buttery goodness. The happiness and satisfaction you get with each bite. That’s what we call mindfulness.

Practicing mindfulness means focusing your attention consciously and deliberately on the present moment. You make yourself aware of present feelings, sensations and the environment around you. In this focused state your mind is less likely to be swept up in abstract thoughts and anxieties, especially about the past or future. You’re living and existing purely ‘in the now’.

Mindfulness can be practiced both formally and informally. Informal practice means simply becoming more mindful in your daily life, e.g. focusing on the present while sitting in traffic or enjoying a meal. But mindfulness can also be practiced as formal meditative sessions, and many workplaces are beginning to incorporate these. Whichever way you practice mindfulness, flow-on benefits can last well beyond the session itself.

In fact, a 2011 Harvard Business Review study found that practicing mindfulness can literally change your brain. After participants completed an 8 week mindfulness program, researchers observed significant increases in the density of grey matter in the hippocampus. This part of the brain helps learning and memory, as well as compassion and introspection.

The researchers concluded that mindfulness shouldn’t be viewed as a “nice-to-have” for business leaders, but as a “must-have” for keeping our brains healthy at work.

The benefits of mindfulness…

The benefits of mindfulness and meditation are increasingly recognised in the scientific community. Here are just a few of the positive effects you might experience with frequent practice...

  • Stress reduction. Practicing mindfulness has been shown to decrease the levels of cortisol (stress hormone) in our bodies. Not only does it lower our stress in the present, it can also help us reduce stress long-term and in response to future events. We become better at coping with difficulties.
  • Heightened emotional intelligence. Mindfulness seems to makes people more compassionate. A 2013 study found that those who took part in meditation classes were more likely to help others in pain or distress, taking action when others didn’t (going against the “bystander effect”).
  • More creativity. Innovation and creative thinking happen in the neocortex of the brain. For our neocortex to function well, we need to clear our mind of reptilian reactions (fight or flight) and emotional thoughts. Mindfulness helps to do this.
  • Better health. There have even been studies which show mindfulness can stop you from getting sick as often. Research has shown that regular meditation can help prevent the onset and severity of acute respiratory infections.

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Big corporations are jumping on board…

It’s not just the scientific community - mindfulness is also gaining a big reputation in the corporate world. Global corporations are jumping on the craze by offering training programs and sessions to eager employees.

At Google, thousands of employees are sent on ‘Search Inside Yourself’ courses for intensive training. During these sessions staff are taught ways of coping with stress and emotions, and they practice meditation together. Google also offers a bi-monthly event called “Mindful Lunches” where staff sit in complete silence apart from the ringing of prayer bells.

Apple is also well-known for its promotion of meditation in the workplace. The late Steve Jobs was a big fan of meditation retreats, and was married in a Buddhist Zen ceremony. These personal values had a big influence on his management style. Apple provides a range of meditation facilities and yoga classes on site, and some employees spend up to 30 minutes each day meditating at work.

Even retail giant Nike have started providing their employees with access to relaxation rooms at work. These can be used to sleep, pray, meditate or practice mindfulness. They also offer meditation training and yoga classes at several of their offices around the world.

How to create an effective mindfulness program…

All sounds pretty amazing, doesn’t it? If its fans are to be believed, mindfulness can make your staff less stressed, happier, and more productive at work. It’s no wonder that many smaller companies are also starting to make it part of their workplace culture.

Offering a mindfulness program can even be an incentive to attract new talent and retain current employees, minimising turnover. It’s a way of differentiating yourself from competitors, and it shows that you value the wellbeing of your staff.

Keen to implement a program at your workplace? Here are some basic tips before you leap in:

  • Hold an anonymous survey first to gauge the level of staff interest
  • Opt for inclusive group sessions rather than intensive one-on-one courses
  • Have classes at different times during the week, so employees have options and flexibility
  • Make sure staff are informed about all possible benefits and risks
  • Bring a professional in for guidance and mindfulness training
  • Encourage staff to keep journals of their progress
  • Recognise that mindfulness won’t be right for everyone, and offer alternative options (staff yoga sessions, walk-a-thons, designated quiet rooms, meditation apps like Headspace and Calm)

The book Mindfulness in Plain English is an excellent guide for beginners wanting to know more.

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A word of caution…

Please note that mindfulness may not be right for everyone. Mindfulness is like exercise - when practiced safely it can provide amazing benefits, but there will always be a small degree of risk. Any program in the workplace should be entirely voluntary, and staff should be informed about possible negative effects as well as benefits.

When starting out, some people may feel hopeless or frustrated during meditation. Usually perseverance will resolve this - but in very rare cases people may suffer anxiety, traumatic memories resurfacing, or panic attacks.

Ensure that everyone who participates at your work is well-informed about these possibilities.  Employees with a history of mental illness should seek advice from a mental health professional before engaging in mindfulness programs.

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Have you tried mindfulness at work? We’d love to hear your thoughts on meditation as a form of stress relief.

And if work is making you exhausted, emotional or crazy, maybe it’s time to reconsider your work/life balance.... Read our 7 tips for avoiding work burnout.

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