The concept of mindfulness—the ability to be in the present, aware, and not overly reactive—comes from Buddhist philosophy and has been practiced in various forms for thousands of years. Long recognized as a powerful wellness and stress-reduction tool for individuals, it’s drawn more attention from employers in recent years, based on a growing body of research highlighting the benefits it can offer in the workplace.
“We’ve definitely seen an uptick in the type of companies and organizations that are open to [mindfulness] training,” Anna Greenwald of On the Goga, a Philadelphia-based corporate wellness firm that provides workshops and trainings involving mindfulness, told The FruitGuys Magazine. “It’s become a buzzword in the corporate space because it’s so widely used.”
One study, published in the Journal of Management in 2016 by researchers at Case Western Reserve University, found that “injecting a corporate culture of mindfulness not only improves focus, but the ability to manage stress and how employees work together.”
So how does Greenwald define mindfulness? “Mindfulness is the skill of being aware of what is actually happening at any given moment, without wishing it were different.” Mindfulness creates space between ourselves and our reactions, and research shows that doing this regularly can literally rewire your brain to become more efficient and your experiences more positive.
This is an invaluable skill to practice in professional settings, as well as in other aspects of life, especially when you feel pulled in a million directions by work deadlines and family obligations.
Greenwald shared four important benefits mindfulness can provide and how to adopt it in all kinds of workplaces:
1. Improved focus
In a world of constant interruption, from Slack chats to push notifications, high priority emails and urgent meeting requests, it’s often hard to focus on the primary task you’re trying to accomplish—and to actually get it done in the timeframe you need.
When you find yourself overwhelmed, or unsure where to turn, the simple act of paying attention to your breath is a great mindfulness practice. “Deep breathing helps you think more clearly, and helps you get focused,” Greenwald says. It also helps to interrupt circular thought patterns, such as anxiety. “Slow, deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous response,” which is the opposite of the anxious, fight-or-flight impulse, Greenwald explains. Deep breathing naturally reduces our levels of stress, bringing our awareness to the present moment.
Mindfulness methods that can help bring your attention to the present include:
- Paying attention to your breath;
- focusing on how it feels to be sitting in your desk chair; and/or
- focusing on what you’re doing with your hands.
2. Greater emotional intelligence
Another key element of mindfulness is active listening (also known as mindful listening). This means training your full attention on the person in front of you and what they’re communicating—not judging or leaping to immediate conclusions, not letting your mind wander to an upcoming deadline, not waiting for the chance to jump into a conversation and get your point across.
Not only will you retain more information this way, but you’re also showing the speaker that you’re open to what they’re saying. And as a consequence of suspending your biases and judgments, Greenwald explains, “You’re seeing your coworkers with a little more sympathy, more humor, a little bit differently.”
She stresses that mindfulness “isn’t about being calm or handling a situation perfectly,” but rather focusing on things as they are and not inflating them by our own reactivity. Once you create this awareness, she says, “You can stop taking things so personally.”
Practicing mindfulness offers holistic benefits and a means for personal growth as well, both individually and professionally. “It’s great for stress reduction but it’s also great for emotional intelligence,” Greenwald says, adding that mindfulness connects with the literature on leadership and sales and the skills that make people successful at those activities.
3. More positivity
Mindfulness and positive psychology have strong and long-standing connections. That’s because mindfulness is a powerful tool to interrupt negative thought patterns by shifting your attention to the present moment.
As Harvard psychologist Shawn Achor notes in his TEDTalk, “The Happy Secret to Better Work,” there’s a growing body of evidence that “[t]he lens through which your brain views the world…shapes your reality. And if we can change the lens, not only can we change your happiness, we can change every single educational and business outcome at the same time.”
This is important because as Greenwald points out, our workplaces rarely resemble the peaceful spaces that many of us picture when we think of mindfulness or meditation.
“It’s one thing to be mindful when you’re sitting beside a babbling brook,” she says. “It’s another level of skill to cultivate mindfulness when you’ve just walked out of a really shitty sales meeting.”
Even in active stress, the simple act of breathing deeply can help you refocus and interrupt anxious or negative thought patterns: you take a moment to “check” yourself, label your thoughts without judgment, and then shift your attention to something a bit more positive or more productive.
With consistent practice, Greenwald says, “You can cultivate a sense of control, cultivate a sense of ease—and that creates a more positive inner monologue.”
[Read more about the Art of Happiness at work]
4. Higher productivity
Cultivating a positive mindset can have a big impact on your performance at work as well.
As Achor notes in his TEDTalk, research has shown that “[y]our brain at positive is 31% more productive than your brain at negative, neutral, or stressed. You’re 37% better at sales. Doctors are 19% faster, more accurate at coming up with the correct diagnosis when positive.”
Baby Steps to Mindfulness
All of this makes a strong case for bringing mindfulness practices into your life, and into your workplace. Greenwald stresses that anyone (“even the most type-A, hard driving professional”) can learn to practice it by starting with small steps, such as focused breathing, active listening, and bringing attention to the present without judgement.
Greenwald recommends business leaders consider mindfulness training for their teams. “When you train your mind to become mindful,” Greenwald says, “you can train it to do another million awesome things.”
- “All it takes is 10 mindful minutes” – TEDTalk by Andy Puddicome, founder of Headspace
- The Foundation for A Mindful Society is a mission-driven non-profit that promotes mindfulness and provides a number of resources for first timers, including their Getting Started with Mindfulness guide.
Elisabeth Flynn is a freelance writer who lives and works outside Philadelphia. She writes about food, fitness, workplace culture, and personal finance.