Mindfulness, a practice that consists of paying attention and being in the moment, is having a moment of its own. The bookstores are dotted with volumes on how to use mindfulness to reduce anxiety or relearn how to taste food. Anderson Cooper recently had a mindfulness awakening of his own when reporting on it for 60 Minutes, asserting that mindfulness helped him change his life by training him to live in the present rather than worrying about the future or dwelling on the past.
But can mindfulness, a practice that urges calm reflection and quiet inwardness, be integrated into our productivity-oriented workplaces?
At Headspace, which offers web-based meditation courses and content, employees have the opportunity to “Take 10” in one of the meeting rooms every day. The optional sessions, named for the introductory course available at headspace.com, usually start with a casual message announcing a time and room where people can meet without making it seem like just another thing on their to-do list for the day. It also serves as a regular reminder for employees to practice what they preach by focusing on the present moment.
“I think it’s important that people know that taking time out to meditate, even in their working day, isn’t slacking off,” Headspace founder Andy Puddicombe told The FruitGuys. “Sure, it takes 10 minutes, but you’ll come back to your work refreshed.”
Indeed, mindfulness slows the speed of the mind to make room for creativity in a fast-paced environment that too-often equates speed with productivity. Michael Carroll, author of Awake at Work: 35 Practical Buddhist Principles for Discovering Clarity and Balance in the Midst of Work's Chaos, says mindfulness can also make us better communicators because it allows us to drop our own lenses and listen to others completely on their own terms. Finally, it can help prevent employees from becoming blinded by the negativity of a situation and see it better as a whole.
Mindfulness and Stress
“It’s estimated that people in the United States have the fight-or-flight response go off about 50 times a day,” says Lynn Rossy, a health psychologist at the University of Missouri who founded its Mindfulness Practice Center. “We can’t fight or flee from our desks, so we need to do something to kick in our parasympathetic nervous system.”
Luckily, the parasympathetic nervous system, which works to slow the heart rate and calm us in stressful situations, can be activated by a different, more office-friendly technique: meditation.
Meditation and mindfulness can have almost immediate benefits. Recent research from Carnegie Mellon University showed that just 25 minutes of mindfulness meditation for three consecutive days alleviated psychological stress for study subjects. Long-term practice can bring even bigger benefits, according to a Harvard University study that found people who participated in an eight-week mindfulness program increased gray matter in areas of the brain associated with learning and memory, and in structures tied to self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.
Bringing mindfulness to the workplace can be tricky, and implementing it has to fit the organization. “The first thing an individual can do is to show up for work as a mindful person,” says Carroll, who, in more than 30 years of business experience, has held human resources executive positions at The Walt Disney Company and others. “That sort of presence is very powerful."
Sharon Salzberg, author of Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement, and Peace, says that employees who are interested in mindfulness could also suggest some simple collective practices aimed at increasing mindfulness in the workplace. Salzberg, whose book includes several brief “stealth meditations” for individuals, as well as formal meditations that take about 10 to 20 minutes, recommends introducing a time of day in which everyone agrees not to multitask, turning off email and minimizing other distractions to focus intently.
“Another is practicing deep listening, not texting or doing something else while a colleague is talking, but actually listening, then having a moment of silence between comments,” she told The FruitGuys. “A third is having some kind of mindfulness bell (maybe a signal from computers) ping randomly, inviting coworkers to stop, take a breath, then resume what they were doing.”
Salzberg also offers this idea for gaining focus before a big presentation or meeting: “Spend one to three minutes doing one simple activity without multitasking. Drink a cup of coffee, get up and stretch or walk down the hall while trying to concentrate on the physical sensations of your breath and body.”
Experts caution that mindfulness is not the latest productivity-boosting tool, but an approach to strengthening the health and well-being of anyone and everyone in the workplace.
"Typically, we tend to inflict the solutions onto the organization,” says Michael Carroll. “But mindfulness is not about ‘solving work’—it’s about inspiring the best in ourselves and others.” Carroll recommends those who don’t already meditate should start with themselves. "The very first and indispensable thing is to meditate every day. It's like taking a shower or running. To be a runner, you have to run,” Carroll says, "because mindfulness is not a technique. It’s a way of being at work."
Charlene Oldham is a St. Louis, MO–based journalist.