Demystifying mindfulness in the workplace

There are a number of steps in creating a programme that’s right for your employees

While the benefits of mindfulness are well established by clinical research, evidence from the workplace is still in its infancy

While the benefits of mindfulness are well established by clinical research, evidence from the workplace is still in its infancy

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Mindfulness is fast becoming the solution of choice to tackle employee stress in the workplace. However, the idea of implementing a mindfulness programme divides opinion in many organisations due, in part, to some questions about its origins and aims.

Is mindfulness a religion? Mindfulness is simply a human capacity, a capacity to notice our experience, in the present moment, with an open and allowing attitude. While it is rooted in Buddhism, mindfulness programmes developed for the workplace are secular forms of training which teach employees to cultivate this capacity.

Is mindfulness the same as meditation? Meditation provides the opportunity to become aware of our experiences as they are. However, just as with physical exercise, there are many forms of mediation and mindfulness mediation is one form.

It is also possible to practice mindfulness without meditating by adopting the same awareness and open attitude cultivated during formal meditation practice to our daily interactions at work.

Does mindfulness create passive employees? Many writers have expressed concerns about mindfulness creating employees who “tune out” from difficult situations at work, perhaps leaving others to pick up the pieces. On the contrary, mindfulness is about “waking up” to our experiences rather than avoiding them.

Similarly, concerns have been voiced that mindfulness training teaches employees how to endure a toxic work environment. In reality, many have left organisations with unhealthy work practices or re-negotiated their role after completing a mindfulness course.

For organisations who wish to introduce mindfulness, there are a number of steps in creating a programme that’s right for your employees.

Establish your business case: While the benefits of mindfulness are well established by clinical research, evidence from the workplace is still in its infancy.

Claims of improvements in work-related outcomes including wellbeing, resilience, interpersonal relationships, creativity and performance are increasingly supported by research. There are many reported examples, mostly from Britain and the United States, of organisations using mindfulness – from Google and General Mills to the British Parliament and US Army.

Innovations are also ongoing across Ireland in SMEs and public sector organisations which have yet to be reported.

Decide on your format: The traditional teacher-led programmes of mindfulness based stress reduction and mindfulness based cognitive therapy have the strongest evidence base to date. These programmes typically facilitate groups ranging from 10 to 30 people and are delivered over eight weekly classes of two- hours duration, with 40 minutes of assigned daily practice.

As these courses require substantial cost and commitment, shorter and more flexible options have also been designed for the workplace. These range from shorter teacher-led courses, and virtual webinars, to self-paced apps which can be very useful for organisations with varying schedules or remote working.

However these variations have a more limited evidence base and lack the support offered by working face-to-face with a teacher and a group. It is also believed that a course of at least six to eight weeks is required for employees to form new habits.

Mandatory enrolment is a debated issue: While those who might benefit most from mindfulness are often the least inclined to sign up to a course, voluntary self-selection facilitates a stronger group dynamic within classes.

Find the right teacher: Although a professional body of mindfulness practitioners is only now in the process of being established in Ireland, there are still a number of criteria an organisation can look for. Ideally, a mindfulness teacher should have teaching experience and completed a rigorous training programme.

Most importantly, a mindfulness teacher should be able to demonstrate a strong commitment to their own personal practice and development in the form of annual retreats and ongoing training and supervision. In the longer term, organisations can also consider the possibility of sponsoring an employee to become a mindfulness trainer and an internal advocate.

Get buy-in: Short taster sessions can be offered to give employees a sense of what a class involves before signing up to a longer course. These sessions can also be used to present the evidence base and dispel the common myths. Offering classes during working hours demonstrates the value placed upon it by the organisation.

Embed it in your culture: Weekly drop-in sessions and designated “quiet spaces” can be set up for those who have already completed a course and wish to maintain their practice. To ensure sustainability, mindfulness can also be integrated with other core organisational processes such as training, performance appraisal and leadership development.

Define and measure success: Deciding how you will measure return on investment from the beginning is crucial. In addition to examining HR data such as sickness absence and staff turnover, staff engagement surveys should be introduced or revised to include well-being indicators and potential psychosocial hazards. This would also contribute to building the much needed evidence base and business case for future investment.

Sarah-Jane Cullinane is an assistant professor of business and administrative studies at Trinity Business School

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