Workplace mindfulness – what it is and what it isn’t

Phillippe Michel

Mindfulness meditation is decidedly in vogue. Books,TV, radio, magazines and blogs – you name it. Private sector technology giants such Google and Intel have provided highly visible case-studies of workplace mindfulness for other organisations to admire and emulate. The public sector, especially in the UK, has also been keen to hop on board. What should we think? Is this another fad or something worthwhile?

Bold claims have been made about mindfulness being the solution to all workplace ills. Accurate or not, it should go without saying that it will not solve any outstanding issues with management, pay or autonomy (Dane & Brummel, 2013). However, there is a mounting pool of clinical research pointing to its effectiveness in building resilience and preventing burnout (Roeser et al 2013) and facilitating job satisfaction and performance (Hülsheger et al. 2013). Mindfulness can therefore be beneficial for both the individual and the workplace. With this in mind, it is not surprising that organisations are increasingly opting for mindfulness training.

So what is it? An often-cited definition of mindfulness provided by Jon Kabat-Zinn provides three main elements: “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment”. This non-judgemental observation is said to allow individuals to detach themselves from their thoughts and feelings with the aim of promoting awareness, insight, compassion and coping.

This is primarily achieved through regular mindfulness meditation practice which   may conjure up a few pre-conceptions to some: a potentially religious, spiritual, ‘new-agey’ discipline, linked primarily to self-development, exploring the mind and body and achieving altered mental states. So why does this have relevance in the workplace?

Firstly, over recent years, meditation has been broadly demystified and secularised, and has opened up the very real benefits for organisations and the people who populate them. Organisations that incorporate well-being into their holistic culture and strategy tend to reap the benefits from it. Providing the space to practice, or better still creating a culture of mindfulness, plays an important role in long-term positive outcomes.

There are a couple of caveats though…

It’s not a quick fix

Mindfulness training won’t be the solution for an already flawed workplace. It won’t solve workplace bullying or dissatisfaction over low pay. Also, because mindfulness is in vogue and seen by some as new, healthy, trendy, inexpensive and scientifically credible, there is the temptation to jump on the bandwagon rather than possess a genuine desire to improve wellbeing at work. How things are done is probably more important than what is being offered. If the new mindfulness course is being advertised as the best way to stay focused and stop complaining, that could be a bad sign!

You need to practice

Like any skill, the strongest results follow practice. This brings us closer to the crux of the challenge posed by mindfulness. Meditation is a discipline with potential, but it puts the onus firmly on the individual’s commitment to regular practice.

This could mean 10 minutes of meditation practice daily or perhaps 40 minutes three times a week. It’s about finding what works for you, your schedule and your habits. You’re the expert on what things you tend to keep at or stop doing. You may find that you prefer meditating at work, or practicing first thing in the morning or last thing at night. Many people have found that supplementing their regular meditation with short breathing or focusing exercises throughout the day is beneficial. This may be among the quickest and most discrete methods of practicing mindfulness at work, especially if longer meditation sessions are impossible ‘on-the-job’. It appears that establishing regular mindfulness practice is something that requires a degree of self-awareness, organization and discipline.

Mindfulness at work – for employers:

Examining what it takes to do well highlights what we’re really asking of employers when introducing mindfulness programmes:

  • The best results seem to appear when employers provide high quality mindfulness teaching to engaged and informed employees;
  • Key markers for success as well as engaged employees is management support and allowances for employees to practice meditation at work;
  • Being clear on what mindfulness is, what is on offer and the level of support the employer is giving;
  • Trusting that a mostly long-term, subjective, private and invisible intervention will produce results.

Mindfulness meditation is beneficial whether you learn it yourself, through a course or at work. You don’t need to wait for someone to offer you the perfect programme for you to experiment. You may have been faced with a poorly run mindfulness programme in the past – don’t let that put you off, no matter how you think you did. By engaging with such potential benefits, organisations aren’t playing with fire; they’re making use of moments of peace. This is why mindfulness is here to stay, and through it, there is a huge opportunity to bring more moments of peace to the place where we spend the most of our lives.