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The Case For Mindfulness In The Workplace

Why modern organisations are embracing this ancient practice

Originally Published in the American Chamber of Commerce Trinidad and Tobago (AMCHAM TT) Linkage Magazine, December 2018

Our jobs help us to pay our bills, enjoy a certain lifestyle, and add fulfillment and meaning to our lives – but they can also be stressful. Today’s “24/7 always-on” lifestyle increasingly blurs the separation between work and leisure time. Add a tough economy, job-cuts, personal challenges and ever increasing workplace demands and you have the key ingredients for a stress epidemic at every employee level, stifling the growth, innovation, and competitive advantage of your organisation. In today’s challenging economy your organisation relies on these skills now more than ever. Mindfulness can help.

Having its roots in ancient eastern traditions, modern day mindfulness is often defined as paying attention, nonjudgmentally and on purpose. It allows one to pause amid the constant inflow of stimuli and consciously decide how to act, rather than reacting reflexively with ingrained behavior patterns. It’s the intentional cultivation of positive mind states such as kindness and compassion, toward yourself and others. Put most simply, mindfulness is a way to train the mind and improve focus, and this once considered “alternative practice” is increasingly finding its way into Fortune 500 companies worldwide, forming a regular part of their creativity and wellness culture. The Harvard Business Review calls it the new “crucial soft-skill in business”.

The tensions of life in the early 21st century have certainly created an urgent demand for it. The dangers of chronic stress - the prolonged day-in/day-out emotional strain that wears on the mind and body - cannot be overstated. The World Health Organization refers to stress as “the health epidemic of the 21st Century”, and estimates that stress and its related illness, absenteeism, and presenteeism, costs organisations as much as USD $300 billion a year worldwide. Undoubtedly, when employees within an organisation suffer from a high degree of stress, overall efficiency and productivity substantially decreases, and the organsiation becomes besieged by high absenteeism, high labour turnover, and poor performance and productivity – all which directly impacts the bottom line.

This could be one of the reasons why many companies, from Google to General Mills, are embracing corporate mindfulness programmes. Google’s famous “Search Inside Yourself” mindfulness course has been offered since 2007 and has a six-month wait list. General Mills has trained three-hundred employees and ninety senior leaders in mindfulness since 2006, and Target has a Meditating Merchants programme since 2010. Organisations that have offered in-house mindfulness training for their staff report noticeable and sustained improvements in performance and productivity indices, reduced errors and workplace accidents, reduced absenteeism and burnout, and greater innovation and creativity. US insurance giant, Atena, calculated that productivity gains alone were about USD $3,000 per employee, equaling an eleven-to-one return on investment, after offering mindfulness programmes throughout its organisation. They also found that employees became more effective, gaining an average of 62 minutes per week of added productivity.

Another reason why many organisations offer mindfulness training is because it’s backed by hard science. Mindfulness meditation has been subject to hundreds of randomised clinical trials over the last 30 years, and the findings have found it to be a reliable means of reducing the intensity and frequency of the physiological, emotional and behavioural effects of stress. Because mindfulness practices work on the actual shape and structure of the brain, research shows that it seems to reduce the stress we cognitively and physically experience in ways that we can verifiably measure, through measures like heart-rate variability and cortisol levels. What does this mean? That mindfulness practice changes us from the inside - out, in ways that are measurable, quantifiable, and largely positive.

It makes sense then for companies to offer this heath-boosting, stress-reducing, brain-training technique in the workplace, which is undoubtedly a major source of stress for many. You may not have a wellness budget to match Google, Atena, or General Mills, but there are some simple, practical ways you can make your workplace a more mindful one, and help your employees reduce the effects of stress on the mind and body. Try incorporating a “mindful minute” into meetings to allow employees to settle down in the mind and body. Encourage employees to sprinkle mindful moments throughout their day way by taking a few conscious breaths in and out before reaching to answer the telephone, getting out into green spaces during their lunch break and noticing what’s around them, or create a meditation space out of a little used conference room or office. You can offer in-house mindfulness programmes, or work with a consultant to help create a more mindful organisation from top to bottom. Simply bringing awareness to the practice,  and providing some practical guidelines aimed at cultivating a more mindful work environment, can make a huge impact on the health and wellbeing of your workforce. Your employees, and bottom-line, will thank you for it.

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