Stress At Work And Our "New Normal"
While organisational culture will vary from company to company, one thing we all have in common no matter where we work is that work seems to be more stressful than ever. Today’s 24/7-hyperconnected-fast paced-always available lifestyle increasingly blurs the separation between work and leisure time, resulting in elevated levels of stress that linger well beyond the end of the workday. Add a global pandemic, fragile economy, job-losses, health concerns, remote working, social isolation, homeschooling, and loss of life in the hundreds of thousands to the mix, and you have the key ingredients for a stress epidemic at every employee level. On a macro-level, the next few months will be critical ones as we focus on saving our businesses and preserving our economy. At a micro-level, organisations that want to maintain their competitive advantage will be paying closer attention to mitigating the emotional fallout of this pandemic on their workforce by supporting employee mental health and wellbeing.
The stresses and strains of our "new-normal", and the micro and macro challenges that come with it, have underscored the importance of managing stress at work. Understandably, employees are more stressed, anxious, and distracted than ever, and 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 workplace afflictions - illness, absenteeism, presenteeism, turnover, interpersonal conflict, and reduced productivity - cost organisations as much as USD $300 billion a year worldwide. An organisation that is besieged by a high degree of unchecked employee stress is especially vulnerable to threats in its operating environment, and the impact of COVID-19 is prompting organisations to look more closely at how they can support their employees’ mental health. The good news is mindfulness can help.
What Is Mindfulness?
Having its roots in ancient eastern traditions, modern-day mindfulness in its present secular incarnation is defined as paying attention, nonjudgmentally, on purpose, in the present moment; which sounds simple enough but in practice is no easy feat. Mindfulness practice reduces the impact of chronic stress on the mind and body and is often referred to as "brain-training", or "mental-reps" for your brain. When we are mindful, we are able to pause amid the near-constant inflow of stimuli and information and consciously decide how we want to respond, rather than reacting reflexively based on unexamined, unconscious, and ingrained behavior patterns - which may not always be helpful in the moment. Put most simply, mindfulness is a way to train the mind to pay attention to what you want to pay attention to, rather than allowing your mind to be hijacked by stress and challenging emotions. Consistent practice can help cultivate positive mind states such as kindness and compassion toward yourself and others, and improve focus, attention, and concentration. This once considered “alternative practice” is increasingly finding its way into many Fortune 500 companies worldwide like Google, General Mills, Microsoft, EY, Nike, and Goldman Sachs, permeating their performance and wellness culture. The Harvard Business Review calls it the new “crucial soft-skill in business”.
Why Mindfulness At Work?
Organisations that offer in-house mindfulness training report noticeable and sustained improvements in performance and productivity indices, reduced errors and workplace accidents, reduced absenteeism and burnout, and greater innovation and creativity. This could be one of the reasons why many companies, from Google to General Mills, are embracing workplace mindfulness programmes. Google’s famous “Search Inside Yourself” mindfulness course has been offered since 2007 and has a six-month waitlist. General Mills has trained three-hundred employees and ninety senior leaders in mindfulness since 2006, and Target has a Meditating Merchants programme since 2010. 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 to employees may be because mindfulness practice, and by extension the training expense, is backed by good science. Mindfulness meditation has been subject to hundreds of randomised clinical trials over the last 30 years, and research shows it is a reliable means of reducing both the intensity and frequency of the physiological, emotional, and behavioural impact of chronic stress on an individual. Because mindfulness practices work on the actual shape and structure of the brain, we can verifiably measure its impact on the stress response through measures like heart-rate variability and cortisol levels. What does this all mean? That mindfulness practice changes us from the inside - out, in ways that are measurable, quantifiable, and largely positive.
Mindfulness In The Time Of Covid-19
Mindfulness in the workplace gives employees the practical real-life tools to keep operations going while managing the considerable stress and anxiety that accompany this pandemic. You may not have a wellness budget to match Google or General Mills, but there are some simple ways you can make your workplace a more mindful one at this time, even as many of us work from home. Online video conferencing software has made it possible for companies to start (or continue with) in-house mindfulness training with a qualified mindfulness teacher, so their employees have the support they need to take care of their mental health and stay focused and on task during these difficult times. Employees can also be encouraged to take care of their wellbeing by sprinkling mindful moments throughout their day. Try incorporating a “mindful minute” at the start of Zoom meetings to allow employees to settle down in the mind and body. Taking mini breathing breaks, doing some mindful stretches at the workstation, or having a self-care ritual to help transition into home-life at the end of the workday can also be helpful. If you are a people leader, ensure you are taking time to prioritize your own well-being. Steps like these may seem small, but they are powerful aids in cultivating a more mindful work environment. A little focused attention, practiced with intention, can make a huge impact on the health, productivity, and wellbeing of your workforce - which ultimately impacts the bottom line.