Is there a place for mindfulness in the workplace?
Corporate leaders, researchers, practitioners and employees say “yes.”
As mindfulness continues to grow in popularity among many people, research is expanding on the positive impacts of having an ongoing mindfulness practice. Thousands of published scholarly articles from disciplines such as psychology, neuroscience and medicine have focused on the benefits of mindfulness related to mental health, learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, perspective-taking, the ability to navigate chronic pain, anxiety, stress and other important areas of health and well-being. Research shows that participants in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programs show an increase in gray matter in their brains that contributes to these positive outcomes.
More recently, research on mindfulness is extending into organizational and management sciences as employers in small and large organizations are exploring the impacts of mindfulness practices on their leaders, employees and workplaces. In his book, The Mindful Workplace, author Michael Chaskalson makes a strong case for mindfulness in the workplace and shares examples of how it’s being incorporated into a wide range of organizations including banks, media and technology companies, industry, law, police, military, government and other settings. Chaskalson emphasizes that mindfulness practices are effective in reducing levels of stress and increasing levels of emotional intelligence while also raising self-awareness, increasing interpersonal sensitivity and improving communication skills. In addition, other research suggests that the practice of mindfulness can reduce prejudice and racial bias.
“In today’s workplaces, employees face very real pressures and stressors that can impact their state of mind and mood,” says Lisa Laughman, emotional wellness consultant and employee assistance counselor at Michigan State University (MSU). She adds, “It’s not unusual for people to feel pressured, overwhelmed, exhausted, burned-out, disgruntled and disengaged.” Laughman offers a class at MSU called Sustainable High Performance which focuses on helping employees understand the inside-out nature of their experience so that they can increase their emotional resiliency in the face of very real challenges and opportunities that they encounter at work (and at home). Laughman recently partnered with Michigan State University Extension to integrate information about mindfulness into the two-day workshop so that participants could learn about, experience and practice several formal and informal mindfulness practices.
But what exactly is the practice of mindfulness? Jon Kabat-Zinn, the creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, describes mindfulness as a way of connecting with your life. It involves cultivating attention in a particular way—paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally (“as if your life depended on it, because it does.”) Mindfulness is paying attention to the present “here and now” moment with openness, curiosity, kindness and flexibility. It is about noticing our experience without analyzing, evaluating, critiquing or judging it. It’s about noticing when we’re caught up in fearful thoughts about the past or the future—or when our minds are on auto-pilot—and then gently guiding our focus back to the present moment. Mindfulness also involves the integration of mind, body and emotions in ways that provide powerful pathways to psychological, emotional and physiological health and well-being.
Studies have shown that the practice of mindfulness can increase job satisfaction and decrease the emotional exhaustion that leads to burnout. According to Chaskalson, extending mindfulness to the workplace, “lowers rates of health-related absenteeism, leads to increased concentration and extends one’s attention span. It reduces impulsivity and improves one’s capacity to hold and manipulate information. It lowers levels of psychological distress and raises levels of well-being and overall work and life satisfaction.” In addition, workplaces that encourage the practice of mindfulness with leaders, supervisors and employees may foster a climate of safety, voice and trust that enhances relationships and improves team functioning.