Mindfulness in the workplace: magic bullet or minefield?

Is mindfulness – having a purposeful awareness of the little things and switching off from auto-pilot – a miracle or a myth?

Mindfulness flower

Mindfulness – that mishmash of Eastern philosophy and contemporary neuroscience – is encouraged at Google, Goldman Sachs, the Bank of England, TfL, the NHS… It’s the Pokémon Go of management fads. But does it actually offer any benefits for the workplace?

What is it?

Mindfulness is broadly defined as deliberately maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and your immediate environment in order to still the mind.

This is achievable either through meditation or more informal mindfulness. For instance, you might try to maintain a purposeful awareness of tasks you usually complete on autopilot, like commuting or eating your lunch.

In short, it’s about being present in the moment.

A 2007 study distinguished two ways of experiencing the world: the “default network” and the “direct experience network”. The “default network”, is active for most of your waking moments. It’s concerned with constructing narrative and meaning around your sensory experience, so it’s involved in planning and strategising. The “direct experience network” focuses on immediate stimuli – the warmth of the sunlight on your face, the ripples on the water in your glass.

But why should I do it?

Why practice mindfulness

With the constant plan-making and past-raking your brain usually goes through in the default network – “what am I going to have for dinner?” or “I wish I’d said that at the meeting” – you give it no time to rest. This can lead you to feeling overwhelmed or stressed.

Instead, by concentrating on the little things in your direct experience network, your brain can pause, even for just a minute or two, and come back feeling clearer. Think of it as a soft reset for your mind. As a result, mindfulness can promote calm, improve your attention span, help reduce stress, dull pain, and increase your capacity for empathy. This makes it perfect for staying productive, keeping office politics in check and dealing with tricky clients.

But is mindfulness really all it’s cracked up to be?

The mindfulness minefield

Thanks to the “always on” workplace, employers can now feel more obliged to look after their employees’ emotional health. That said, it can appear oppressive, not to mention creepy, if you try and foist mindfulness on your employees. By all means suggest it if a stressed employee comes to you, but you should nurture mindfulness from the bottom up, not impose it from above.

Similarly, trying to push mindfulness too hard can be seen as something of a pacifier. It is generally better to be calm and collected than wound up and stressed, but not in all workplace situations. Nerves before a presentation, for instance, give you that adrenaline rush to perform well. Emotions such as excitement, awe, anger, anxiety all have their place.

What’s more, you shouldn’t use mindfulness as a way to retreat or escape from difficult or stressful situations. Some problems require more thought, analysis and planning. There’s a reason our default network (described above) is the more active of the two – it’s incredibly useful for organising our lives and making strategic decisions. Mindfulness, and the clarity it can provide, therefore, should complement your strategic and rational thought processes, not replace them.

And, finally, mindful thought is not necessarily the greatest path to creativity. How often have you wrestled with a tough decision only to find the answer when you’re concentrating on something else? In other words, your brain going on autopilot is not always a bad thing. It allows you to make connections you might not make consciously.

Be mindful of mindfulness

Mindfulness definitely has its uses – a cooler, calmer workplace is no bad thing. But emotions – and even some auto-pilot moments – have a place, too. So don’t try to force it if it’s a bad fit for you or your employees – it’s definitely not for everyone. Instead, give those who seek it guidance on how to find the right balance between mindfulness and emotion.

Hat tip to mindfulness for the photo.

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