20 Nov

Busting the myths about mindfulness at work

  • November 20, 2016

Charlotte Williams, Director, Mind and Matter, dispels some misconceptions about mindfulness ahead of Mind & Matter 2015, an event all about mindfulness in the workplace taking place this December.

Mental ill health is the leading cause of sickness absence in the UK, with over 15 million absence days attributed to stress, anxiety and depression in 20131. Mental ill health at work is thought to cost UK employers £26bn each year – on average £1,035 per employee.

One technique that can be used to improve mental wellbeing and quality of leadership at work is mindfulness. There’s strong evidence that mindfulness training reduces burnout and stress, and it is increasingly being adopted by the private, public and voluntary sectors.

Organisations including Google, BT, GSK, Morgan Stanley, Aetna and General Mills have praise the benefits of its impacts on wellbeing levels, productivity and absence.

But there’s still some mysticism and scepticism around mindfulness, and the value it can bring to employees and the workplace. Here’s the top seven myths busted.

Myth 1: Mindfulness is difficult to do

Mindfulness simply means focusing one’s attention on the present moment. Like many things the first steps can be tricky, but the more you practice, the easier it gets and the better at it you become.

Plus, even short periods of mindfulness practice can have a positive effect. As Juliet Adams, Author “Mindfulness At Work For Dummies” says, “Studies suggest that even brief periods of mindfulness practice can lead to better reaction times, comprehension scores, and decision-making. Research in workplace settings is also pointing towards improved emotional skills, empathy and leadership.”

Myth 2: Mindfulness is just a nice-to-have, not a key wellbeing intervention

Whilst more research on mindfulness in the workplace is needed, a great many organisations who’ve introduced it have found mindfulness has real benefits for their employees. Research has even found strong evidence that practicing mindfulness actually rewires the brain.

Aetna is an insurance company lead by Mark Bertolini, a strong advocate of mindfulness.  Over a quarter of its 50,000-strong workforce have participated in at least one mindfulness class.

In an evaluation carried out by the company, participants reported a 28% reduction in their stress levels, a 20% improvement in sleep quality, and increased productivity, which was estimated to resulting in the equivalent of 62 minutes extra work per week for each employee.  The annual profit increase this could represent would be significant.

Another example of a company using mindfulness training is Transport for London.  It reported that ongoing mindfulness training has led to a reduction by half in absentee rates for stress-related illness.

Dr Jutta Tobias, Senior Lecturer, Cranfield University School of Management says, “At the collective level, there is significant research byKarl Weick and collaborators showing that organisations with mindful processes and leadership practices engage in more reliable safety performance, report fewer errors and have staff with lower unit-level turnover rates”.

Myth 3: It’s expensive

One of the great things about mindfulness is that it doesn’t need any special equipment.  Initial training is needed, but once employees have had this, all they need is a quiet space to practice in. That could be an unused meeting or training room, or even allocated “mindfulness chairs” around the office.

Training can be flexible too; Louise Cox-Chester, CEO of Mindfulness at Work, says, “We often start with a taster talk – which is nearly always standing room only, be it at a hedge fund or a charity. Then we pilot MiN, our 4-week course, which is very low dose at 4 x45 mins of group training. The positive impact of this pilot starts to ripple out from individuals to their colleagues.  Once momentum is achieved, mindfulness starts to become an intrinsic part of the culture.”

And, in the face of record levels of absenteeism, investing in this sort of programmes is financially astute choice: every pound invested in preventative wellbeing interventions is returned at least double through reductions in absenteeism and healthcare cost.

Myth 4: It’s hard to get buy-in from management on mindfulness

In fact, many senior leaders from a variety of organisations practice mindfulness, have seen the benefits, and are advocates of introducing a mindful culture. According to Renee Burgard, a trainer in business mindfulness who founded of the gMBSR programme at Google, mindfulness is essential for optimal leadership.  As hse puts it: “The leader’s capacity to see others and the world more clearly leads to better decisions, and better relationships within the company and in the world.”

To get buy-in for a mindfulness programme, a business case suited to your organisation is needed.  By basing this on your organisation’s goals, you can relate the various benefits of mindfulness to how these can be achieved.  Adams gives the following advice to anyone building the business case for mindfulness, “Once the desired outcomes are identified, research the evidence base to support your proposal.”

Myth 5: It’s a quick fix

Mindfulness isn’t the quick fix or cure-all for business woes that it’s sometimes touted as. It does require effort and commitment. The skill of being mindful takes practice on the part of the individual and it also requires commitment on the part of business leaders.

But although it may take time for mindfulness to become part of an organisation’s culture, once the benefits of mindfulness begin to be realised, momentum can build quickly.

Myth 6: It’s a spiritual or religious thing

Nowadays, mindfulness has been adopted by lots of companies, across a multitude of sectors. It has been increasingly developed for the workplace from its original Buddhist roots and is largely secular now.

Myth 7: It’s just sitting on a mat and chanting

Actually, you can practice mindfulness anywhere. Whether you’re sitting in a chair, going for a walk, or travelling on a bus; all you need is to be able to focus attention on the present moment.

Find out more about mindfulness at Mind & Matter 2015, taking place at Dexter House in London on December 3rd. Mind & Matter is an authoritative and case-study driven event, exploring why, how and when organisations can embed mindfulness and what results it can generate.

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