14 Dec

Can mindfulness create better public sector leaders?

  • December 14, 2016

Leadership comes under particular scrutiny when accountability and transparency are considered to be critical cultural components, as they are in the public sector. With the spotlight on leadership never far from the headlines (and compelling evidence that leaders affect culture, organisational climate, engagement, productivity, wellbeing and customer satisfaction), the ongoing question is: what makes a great public sector leader?

Mindfulness, the ancient practice derived from Buddhism (which is now largely secular), is increasingly being adopted by the private, public and voluntary sectors: with the police, education and health departments among those recognising its positive impacts on creating self-aware, authentic and compassionate managers who are more inclined to make informed and reflective decisions. Mindfulness, defined by John Kabat-Zinn as “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally”, is now considered as equally the domain of mainstream business, with mindfulness meditation even being part of the agenda at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Google, one of the early adopters, has been running mindfulness sessions for years. Renee Burgard, who founded the gMBSR program at Google believes that mindfulness is “essential for for optimal leadership. It cultivates qualities of leadership that promote clear vision, great resilience, self-awareness, clarity of mind, authenticity, kindness, stability, emotional regulation, and much more.” Google operate a free choice policy of mindfulness sessions and no one is forced to attend, which is often one of the prerequisites for success. And whilst cynicism is still an ongoing issue for some, new 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.

It seems that even parliament is taking mindfulness seriously now, with October 20th marking the launch of the Mindful Nation UK report, the product of a 12-month inquiry by the Mindfulness All-party Parliamentary Group: an initiative which lies in creating a more mindful 21st century workplace. The report highlights how major UK organisations have introduced mindfulness projects within the past few years. 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 2013, according to the UK Office of National Statistics –  and there is strong evidence for mindfulness training reducing burnout and stress.

For many organisations, mindfulness is introduced by an individual advocate and gains traction as others begin to see its positive impacts. Marion Furr, Director, Ministerial Business & Parliamentary Accountability and Chair of the Department of Health Staff Health and Wellbeing Board was one such advocate. She says “I became aware of mindfulness some five years ago when I attended an introductory seminar for the Coaches in Government network.  I thought it sounded very interesting but didn’t really understand the potential power of mindfulness until a year later when I found myself suffering from depression. I had never experienced this before, though as a psychologist and leader of the DH Staff Health and Wellbeing programme I recognised the symptoms.  Following discussion with my doctor, I decided against anti-depressants and instead started an 8-week MBCT programme. I was genuinely astonished at how well this helped me through and over that episode of depression and how the benefits continued once I was well. Better sleep, less stressed, more able to focus and pay attention were just some of the benefits.  I was so impressed that I commissioned a pilot mindfulness programme for 50 staff at the Department of Health. The participants were all volunteers and the pre- and post- measures of stress and wellbeing showed statistically significant improvements almost every one of the variables we tested. This spurned me on to become a mindfulness trainer myself and over the past three years I have trained with both Bangor and Oxford to teach both MBSR and MBCT.  Over 1,000 civil servants have attended my introductory programme in the last two years, demonstrating a strong appetite for mindfulness as a wellbeing intervention, and I find I am now being asked to run mindful leadership sessions. Mindfulness may not be for everyone – practice requires commitment – just like going to the gym for physical wellbeing. For me, mindfulness has been life changing so practice is just a normal part of life.”

As mindfulness begins to find its place in the fabric of organisations and public life, the evidence and anecdotal feedback on its effectiveness will undoubtedly grow. Simultaneously we will understand more about how to apply and evaluate it within the workplace setting.

Renee Burgard, Marion Furr and The Mindfulness Initiative are all speakers atMind & Matter 2015 along with more than 25 public, private and voluntary sector organisations.

For further information on the article and Mind & Matter 2015 please contact my colleague and Co-Founder of Mind & Matter 2015:

Charlotte Williams- charlotte@getstuffdoneuk.com