20 Dec

How can we tailor mindfulness interventions for our workforce?

  • December 20, 2016

Despite recent research backing mindfulness and its ability to actually physically alter the constitution of the brain, it can be met by scepticism and disdain by busy execs, who may mistakenly associate it with chanting, mysticism and sitting cross-legged on a mat. However, modern-day, workplace mindfulness just doesn’t work like that.  Although mindfulness is derived from ancient Buddhism meditation, mindfulness is less “intentional” than meditation and doesn’t necessarily involve putting a two hours of time aside a day: rather it is the simple act of focusing all attention in the present and a non-judgemental observation of our constant thoughts and feelings. Whilst it can take practice and perseverance, the good news is that as little as a few minutes practice a day can have a significant impact on our wellbeing.

Recognising its proven effects on wellbeing, stress, productivity and focus, innovative workplaces are looking to adopt and introduce mindfulness. However, like any learning and development initiative, this can go wrong when internal advocates (often L&D, OH&S and individual leaders) take a “one size fits all approach” which doesn’t take into account the preferred ways that people like to learn and assimilate information.

Debbie Jeremiah is Faculty for Emerging Leaders at Crotonville, GE’s global leadership learning organisation and is responsible for engaging and developing the GE leaders of tomorrow. She believes that the brain-based training (including mindfulness) is popular for the very reason that everyone is interested in finding out more about their favourite topic: themselves. She says:

“At Crotonville we have a long established history of teaching senior leaders to be mindful and self-reflective. We’re now moving into a new era of offering this same knowledge to our global emerging leaders, both as virtual curricula in its own right, in addition to embedding it into our core leadership learning experiences.

In the same way that one must truly understand customer needs in order to develop innovative solutions, I personally believe we can’t begin to work smarter or more effectively until we have a better understanding and appreciation of the workings of our own minds.  We’re finding that even teaching a basic understanding of the brain at work is enough to bring a degree of mindfulness sufficient to improve personal efficiency, collaboration and of course resilience.  And this isn’t going unappreciated.  From our pilot work in this area, I’ve not encountered anyone who wasn’t interested in gaining deeper insights into his or her own brain, reactions and non-conscious biases.”

Louise Cox-Chester, CEO of Mindfulness at Work, agrees that mindfulness taps into the universal desire to understand more about ourselves and that when supported by a senior individual at an organisation, it can carry a lot more credibility. Mindfulness at Work have introduced over ten thousand people in the workplace to mindfulness in the last year alone, even winning an award from the Legal Education Training Group (LETG) for best personal development programme at Ashurst LLP. As Louise says: “The opportunity for this often comes via a senior individual in an organisation, who already realises the benefits of being more mindful and wants to enable it for themselves and their colleagues.  They are often great ambassador for mindfulness themselves – and by walking the talk, their own behaviour overcomes any cynicism and inspires their colleagues to want to learn these skills too. They also see the benefits for enabling mindfulness to become systemic throughout the whole organisation, starting with each individual, and they often contribute not only to the design and roll-out of our programmes, but the vital internal comms too – often standing up at a town hall event and advocating the training.”

Even in the most left-brained, analytical organisations, it seems a powerful internal advocate can win the hearts and minds, especially when equipped with the right evidence to back up the claims of mindfulness. With organisations such as Aetna, Apple, BlueBay Asset Management, the Department of Health, Google, General Mills and GSK all implementing sustainable mindfulness programmes, the evidence is likely to grow very quickly.

Cox-Chester and Jeremiah agree that mindfulness needs to be tailored to individual needs and both have created different options for employees which encourage “mindful moments” or extended reflection throughout the working day. The lack of consensus as to what mindfulness actually is, rather than become a problem, can actually encourage a diverse curriculum which individuals can tap into. As Jeremiah says, “the challenge is, how do you put mindfulness on the curriculum when we all have a slightly different view of what mindfulness actually is? To overcome this we’re looking to create a menu of mindfulness options that our employees can choose from, everything from brain science 101, focus & attention and emotional regulation, to avoiding overwhelm, improving memory and understanding insight creation.  And of course we’ll be exploring practical mindfulness tools that our employees can access to encourage mindful moments throughout their working day.”

For Cox-Chester, it is important to listen attentively to what the organisational objectives are: “We spend a long time listening to our client, taking time to understand the organisation’s current challenges and ongoing business imperatives, as well as understand what the individual challenges might be for employees, so that we can tailor our training to meet those needs.  We often start with a taster talk – which is nearly always standing room only, be it at a hedge fund or a charity.  And then 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, whose scepticism is then won over.  And once momentum is achieved, mindfulness starts to become an intrinsic part of the culture.”

Whilst it is early days for many organisations embarking on this exciting journey, the early anecdotal feedback is positive. The LETG award for Ashurst LLP’s mindfulness programme may be the first of many and Jeremiah is similarly positive about the future: “Although our Mindful Leader curriculum is in its infancy and we’re still figuring out what it will look like for us, we’re finding that the thirst for this type of knowledge is considerable.  Gaining buy-in doesn’t appear to be a concern.  With our world spinning faster by the day, mindfulness looks likely to become an essential element of our leadership learning strategy.”

Louise Cox-Chester will be speaking at the Mindfulness at Work conference (www.mindandmatter2015.com). Debbie Jeremiah will be facilitating a workshop at the Mindfulness at Work conference (www.mindandmatter2015.com). The event is taking place on 3rd and 4th December at Dexter House, London. Book before 31st October to receive up to £100 off.