Life Health & Wellbeing

Sunday 4 December 2016

Minding your business

With stress in the workplace a common problem these days, more and more companies are turning to mindfulness meditation to help employees get through the day

Published 02/06/2015 | 02:30

Workplace stress
Workplace stress
Eva Mendes: 'Meditation really helps create not only a sense of balance... but serenity and kind of a calm state of mind'
Goldie Hawn
Arianna Huffington

Today's workforce has to contend with ever-expanding inboxes, diminishing lunch breaks and the dwindling tradition of the tea round. We are overworked and overwhelmed - and studies bear this out.

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The Aviva Workplace Health Index, which surveyed 350 business managers/owners and 463 employees in 2013, makes for particularly stark reading.

Nearly three quarters of employees felt that a pressurised environment had become the norm and that the workplace had become increasingly stressful. Nearly two-thirds of employees worked over and above their remit at least once a week, while 52pc regularly worked through lunch.

Stress and anxiety were considered the biggest workplace health concerns, ahead of back and neck pain and colds, while 44pc of employees said they were in touch with their employers when they were out of the office on holidays or sick.

This is no occupational hazard. It's the health epidemic of the 21st century, and stress-related absenteeism is costing companies dearly.

In the same study, 90pc of employers agreed that employees' health and well-being had a direct effect on productivity. In the UK, stress has become the main reason for long-term sickness absence for the first time.

We are dealing with new challenges in the workplace; hence we have to adopt new strategies for coping with the consequences. A couple of glasses of red wine and a soak in a bubble bath will no longer cut it.

Radical changes have to be solved with radical thinking, and Maureen Cooper is doing just that. She believes meditation is the antidote to workplace stress and her company, Awareness in Action, teaches businesses how to use mindfulness meditation and empathy training to help their employees keep calm and carry on. Just this weekend she ran one in Dzochen Beara in West Cork.

"We're all about going into the workplace and helping people learn how to use their inner resources," she explains.

The benefits of mindfulness meditation in the workplace are both proven and profound: reduced stress, heightened awareness and increased emotional intelligence to name but a few.

Then there's the small issue of social media. "One of the biggest challenges in the modern workplace is distraction," continues Cooper. "Facebook and Twitter are ruining employees' concentration flow and it can take people 25 minutes to get their attention back once they have been distracted from a task.

"Meditation addresses this directly because it teaches us how to view our thoughts and emotions differently so that they simply become something that is happening in our minds rather than something to take too seriously."

Meditation has also been proven to unleash creativity, and not just of the easel and paint palette variety. It helps people find innovative solutions by thinking laterally. Conversely, stress hampers creativity by restricting focus and decreasing perception.

Maureen experienced this when she was working as a schoolteacher in Thatcherite Britain. "I experienced lots of stress in the workplace with demanding children, low resources and Margaret Thatcher - she was a big source of stress. When I started teaching it was tough but it was creative, but then the choices seemed to close down and the possibility of creativity seemed to close down. Once the stress starts to bite, everything seems to narrow down. And it makes the stress worse."

Meditation became her outlet and she went on to set up Awareness in Action in 2003. She was ahead of the curve - hundreds of multinational companies including Nike, Apple and Procter & Gamble, now offer mindfulness programmes to their employees. eBay employees working out of the San Jose campus have access to a meditation room, as do employees at the Huffington Post's New York office.

Cooper cites Google as the best in class. "I know it's a bit of a cliché but I have to mention Google's 'Search Inside Yourself' drive. It's a really good programme of mindfulness meditation, emotional intelligence, kindness and empathy. It's voluntary and it seems to be having a really good effect. I can't fault it."

The creator of the programme, Chade-Mengzi Tan, is a former Google software engineer. He wrote the course during his '20pc time', which is a company initiative that allows Google employees to work on a pet project. The course is now a New York Times bestseller and Tan has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Closer to home, Cooper works with a London-based independent company that produces high quality teas. "I've been working with the staff to teach them meditation and empathy training and it's amazing to see people who've had no connection to it before realising how useful it is and then directly applying it in their work," she explains.

These employees are learning how to work smarter, rather than longer, which brings us to one of the persistent misconceptions about meditation: the idea that it can slow us down. "Actually, meditation is wonderful for focus and clarity," counters Maureen.

"This misconception is because meditation is known to bring peace and clarity. In the west we tend to get hung up on the peace aspect - the chilling and relaxing - but the clarity aspect is just as important. You're seeing more clearly, your mind is crisper; you're not as bogged down in thoughts and emotions as you were before."

Neither does there have to be any ritual. At the simplest level, mindfulness meditation is about becoming aware of your mind and your body in the present moment. In an office scenario, it's about learning to stay focussed in the meeting rather than worrying about the 10 unanswered emails back at your desk. "We're always trying to speed up the present moment to get to where we want to be," adds Maureen. "Actually, the present moment is all we have."

Breathing is a key part of the practice. Maureen recommends taking a few deep breaths when work becomes overwhelming. "Stay with your breath once it's more settled. Say to yourself 'Now I'm breathing in, now I'm breathing out'. Just watch the breath gently. At the same time, notice how your body is sitting in your chair, how your back is feeling. Do you have any pain in your body? Use the focus on your breath to reconnect with your physical body and bring your mind into a place of ease."

Maureen is also the author of The Compassionate Mind Approach to Reducing Stress in which she suggests using the body as a stress barometer. Different people have different triggers but we can all learn to identify our personal warning signs. "For me, it's definitely tightness in the chest," she says.

This is where self-compassion comes in. "We all have this voice in our heads that tells us we need to be aiming harder," she explains. "If you're working in a job where this critical voice is also the voice of your boss, you're going to be in a spiral of self-criticism and self-doubt and it's very, very easy to get into all kinds of patterns of working too hard, not taking enough exercise and neglecting your well-being.

"I find this a lot when I work with people, particularly those in caring professions. They think if they are taking any time for themselves, they're being self-interested and self-focussed. We need to make the connection between looking after ourselves so that we can be of more benefit and more useful. We don't become more efficient when we neglect ourselves. We become more efficient when we take better care of ourselves."

According to Maureen, we should also learn to practise self-compassion when we make mistakes at work. She suggests a simple exercise to overcome that feeling of dread. "One of my favourites is not one that I came up with. It's by psychologist Dr Kristin Neff who wrote Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. The first thing you do is check what really happened as opposed to what you think happened. Say I've had an argument with my boss at work and I'm back at my desk and I'm worried and I'm thinking 'My God, I probably lost my job; it's all a disaster'.

"Instead, you just sit for a few minutes, you do a little meditation and you get it in proportion. Having got it in proportion, you show yourself a little bit of kindness. You think 'Actually, this is not such a big deal. I was trying my best there; maybe it didn't go so well. What could I do better next time?'

"Finally, you realise that in the moment you were having this interaction with your boss, there were probably thousands of other people around the world having similar interactions. You are not alone. It takes away this feeling of personal failure and that gives you a place to go back to your boss and heal the situation."

It's equally important not to undermine any stress that you're feeling in the workplace. As Maureen explains, the brain interprets the workplace as a social system. "It responds to work events with corresponding threat and reward dynamics - equitable to the importance of finding food and water. Social pain is processed in the brain in the same way as physical pain, so threats to our status, security and well-being at work trigger the same circuits in the brain as threats to our physical safety."

Employees that practise mindfulness develop coping skills to deal with this fight-or-flight stress response. More to the point, they feel secure in a company culture that respects and protects their mental well-being.

Likewise, employers that invest in mindfulness programmes will no doubt be well rewarded with a workforce that is, according to Maureen, "harmonious, dedicated, responsible and committed".

Cynics will argue that it's a no-brainer when bottom-line advantages (not to mention the avoidance of employee litigation) are considered. Elsewhere, David Gelles, author of Mindful Work: How Meditation Is Changing Business from the Inside Out, warns that mindfulness is in danger of becoming a buzzword.

"By slapping the word 'mindfulness' on new products and services simply to make them fashionable," he writes, "these corporations are making the word itself somewhat impotent. 'Mindfulness' is at risk of becoming the new 'organic'."

But this is more than a mere trend. Once the integrity of the practice is maintained, mindfulness meditation has proven benefits for employers and employees, inside and outside the workplace.

Celebs who meditate

Publisher and author Arianna Huffington uses mindfulness meditation as an antidote for workplace stress: "Through mindfulness, I found a practice that helped bring me fully present and in the moment, even in the most hectic of circumstances."

Actress Goldie Hawn wants to bring mindfulness to schools across the US through the Hawn Foundation. "This could mitigate mental health issues… For a better world for our children, what each and every one of us can devote some time and effort to, is to become mindful."

Comedian Ruby Wax uses mindfulness meditation to manage her depression: "It's about learning to cool your engine before it burns out. If you learn to be reflective rather than reactive, it will have a hit-on effect on everyone around you."

Oprah Winfrey practises mindfulness meditation as well as transcendental meditation (TM), which is based around a mantra, or unique chant, given to each practitioner: "Only from that space can you create your best work and your best life."

Comedian, actor and activist Russell Brand is also a TM devotee: "I'm quite an erratic thinker, quite an adrenalised person. But after meditation, I felt this beautiful serenity and selfless connection."

Meditation helps me deal with life's ups and downs, coming from a more centred place, and it helps with creativity - Eva Mendes

How to keep calm at work

"Try to do some meditation - even five minutes - before you leave the house and don't start checking your emails on the way to work. Take the journey to work as time to yourself. Look around, see the people, and connect with your environment. Use it in a refreshing way, not as though you're walking to your execution. Use the journey to nourish you rather than build stress on the way there and then set your intention to give you courage. When you get in, say to yourself, 'How would I like to be at work today? What would I like to leave people with after a day of working with me?"

WHEN YOU'RE FEELING OVERWHELMED…

"If you're at work and you're thinking 'I have too much to deal with right now', I recommend 'Stop Moments'. These can be just 30 seconds long. In that moment you are deciding to stop trying to deal with your workload. If you're in front of a computer, you look up and take a few deep breaths. If you're somewhere where you can make yourself a cup of tea, you make yourself a cup of tea. You don't do it in an anxious way. You do it like your meditation. Now I'm making a cup of tea. Now I'm just taking a moment to sit. Now I'm taking a moment to breathe. If you inject 30 seconds to one minute of sanity into your panic and then you go back and pick up again, that stop moment will have refreshed you and what you have to deal with next will hopefully seem more manageable."

WHEN YOUR INBOX IS OVERFLOWING…

"The key is to remember that you are the boss of your email; it's not the boss of you. There's always this feeling of 'I have to check it' but actually we don't. Mindfulness comes in recognising that it is just an email. You can take a moment to deal with it when it works for you, and you don't have to feel that every time an email comes you immediately have to open it."

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