Look around your office. How many people are answering emails or checking Facebook while they’re supposed to be working on something else?
That’s the opposite of mindfulness: purposely and non-judgmentally focusing on the present moment instead of seeing it as an obstacle to future gratification.
Mindful employees perform better and companies increasingly recognize this, so corporate mindfulness programs are on the rise.
Read: Mindful wellness
But offering a few meditation and yoga classes while expecting staff to thrive in a pressure-cooker environment doesn’t create a mindful workplace. To do that, you need to ensure mindfulness reaches every aspect of your organization. That’s where the full-time mindfulness coach comes in.
Some people are genetically predisposed to be less mindful than others, but everyone can train their mind to be more present through meditation and yoga, says Ute Hulsheger, associate professor of work and organizational psychology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.
Doing these activities regularly is more beneficial than doing them occasionally for long stretches, explains Patricia Rockman, senior director of educational and clinical services at the Centre for Mindfulness Studies in Toronto.
Regular meditation shrinks the amygdala—the brain’s fight or flight centre—and thickens the prefrontal cortex, which regulates awareness, decision-making and other higher-order functions. It also weakens the connection between the amygdala and other brain parts.
That’s why mindful employees can better handle stressful situations such as receiving criticism, says Hulsheger. They let go faster instead of ruminating on it because they can observe and stop their negative thoughts, she explains.
The mindful mind is also better at tuning out distractions and sustaining focus on one task, which can boost productivity. For example, Aetna recently discovered that participants in its company-wide mindfulness program regained 69 minutes of productivity a week. “As you’re less caught up with future thinking, past thinking or daydreaming, you have more headspace for other things,” Rockman adds.
Being present also makes the brain produce alpha waves, which promote deep relaxation. They’re slower than the beta waves the brain produces most of the day, during fast activities at work. Being “in the flow” and making creative connections happens in the alpha state.
A Mindful Work Environment
But making a company mindful takes more than training staff to enter the alpha state. “If organizations take this seriously, they also have to create work circumstances that allow employees to be more mindful,” says Hulsheger.
For starters, she says, don’t expect people to quickly accomplish many things. They’ll resort to multi-tasking—which, while it may be a badge of honour for many, actually hinders mindfulness.
She advises giving people autonomy so they can have some control over their work and take breaks when necessary. And don’t expect staff to answer work-related emails and calls outside of work hours, she adds.
Creating a mindful culture also requires a commitment to the ongoing nature of mindfulness practice, Rockman says. So hiring a coach for a limited period isn’t enough. You need mindfulness champions on staff to provide regular coaching and ensure the work environment promotes mindfulness.
For example, Google has a full-timer who teaches free, ongoing mindfulness classes. His title: Jolly Good Fellow.
Anyone can call themselves a mindfulness expert—the space is currently unregulated in Canada. So when you hire a consultant or a full-timer, check references and find out if the person has his or her own practice, Rockman advises. Also check if they come from a corporate or healthcare background to determine the fit, she adds. If you’re in healthcare, for example, a coach with a healthcare background may be a better fit.
Above all, make sure you’re not introducing mindfulness as a way of making people adapt to greater pressure. “Its original intention wasn’t to make people work harder and be happier about it,” Rockman adds.
Yaldaz Sadakova is associate editor of Benefits Canada.
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