Understanding Mindfulness in the Workplace

by Chuck Rice
BRIO Employee Development LLC

Why the movement is going mainstream…

If you’ve been following education and corporate wellness trends over the past several years, you’ve probably heard of mindfulness. But how well do you understand it and the benefits it can offer your business?

Mindfulness simply means to pay attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. first coined the term in the 1970s, but this secular philosophy has only recently landed in mainstream Western consciousness. More and more businesses and organizations are recognizing the positive impacts mindfulness can have in all areas of life, including job performance.

Benefits on the Job
Mindfulness has been shown to impact job performance in several ways. A 2016 study by Gallant found it can improve executive functioning by improving one’s inhibition abilities. In the service industry, mindfulness has been shown to improve worker performance, even when controlling for their level of engagement.

In a 2014 study, office employees who participated in a once-a-week, eight-week mindfulness program experienced lower levels of work-related stress, greater job satisfaction and, ultimately, enhanced job performance as rated by their employers.

In addition, Dane and Brummel’s 2014 study discovered an inverse relationship between mindfulness and turnover intention, meaning that employees who practice mindfulness are less likely to leave their jobs for any reason. Further research on mindfulness in the workplace shows enhanced well-being at work and lower levels of burnout for employees in a range of industries.

Research also now demonstrates that employee well-being is closely linked to employee engagement. A 2016 Gallup report showed employee engagement at just 30 percent—a significant issue when you consider that HR professionals routinely list employee engagement as the second biggest challenge faced by organizations, after retention. Given the explosive growth in millennial workers, who are more inclined to change jobs frequently, employee well-being may be more important than ever to organizations looking to retain bright young leaders.

A Growing Industry
Of course, when any major social trend emerges, U.S. corporations make their way to the front of it. Mindfulness programs are showing up in the corporate cultures of not only Silicon Valley mainstays like Apple, Facebook and eBay, but also traditional stalwarts like General Motors and Xerox. Teaching mindfulness to business leaders is a growth industry right now, and for good reason.

In 2016, Aetna conducted a mindfulness-based wellness program study that showed impressive results. Since implementing mindfulness-based wellness programs, the company has estimated healthcare costs savings of around $2,000 per employee, and has gained nearly $3,000 in productivity per employee.

Mindfulness has also migrated into schools, with training programs and curricula for K-12 teachers and students popping up across the country. It’s in universities and business schools, and often attached to medical schools or psychology departments as mindfulness research and teaching centers, including at the University of Illinois, MIT, Yale and Duke University. Mindfulness has even made its way into the military with a program called M-Fit, short for Mindfulness-Based Fitness Training.

Improved Human Functioning
But how does mindfulness produce these outcomes? Neuroplasticity is, at its most basic level, the ability of the brain to change and adapt over time. This adaptation happens regularly, as the brain constantly works to make itself more efficient and effective. With mindfulness, areas of the brain associated with higher-level functioning become more active, while areas that handle stress and strong emotions are less involved. The result is better emotion regulation, less reactivity and improved performance on tasks.

Mindfulness appears to positively impact human functioning overall. Research in psychology and neuroscience provides a wealth of evidence that it improves attention, cognition, emotions, behavior and physiology. Specifically, mindfulness has been shown to improve three qualities of attention: stability, control and efficiency. The human mind is estimated to wander roughly half of our waking hours, but mindfulness can help stabilize attention in the present. In one study, individuals who completed mindfulness training were shown to remain vigilant longer on both visual and listening tasks.

Mindfulness may also improve relationships through greater empathy and compassion, suggesting that mindfulness training could enhance workplace processes that rely on effective leadership and teamwork.

To reap the maximum benefits of mindfulness, however, it truly needs to be a continual practice, meaning that it must occur regularly and often. The good news is that, while regular practice is vital, it does not need to be a huge commitment. Even a brief, 10-minute daily practice can result in more efficient cognition and better self-regulation. You can practice mindfulness wherever it’s convenient or comfortable for you: on a cushion, on the floor, in your office chair, or even sitting in your car in traffic.

Mindfulness is not about spacing out, escape or perfection. It’s about maximizing your brain power, which can have big effects on employee performance and your company’s overall well-being. iBi

Chuck Rice is an accredited Insights Discovery practitioner, certified Mindfulness Ambassador, and founder and CEO of BRIO Employee Development LLC.

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