Smarter thinking: Mindfulness in the workplace 

According to the World Health Organisation, by 2020 the cost of mental health will be second only to heart disease globally.

For MIND, poor mental health costs the UK economy between £74 billion and £99 billion a year. And according to the landmark Stevenson-Farmer report ‘Thriving at Work’, published in 2017, at any one time 25% of the workplace is affected by stress, anxiety or depression.

Positive impact on financials

Not only is it the right thing for employers to have a positive focus on good mental health, but there are sound financial reasons for doing so as well.

However – many find it hard to know what to do, and many employees feel understandably cautious about asking for help. What are some of the most helpful pointers? Practising mindfulness, walking meetings and talking sessions are all ways to create this culture.

Ruth Steggles is Director at Fresh Air Fridays, an organisation that takes staff outside and walks with them as they work. “The programmes we run are designed to support people with their mental and emotional wellbeing,” she says, “and we use a coaching approach because this is not one-size-fits-all.”

Myths about mindfulness

In practice, many people say they find mindfulness too difficult to engage with, even if they are prepared to put in the time.

“There are some myths about mindfulness,” Steggles says. “People think you jump into it and will suddenly have a quiet brain. That’s not our experience. Even as a regular practitioner, I’ll have times when my brain is noisy and part of the learning is to be aware that this happens.”

An experienced practitioner “will notice what they’re thinking and bring themselves back to quiet. When we’re inexperienced, our minds will be wandering off writing shopping lists and worrying about things, instead of focusing.” It’s about forming a habit, she says; “it is not instant reward, as exercise can be.”

Here’s the science bit

Natasha Wallace is Founder and Chief Coach at Conscious Works, a wellbeing and leadership development company. “Neuroscience has shown mindfulness actually changes the shape of the brain and reduces the amygdala, which is where anxiety resides.”  

She agrees with Steggles that it can be hard to engage with. “Many say they can’t concentrate, and it’s true that the more overwhelmed you are, the harder it is to do – but that’s when you need it most.”

To counter this, Wallace recommends starting with breathing exercises. “When you take deep breaths, you learn how to regulate your emotional reactions to things.” This can be really useful if you are in an office environment and unable to take a break at that exact moment – you can still take control of your breathing and create some space, even from your desk.

The focus in offices towards wellbeing and positive mental health has certainly changed for the better, Wallace emphasises. “Mindfulness is now such a mainstay it’s almost become a regular thing for organisations to engage with.”  

Not just a nice to have

Making mindfulness a component of your office’s daily life reaps great benefits, both to the individual and to the organisation.

It’s not just a ‘nice to have’ or something flaky: as well as raising productivity it increases staff retention and reduces absenteeism. Research from Deloitte suggests that workplace interventions on mental health show a return to business of between £1.50 and £9 for every £1 invested.

However, it’s important to go about it the right way. “We see many managers wanting to do the right things for staff because we are human – most people want to help others,” says Steggles. “However, a side-effect is we can be very good at projecting what other people should do. Actually, the best way we can influence people is by how we are ourselves, rather than trying to fix others.”  

Walking meetings

Finally, we spend so much time in the office that any move towards disrupting the mind-set that all work has to be done inside, is recommended.

“We encourage walking meetings wherever possible,” says Steggles. “If there are two or three of you and you don’t need a laptop, get outside – contentious issues, for example, are handled and resolved much better, we find, when people are outside.”

“Our experience is that you create visual anchors to remember things you don’t recall in other circumstances. We said X when we walked past the post box; we agreed Y when we walked past the trees.”

Both sides of the brain are engaged when you are walking, Steggles says, “so you have access to more intellectual power.” When people are arguing, being outside “pulls you out of your reptilian brain and gets to the frontal cortex, so you can cope better and think better.”    

Mindfulness in the office – top tips

  • Don’t feel trapped in the office. “If you’re having a moment of stress and can’t go anywhere,” Ruth Steggles says, “be aware of your breathing. Try breathing in for 7 and out for 11 – long out-breaths signal to your brain that you can relax.”
  • You don’t have to do mindfulness for hours. Ten minutes at the beginning and end of the day, as a habit, will start to show results. This can be as part of your normal routine.
  • Try to find somewhere green. Our brains thrive on the oxygen from trees and just being outside in itself reduces stress.
  • Make it part of a wellness programme. “You need to be conscious of negative emotions that are unhelpful,” says Natasha Wallace. “It can be hard to change patterns that become deeply ingrained – mindfulness can help.”

For more on mindfulness and productivity:

Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

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