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Claire Genkai



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All in the mind: mindfulness in the workplace


Learn more ways to improve your workplace wellbeing with The Ultimate Wellbeing Toolkit – a practical learning hub brought to you by financial protection specialists Unum, designed to equip HR professionals with the skills and knowledge they need to show employees that they are valued. 

Since 2009, I have been teaching leaders and executives mindfulness based practices. There is no doubt that people benefit from periods of time attending to their ‘body mind continuum’. In other words, enabling people to connect more with the data from their physical experience and how this impacts upon their thinking and feeling states.

In this short article, I want to distinguish different levels of mindfulness value in the workplace and offer some examples. I have come to think about these as waves.

Wave 1 – Connecting to Yourself

In some ways, we are still firmly in Wave 1. I think of this as an individual strategy to recover balance and a sense of control over one’s life, time or feelings. Financial protection specialists Unum recently released research which shows very clearly the benefits of these practices on individuals and companies. In the early phases of people learning mindfulness, they quickly develop an ability to take their own self-care more seriously and the relationship between their body and their mind becomes more apparent to them. This type of attention and noticing are the foundation stones of mindfulness.

Fundamentally this wave is about self-care and self-attention. It is also characterised by ‘withdrawing’ from the action of life or work for short periods of time, in order to refresh and recover. Though it is not really possible to move onto Wave 2 without these skills, for the vast majority of people practicing mindfulness become conditional upon being able to withdraw for periods of time in silence and away from others.

Resilience and stress reduction programmes in companies can offer these skills. In some businesses, they help this practice to flourish by creating quiet spaces in the work place for people to use for short periods, helping team leaders to be able to spot the early signs and encourage people to practice.

Wave 2 – Connecting to Others

When people have been practicing mindfulness for a while it is possible to invite them to see how it actually increases their connection with others. We now understand that the skills of attention and noticing practiced over a relatively short space of time increase an individual’s sense of empathy and resonance with others by thickening the fibres in the brain associated with the resonant circuit (Siegel, 2007).

The skills of EQ emerge more strongly and authentically in mindfulness practitioners. Amazingly, by a practice of noticing ourselves (interoception), we tune into others more accurately. In other words, when we take mindfulness off the mat and into collaboration, we experience mindfulness as a pro social practice. Mindfulness therefore supports the collaborative workplace directly, and is something which businesses can jump on now to get ahead of the curve. Unum’s research looking into the Future of the Workplace found that the ‘Mindful Workplace’ will be a key trend in the future.

Another way to think about this is the ability with mindfulness practice to move towards others and challenges (rather than away from them in Wave 1). Once individuals reach this stage, they are able to regulate their internal state amidst the heat of the action. Of course, people still need to self-care and de-stress, but what activates and stresses them is more likely to be reduced as their resilience zone widens. In an age of collaboration, this has really important implications for performance, velocity and adaptability.

Here, the most effective development tool to build on Wave 1, is to integrate mindfulness approaches into team coaching and facilitation, leadership development programmes and coaching. The emphasis here is in helping people to use the skills in Wave 1 actually in the work as it is unfolding. We might describe this as a reflexive practice.

Wave 3 – Creating a Mindful Culture

By the time people are learning to integrate mindfulness practice as both a stress management tool and a way to stay in collaboration even under stressful circumstances, a third possibility presents itself. This is a more system-wide adoption of the attitudes and behaviours that mindfulness fosters in practitioners. I have made a list in brackets of the related mindfulness traits associated with the cultural shifts. These include:

  • A desire to move towards problems rather than away from them (skills of curiosity and presencing)
  • Increased learning agility  (skills of noticing and attending rather than judging and closing down)
  • Less drama and difficulty in change processes (understanding impermanence)
  • Leaders using insights and data from feelings and physical states as equally valid to thinking. Has a relationship to the trend in the Unum report about the intuitive organisation (skills of interoception)
  • Care and compassion are a natural part of the way we do business around here (empathy and care for customers and staff alike begin with self care)

This type of work is created over time by numbers of people being willing to take what starts as a personal practice (Wave 1) and collaborating with each other, to use the practices at work (Wave 2). When a team begins to reach a tipping point, they can be supported by HR professionals to extend these practices into business conversations, strategic insights and development approaches. Wave 3 is really about integration and authenticity across a corporate system. It begins with individuals taking care of themselves.

One Response

  1. Terminology

    'Mindfulness' has been seized from Buddhist philosophy by a number of new-age franchises and a little clarification is required. Originally it meant to learn from experiences – being mindful of what happened in the past, it's ill-advised to do the same stupid thing! Then Jon Kabat-Zinn's pseudo-research turned it into cognitive based therapy. Richie Davidson applied a little more scientific rigour to explore the individual benefits flowing from meditative self-awareness. 

    Unless a source for ideas is cited, I'm filing this one in the round cabinet.

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Claire Genkai


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