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Karen Liebenguth


Executive and Leadership Coach & Workplace Wellbeing & Conflict Resolution

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Building the case for mindfulness in the workplace


In October 2016, the UK’s All-Parliamentary Group published a second report to build the case for mindfulness in the workplace.

This article shares some of the reports key findings and anecdotes from case studies.

But first, let’s explore what mindfulness is and why there’s such a growing trend in using mindfulness to improve wellbeing in the workplace.

Workplace unhappiness

We spend more of our time working than doing anything else, and researchers have found that these hours are on average the least happy of our lives. Widespread stress in knowledge-based industries accounts for a large proportion of workplace absence and represents a huge loss of national productivity.

Companies now recognise that the investment in employee mental health and emotional 

resilience in the workplace is as essential as investment in employees’ professional skills and physical health.

How can mindfulness help?

“Mindfulness is not a ‘silver bullet’ solution ….  Seen in context as a gradual increase in awareness of aspects in one’s life, it is essential and a great help in interacting with collaborators, managing a team, decision making and putting things in perspective.”– Ashridge Mindful Leader Eight Week Programme participant [2].

Mindfulness involves paying purposeful attention to our experience, with openness and curiosity. The opposite to ‘autopilot’, where we might find ourselves reacting to life out of habit or impulse rather than care and consideration.

By relating to thoughts, emotions, body sensations and events in life more skilfully, mindfulness practitioners may be less drawn into unhelpful habitual reactions and more able to make good choices about how to relate to their circumstances.

Although mindfulness seems to be ‘everywhere’, it is not yet fully understood. Common myths about mindfulness come up again and again when I teach mindfulness in the workplace. Here’s just a few:

Myth One: Mindfulness is ‘religion (specifically Buddhism) by the back door’

Mindfulness practice is a form of mental training that is entirely secular and does not require commitment to a spiritual tradition.

Myth Two: Mindfulness is about being able to empty our mind

Mindfulness practice is not about stopping our thoughts or zoning out. With sustained and disciplined practice, we can develop our ability to notice what draws our attention away from the task, and as a result strengthen our ability to stay focused.

Myth three: Mindfulness breeds passive employees and doesn’t lead to change in toxic organisational cultures

Although it is still early days, research has shown that implementing mindfulness together with coaching, makes a difference to leadership behaviours, helping managers to act with greater emotional intelligence, compassion and social responsibility.

In developing moment to moment awareness we are ‘waking up’ to our experience; noticing our reactions and using that awareness to develop wiser ways of responding.

There are many anecdotal reports of employees walking away from toxic work environments as a result of mindfulness training. Employees that remain, are in jobs they want to be in, and likely to be more engaged.

Myth four: Mindfulness is dangerous

Most reports of negative experiences seem to be associated with extended silent practice on residential retreats with no prior mindfulness practice which can be compared to running a marathon with no prior physical training.

Pre-assessment for mindfulness courses by qualified teachers should identify those individuals for whom training may not be suitable, such as those who have recently been bereaved or likely to be experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders.

The potential benefits of mindfulness in the workplace

This recent parliamentary report offers an invaluable practical resource for organisations, helping them understand what mindfulness is, clarifying myths and highlighting benefits – summarised below.

Studies have shown that mindfulness not only has positive effects on burnout, stress and anxiety, it also improves positive outlook, empathy, sense of cohesion, self-compassion and overall quality of life.

And when mindfulness practice becomes a shared practice in an organisation, permeating daily routines, processes and practices between people and across teams, then the organisation as a whole becomes more resilient and performs more sustainably.  

34 mental health trust clinicians and staff attended mindfulness training with 93% of participants reporting an improvement in relationships with colleagues. Independent research highlighted the key benefits of the training as:

  • creating space for more measured response so that situations do not get inflamed
  • helping create greater empathy and ability to get on with others, thereby improving team work
  • creating greater self-acceptance, leading to enhanced performance

Wellbeing and resilience

Resilience is essential for workplace wellbeing and helping employees develop resilience should be integral to leadership development [2].

Mindfulness within organisations can support resilience because it:

  • Equips individuals with self-awareness that helps them to understand resilience and actively participate in its development
  • Enables people to recognise the signs of stress and helps them make wiser choices about how to respond
  • Develops discernment about activities that sustain or drain one’s internal resources
  • Recognises the power of thoughts and finds ways of skilfully working with them
  • Supports a culture where relationships are valued

“…this course has helped me more than I could have imagined… Another unexpected positive outcome of the course is the confidence it has given me. I am now happy to participate in meetings and actually have the confidence to put my ideas across.” – CVS Practice Manager, following six weeks of mindfulness training with a daily practice requirement of around 20 minutes.

Better leadership skills and decision-making

Resilience, collaboration and decision-making are vital components to effective leadership. How can mindfulness help develop these capacities effectively?

The report highlights research with ‘mindful leaders’ which found that:

  • Informal mindfulness practice becomes more important over time: “My questions are different and the way I listen to the answers has changed. I now really want to hear what people say.” (Programme participant)
  • Mindful leaders are more willing to stay put in the face of difficulty: “I breathe and think about how to move forward constructively rather than brooding on what I should have done.” (Programme participant)
  • They proactively promote emergent, bottom-up decisions: “Now I make sure the real experts have a voice on decisions.” (Programme participant)

Several research studies also suggest that mindfulness training could have a number of positive effects on decision-making by:

  • Improving the quality of information considered in decisions
  • Recognising ethical challenges
  • Reducing the tendency to seek and trust patterns
  • Reducing confirmation bias, i.e. our tendency to look for evidence to support what we already belief

Creativity and innovation

A stressed and anxious mind closes down and becomes narrow focusing on the future rather than the present moment – the only place where insight and creativity can happen.

A number of well-known creative and innovation-based companies, from Apple, Google, Proctor and Gamble and Lululemon, have implemented mindfulness programmes to promote creativity and innovation, and the report shares case studies where participants report greater focus and the ability to be more open minded, two key ingredients of creativity.

  • Focus – mindfulness practice results in an improved ability to focus and filter out other mental processes and external distractions during creative tasks.
  • Idea-generation – research has shown that ‘open-monitoring’ meditation, i.e. observing your thoughts over time, promoted ‘divergent-thinking, a type of thinking that allows new ideas to be generated.
  • Flexible thinking – mindfulness reduces cognitive rigidity, the tendency to be blinded by experience. Instead it increases the capacity to respond rather than react to a particular problem, to hold a broader perspective. Mindfulness deliberately disrupts and erodes our habitual patterns of responding, leaving us receptive to new ideas and ways of thinking.

Time to get started?

The parliamentary report clearly lays out practical steps for embedding a culture of mindfulness in the workplace; from how to run an introductory session, methods of evaluation, getting leadership buy-in, how to run a pilot mindfulness training course, finding qualified trainers to help cultivate and embed mindfulness in the workplace as well as case studies from across all sectors.

In the face on such a growing body of positive evidence, what’s holding your organisation back from exploring how a mindfulness practice could benefit you and your colleagues?

Why not get started now?

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Karen Liebenguth

Executive and Leadership Coach & Workplace Wellbeing & Conflict Resolution

Read more from Karen Liebenguth