The interest in mindfulness has exploded in the last decade. No longer a niche practice associated with mystical beliefs or alternative lifestyles, it has become completely mainstream. Nothing illustrates this more than the amazing performance of mindfulness apps like Calm and Headspace. Both have millions of users around the world and are hugely profitable. In under five years, Calm has become a “unicorn”, rated as one of the very rare companies valued at a billion dollars1, alongside giants of the tech age like Uber and Airbnb.
These apps have tapped into the desire that many people have to escape the digital world and find a few moments of peace in their hectic schedules. Just as physical fitness became incredibly popular in the 1970s, with the growth of jogging and gyms, finding mental fitness has risen hugely in importance over the last few years. This has accelerated in the last few months as people try to deal with the mental impact of social distancing and the fear and anxiety caused by the coronavirus pandemic2.
Many large corporations like Nike, Sony, Apple and Google have embraced mindfulness, including it as part of their employee wellbeing and development programmes. They have been quick to seize on the perceived benefits, believing it helps their employees, to amongst other things, manage stress better, find a better work/life balance and find focus.
But what is mindfulness, what are the benefits, does it suit everyone and is it something that has tangible benefits to offer business?
What is mindfulness?
There is still a lot of confusion around the term “mindfulness.” It is the ability to be fully present in the moment, free from any outside distractions or judgement. In a mindful state, you are aware of your thoughts and feelings, but not overwhelmed by them. Unlike mediation, that seeks to reach a temporary state of mind, mindfulness is about a way of living, being able to step back from everything else and just concentrate on the present, rather than focusing on what has happened or what will happen.
Although it has its roots in Buddhism, where it developed as a practice around 2,000 years ago, elements of mindfulness can be found in all main religions. This religious aspect can act as a deterrent to some, but today’s mindfulness practices are completely secular, not aligned with any particular faith.
There are countless techniques associated with mindfulness, which all have two things in common. These are finding a sense of calm and clarity. Some of the most popular include:
- Focus attention – concentrating on the act of breathing, taking note specifically of the rise and fall of the chest, anchoring the mind on this one simple act.
- Body scan – moving your attention from your head to your toes, noticing of any aches and pains that exist and where there could be tension or anxiety.
- Skilful comparison – thinking about a person that you love and paying attention to the sensations that you feel when you think about them.
- Visualisation – focusing on a familiar person or an object to hold your attention.
Different techniques will appeal to different people. There is no set approach, it is an individual and deeply personal experience. As with anything, it requires practice to get natural and comfortable with.
What are the benefits?
There are wide variety of benefits associated with mindfulness, including helping with depression, anxiety, addictive behaviour, and chronic pain and it’s advocated by a whole range of different associations. NICE, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, recommends it as a method to prevent bouts of depression recurring3. Many cancer charities also extol its virtues, promoting it as a complementary therapy that can help cope with anxiety and tiredness4.
It is also claimed that practicing mindfulness regularly can have a positive, physical effect on the brain, increasing the areas that are responsible for regulating emotions, planning and problem-solving and boost learning and memory capacity. It is also said to reduce the area associated with feeling stress, fear or anxiety5.
With this long list of benefits, it is no wonder that many organisations have seen the potential that mindfulness offers. At the beginning of 2020, poor mental health was reported to be costing UK business up to £45 billion a year6. Following the impact of lockdown over the past months, the indications are this will rise steeply7, creating an even greater need for employers to explore how they can help their employees cope.
Does it suit everyone?
Given that millions of people are actively using mindfulness apps, it is clear that mindfulness is a benefit to a significant number of people. However, just like any other practices or techniques, it does not work for everyone. There are also people who suffer a severe negative reaction to it, particularly those who have traumatic experience in their past8.
Employers need to be aware of the potential downsides and be careful how they introduce it to their employees. Sessions should not be compulsory, but available for those who are interested, and employees need to feel able to stop if they are feeling at all anxious or panicked by the process.
Mindfulness can be an intensively personal process that employees may feel reluctant to experience alongside peers or managers. Almost three quarters of UK employees prefer to keep their work and private lives separate9, so large group sessions may not be the most effective way to introduce mindfulness to an organisation. Making the information available through a variety of channels can ensure that employees can access the information in a way they are comfortable with.
What are the business benefits?
Mindful techniques can help employees in a variety of different ways, here are just three:
Coping with stress
Contrary to the common misconception, practicing mindfulness doesn’t eliminate stress, it teaches the practitioner to view it in a different way. Stress isn’t a bad thing. It provides impetus and immediacy that energies the body. This can be used positively if you learn to embrace these feelings and don’t let them overwhelm you. Stress becomes dangers when you feel completely swamped and unable to think or act clearly. Mindfulness helps the body to deal more effectively with these feelings and channel them into positive action.
We live in a distracted age, with an endless array of devices and apps competing for our attention. Trying to focus on one task can be incredibly difficult. People tend to overestimate their ability to multi-task and have numerous things on the go at once, with as many as 40 or 50 tabs open on their web browser at once10. Mindfulness teaches you to concentrate one thing at a time, allowing greater clarity of thinking and a sharper focus.
Mindfulness encourages people to think about other people and the world around them. Rather than being solely concerned by their own situation, it puts this into context and allows them to see a bigger picture, noticing how their actions affect other people. This process helps build empathy and understanding between colleagues, essential elements needed to build strong, productive teams.
Practical lessons from mindfulness for remote workers
No one has been unaffected by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Everyone has had to adjust their lives in some way, some more than others. Millions of employees are having to cope with a new working environment, fresh challenges and pressures on their time. For those employees caring for children or other relatives, the strain is especially intense. Here are some mindfulness-inspired tips to help you manage your day better:
- Begin the day on the right note – have a shower, get dressed, eat breakfast to prepare the mind and body for the day of work ahead.
- Write a to-do list – this doesn’t have to be extensive or detailed, but take a few minutes to think about the tasks you need to complete by the end of the day and what order to tackle them in.
- Concentrate on doing one thing at a time – turn off email notifications and other alerts so you can focus your full attention on the task in hand. Control when you look at your apps, don’t allow your brain to wander and get side-tracked.
- Slow down and take your time, rushing helps to exacerbate feelings of stress and anxiety, producing tension, clouded thinking and panic
- Take regular breaks – working alone it can be easy to lose track of time and spend hours without moving or giving your brain a chance to relax and recharge. Build breaks into your day when you can get away from your screen and spend a few moments to regroup and refocus your thoughts
- Set yourself a time to finish work and stick to it. When the time comes, turn off your computer and do something completely different to signal to your mind and body that the working day is over.
- Don’t go back to check emails after this time, unless there is something vital that cannot wait until the morning. Switch your brain off as much as possible from work, appreciate your free time and avoid thinking about tomorrow until it arrives.
With no clear view of when restrictions on movement will be lifted, employees will be required to live with heightened levels of pressure for the foreseeable future. Building resilience will be vital and mindfulness techniques can certainly help with that. While not all employees will want or be able to devote time every day to the practice, everyone can benefit from taking a few minutes to consider clear, calm thoughts.