Mindfulness in the Workplace – What HR Professionals Need to Know

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Alexander Beiner is a Founder of Open Meditation, a London-based organization teaching non-religious mindfulness meditation in the workplace.

In recent years there has been a rising interest among HR professionals into the practice of mindfulness meditation. However, there is still a lot of confusion as to what this practice really is, what it involves and what the HR benefits actually are.

Any article about mindfulness in the workplace rests on a paradox, as it’s an attempt to explain using language a technique that is based entirely on silence. In fact, the quickest way to understand mindfulness is if you stop reading right now, close your eyes and for the next five seconds focus as hard as you can on the next thought you're going to have.

If you did this, you may have noticed that the mind quickly becomes silent. Mindfulness doesn’t really get more complicated than that. It is best defined as ‘non-judgmental awareness of your own present experience’. This means simply observing and accepting your thoughts, emotions and physical sensations without reacting to them. Interesting, you might be thinking, but how can that actually benefit employees?

To answer that question, let's look for a moment at stress. The word has become unfashionable recently, and we now prefer euphemistic words like ‘resilience’, but ultimately what we're looking for when we talk about resilience is to find a way to reduce stress and improve overall wellbeing.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) over 10 million working days were lost last year in the UK to stress. But were they really? Stress is often misconceived, and in fact mindfulness shows us that it isn’t actually stress that’s the problem. Stress is inevitable; anything that creates a demand on an organism is a stressor. Technically, me asking you to pass the salt at dinner is a stressor. What makes stress a problem and leads to absenteeism or burnout is the way we react to it.

To understand this, it's best to look at what's actually happening in the body when we're stressed. Your body has an autonomic nervous system responsible for involuntary activities like heart rate and respiration. It includes two interrelated ‘strands': the PNS (Parasympathetic Nervous System) and the SNS (Sympathetic Nervous System). The SNS is responsible for your 'fight or flight' response. When activated, your body secretes hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, diverts blood to the limbs, dilates the pupils and increases the heart rate.

We have evolved this response to survive, and it served our ancestors well when they encountered a hungry tiger in the jungle. However, the SNS isn't picky. It will activate just as readily to a tight deadline, or a snippy comment, or anything that you perceive as a threat to your body or your identity. We call this initial stressor the 'first dart'. The second dart comes when we replay the first dart in our heads, thereby releasing the same chemicals all over again and creating a cycle of reaction and stress. This cycle builds on itself until the body can’t handle any more and we have a ‘break down’, usually accompanied by a good cry. In fact, recent research shows that tears actually carry stress chemicals out of the body to help us feel better. [Efran, Jay PhD and Mitchell Greene, PhD “Why We Cry.” Alternet.org. May 18, 2012.]

A much healthier way to reduce these stress hormones is by activating the PNS ourselves. The PNS is responsible for rest and recovery. When activated, it releases serotonin and acetylcholine, which automatically relaxes us and reduces levels of cortisol and adrenaline. Mindfulness meditation is clinically proven to activate the PNS [Wu et al. “Inward-attention meditation increases parasympathetic activity: a study based on heart rate variability.” Biomedical Research. Vol 29, October 2008.], and while the exact mechanism is still being researched, it may be related to the cessation of thought patterns that perpetuate the slow drip of stress hormones mentioned above.

We’re all human, and we all react badly to workplace stress at times, even if we practice mindfulness. However, the more we practice the more resilient we become. This is in part because mindfulness meditation literally rewires our brains. Meditators have a thicker insula and prefrontal cortex, brain areas responsible for complex cognition and emotional regulation. The tangible signs of this are truly extraordinary: increased concentration and creativity, an improved immune system, enhanced creativity and considerably more resilience and happiness. This inevitably leads to reduced absenteeism, improvements in interpersonal relationships and higher productivity.

The implications of this are far-reaching for the HR profession, and not just because of the positive results organisations offering mindfulness programs are enjoying all over the world. The reason mindfulness meditation is so exciting is that it provides your employees with a skill that allows them to take personal responsibility for their own wellbeing, whether at home or at work.

For an employee to experience the full benefits of mindfulness there are three things HR needs to do. First, convince employees of the benefits, ideally working together with a mindfulness instructor. Second, commit to setting up a regular mindfulness program or organising an intensive. Lastly, work with mindfulness instructors who understand your business and the challenges unique to your employees.

While mindfulness does require practice and discipline, the basics can be taught very quickly and techniques can be imparted in half and hour that anyone can use to activate the PNS in as little as three minutes. Considering this, it’s no surprise that mindfulness is fast becoming an invaluable tool for HR professionals who are dedicated to tackling the root causes of stress rather than simply dealing with its symptoms.

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