Mindfulness: annoying new fad or your key to employee engagement?

There has been much hype surrounding the practice of mindfulness in recent years. It has evolved from a technique taught by yogis to yoga practitioners to help them cope with the difficulties of life, and it has now become a common strategy used by healthy people to optimise their wellbeing and to combat stress. Mindfulness is harnessed in forms as diverse as meditation to colouring books for adults.

Mindfulness has more recently been recommended to employees to as a way to decrease their workplace stress, enhance their focus on their work tasks, improve creativity and increase productivity.

Is mindfulness all it’s cracked up to be? Can employees really use it to their benefit at work or is it simply a fad which will pass in time into distant memory?

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness actually originated in the Eastern religion of Buddhism and monks have been practising meditation for thousands of years. Yoga also has many elements in common with the practice of mindfulness, with one simple mindfulness exercise being to focus on the breath.

However, the distinction between the way this exercise is practiced in Yoga and mindfulness, is that in yoga, the breath is focused upon to the exclusion of all other thoughts, whereas the practice of mindfulness is to notice thoughts that come, accept them, and then let them go and return to the breath.

This is slight distinction (but an important one) goes to the heart of the philosophy of mindfulness: that you are aware of all that exists in each moment. To expand upon this, mindfulness teaches you to become keenly aware of yourself and your surroundings, but just to observe them as they are. This includes your own thoughts and feelings, but you are trained not react to them, therefore freeing you from the negative values you might normally place on them when you are in “autopilot”. In terms of the brain, the science is clear, the practice of mindfulness is a robust technique for improving mental wellbeing and cognition. One study found that the actual grey matter of the brain increased with the practice of mindfulness (1).

Mindfulness in the workplace

It isn’t clear how mindfulness became popular in the business world, but it may have had something to do with Google inviting one of the pioneers of mindfulness to speak to its employees ten years ago. Since then, it has developed an entire course called Search Inside Yourself based on neuroscience and mindfulness which it now offers to companies outside Google who might be looking to improve the emotional intelligence of their employees, promote effective teamwork and enhance their innovation through reducing stress and improving general wellbeing.

Surely, mindful colouring books do not represent the most effective way of enhancing workplace productivity. However, it seems unlikely that buddhist monks would have practiced the technique of mindfulness for thousands of years if it bore no merit. Additionally, Google has invested a great deal of time and money into its mindfulness-based programs. Mindfulness is likely to stick around for the foreseeable future, and with it, it brings a greater ability for your employees to focus on their tasks, and find innovative solutions to work-related problems.

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  1. Holzel, B.K., Carmody J, Vangel M, et al (2011). “Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density.” Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging  191(1):36-43.

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