The modern workplace can be full of distractions: loud conversations, interruptions from colleagues, chat channels such as Slack, phone calls, meetings, presentations, mobile phones... and just the internet in general. There's always something that can take us away from the task we're working on. So how can we apply the principles of mindfulness to feel more present at work, as well as boost our productivity?
Someone who knows about staying mindful on the job is Jutta Tobias PhD. She's a social psychologist with 20 years of work experience in organizational development and capacity-building. Dr Tobias researches and teaches personal development and leadership in collaboration with executive students and in a variety of organizations.
Through her teaching and coaching, Tobias helps individuals develop their personal resilience and emotional intelligence. She works with groups to help improve their decision-making, overcome obstacles, and generate sustainable performance. Dr Tobias' current research focus is on establishing a scientific evidence base for linking mindfulness-based interventions with organizational transformation.
We spoke with Dr Tobias about mindfulness at work and she offered some valuable insights: “In the last couple of years when I ask people how they are doing in their organisation, they’re no longer just saying they’re busy, they’re actually saying ‘I’m overwhelmed at work.’
“Or they’re now seeing business as the status quo, if not the hero status: ‘I’m busier than you!’ But it doesn’t necessarily make people more effective. And mindfulness practice and mindfulness as a state or a way of being, is a little bit the opposite or the antidote to moving fast to being busy. It’s actually about being.”
Research into mindfulness in the workplace is fairly limited, although there are a couple of studies that appear to back its benefits.
In a study conducted with Duke University, the insurance company Aetna had over 10,000 employees participate in a mindfulness or yoga class. Aetna found that among those who took part, there was an almost 30 per cent reduction in stress levels, a 20 per cent improvement in sleep quality and a 19 per cent reduction in pain. Participants also became more effective at work, gaining an average of 62 minutes per week of added productivity. The conclusion? Mindfulness at work resulted in a healthier and more effective workforce.
“There's always something that can take us away from the task we're working on. So, how can we apply the principles of mindfulness to feel more alive and present at work?”
Similarly, a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and reported on by Greater Good Science Center found benefits to mindfulness in the workplace. The research sought to determine whether an online mindfulness program created for the Dow Chemical Company, could reduce stress while simultaneously enhancing the well-being and resilience of employees.
Just under 90 participants completed scientific scales designed to measure their levels of stress, mindfulness, resiliency and vigor. They were then divided into two groups — one to take the online mindfulness class and one to join the wait list for it.
The researchers came back six months later, just as the first group was finishing the class. And they found that, in fact, the group that took the class was doing a lot better than the group that hadn't yet taken the class – they were less stressed, more resilient, and more energetic. “This online mindfulness intervention seems to be both practical and effective in… enhancing overall employee well-being,” the researchers concluded.
So, it seems there is some good evidence that being mindful in the workplace can make us happier and more productive. Even without a formal meditation practice, there are simple and practical steps you can take to give yourself a better chance of staying mindful and present while working. Here are six of the best:
New emails in our inbox have a habit of seducing us away from the task at hand to give them our undivided attention. Perhaps it’s because we’re not really enjoying our task so we're looking for an easy distraction. But it could also be because completing small, easily accomplished tasks like replying to an email releases dopamine, one of the happiness hormones, in our brains. However, in fact, answering mail throughout the day means we end up disrupting our focus from the task at hand.
So, instead of answering email as soon as it pings into your inbox, be email efficient and allot dedicated periods of time to replying to messages. For example, use 30 minutes first thing in the morning to reply to any urgent mails you have, or wait until you have completed one of your major tasks. Apply mindfulness when opening your inbox and watch your productivity rise.
Be mindful at work with deep breaths shutterstock/fizkies
Just like emails, these take your attention away from the task at hand and distract you. Turn off all unnecessary notifications, and, instead, set your own mindfulness notification system with an hourly alarm on your phone during the day.
Every hour when your phone pings, take a mindful breath or rub your hands together to become aware of your senses. It will help you come back into the present moment and refocus. Dr Tobias agrees. “The easiest and quickest instruction that I give to others and to myself is that practising mindfulness is all about coming to our senses, and it's a bit of a metaphor but it’s also a physical instruction: get in touch with my body: feel,” she told us.
“I rub my hands together, and for a moment or two, notice the sensations in my fingers and my hand and that brings me back into the here and now. The people that now how to do this simple instruction and do it consistently are more present. And because they’re more present, they’re actually more satisfied.”
Acceptance lies at the heart of mindfulness. To be mindful means to accept this present moment just as it is. And it also means to accept yourself, just as you are at this present moment. It doesn’t mean giving up, but it does mean acknowledging how things currently are before trying to change anything.
Making mistakes – big or small – at work happen all the time and we need to accept it when it happens instead of worrying. Here’s a workplace example, you made a huge typo in a social media post and can't change it or you went way over your planned budget. Firstly, you should accept that you ca cannot change it so you need to try to move on with the situation by learning from it.
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Lack of acceptance can lead to denial of the fact or avoidance (trying to avoid the issue or skipping meetings with your supervisor) or even aggression (blaming someone else for the mistake or taking it out on others). Instead, try to accept the situation, talk to the necessary staffers involved and learn from your mistakes. Acceptance actually leads to change.
Self-acceptance is even more powerful. It involves embracing all facets of yourself — your weaknesses, shortcomings, aspects you don’t like and those you admire. When you can accept yourself, you reduce energy-draining self-criticism. You’re then in a better place to enjoy your successes and laugh off your shortcomings.
People often love to big up their multi-tasking abilities, but the truth is, nobody can actually multitask – trying to do two or more tasks at the same time and switching back and forth between them just isn’t efficient.
“Being a single-tasker is more productive and a great way of seeing how much actual time – not including distractions – you spend on regular work activities.”
Become a single-tasker by planning a time journal of your working day. Spend five minutes in the morning making a list of all the tasks you have to complete on any given day, then focus on completing one at a time, tracking the time you take for each. It’s more productive and is a great way of seeing how much actual time – not including distractions – you spend your time on regular work activities, which will help you plan your workload more efficiently in the future.
You can train your brain to become more mindful by carrying out small mindfulness exercises. In a busy workplace, it’s probably not possible to take 30 minutes out to meditate, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be mindful at work: even a minute or two of simply taking time out to connect with yours senses and how you’re feeling can be classified as mindfulness.
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Take time out throughout the day to practice small mindfulness exercises in the office, for example, simply to sit upright and focus on your breath for a couple of minutes. Count on each exhalation and release any distractions by going back to focusing on your breathing. During times of high pressure in the workplace, practicing a short mindfulness exercise such as this breathing example can be a godsend.
Work meetings are often seen as a necessary evil: they can be painful and unproductive if not managed correctly. But, by being mindful about meetings, you can even turn them into a highly useful and even enjoyable experience.
Break to stretch and rub your hands shutterstock/TORWAISTUDIO
Firstly, check in with yourself before a meeting. Notice what mental state you're in. Are you excited or frustrated and anxious? By becoming aware of your mental state, you have the chance to reconsider the state you want to be in for the duration of the meeting. If you take part in a state of appreciation or contribution, the impact will be much more positive than if you’re coming from a place of frustration or anger. If you find yourself getting stressed or tense in a meeting, try to focus on the breathing exercise mentioned before.
Mindful meetings wrap up effectively and with firm intentions: What have we decided? Who is going to do what and by when? How can we resolve the issues we have agreed upon today? Also, wherever possible, any potential distractions should be removed from meetings, ie, no mobile phones!
Our workplaces are full of distractions that take our attention away from the job at hand. But research suggests that by being more mindful at work we can boost our productivity and reduce stress levels. If you regularly practice the mindfulness at work tips printed above, you should hopefully feel the benefits! ●
Main image: shutterstock/pathdoc
You might be interested in our other interviews around work. Watch Bodhin Philip Woodward on the impact of mindfulness and compassion in daily life, and our chat with the organizers of co-founders of the summit, Liz Hall and Luis San Martin.
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Calvin edits the happiness.com magazine, as well being an artist and travel lover. He also loves hiking, nature, swimming, yoga, sweaty dancing, and all things vintage!
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