Elaine O'Keeffe

By Elaine O'Keeffe
Workplace Consultant |

Mindfulness is a wellbeing buzzword. It conjures up images of monks in robes and far-off retreats where speaking is banned for a week. However, mindfulness does not necessarily equate to meditation. This practice has been going for centuries in the East.

In fact since the 1970’s, mindfulness has been permeating its way in to the Western workplace. Kabat-Zinn, the creator of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) defined it as, “paying attention, in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally”. The key concept is to not judge a particular moment as good or bad, just being present in the moment. Simply noticing your emotions and environment is the basis of both Eastern and Western mindfulness.

Picture this - the printer isn't working moments before an important meeting. What do you do? The automatic reaction is often extreme annoyance or in my case, a sudden and overwhelming belief that printers are out to ruin your life. Being mindful in the moment can allow you to acknowledge the stress reaction your body is having, whilst noticing in the same moment that the plug has helpfully shifted out of the socket. Problem solved! You can swan serenely in to that meeting and argue your case for a technology upgrade. 

Whilst mindfulness can lower your perceived stress, it has also been shown to improve your immune system and prevent emotional exhaustion whilst lowering automatic negative thoughts (such as, “all printers hate me”). Being consistently mindful may increase attention span, cognitive flexibility and increase a sense of autonomy and competence. This increased sense of influence over your environment has been linked with job satisfaction (a major predictor of turnover!), while cognitive flexibility has been associated with problem solving and innovation. There are many benefits to having, ‘mindful’ employees. So why do we find it so hard to be mindful in the workplace?

The office space of today is too noisy and distracting to really take five minutes out doing nothing. It’s a foreign concept to most. If you are leaning back in your chair, someone is more than likely going to ask if you have time for a quick chat. Mindfulness needs to be cultivated - being mindful is like a muscle, and creating an automatic reaction of mindfulness takes time and practice. While we can control our home environments to facilitate this, the workplace demands your instant attention. Taking five minutes out for reflection is often not encouraged. Either you’ve got, “too much to do” or worse, you might be seen as avoiding work. Often this is exactly the time we would benefit most from reflection. 

Although we understand the benefit of taking a break, we often forget the immediate benefits of not eating lunch at our desk, or stepping away for just five minutes. In most of Morgan Lovell’s Workplace Evaluation Surveys, a very high number of employees report that taking a short break increases their overall productivity. By providing a contemplation space of some sort, where the sole purpose is to take time out to reflect, employees can reap the benefits of practising mindfulness. Ultimately, this investment can translate itself to affect the bottom line positively by increasing employee productivity, reducing attrition and having more flexible choices for employees. 

It may seem like a strange concept to many smaller workplaces to dedicate a space to relax. However, it doesn’t need to be a whole room – simply a piece of furniture that is sound proof would suffice, or even some cushions on the floor. It is simply about moving the activity away from the main work point. More than just providing the space, individuals need to be strict with a no-interruptions rule. There’s no use providing a beautiful Zen garden for contemplation if someone then attempts to have a meeting with you about ordering more ink cartridges (the printers have spies, I swear!). 

So while mindfulness takes time to cultivate, spending five minutes to simply assess and take stock of how your body is reacting, can improve your day. For workplaces looking to improve the wellbeing of their staff, consider providing spaces for them to get away from it all – there’s no reason not to!