By Mikki Brammer, Contributor
If there’s one thing that workplaces in the United States have in common, it’s stress.
The American Psychological Association’s Stress in America 2019 report revealed that 64 percent of Americans cite work as a significant source of stress. In a 2018 survey of 2,000 professionals by Korn Ferry Institute, 76 percent of respondents said that workplace stress impacted their personal relationships, while 66 percent said it made them lose sleep.
Stressed employees mean reduced productivity, and companies have tried all sorts of ways to keep their staff happy and productive, from game rooms and onsite massages, to unlimited vacation and endless snacks. But it turns out that there’s a more impactful means of reducing stress in the workplace: mindfulness.
A recent study in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology revealed that people who practiced mindfulness during the workday showed reduced work-life conflict, increased job satisfaction, and an increased ability to focus their attention.
Infinitely advancing technology and open-plan offices mean we are more connected than ever to our colleagues and clients, which often leads to augmented stress. Fortunately, that technology might also hold the solution to bringing mindfulness to our work environments.
The word is often bandied around, but what is mindfulness, exactly? In short, it’s the practice of calmly observing—and accepting—your thoughts, body sensations, feelings, and environment in any present moment.
“When you’re focused on what’s going on in the present, you can receive information to the highest degree possible.”
—Alexandra Croswell, assistant professor, University of California, San Francisco
“When you’re focused on what’s going on in the present, you can receive information to the highest degree possible,” says Alexandra Croswell, assistant professor of psychiatry at the Weill Institute for Neurosciences at the University of California, San Francisco. “But when we are spending our brainpower on what’s happened in the past or going to happen in the future, it limits the information that we’re gathering from the present moment.”
Being engaged and present in the workplace, she adds, “means that you’re able to be more aware of the situation at hand and have higher levels of emotional intelligence.”
Experts agree that a key to achieving mindfulness in any aspect of life is the practice of meditation. As such, many workplaces have begun to incorporate the practice into their daily agendas, whether by giving employees subscriptions to apps like Headspace or by offering in-person group meditations during the workday.
“You can’t just tell yourself to be present. You have to build the practice of doing it over and over again…”
—Darren Good, assistant professor, Pepperdine University
Darren Good, assistant professor of applied behavioral science at Pepperdine University, helps organizations to teach their employees how to incorporate mindfulness into their work habits, beyond sitting down for formal mediation.
“When you’re meditating, you’re just focusing on the sensations of your breathing—the rise and fall of your breath,” he says. “But you could do that with any of your senses. It could be feeling your back against the chair; or, as you walk from meeting to meeting, rather than letting your head go into the clouds and thinking about all the things that you’re nervous about, focusing on the sensation of the floor under your feet.”
Doctors and nurses could practice mindfulness, for example, by using the time they are washing their hands as a way to retreat from their chaotic thoughts and focus on the present moment, says Good.
But like any valuable workplace skill, he says, mindfulness takes practice. “You can’t just tell yourself to be present. You have to build the practice of doing it over and over again, so that it becomes part of who you are. The real key is looking at a particular work environment and finding ways that are contextual for that particular job and environment, so people can do it in the process of whatever they’re doing.”
Technology to the Rescue
The double-edged sword of 24/7 connectivity means we’re often robbed of precious mental downtime. But technology is also playing an important role in making mindfulness in the workplace possible.
Finding himself at a low point following a string of business failures, Miami entrepreneur Jonathan Marcoschamer signed up for a 10-day silent meditation retreat. The results were life-changing in more ways than one.
“There is my life before learning meditation and my life after,” he says. “It made me aware that meditation is a tool that every person should have.”
Of course, that’s all well and good when you’re at a retreat, but when Marcoschamer returned to work, he quickly discovered that meditating in an open-plan office was a challenge. “I was trying to meditate at my desk and it was not happening—there were people tapping on my shoulder, phones, and just a lot of stimulation.”
He began researching different therapeutic modalities—sound, aromatherapy, light—and imagined how he could combine those into a self-standing microenvironment that could be used within an office. The resulting concept, Openseed, is a series of meditation pods that launched in 2019.
Made from sustainable Baltic birchwood to imbue a connection to nature, the pods use wool materials to block out external noise. Inside, users can use the touchscreen to select from a menu of guided meditations and calming sounds and music, while programmed LED light sequences synchronize with breathing exercises and visualizations.
The pods are already in use at corporate offices, hotels, and airports and other frenetic public spaces to help people step away for a moment of peace when their surrounding environment becomes too overwhelming.
Up to three people can use the pod at one time, which Marcoschamer says can be particularly beneficial in an office setting before a brainstorming session or even for conflict resolution.
“People who are in conflict and can’t find a solution will go in and do a conflict-resolution meditation, which takes them to a different state of consciousness. That’s where new thinking comes in and where it can help resolve problems.” By participating in a calming meditation together, employees are often in a more open frame of mind, making it easier for all parties to reach a resolution.
Marcoschamer says that future iterations of the pods will hopefully incorporate heart-rate monitoring, as well as artificial intelligence (AI) technology that can adapt while people are in the process of meditating. For those who use the pods regularly, the planned AI technology will analyze data points, such as heart rate and response to sound vibrations and color therapy, to then customize a meditation program for the individual. Eventually, Marcoschamer says, there may even be the potential to monitor brainwaves during the meditations.
Mindfulness as a Core Skill
While organizations are increasingly turning to tech solutions like Openseed or designated rooms for meditation, Croswell points out that managers should also be looking at ways to prevent stress in their employees in the first place.
“Oftentimes, companies use mindfulness apps like Headspace because of high levels of workplace stress,” she says. “But a huge caveat to that is not just putting the onus for stress reduction on the employee.”
In many cases, she says, that may require systemic change within a company. Managers must consider impacting factors—such as the length of the workday, adequate break times, and under-resourcing—that may be preventing employees from engaging in mindful activities simply because they lack the time.
“Instead of just providing individuals with better tools so that they can cope with work stress,” Croswell says, “company leadership needs to create a culture that doesn’t overwork their employees, which includes implementing policies that support the physical and mental well-being of all employees.”
As companies increasingly begin to realize the benefits of having happy, healthy employees, it’s clear that mindfulness is key to successful workplaces of the future.