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"Today’s workplaces are full of distractions and stress – and they are getting worse. Whether it is having to do more with less or the kind of “interruption overload” endemic in busy offices, managers tend to bounce from one crisis to the next, updating their Twitter feeds and checking email on their smartphones as they go. The problem with this is that they rarely find the time to focus, plan strategies or give those they work with their undivided attention: everything they do is reactive.
Unsurprisingly, many people would like to find a calm in the centre of this storm. A technique called mindfulness that draws on meditation might offer an answer – and companies are using it at all levels, with a view to making staff less stressed and more productive.
In the 1970s, western psychologists became interested in its therapeutic potential. More recently, businesses have come to recognise its applicability to the modern workplace – employees who practise mindfulness say it helps with everything from better teamwork and relationships to improved creativity and lateral thinking and to reduced stress and anxiety. It is now used in organisations as varied as Google, Apple, General Mills and the London Underground. Mindfulness even made its debut at the World Economic Forum at Davos this year.
It can also be a useful technique for making better decisions. For Elisabeth Marx, a psychologist and partner of the executive search firm Stonehaven, says: “You don’t rush to premature judgments and you’re more open to observe a greater variety of information. It’s also very useful in building resilience in leaders and leadership teams and, when you have a big landscape change, it’s stops you from just using conditioned responses. I use it to step back and get different perspectives.”
The practice also has a solid neuroscientific basis; when people train in mindfulness the way their brains work changes. For example, it calms down the part of the brain that controls the fight or flight responses.
“People who are mindful tend to recognise that they have choices about how they act,” he says. “It makes you realise that working harder isn’t the only show in town and allows people to manage their mental resources better. It makes you more engaged and productive and reduces stress.”
To help staff become mindful, a number of organisations now run training programmes. Some, such as PwC, incorporate it into larger training courses, while others, such as London Underground, use it as a stress reduction tool. “You’re seeing quite a broad range of businesses using it, and interest up to board level,” says Prof Williams.
Mindfulness can be done on a corporate as well as an individual scale. Linda Kazanova, chief human resources officer at US-based Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, says: “Mindfulness is . . . part of having a healthy, balanced workplace. We have a five-minute mindfulness stretch before shifts and around 3,000 of our 5,500 employees do it regularly. Team members are trained and certified to be able to lead the stretch and they’re checked once a year.”
She admits that new employees can be sceptical. “But most people love it and say they can’t imagine starting the day without it. They feel the tension leave them and become more present and able to focus. People who are calm and better focused make good decisions for those around them.”
“Interest is still growing. Office teams are starting to use it and we’re looking at introducing it into leadership training schemes.” "