Embracing mindfulness training in the workplace can reduce stress, increase collaboration, and improve focus.
By Tara Antonipillai
Stress is unfortunately a part of everyday life, and the current uncertainty only makes it more present. The American Psychological Association polls Americans each year on their stress levels and what causes them. In 2019, as in prior years, work was at the top of the list, with 60 percent of those polled reporting that work causes high levels of stress.
The National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health notes that there are multiple factors that cause workplace stress, ranging from dangerous working conditions to the more common reports of unreasonable workloads and problematic working relationships with managers and coworkers.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created new stressors for employees as well. Employees face health and financial risks, but also experience stress due to uncertainty and changes in the way that they work and live. The CDC points out that disasters and traumatic events can exacerbate pre-existing physical and mental health conditions, as well as stress and anxiety.
What can organizations do to help the workforce constructively respond to stress? Just as training employees to perform job-related tasks is critical to job satisfaction, teaching employees to respond to stress is equally important.
A Mindful Way to Reduce Stress
Mindfulness training in its many forms and variations has consistently been shown to reduce stress and anxiety among employees. A 2017 study published in SAGE Journals found that mindfulness-based stress reduction training resulted in lower levels of stress among a group of executives. The results were based on physical measurements, such as blood cortisol levels and blood pressure, as well as self-reported stress levels, mood, and emotional well-being. This is consistent with a larger body of research showing that mindfulness positively impacts mental health, mood, chronic pain, attention, and memory.
Integrating mindfulness training into company culture can also have a dramatic impact on how employees interact and work together, as well as how they experience stress. Studies have shown that mindfulness does not just change how people feel, but actually physically transforms parts of the brain responsible for regulation of attention, behavior, and memory.
Mindfulness has been shown to improve a variety of key metrics, including the following.
1. Improved focus and concentration. One of the most well-documented outcomes of mindfulness training is improvement in concentration and focus. Mindfulness techniques, in their many forms, have two common features:
- the self-regulation of attention; and
- the use of breathing to regulate the autonomic nervous system.
In addition, mindfulness exercises actually cause physical changes in brain, including increased density of the brain in the area that is associated with attention and memory, the hippocampus. Building up the hippocampus may help improve focus and working memory.
2. Increased cooperative relationships and collaboration. Studies show that mindfulness training also helps people work together more successfully. There are some physiological reasons for the improvements in cooperation and collaboration. The anterior cingulate cortex is associated with self-regulation, which positively impacts the ability to purposefully direct attention and behavior, suppress inappropriate knee-jerk responses, and switch strategies flexibly. Individuals who practice mindfulness demonstrate a greater ability to practice self-regulation, a critical skill in working well in a team setting.
Practicing mindfulness has also been shown to boost empathy. Empathy is a key factor in improving cooperation and collaborative working relationships, and reducing problematic behaviors like verbal abuse in the workplace.
3. Better problem-solving skills. Mindfulness practice is reported to boost problem solving. Researchers looked at the divergent thinking skills of engineering students and found that mindfulness enhanced creative problem solving.
While the exact mechanism connecting mindfulness with problem solving is still being investigated, scientists can show that the pre-frontal cortex (the thinking/reasoning part of the brain located behind the forehead) is activated and strengthened by mindfulness training. This part of the brain is responsible for sophisticated decision making.
Embracing Mindfulness to Improve Employee Experience
Mindfulness is a skill that requires practice, and there are guidelines to follow when it comes to implementing a mindfulness program.
Building on prior research into how mindfulness improves the employee experience, a study in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found that mindfulness improved both productivity and overall job satisfaction. This study also provides guidance on how to implement a mindfulness training program, revealing that a six-week mindfulness class that meets one hour per week was more helpful that a half-day program where all of the content was delivered in one sitting.
Research also clearly shows that individuals can train their brains to form new habits like practicing mindfulness. The key is to keep repeating those new activities until they are second nature. This research confirms earlier studies on “habit-formation” that showed that repetition is key.
Establishing a mindfulness training program can help employees reduce stress as well as support a positive work environment. For best results, organizations should to teach employees how to practice, provide sufficient time between training sessions, and allow the repetition necessary to form a new practice.
Tara Antonipillai is founder of Tara Antonipillai Wellness.