Embracing mindfulness training in the workplace can reduce stress,Â increase collaboration, and improve focus.
By Tara Antonipillai
Stress is unfortunately a part of everyday life, and theÂ current uncertainty only makes it more present. TheÂ American Psychological Association polls Americans eachÂ year on their stress levels and what causes them. In 2019,Â as in prior years, work was at the top of the list, with 60Â percent of those polled reporting that work causes highÂ levels of stress.
The National Institutes for Occupational Safety and HealthÂ notes that there are multiple factors that cause workplaceÂ stress, ranging from dangerous working conditions to theÂ more common reports of unreasonable workloads andÂ problematic working relationships with managers and coworkers.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created new stressors forÂ employees as well. Employees face health and financialÂ risks, but also experience stress due to uncertaintyÂ and changes in the way that they work and live. TheÂ CDC points out that disasters and traumatic events canÂ exacerbate pre-existing physical and mental healthÂ conditions, as well as stress and anxiety.
What can organizations do to help the workforceÂ constructively respond to stress? Just as training employeesÂ to perform job-related tasks is critical to job satisfaction,Â teaching employees to respond to stress is equallyÂ important.
A Mindful Way to Reduce Stress
Mindfulness training in its many forms and variationsÂ has consistently been shown to reduce stress and anxietyÂ among employees. A 2017 study published in SAGEÂ Journals found that mindfulness-based stress reductionÂ training resulted in lower levels of stress among aÂ group of executives. The results were based on physicalÂ measurements, such as blood cortisol levels and bloodÂ pressure, as well as self-reported stress levels, mood, andÂ emotional well-being. This is consistent with a largerÂ body of research showing that mindfulness positivelyÂ impacts mental health, mood, chronic pain, attention, andÂ memory.
Integrating mindfulness training into company culture canÂ also have a dramatic impact on how employees interactÂ and work together, as well as how they experience stress.Â Studies have shown that mindfulness does not just changeÂ how people feel, but actually physically transforms partsÂ of the brain responsible for regulation of attention,Â behavior, and memory.
Mindfulness has been shown to improve a variety of keyÂ metrics, including the following.
1. Improved focus and concentration. One of the mostÂ well-documented outcomes of mindfulness training isÂ improvement in concentration and focus.Â Mindfulness techniques, in their many forms, have twoÂ common features:
- the self-regulation of attention; and
- the use of breathing to regulate the autonomic nervousÂ system.
In addition, mindfulness exercises actually cause physicalÂ changes in brain, including increased density of the brainÂ in the area that is associated with attention and memory,Â the hippocampus. Building up the hippocampus may helpÂ improve focus and working memory.
2. Increased cooperative relationships and collaboration.Â Studies show that mindfulness training also helpsÂ people work together more successfully. There are someÂ physiological reasons for the improvements in cooperationÂ and collaboration. The anterior cingulate cortexÂ is associated with self-regulation, which positively impactsÂ the ability to purposefully direct attention and behavior,Â suppress inappropriate knee-jerk responses, and switchÂ strategies flexibly. Individuals who practice mindfulnessÂ demonstrate a greater ability to practice self-regulation, aÂ critical skill in working well in a team setting.
Practicing mindfulness has also been shown to boostÂ empathy. Empathy is a key factor in improving cooperationÂ and collaborative working relationships, and reducingÂ problematic behaviors like verbal abuse in the workplace.
3. Better problem-solving skills. Mindfulness practice isÂ reported to boost problem solving. Researchers lookedÂ at the divergent thinking skills of engineering studentsÂ and found that mindfulness enhanced creative problemÂ solving.
While the exact mechanism connecting mindfulness withÂ problem solving is still being investigated, scientists canÂ show that the pre-frontal cortex (the thinking/reasoningÂ part of the brain located behind the forehead) is activatedÂ and strengthened by mindfulness training. This part of theÂ brain is responsible for sophisticated decision making.
Embracing Mindfulness to Improve Employee Experience
Mindfulness is a skill that requires practice, and there areÂ guidelines to follow when it comes to implementing aÂ mindfulness program.
Building on prior research into how mindfulness improvesÂ the employee experience, a study in the Journal ofÂ Occupational Health Psychology found that mindfulnessÂ improved both productivity and overall job satisfaction.Â This study also provides guidance on how to implement aÂ mindfulness training program, revealing that a six-weekÂ mindfulness class that meets one hour per week was moreÂ helpful that a half-day program where all of the contentÂ was delivered in one sitting.
Research also clearly shows that individuals can train theirÂ brains to form new habits like practicing mindfulness. TheÂ key is to keep repeating those new activities until they areÂ second nature. This research confirms earlier studies onÂ âhabit-formationâ that showed that repetition is key.
Establishing a mindfulness training program can helpÂ employees reduce stress as well as support a positiveÂ work environment. For best results, organizations shouldÂ to teach employees how to practice, provide sufficientÂ time between training sessions, and allow the repetitionÂ necessary to form a new practice.
Tara Antonipillai is founder of Tara Antonipillai Wellness.