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How Mindfulness Programs Can Conquer Workplace Stress


According to the American Institute of Stress, job-related anxiety has increased for decades with no signs of slowing. About 80 percent of workers are affected by vocational pressures, and nearly half say they need help in managing the rising levels of stress they experience, according to AIS research. The “overwhelmed employee” represents the hallmark of today’s working standard, rather than an isolated phenomenon or individual struggle. That’s why some of the largest and most productive organizations, companies such as Pfizer and Google, are championing mindfulness initiatives as part of their overall wellness solutions. Let’s explore the realm of mindfulness and how contingent workforce leaders can launch their own efforts to revitalize and reenergize their programs.

What Is Mindfulness?

When we talk about mindfulness, what exactly do we mean? According to academic leaders at U.C. Berkeley, “Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.” Beyond that, achieving a state of mindfulness involves acceptance -- paying close attention to our thoughts, motivations and feelings without judgment.

“Though it has its roots in Buddhist meditation,” Berkeley explains, “a secular practice of mindfulness has entered the American mainstream in recent years, in part through the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, which he launched at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979. Since that time, thousands of studies have documented the physical and mental health benefits of mindfulness in general and MBSR in particular, inspiring countless programs to adapt the MBSR model for schools, prisons, hospitals, veterans centers, and beyond.”

Google adopted the practice at its own headquarters back in 2007, with the introduction of its transformative “Search Inside Yourself” program, conceived by engineer Chade-Meng Tan. He laid out a simple yet effective course that teaches people how to take charge of their emotional responses, think clearly, remain calm during anxious situations, listen actively, and pause before acting. The program covers five components of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills.

In its report ”Predictions for 2015: Redesigning the Organization for a Rapidly Changing Workforce,” Bersin by Deloitte also touted measurable benefits for companies that bring mindfulness into the corporate culture.

Bersin observes: “Companies, like Pfizer, now teach mindfulness in their leadership development programs. More and more celebrities are promoting the fact that health, sleep, and meditation are secrets to business success.”

Bersin researchers acknowledge that many enterprises still consider mindfulness programs to be fads or expensive perks offered by Silicon Valley markets to lure top talent. However, their findings didn’t support such claims:

“Our research disagrees -- more and more companies we talk with tell us that they save money and improve productivity by making the workplace more humane. Research shows that, when people feel more comfortable at work, they work harder, are more productive, and can tolerate longer working hours.”

Mindfulness in Action

To further illustrate the importance of mindfulness, consider a fascinating story by NPR. Some schools, particularly those in tougher areas, have turned to mindfulness coaches such as Laurie Grossman to help kids overcome emotional distress, lack of focus and insecurities.

“Because the children have witnessed such high levels of conflict, their bodies are often knotted with feelings of worry and fear, emotions that propel them into the fight or flight mode — a continuous state of stress that impacts their physical and mental health. These issues prevent them from feeling safe enough to focus in class.”

Four years ago, the staff at Oakland’s Reach Academy identified the need to provide students with additional tools to help them regulate their emotions. So they enlisted the unconventional expertise of Laurie Grossman.

Immediately after beginning the practice, NPR writers explain, “A sense of serenity entered the classroom, and the teachers and school administrators recognized how much mindfulness had changed the school climate.”

When you really think about it, the pressures placed on students today -- in a hyper-competitive global race for skills -- mirror the pressures heaped on the workforce. Professionals also experience feelings of powerlessness. They struggle to harness personal control over their circumstances, demands and outcomes. They want to make the wisest decisions possible and gain a true sense of community with their colleagues. For contingent workers, this becomes even more trying because they operate on the periphery of the main talent population.

As the Bersin report notes, “Psychologists and neurologists tell us that people are multitasking too much, losing sleep, and finding work more difficult than ever.” So let’s look at how a simple mindfulness program can assist contingent workforce program leaders through quick, easy techniques.

Mindfulness Meditation

Meditation is one of the primary techniques in attaining mindfulness. It doesn’t need to be a complicated, spiritually infused or lengthy affair. Experts say that five to 10 minutes a day will produce optimal results. Given the short duration, contingent workforce program leaders should consider requesting this allocation of a few extra minutes before shifts begin or during a dedicated break. The talent, whose participation is completely voluntary, would benefit tremendously -- and so would clients, who begin receiving enhanced performance and productivity. Here are a handful of basics to get started. The information has been collected by Skye Gould of Business Insider, and combines the research of leading experts such as Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodron and Dan Harris. In their studies, they found that people who engage in meditation frequently demonstrate increased size in the brain regions associated with emotional stability and regulation.

Breathing

Instead of calming your mind, appreciate the sensation of your own breathing patterns. The mind will soon wander away from your body and into your thoughts. At this moment, recognize that you’re thinking openly and embrace the information you receive. Then, focus back on the physical qualities of your breathing.

Hands and Arm Posture

Allow your shoulders and arms to relax, letting your palms fall to your thighs. An even better approach is to place one hand atop of the other while resting on your lap.

Eyes

If you would like the experience to be more physically attuned, close your eyes. If you’d prefer to feel more “anchored in the space you’re in,” Gould writes, “keep them open.”

Legs and Feet

Most of us imagine meditation taking place in a lotus position -- sitting cross-legged on the floor. If this is the stance of choice, make sure to seat yourself on a comfortable cushion and keep your knees below your hips. Of course, you may also use a chair. When doing so, meditation works best if your feet remain flat on the ground. Also be sure to keep your spine straight.

Time

“Meditation isn’t about length,” Gould emphasizes. It’s all about frequency. As with any exercise, you won’t see results from sporadic bouts of activity or irregular visits to the gym. The great thing about successful meditation is that you can start with just five-minute sessions.

Other Mindfulness Practices

While meditation typically embodies what we think of as mindfulness training, researchers and scientists have discovered countless other practices we can create in our daily routines.

20 Minutes of Mindfulness

In his article for Inc., Benjamin Hardy gathers the wisdom of Thomas Edison, Napoleon Hill and Josh Waitzkin, a former chess prodigy and tai chi world champion. All have promoted the importance of tapping into the subconscious mind to draw out powerful insights for the conscious life. Hardy quotes Napoleon Hill and Edison.

"Your subconscious mind works continuously, while you are awake, and while you sleep." -- Hill

"Never go to sleep without a request to your subconscious."--Edison

Our subconscious, Hill asserts, influences every conscious action. “The subconscious mind will translate into its physical equivalent, by the most direct and practical method available,” he says. To put it another way, whatever we think at a deep enough level can manifest into our reality. Identifying, controlling and capitalizing on our underlying thoughts requires only two 10-minute activities.

  • About 10 minutes before going to bed, make a simple list of all the things you hope to accomplish. Interview your own mind by asking a lot of questions related to that goal. Then, jot down all those ideas on paper or your smart device. The more specific the questions, the clearer the answers. Whether you realize it or not, you’re also undertaking a type of meditation in this exercise.
  • Because the brain is most active and creative upon waking, using the first 10 minutes of the morning can bolster your mindfulness efforts. Waitzkin recommends focusing on output rather than input during this time. He doesn’t check his emails or messages. Instead, he journals and “thought dumps.” This is an excellent opportunity to review the items you wrote down the night before and formulate fresh ideas on how to achieve those objectives.

Making Mindfulness a Healthy Habit, Not an Occasional Relief

Some other ways you can reduce stress and master your focus include:

  • Slowly exposing yourself to situations you fear or have anxiety about.
  • Recognize when you’re misplacing concerns on unrelated issues.
  • Keep fit and exercise, which improves cognition.
  • Envision stress as an opportunity to succeed.
  • Affirm your core values and see the bigger picture. Make a pros and cons list of all you’re experiencing.
  • Help others.
  • Understand that stress comes from responsibilities, and that you have those duties because you’re considered competent and meaningful.

As our work becomes more complex and imperative, stress will continue to build. By rolling out and encouraging mindfulness training, contingent workforce program leaders can help themselves, their talent and their clients realize untold heights of performance and delight.

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