The concept of mindfulness has come a long way from the early teachings of Buddha, and meditation is no longer the preserve of hippies in remote forests. Recent years have seen a growing number of businesses recognise the importance of applying mindfulness in the workplace, thus supporting the wellbeing of their employees.
That being said however, we, as individuals are continuously exposed to circumstances beyond our control, which often have an impact on our mental health. With professional and personal commitments often playing an active role in how we perceive the world around us – particularly in those of us who suffer from inherent psychological conditions - mindfulness can help reduce stress, anxiety and conflict. This in turn increases resilience and emotional intelligence, thus improving communication in the workplace.
So what is mindfulness? In its simplest form, mindfulness means self awareness. Practising mindfulness offers a way to pay attention to the present moment, without judgement. In this blog, we share some practical tips on how you can practice mindfulness in the workplace.
Mindfulness means self awareness
Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, says that mindfulness means knowing directly what is going on inside and outside ourselves, moment by moment. "It's easy to stop noticing the world around us. It's also easy to lose touch with the way our bodies are feeling and to end up living 'in our heads' – caught up in our thoughts without stopping to notice how those thoughts are driving our emotions and behaviour," he says.
"An important part of mindfulness is reconnecting with our bodies and the sensations they experience. This means waking up to the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the present moment. That might be something as simple as the feel of a banister as we walk upstairs. Another important part of mindfulness is an awareness of our thoughts and feelings as they happen moment to moment."
Given how many of us are pulled in multiple directions by too much stimuli, too many responsibilities and too much hurrying, living in the present can often seem easier said than done. Although it's impossible to switch off our feelings and thoughts, there is a way to reclaim control of our mind by shutting out distractions and focusing on the current situation as it is, rather than what you believe it to be. This is the basis of mindfulness training.
How mindfulness improves your mental health
When we become more aware of the present moment, we begin to notice and experience afresh what we perhaps have taken for granted previously.
"Mindfulness also allows us to become more aware of the stream of thoughts and feelings that we experience," says Professor Williams, "and to see how we can become entangled in that stream in ways that are not helpful." Indeed, taking notes of our thought patterns and how we react to certain situations allows us to learn from the experiences. This enables us to focus our minds and cope with similar situations next time they arise, by training ourselves to notice when our thoughts are taking over and distorting our perception of reality.
Awareness of this kind also helps us notice signs of stress or anxiety earlier and helps us deal with them better. In fact, mindfulness is recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a way to prevent depression in people who have had three or more bouts of depression in the past.
See the NICE guideline on depression in adults.
Top tips to practice mindfulness in the workplace
Reminding yourself to take notice of your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and the world around you is the first step to mindfulness. Below are some top tips by Professor Williams and the NHS to get you started:
Appreciate the simple joys in life
"Even as we go about our daily lives, we can notice the sensations of things, the food we eat, the air moving past the body as we walk," says Professor Williams. "All this may sound very small, but it has huge power to interrupt the 'autopilot' mode we often engage day to day, and to give us new perspectives on life."
Watch your thoughts
"Some people find it very difficult to practice mindfulness. As soon as they stop what they're doing, lots of thoughts and worries crowd in," says Professor Williams.
"It might be useful to remember that mindfulness isn't about making these thoughts go away, but rather about seeing them as mental events. Imagine standing at a bus station and seeing 'thought buses' coming and going without having to get on them and be taken away. This can be very hard at first, but with gentle persistence it is possible. Some people find that it is easier to cope with an over-busy mind if they are doing gentle yoga or walking."
Name thoughts and feelings
To develop an awareness of thoughts and feelings, some people find it helpful to silently name them: "Here’s the thought that I might fail that exam". Or, "This is anxiety".
Free yourself from the past and future
You can practise mindfulness anywhere, but it can be especially helpful to take a mindful approach if you realise that, for several minutes, you have been "trapped" in reliving past problems or "pre-living" future worries.