Could mindfulness be the key to unlock better mental health at work and increase productivity?
It’s estimated that nearly 12 million working days are lost each year in the UK due to job-related stress and poor mental health at work, costing the UK economy over £5 billion per annum. Although employers have a legal obligation to look after the physical health and safety of their employees, many are arguably still catching up as far as mental health at work is concerned.
Our own research revealed that 70 percent of employees experienced symptoms of poor mental health at work at some point in their careers, with everyone saying their challenges were related to, or exacerbated by their work.
Given the prevalence of poor mental health at work and employee burnout caused by the rise of the ‘always on’ culture which blurs the lines between work and personal time, one cannot help but ask: Could mindfulness be the solution?
Advocated by business leaders from Richard Branson to Jeff Weiner, I wanted to explore the hype around mindfulness in a little more detail…
We had the pleasure of catching up with Tom Freeman, Business Psychologist at Headspace – a global leader in changing the way we think about mindfulness. Tom’s team assist companies in embedding the Headspace product into their organisations, educating employees and leaders on what mindfulness is, the science behind the concept, and what steps need to be taken to integrate the mindfulness practice into daily routines and improve their mental health at work.
What is mindfulness, and how is it different from meditation?
There is a difference; at Headspace we define meditation as cultivating awareness and compassion. Meditation is, in essence, the formal practice where you will (usually) sit with your eyes closed. The skill we develop through meditation is mindfulness. We think of mindfulness as meditation in action, which is in essence being present in the here and now with an open mind. A simple way of thinking of mindfulness is awareness, having an awareness of what’s going on in our minds in a non-judgemental way.
What are the benefits of mindfulness meditation to improve an individual's mental health at work?
Mindfulness research has shown that regular practice can reduce stress and anxiety, depression and aggression, improve focus, compassion and creativity as well as improve pain management.
How can companies benefit from a culture of mindfulness and improved mental health at work?
I think the two are connected, because healthy employees lead to healthy, happy and productive organisations. Teams have more compassion, are more creative and are generally more productive. Sick days and workplace hostility can be reduced. There are many benefits but ultimately the most important of these is how it starts with the employees. One benefit for example is that they may sleep better and in turn are happier and are more resilient.
How feasible is it for mindfulness meditation to be practiced in the workplace?
Increasingly we are seeing mindfulness meditation being taken up, often starting with small moments in the day, for example a short meditation before a meeting starts or blocking out a room for colleagues to use at their own leisure for short meditations of 10 to 15 minutes per day. Some clients will block out a room two or three days a week to try it out. For some companies, it might even be a quiet corner in the office, but the biggest thing is around having discussions and encouraging practice.
One of the things I think works very well is the concept of a Corporate Athlete (a concept conceived by Jack Groppel). In terms of performance how do we encourage employees to operate like athlete’s by taking full, proper breaks then come back with increased focus and energy, just the same as an athlete isn’t always running or swimming etc. We’re working hard to look at the best way to measure ROI. We know that healthier and happier employees are more productive, and we can link the increase in how employees feel with their practice. However, the distinct links and measurable on ROI remain a work in progress for us.
Would you agree there is still a stigma associated with mental health at work, thus making employees reluctant to take up mindfulness practices as a result?
I think there is still a stigma with people talking about mental health in general and there remains a lot of work to be done in this space. Meditation is interesting as it can help with issues such as stress, anxiety, depression but it can also help with collaboration, creativity etc. Therefore meditation is potentially a good bridge to help break down barriers as it can be practiced for many different reasons.
Meditation in sport is also an interesting partnership as it opens up a new discussion. We’re actually working with the LA Lakers right now to bring meditation into their training routine. We are also very aware that meditation still has some misconceptions around what is it / what isn’t it. We know some people may still think of the religious or ‘hippie’ background to meditation which there is nothing wrong with but the Headspace approach is very different to this. Part of our mission is around demystifying what meditation practice is.
Whether pre-scale, scaling or established - do you think there is a right time for businesses to introduce a culture of mindfulness?
There isn’t really one answer to this. In some respects making this part of your culture from day one presents some advantages and it absolutely has an ease as you aren’t trying to change a way of working as such. Equally however, we’ve seen some larger corporate banks/enterprises embed such a culture by having leadership sponsors and visibility. Sharing success/feedback also helps to breed ongoing focus and change.
What would be your advice to professionals and businesses interested in exploring mindfulness in practical terms?
Try it, start small, and complete the Headspace basics pack by aiming to spend 10 minutes a day on it for 10 days. We’ve found in our science that you can benefit from practicing a few times a week, so the focus is on quality and regular practice. For organisations, I think leaders and HR teams need to take the lead, share resources, case studies (business leaders/sports teams etc) helping to show people what meditation is/isn’t. People shouldn’t be forced to do or try anything, but education and sharing success to let people know what the reality of practice is. Accessible role models / advocates on the ground are highly beneficial too.
What are you doing at Headspace to assist organisations in creating a culture of mindfulness?
We focus on education to demystify meditation, supporting organisations through webinars / workshops and coaching. We also help support organisations in embedding ‘Better Breaks’ for their workforce by encouraging them to take some time in their day to look after their minds.
People who have used Headspace say they have experienced a significant improvement in their focus and sleep patterns. Meditation has traditionally been a concept that people have struggled with, but more and more people are turning to it as a way to kick-start their day. Just a 15 minute session first thing in the morning, not only sets you up for work, but also polishes my mindfulness skills which in turn improves my mental health at work.
What is your experience with meditation and mindfulness, and what are your thoughts on the potential impact to workplace productivity?