If you find yourself listening to co-workers complain at work, you’re not alone. Jane, a registered nurse, often eats her lunch sitting on a curb in the parking lot next to the clinic where she works. She’s looking for just a few minutes of peace and quiet from the chaos and complaints that echo off the walls in the employee break room where people wolf down their meal amid a chorus of gripes about work and working conditions.
A recent Harris poll found that 80 percent of workers feel stressed about one or more things in the workplace. Feelings of persistent high stress among workers have been shown to be related to negative outcomes including personal and professional burnout, absenteeism, lower productivity and lower job satisfaction. Besides the “normal” sources of stress like employment uncertainty due to globalization and increased job flux, nurses like Jane must deal with meeting the needs of sick and dying patients and coordinating and documenting care across different health care systems. The sources of stress for workers at all levels and in all settings seem to be growing.
Is there a panacea or secret potion that can be applied in a variety of work situations? Employers can help by offering wellness programs aimed at boosting mental and physical health. One highly recommended approach is the use of mindfulness training. Mindfulness is a method of learning how, and to what, we pay attention, in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgment. It is the process of learning a calm awareness of one’s body, feelings and thoughts. Basically it demonstrates that we are what we think and reminds us of the impermanence of everything that we think is extremely important. Without becoming more mindful, we can focus continually on the same problems over and over again without resolving them.
Managers who practice mindfulness have discovered that it improves their ability to encourage calm and stability in the workplace. They actually increase productivity when they model “mindful manager” qualities, like listening before acting and leading people by focusing less on hierarchical relationships: “Do this because I told you to,” becomes, “let’s talk about how and why we do things this way.”
Managers report seeing themselves differently when they can introduce workers to a culture of mindfulness that supports the notion that making occasional mistakes is part of learning and can ask questions that require people to think about where they are in a work situation and how they got there.
Most people are more familiar with “mindlessness” during which we feel forgetful, separate from ourselves, and as if we are living mechanically, like a puppet, controlled by others. Exercises that focus on mindfulness restore a sense of comfort with our decisions and ourselves. We feel “whole” rather than fragmented.
Formalized programs conducting mindfulness training at worksites have shown that employee stress levels decreased by 35 to 40 percent with an average of one hour of mindfulness practice per week. Exercises include meditation (a form of quiet thought without the goal of thinking), breathing in a focused, mindful way, gentle physical exercises, and conversations with a trained workshop leader. Jon Kabat-Zinn launched one of the original Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programs at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979. Since then, many companies have used mindfulness-based programs to reduce stress in the workplace.
Here are some benefits of becoming more mindful:
- Mindfulness practice brings the mind into the present and alleviates the stress of thinking about the past and the future. Relaxation can occur because obsession about problems is at least temporarily paused. Research has linked greater mindfulness with lowering blood pressure, decreasing anxiety and reducing depression.
- Mindfulness increases openness not only to new information but also to different points of view thus increasing tolerance and decreasing prejudice.
- Mindfulness enhances the consideration of ethics and wisdom in decision-making.
- Mindfulness encourages flexibility, productivity, innovation, leadership ability and satisfaction and decreases worry. If only three people show up for a job that normally requires four people, a more mindful manager will have greater ability to reassess the job and figure out how to get it done without adding new stress.
- Mindfulness circumvents fatigue by encouraging people to change the context of a situation before reaching the point where they expect to be tired. Staggering different kinds of paperwork, moving to a different work setting or getting up to take a short walk are mindful ways to tap latent energy and change the mindset leading to exhaustion. Some people describe this as finding a “second wind,” but it is, in fact, a great example of mindfulness at work. Changing context before reaching exhaustion does prevent fatigue.
The advantage of focusing on becoming more mindful is that it is a quality that everyone already possesses, but we don’t often use. Mindfulness relates directly to paying attention to whatever is happening, presently, in your life, without blaming or judging. It’s a way of taking charge that enhances a sense of having control over your life rather than feeling like a victim of circumstances. It involves consciously working with your own stress, pain and illnesses.
Hopefully, Jane S. has had time enough on the curb outside her clinic to empty her mind of the sights and sounds of the clinic and pay attention only to how she breathes and notice which thoughts occur again and again when she is quietly alone. These are the first steps towards paying full attention to oneself, and discovering how to survive healthfully in a noisy, busy world with the mindful skills that we already possess. Her coworkers and her patients will probably notice when she returns that she is calmer, more smiling and seems to have discovered a happy secret.
Ruth W. Crocker, Ph.D. is an author, writing consultant and expert on recovery from trauma and personal tragedy. Her book, Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War, describes her experience following her husband’s death in Vietnam and how she found resources for healing. An excerpt has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2014. She is Writer-In-Residence at Riverlight Wellness Center in Stonington, CT where she teaches the art of writing memoir and personal stories. She is available for workshops, readings and public speaking. Contact her at ruthwcrocker.com.