Learn how to incorporate mindfulness practices into your workplace routine for a less stressed day.
Have you ever tried to quiet your mind at work? To silence the drill sergeant in your head who barks reminders of deadlines and tasks and meeting agendas? Practising mindfulness can help. Although learning how to be in the moment may sound easy, it takes dedication to reap the greatest benefits.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness has Buddhist roots but became a mainstream phenomenon when Jon Kabat-Zinn developed the non-secular practice of mindfulness-based stress reduction in 1979. He defined mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally.”
Practising mindfulness can mean eating your meal in a quiet place and focusing on your senses as you taste your food. It can mean being attuned to your breath or saying a mantra silently to yourself. You can sit quietly, allow emotions to come and go, and feel each without judgment. All of these practices allow the mind to focus on the present moment.
“The mind wanders—that’s what minds do and they’re very good at it,” says Geoffrey Soloway, co-founder of a mindfulness-based wellness program called MindWell Canada. “Mindfulness is the awareness of knowing when the mind has wandered and then bringing it back.”
Mindfulness at work
Try this test: set a timer for 30 seconds and count how many different thoughts, worries, or tasks float in and out of your mind. You’re probably amazed at the number.
“We live in a continuous state of partial attention where our focus is being split. The effect is constant and intense mental exhaustion,” says Patricia Galaczy, a mindfulness leadership educator.
“When people are constantly being bombarded with emails, texts, and the distractions that invade a typical work day, there’s an artificial sense of crisis in the brain that causes a fight-or-flight response,” she adds. “If you can stop, take a breath, and actually observe what’s going on, you’re getting out of the amygdala, which doesn’t let you think, and accessing the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision-making and reasoning.”
Although stopping and taking a few deep breaths in the middle of a work crisis might seem strange, people who practise mindfulness are often more productive workers, more effective decision-makers, and better strategic thinkers.
What if I’m a Type A personality?
If you’re an expert multitasker who thrives on stress and chaos in the workplace, you may think a mindfulness practice isn’t for you. The good news is that it definitely can be.
“Type A personalities are great students,” says Galaczy. “They take a mindfulness-based stress reduction course, they do the work, and they get the most benefit. They also tend to be the most moved and inspired by the stillness they can access when meditating because they’re not used to experiencing it.”
A kinder, gentler workplace
There is a growing trend toward companies offering mindfulness classes to their employees to
- help with stress
- improve communication skills
- enhance leadership skills
- assist in conflict resolution
“Conflict is everywhere in the workplace. A root of conflict is reactivity and taking things personally,” says Soloway. “One of the main teachings of mindfulness is recognizing when we are reactive. It gives us a pause button, so we can have an emotional reaction but don’t have to play that behaviour out.”
Emma James, an employee at the University of British Columbia, recently completed a six-week mindfulness course offered at the university. “The classes taught me to be more aware in the present moment and to be accepting of that,” she says. “The concept of letting go has always been a challenge for me, but now I’m less judgmental of what’s happening in the here and now.”
You may pride yourself on being a good listener, but are you really hearing what your co-workers are saying? “Mindful listening is a simple practice of noticing where your attention is when you’re engaged in conversation with somebody,” says Soloway. “Often we get caught up in our own thoughts, and we’re trying to finish another person’s sentences or thinking about what we’re going to say next.”
Mindful listening is something that resonated with James. “Often you’re in a meeting with your position already lined up, and you give a kind of a knee-jerk response. Mindfulness has taught me to pause, listen better, and put myself in a more neutral place.”
When our minds are troubled we tend to look for outside sources that may be causing our stress and discomfort, when we should be looking within.
“A lot of our distractions are actually internal,” says Galaczy. “We’re worried about the future and thinking about the past; we’re not actually ‘here.’ Bringing compassionate awareness to our own minds and bodies and hearts is really how we start practising mindfulness.”
Quick tips for practising mindfulness at work
Use the STOP method
- Stop what you’re doing.
- Take a deep breath.
- Observe what’s happening in your present moment, without judgment. (Are your shoulders tense? Is your heart beating fast?)
- Proceed with what you were doing.
Incorporate the three-minute breathing space
Taking three short minutes to consciously breathe deeply from your lower belly can take you out of your head and into your body.
Enjoy peace and quiet in the morning
Drink your first cup of coffee or tea in stillness and silence, and let your mind settle like a snow globe. It’s cloudy and full of distractions when shaken but becomes clear when stilled and set down.
Feel your feet stepping on the floor when you’re walking around the workplace. Mindfulness is reconnecting with our five senses, so notice the sights, sounds, and smells around you.