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Why mindfulness matters at work

Practicing mindfulness is a a trend that's gaining momentum, but is it relevant for the workplace? It is if you look at the big players, with Apple, Google and Nike all implementing corporate programmes to create mindful practices with their workers. Sarah Pearce breaks down how this can be achieved on a smaller scale.

Over the last 20 years, we’ve seen an exponential growth in the number of peer-reviewed journal papers about mindfulness. Scientists all over the world have been examining the effectiveness of mindfulness in various contexts, including the workplace, healthcare, education and more. And while some might dismiss it as the ‘buzzword of the day,’ practicing mindfulness can result in incredible benefits, especially for those working in high stress situations.

Simply put, being mindful means to invest all of our focus in the present moment, rather than distracting ourselves with thoughts of the past or worries about the future.

At its essence, it is a heightened awareness of self, surroundings, and internal dialogue. This focus can be especially important given that the average worker reportedly wastes approximately 60 hours every month through distractions. Three of the top five distractions today are reportedly technology-based, and include cell phones and texting, the internet, and social media. Given the fast-paced, hyper-competitive, time-poor digital age we now live in, anxiety, stress and loss of general well-being are on the rise.

Practicing mindfulness can be a powerful tool in combatting the lure of digital and social distraction, and ultimately can provide for increased productivity, efficiency and performance.

A key benefit for busy professionals is that it dramatically sharpens decision-making skills. For example, when you are aware of your thoughts, you are empowered to pause and choose your response, rather than just making a knee-jerk reaction. As you can imagine, this small step can have profound and far-reaching effects.

 The positives of mindfulness cannot be understated. There are studies showing that it improves attention span, focus, resilience, mood levels, creativity and the ability to feel empathy. It also reduces feelings of loneliness, perceptions of pain and can even slow down neurodegenerative diseases. The culmination of these benefits in the short term, at least, lead to lower overall stress, depression and anxiety, greater productivity and better communication skills.

In the longer term, research shows that the regular practice of mindfulness produces permanent changes in the brain: increased grey matter density, quicker action and better quality of neural connections. This leads to improved memory, cognitive functions, innovative thinking and emotional balance. All of these benefits are so valuable in a professional setting and that fact has not been missed by powerful corporates.

Many major companies today, including Apple, Google, Nike, Target, General Mills and Goldman Sachs, have built extensive corporate programmes to foster mindful practices with their workers. This is no surprise really, given that high stress levels can cost organisations  a great deal of money -- up to $2,000 annually per employee, according to one report. 

So, how is mindfulness done? There are different ways to practice it but at its heart is the ancient practice of meditation, a very simple act that everyone can do.

Meditation starts by sitting quietly and focusing on your breath. Next, you allow yourself to become conscious of the weight and warmth of your body. Like a noisy child, the mind will clamor for attention and that's okay. The secret is to allow the thoughts to drift past, but not follow or engage with them. As Jon Kabatt-Zinn said, “You can't stop the waves but you can learn to surf.” The aim is to keep quietly bringing your attention back to your breath and your body.

Many people experience a sense of calm and peacefulness when they meditate, saying it is a relief to have a break from all the usual mental ‘white noise.’ Meditation doesn’t have to take long, neither does it need to take place in a natural setting, it can be practiced anywhere.

Other tips for practicing mindfulness include spending a small amount of time each day focusing on your steps as you walk and repeating mantras related to your goals throughout the day. These small steps incorporate mindfulness into everyday life in a manner that is not disruptive.

From a greater level of attention and memory, through to better health, happiness and reduced healthcare costs, mindfulness is a powerful tool to use both on a personal and professional level. It is an easy practice to incorporate into almost any company, and its benefits dramatically outweigh the small time commitment required.

Incorporating mindfulness as part of your business success strategy, and as a regular office engagement exercise, can help to build great careers within an exceptional company culture.

Sarah Pearce is a professional speaker, business performance coach, social strategist and author. 

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