Mindfulness is becoming more popular in everyday life to help people to reduce anxiety, concentrate better and alleviate stress. And, far from being a fad, this technique is now being used by several of biggest, most successful businesses, who have recognised its merits.
Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism, and is a way of focusing on the present moment to become more aware of thoughts and feelings so that they do not overwhelm us.
It boosts our attention and concentration and can have a positive effect on physical ailments such as hypertension, heart disease and chronic pain. It is a technique that anyone can carry out and many say it is easier than meditation.
The effects of this method are so significant that the University of Oxford has a mindfulness centre in its psychiatry department.
Research carried out here was instrumental in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) becoming a treatment for the prevention of recurring depression.
Mindfulness and business
But what about its uses in a business environment? Employees at corporations including Google, Starbucks, AOL Time Warner, Toyota, Reebok, Apple, Volvo and McKinsey practice mindfulness as a matter of course.
A study by researchers at business school INSEAD showed that mindfulness can help at each stage of the decision-making process: framing it, gathering and processing information, coming to a conclusion and learning from feedback.
It can also be used to avoid making decisions needlessly. The researchers cite an example of a new manager being expected to make sweeping changes on taking the helm.
Mindful decision-makers, they say, will notice the social pressures on them to make adjustments, but won’t necessarily act on them:
“As a consequence, more time will be dedicated to assessing the issues that do require action to ensure achievement of organisational objectives.
“Similarly, mindfulness may help individuals realise when they spend too much time on ‘micro-decisions’. That is, the decisions that have little if any consequence for their fundamental objectives and wellbeing in general.”
Max St John, managing director of ‘people and culture’ consultancy NixonMcInnes in Brighton, has introduced mindfulness to his company.
As someone with a young family running a busy firm, he uses daily mindfulness practice to de-stress and focus on what matters. While he has no statistics about its impact, he reports that there are fewer absences.
He adds that conversation is more constructive and mature during meetings and that people seem to take greater responsibility for their own difficult feelings and feedback – and listen to each other in a more open and non-judgemental way.
He says: “We’ve added mindfulness practices into our team meetings and workshops.
“Taking a few moments to just pause, breathe and let the busy-ness of the day settle makes a huge difference to how creative we are, and how mature the dialogue is.
“I’ve found that it’s best to avoid calling it mindfulness or meditation if you’re introducing it to a group that haven’t experienced it before.
“They might have different ideas of what it means, and close down to it before you’ve even started.
“Just help people to experience it for themselves, in simple, short and safe ways as part of your usual weekly or daily routine, and many people will be up for learning more.
“I find it helps me be really present for whoever I’m with, to make smarter decisions and cut through confusion.”
Measuring the benefits
So how can the benefits be measured? Nick Seneca Jankel, psychological coach and founder of wisdom and wellbeing company Ripe & Ready, has advised numerous large corporations and the UK government.
He explains that the effects of mindfulness can be measured through various metrics: self-reported sense of wellbeing, happiness and focus; physiological responses, such as blood pressure and HRV (heart rate variability), which can indicate stress; and 360-degree reporting on each individual, plus team productivity.
He says: “Some companies are inspired [to use mindfulness] by the potential benefits; some want to keep abreast of major trends in wellbeing and effectiveness at work; some are inspired to by their employees who ask for mindfulness support.
“Mindfulness has many benefits for organisations, many of which impact performance and productivity by keeping people focused on this moment, not on worrying about future issues or stress from the past.
“However, it is vital to remember that mindfulness is a practice rooted in the development of openness, kindness and compassion.
“These benefits are crucial for reaping the full set of benefits of mindfulness – that is, more open-hearted communication, more purpose-driven business decisions, and so on.”
David Bird, joint founder of Online Mortgage Advisor, has found mindfulness crucial to overcoming obstacles in business.
The plans made by David and his partner were overtaken by company growth, making it “hard to see the wood through the trees sometimes”, he says.
“You spend your whole time just trying to ensure you’re running everything well and lose sight of the bigger picture.
“At times I remember it feeling almost like a self-made prison. It got to a tipping point and I forced myself to meditate a lot and be mindful for one week.
“I was able to see the problems we were facing for what they were, looking at them in-depth, objectively from a balanced perspective.
“I was able to implement ways in which we could extricate ourselves from these day-to-day struggles, find ways to make the business run more efficiently so that less of this work was required and train and employ staff that could do our jobs for us.
“By letting go of our need to feel like we were in control all the time, the business flourished.”
So, should your business introduce mindfulness? Max St John says his employees were either keen, having heard about it, open-minded, or uninterested. The best approach, he says, is to invite people along, and provide different ways for them to engage.
But, he warns, “The worst thing you can possibly do is make people think that they must do it, or that they’re somehow not enough if they’re not up for it.”