How Practicing Mindfulness in the Workplace Can Ease Stress and Improve Productivity
Did you know that half of the workers in North America reported feeling significant workplace stress in a 2022 report from Gallup? That number quickly increases for the younger generations of workers, reaching 71% percent of millennials surveyed, and 69% of Gen Z. Those numbers are higher in the United States than in East Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and all other regions covered by the study.
Significant stress is not “just part of the job,” either. The same studies show that these conditions lead to problems at home, losing tempers at work, and unplanned time off, along with an overall decline of work quality. The reverse is also true – an Oxford study from 2019 reported that happy workers were 13% more productive for their organizations.
There’s also good news: Stress levels in North America have been decreasing in recent years, and HR can play an important role in encouraging less stress in the workplace. That brings us to mindfulness, and how – with a little workplace encouragement – the practice can help employees manage day-to-day stress. Here’s how it works.
What is Mindfulness?
The word “mindfulness” may sound like something from a meditation class or Buddhist study. While that’s where the word originated, it has a much broader application for employees and their organizations.
Let’s turn to Berkeley University for a concise definition: “Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.”
That may sound like something you would hear in a meditation class, and it’s no surprise that mindfulness techniques are also used to decrease stress. But employees don’t need a quiet room or a lotus position to do it – practical mindfulness programs have been used in businesses since the 1970s.
Key parts of mindfulness include:
- Focusing on the present moment and your current physical sensations: That doesn’t mean purposefully emptying your mind of thoughts, but rather turning your attention to what’s happening here and now, especially with your emotions and body.
- Practicing paying close attention to things that are happening.
- Accepting what you are feeling and thinking in the moment without judgment or concern. That doesn’t mean everything you think or feel has to be “right,” but simply that you aren’t worrying about that.
- Letting go of worries that stem from past or future events.
- Finding tranquility with the activity at hand.
- Improving focus through repeated practice.
Why is Mindfulness Important?
When introducing mindfulness to employees, especially in fast-paced environments, they may push back on the idea with opinions like, “My job requires multitasking, I don’t have time for this,” or, “I actually thrive with a little bit of stress and chaos when I’m working.”
However, workplace stress is not a positive development. As Dan Harris, author of the meditation guide 10 Percent Happier, told the New York Times, “Multitasking is a pernicious myth that is preventing us from getting our work done.” When humans try to multitask, they tend to lose track of the details and make more mistakes, or become frequently distracted and struggle to meet their own goals.
Additionally, as we noted above, stress has a direct, measurable impact on employee performance, and it’s not positive (positive stress is associated with things like planning a vacation, not work). Stressed employees have lower productivity, more health issues, and a much higher risk of absence, even absences related to accidents and illness.
Stress is also correlated with lack of sleep and trouble with personal relationships, which can negatively affect work-life balance and lead to workplace issues as well. It’s also a mistake to assume stress only affects employees in high-pressure, decision-making roles: Every kind of employee can experience stress, from office workers to those in manual labor.
Finally, from a leadership perspective, focusing on ways to deal with workplace stress can also help companies improve workloads, spot problems in workflow, and address employee concerns.
Benefits of Mindfulness at Work
Decision-making capabilities improve. Mindfulness techniques work very well at eliminating distractions and focusing on what’s important. That helps employees avoid making bad decisions out of fear, anger, or tunnel vision on the wrong factors.
Employees can reduce their anxiety. The calming effects of mindfulness are excellent at dropping anxiety levels. This can help employees provide better customer service and avoid making mistakes during their jobs, from getting orders wrong to getting into accidents. It also helps relieve some of the unhealthy consequences of stress.
It allows employees to take important breaks from their work. Even a few minutes of mindfulness practices can help employees return to their tasks with renewed focus, determination, and peace of mind. These small breaks can be very helpful for employee satisfaction – and if employees don’t feel comfortable taking breaks like this, mindfulness practices can be easily incorporated into mandatory break times.
Mindfulness helps employees identify unconscious bias and similar problems. It can be difficult for employees to uncover their own unconscious biases and other ways that they may be making the wrong assumptions or poor interpretations. This makes mindfulness training an effective add-on for training on diversity and inclusion, among other initiatives.
Employees learn new techniques for avoiding workplace arguments. Workplace tension and arguments often stem from underlying stress, a buildup of anger, or serious miscommunications. Mindfulness can help employees to take a step back, review their own emotions, and avoid escalation that can lead to workplace fights and related problems that can create toxic work environments.
Mindfulness can improve energy levels. A study of a mindfulness program at the Dow Chemical company revealed employees who participated reported more vigor and resilience in their jobs. These techniques can give employees more energy, help them pay attention for longer periods, and reduce fatigue, especially when it comes to repetitive tasks.
Leaders benefit from practicing mindfulness. A leader’s stress levels have a direct impact on how productive their employees are. As Berkeley’s Greater Good guide reports, studies have shown that when supervisors practice mindfulness, their employee’s emotional exhaustion decreases as well.
Not only that, but their work-life balance appeared to improve and they received better overall job performance ratings. This suggests that mindfulness has a significant impact on how supervisors treat employees and help them with their responsibilities.
Mindfulness and stress-reducing techniques can improve recruitment. When companies prioritize stress-reducing activities, outside talent sees this as a sign that the business cares about its employees and that jobs are less likely to be taxing on their health. That can help improve talent pools and recruitment results.
Getting Started with Mindfulness
Let’s take a look at some ways to ensure a successful shift to a more mindful way of thinking.
- Mindfulness workshops: Mindfulness workshops are easy to set up, and can provide employees with helpful tools in a very short period of time. This may be a good choice if HR wants to avoid digging all the way to the roots of mindfulness and instead focus on practical, everyday techniques. These can include breathing patterns, ways to focus on the present moment and physical/emotional sensations, and knowing what to avoid (multitasking, taking on too much work, ignoring emotional states, etc.). Basic meditation practices, like focusing on a simple object or thought, can also be useful.
- Traditional mindfulness teachings: Workplaces interested in delving into the traditions of mindfulness can find many resources to walk through with employees. One of the best resources are the steps to mindfulness as described by Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh. His practical approach emphasizes down-to-earth concepts and helpful scenarios like driving in traffic or taking a walk.
- Meditation rooms: Meditation rooms aren’t necessary to encourage mindfulness, but some organizations like to include them as part of a mindfulness initiative, a way to encourage employees to take a break and focus on their own well-being. These rooms are typically quiet, low-light areas with plenty of privacy.
- Integrating mindfulness with other training: As we mentioned, mindfulness practices can be included in training about diversity, spotting biases, dealing with irate customers, analyzing data properly, and much more. Even a few mindfulness techniques can give employees actionable ideas and important takeaways from the training that will have a lasting impact.
- Tips for improving focus: Even simple suggestions for improving focus at work like advising employees to turn off their notification pop-ups or sending out an email about the STOP technique can help make a difference while you work on a larger initiative.
Mindfulness techniques are often new to busy workplaces. KnowledgeCity’s easy-to-access training videos are a great place for HR experts to start.
You can use these videos to learn more about applying the techniques to the workplace, or showing them as a direct guide for employees. Think about beginning with a video lesson like Key Foundations of Mindfulness, or the applications you can find in Mindfulness in Daily Life.