Mindfulness has been touted as a way to improve focus. It has gone from being a guilty secret to a practice so popular that researchers are jostling to see what all the fuss is about.
It may have it’s roots in centuries-old Buddhist teachings but mindfulness has been adopted as something of a panacea for today’s techno-crazy world of the 21st century.
The concept is now being introduced widely throughout schools, workplaces, health care settings and prisons. In workplaces, it’s no longer the province of the cool kids (Google, Goldman Sachs, Twitter and Apple). Law firms, public sector and not-for-profit organisations, as well as businesses of all sizes, are training their staff in the practice.
Underpinned by meditation, it’s said to improve health by reducing stress, increasing awareness and helping people to be more focused and less distracted, among many other benefits. Many studies in the past 40 years have shown it to have positive effects on both mind and body.
Mainstream interest is reflected by articles in all of the world’s serious magazines and newspapers, including a cover story in Time last year. This year alone, hundreds of published academic papers have examined the benefits of mindfulness at work.
Harvard University psychology professor Ellen Langer, often described as the ‘mother of mindfulness’, says it’s “the process of actively noticing new things”. When you do that, it puts you in the present, she told Harvard Business Review this year. “It makes you more sensitive to context and perspective. It’s the essence of engagement. And it’s energy-begetting, not energy-consuming.”
Workplaces that provide mindfulness training for their employees report increased focus, performance, work/life balance and job satisfaction, as well as less conflict, says Rasmus Hougaard, founder of training organisation Potential Project.
“It’s very good for stress management, but it doesn’t stop there,” he says. “It becomes a tool for harnessing the potential of the mind to be clear and calm in the midst of a busy work life, meaning that you’re able to see the best solutions, avoid conflict and be really focused on your task.”
Hougaard has a vested interest, but the research backs him up.
Langer says her decades of research have found that, on almost any measure, the results of mindfulness are positive. “At the very highest levels of any field – Fortune 50 CEOs, the most impressive artists and musicians, top athletes, the best teachers and mechanics – you’ll find mindful people, because that’s the only way to get there,” she told Harvard Business Review.
Melbourne Business School professor of diversity and change, Amanda Sinclair, has run into many leaders who quietly practise mindfulness or meditation.
“People have often found their way to the practice of mindfulness through different circumstances, like illness or difficult times with people close to them,” she says. “So, while it’s been happening, it’s not something they’ve talked about. The trumpeting of mindfulness as a tool to improve competitiveness and effectiveness, and linking it to a competitive edge in leadership, is quite a new development.”
Staff at the Brisbane-based Association for Childhood Language and Related Disorders recently completed an introduction to mindfulness, and CEO Vikki Rose Graydon says she can see the benefits already. Staff have reported improvements in their ability to manage stressful situations and cope with anxiety.
Rose Graydon, who also did the training, says she’s noticed changes in her own attitudes and behaviour. “I’ve turned off my email notifications, for example. I’m a pretty relaxed person, but I was starting to feel anxious every time the ‘ding’ went off, and I was addicted to answering emails or checking text messages as soon as they appeared.”
At St George Community Housing, in Hurstville, Sydney, staff were offered mindfulness training as part of a broader leadership development program. They say they feel more in control of their workload and less overwhelmed, says general manager, people and communications, Suellen McCaffrey.
But don’t think of mindfulness training as a quick fix, says Rose Graydon. “You need to put the time into it. It’s not going to just happen because you’ve listened to a CD for a couple of hours.”
Case study: Google
Learning about mindfulness for 15 years has enabled Loren Shuster to be more effective in his role as Google’s Asia-Pacific director for brand solutions.
When he joined Google three years ago, mindfulness was starting to emerge from the private domain of individuals and into the corporate space. Although Google was well ahead, first introducing a program in 2002 to teach mindfulness and meditation to employees.
Shuster offered an eight-week program to his team, and its success saw a wider program rolled out throughout the Asia-Pacific, with about 200 people participating.
He runs a mindfulness practice at weekly team meetings, with members reflecting on a technique for 15 minutes. For example, the concept of gratitude versus resentment –“sharing the perspective that resentment is really just a mindset and, even in a difficult situation, there’s an opportunity to look at it from a different perspective”.
Each team member then shares what’s on their mind. “It could be work-related, meaningful, or just funny.”
The practice creates greater clarity and promotes a sense of openness among team members, says Shuster.