Mindfulness in the Workplace

You’re running a business meeting. You notice the tone of the meeting begins to escalate. Someone on your team accuses another for not delivering his work by the deadline. A domino effect ensues. People get defensive. Tempers begin to flare. Emotions run off course. Like dealing with little kids fighting on the playground, you have officially lost control of the meeting.

You interrupt, and ask the team, “Please, let’s take a moment,” in the calmest and most nurturing voice you can muster. You readjust your position in your chair, put both feet on the ground, straighten your back, gently place your hands on your lap, and close your eyes.

You begin to breathe diaphragmatically, watching the rise and fall of each in-breath and out-breath. Your team follows suit. Soon enough, the room is quiet. The only sound you hear is the steady tempo of collective breaths. The conference room transforms into a meditation space.

A few minutes pass by. The tension has dissolved. People open their eyes to a new perspective, where equanimity replaces emotionality, and responsivity replaces reactivity.

You may think that this scene could only happen at a hippie commune where peace and love presumably prevail, but this practice is becoming less marginalized and more accepted in the workplace, perhaps even in the boardrooms of behemoth corporations.

Arousal & Performance

In the context of the workplace, understanding the relationship between arousal and performance is important. Performance is optimal at moderate levels of arousal, while low anxiety and high anxiety both correlate with low performance levels. Like taking an exam, if you’re not anxious enough, you won’t care enough to perform your best. If you’re too anxious, your intellectual capacities shut down in a state of stimulus overload. Moderate amounts of stress can be beneficial, but excessive amounts erode efficiency and productivity.

So what happens in a world that spends most of its time in a heightened state of anxiety? Performance declines because your employees, the lifeline of your business, are decompensating. According to the American Institute of Stress, the cost of stress in the workplace is approaching $300 billion per year in absenteeism, tardiness, poor performance, employee turnover, accidents, and stress-related workers’ compensation claims.

With such staggering statistics, researchers are reaching further into their tool kit for alternative solutions for the perpetually stressed-out workplace. Mindfulness meditation is one promising tool—once considered the proprietary remedy for religiously and spiritually minded folks—that is taking the world one breath at a time.

So what exactly is mindfulness?

Jon Kabat-Zinn, founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” It’s the present moment-to-moment awareness that allows us to respond with greater choice.

Rather than reacting as if our minds were stuck in automatic pilot mode where our thoughts and emotions run amok, we develop the capacity for contemplative and conscious awareness. We become the observer at a distance, watching the kids fighting on the playground, instead of playing the bully or the victim. In this position, we’re not at the mercy of our animalistic instincts, and we can shift out of automatic pilot to gain greater control of our emotions.

Scientists and researchers have been researching the benefits of mindfulness for decades, but the recent surge of public interest is propelling the field to greater heights. The National Institutes of Health is currently financing more than 50 studies testing the potential health benefits of mindfulness techniques, compared to three such studies in 2000.

The interest continues to grow as findings support the beneficial effects of mindfulness meditation, especially in enhancing the qualities that workers need most to stay competitive: increased attention, improved concentration, greater intuition, lowered levels of stress, and fewer somatic illnesses.

Mindfulness in the Workplace

Many companies have wisely joined the mindfulness movement, and now offer on-site yoga classes and meditation workshops. Through these mindfulness practices, arousal and anxiety are in check and performance is at optimal levels.

Powerful brands like Google, Apple, and Yahoo were among the early adopters to incorporate mindfulness in the workplace. Apple’s Cupertino, California headquarters houses a meditation room where employees can stop in for an afternoon meditation or prayer session.

At Google, luminaries like meditation researcher and Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, and Jon Kabat-Zinn were invited to speak on topics such as setting the inner conditions for authentic happiness and the benefits of mindfulness meditation, respectively.

Online auction site eBay joined the ranks by anointing two prayer and meditation rooms at its San Jose campus. Here, employees can sit in silence—in minimalist rooms decorated in earth tones, accented with cushy pillows, floor mats and fragrant flower buds—to catch a few critical moments of solitude and to decompress from the myriad stresses of a workday.

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (GMCR), a company specializing in organic, fair-trade, and specialty coffees, offers a Mindfulness Center at their Waterbury, Vermont facility where employees can take year-round retreats and workshops. The culture at GMCR is guided by self-reflection and emotional intelligence, key wellness factors that are considered critical skills for today’s workplace.

GMCR’s Mindfulness Center aims to create “a safe, non-judgmental learning environment” where employees can develop the necessary skills to reach their potential. Attributes like confidence, direction, responsibility and motivation are drivers for GMCR in the workplace, which then translate into greater business acumen.

GMCR returned roughly 3,400% in the stock market in the last decade, making it one of the best performing stocks during that period, growing from a $24.7 million business to an enterprise with close to a billion dollar market capitalization. Although it’s difficult to draw conclusions about causality, is it possible that integrating a mindfulness practice into your business can impact the bottom line?

If employees adopt a spirit of mindfulness, how do you expect they’ll treat your customers in kind? Stressed-out employees are more likely to act out emotionally, creating unforgettably bad experiences for your customers. When workers are more calm and centered, they’ll be in a better position to serve customers with more patience, focused attention, and most of all, respect.

For your afternoon meditation, it’s your job to sit, be still, and not do a thing.

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