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Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters



Employment Today Magazine

Moment of Truth

Ever thought of teaching your workers to meditate? Interest in the practice of mindfulness has grown rapidly in workplaces around the world as businesses discover the benefits—not just to staff wellbeing, but to efficiency, focus and performance, says Jackie Brown-Haysom.

Having problems with productivity, staff relations or absenteeism? Perhaps you just want your workers to lift their game? Then teach them how to meditate. If that sounds like a strange suggestion, you probably haven’t heard about mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a type of meditation, used for centuries by Buddhists, that has now been embraced (in its secular form) by organisations as diverse as Deutsche Bank, Google, Proctor and Gamble, Reuters, PricewaterhouseCoopers, the British Home Office, and even the US Marines, as a means of reducing stress and enhancing mental focus.

Why are influential 21st century enterprises using ancient teachings to deal with modern issues? The simple answer is that they work. Indeed exponents of mindfulness claim a huge list of beneficial effects, including improved efficiency, better information-processing and decision-making, enhanced memory, more cohesive inter-personal relationships, more effective communication, greater mental flexibility, and better mental and physical health. It sounds much too good to be true—but actually there is a wealth of scientific and anecdotal evidence to back up these claims. Recent research even suggests the practice may slow down the ageing process.

So what exactly is mindfulness? Put simply it is a form of mental discipline, training the brain to focus awareness on the present moment and shut out anxieties and distractions. Clearly this isn’t something that comes naturally in a busy work environment, but the other key aspect of mindfulness is being nice to yourself—accepting that your mind will wander and, when it does, simply returning your focus to the present moment, without guilt or self-condemnation.

Dr Craig Hassed, an Australian doctor who combines work as a GP with a teaching post at Monash University, is an enthusiastic advocate for mindfulness. He’s been using it for almost forty years, has co-authored two books on the topic, and is a regular visitor to New Zealand, promoting the practice in both public and private meetings.

“Mindfulness is a form of meditation, but it is also a way of living,” he says. “It’s the most important life-skill you can develop because it’s a generic skill that makes everything else possible.

“It’s not an exercise in tuning out, but a way of tuning in to the present—of being alert, but not alarmed.”

He discovered the practice almost by accident when, as a teenager, he realised that he felt and performed better—in both sport and academia—when he focused fully on what he was doing, without allowing his mind to wander or become anxious. He taught himself meditation to aid this positive focus, and found it helped him deal with the stresses of life as a young doctor.

In 1989, when he joined the staff of Monash medical school, he began looking for ways to introduce mindfulness into the curriculum so others could share its benefits.

What he came up with was a teaching model that combines scientific explanations with practical applications.

“It’s important to base it on science, and also to contextualise the teaching to emphasise the most relevant elements of mindfulness for them—how it can enhance core capacities and skills in areas such as diagnosis and communication—because if it’s not relevant to their work they won’t pursue it.”

The results were so good that Monash’s business school decided to integrate mindfulness into its MBA programme, using the same teaching model, but realigning it to focus on management skills such as information processing, mental flexibility, problem solving, innovation and creativity.

Today Monash prides itself on being a world leader in mindfulness programmes, offering a variety of resources and courses for both students and staff. In 2015 there are plans to embed it into the university’s core curriculum so all students will be introduced to the practice.

UNDERSTANDING THE SCIENCE

One of the secrets behind this success may be Hassed’s insistence that anyone learning the technique must understand its scientific basis. Research, he says, has associated the practice not only with improved mental performance and physical wellbeing, but also with positive physiological changes in the brain and DNA. Among other things it acts as an antidote to the harmful effects of stress, with new research suggesting that it not only prevents stress-related shortening of telomeres—the chemical tails on chromosomes that are used as an indicator of biological age because of their ability to protect against age-related deterioration—but can actually help telomeres re-grow.

Mindfulness has also been found to alleviate depression, and is thought to help prevent dementia by improving function in the area of the brain associated with attentional control, sensory perception, self-regulation and memory.

The benefits are not limited to health however. A series of controlled studies involving psychology students found those who received mindfulness training had better recall of recent learning, and were less likely to be limited by previous experience when interpreting and responding to new situations.

Another study, looking at interactions in a hospital, found doctors who practised mindfulness had better rapport with patients and received higher patient satisfaction ratings.

In the light of such evidence, perhaps the biggest question is why the practice isn’t more widely used in New Zealand workplaces. Over recent years interest has been growing rapidly in both the UK and US, while in Australia, Hassed says, keeping up with the demand for work-based programmes is becoming quite a challenge.

“Workplaces are interested for a range of reasons,” he says. “It’s used for staff wellbeing, but also to help with efficiency, focus and performance.

“It’s also very important to how people work in teams, and, because it help builds cohesive relationships and develop the qualities and capacities that are associated with effective leaders, it is incorporated in a lot of leadership development programmes.”

It may not yet be a sought-after skill in most New Zealand workplaces, but an Auckland-based senior therapist who specialises in mindfulness education believes this is starting to change. Lila O’Farrell says there is now a small, but growing, contingent of mindfulness trainers who offer workplace programmes, and she has personally provided Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programmes for a number of employers in both the healthcare and education sectors, predominantly as a stress management tool.

Interestingly, it was challenges in her own work situation that first prompted O’Farrell to learn mindfulness meditation.

“In the mid-90s I was the director of a hospice programme in British Columbia and was becoming quite stressed because of the level of emotion in my work,” she says. “I asked a friend of mine who worked in social services what I could do and she said ‘Come and learn to meditate’, so I did.”

The experience was life-changing and soon afterwards O’Farrell trained to become a provider of MBSR, with the acknowledged founder of secular mindfulness, Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

While MBSR began in a medical setting, it has since been adapted to a variety of environments, including the workplace, because of its proven ability to reduce harmful stress, and improve attention and relationship skills.

“Attention and communication are the greatest business resources, but often there is so much information to process in the workplace that people become overwhelmed and stressed,” O’Farrell says. “Generally, workplaces deal with this by providing a lot of cognitive training, which may or may not be applied.

“With mindfulness training, however, staff learn to access inner resources, get relaxed, and gain skills that help them across the broader spectrum of their lives.”

In Auckland, as in Melbourne and Massachusetts, the medical school has played a key role in promoting mindfulness. The University of Auckland’s medical school has been teaching the practice to its students for around seven years, runs regular meditation sessions in the hospital, and offers basic meditation resources on its CALM (Computer-Assisted Learning for the Mind) website, as part of a mental health support package.

Psychiatrist and academic Dr Antonio Fernando, who helped set up the website, says he was initially interested in mindfulness as a way of assisting his patients and students.

“Then I decided this seems really good—why not learn it properly? So I attended a few courses and found it helped me a lot.”

These days Fernando not only practices mindfulness, but also prescribes it for patients with depression, anxiety, stress, insomnia or chronic pain.

“There is documented evidence of its effectiveness in these conditions. Not everyone I prescribe it for will pick it up, but it’s an option they can look into.”

VALUABLE WORKPLACE TOOL

The positive mental health effects of mindfulness are reason enough to make it a valuable workplace tool, he believes.

“If your staff are happy and relaxed they are more productive and can bring in more revenue. From that perspective alone it makes perfect sense to upskill your staff so they are able to manage their minds.”

Another long-term advocate for workplace mindfulness is Hamish More, director of people and capability for the New Zealand Fire Service. At his first encounter with mindfulness some 15 years ago, while seeking relief for sleep problems, he was intrigued by the demeanour of its practitioners.

“They seemed more calm, more centred, more present, than other people,” he says. “I wanted to know what was going on that allowed them to be like that.”

As he developed the practice for himself, he began to see that he too was reacting differently to situations, and was better able to avoid negative responses to pressure.

“I could see the benefits for my work immediately,” he says. “At that point I was a consultant, dealing with technology and organisational change, and was able to bring mindfulness into the organisations I worked with to help staff deal with stress.”

A subsequent move to the Department of Conservation saw mindfulness become even more important.

“DOC staff are very passionate about the environment and when there is a problem they tend to internalise it. I showed them how they could make better decisions when they were mindful because they were less emotionally involved.”

During his time at DOC, More made contact with Hassed, and together they began promoting mindfulness within the government sector.

“It’s become part of core leadership at DOC,” More says. “They talk and interact differently now, in hugely positive ways. Other agencies have seen the change and asked me to talk to their leadership programmes, with the result that there are now a number of agencies in Wellington who see mindfulness as a core leadership component.”

As a relatively new recruit to the Fire Service, More is yet to offer mindfulness training to its staff, but he is excited by the potential benefits that mindful thinking could bring to an emergency situation. “It’s a very practical, very useable skill, and everyone can benefit from it.”

According to Hassed, effective workplace mindfulness training doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive, but it will take time.

“It’s useful to start with explaining the science and, if the momentum is there, look to run something like a six-week programme because, like any other skill, we need to practice it to get good at it.

“Some organisations think they’ll just have a one-off seminar, but that won’t ingrain the skill so people can apply it. It’s like going to the gym once and thinking you’re going to get fitter. You’ve got to apply it over a period of time if you want to enjoy the benefits.”

JACKIE BROWN-HAYSOM is an Auckland-based freelance journalist.

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