Work can be rewarding: It builds confidence, gives you an opportunity to make a difference, grows your skills and talents — and you make money on top of it!
But it can also lead to stress and exhaustion. In fact, according to a recent American Psychological Association survey, workplace stress affects 58% of Americans.
So what can we do about it, aside from torching our work clothes, going off the grid and living off the land? A common and proven practice is called mindfulness, and it’s one that many employers have adopted, including Google, Procter & Gamble, McKinsey & Company and Apple.
So What is Mindfulness?
To learn more about mindfulness in the workplace, I spoke with Erin O’Neill, people & culture manager at The Penny Hoarder.
“My definition of mindfulness echoes that of Jon Kabat-Zinn, who I think really nails it,” O’Neill told me. “For me, mindfulness is being 100% present in a given moment without judgment — paying attention on purpose, to yourself, to someone else needing your attention, to your work, to your kids, to your life. Mindfulness in the workplace cultivates calm, kindness, compassion and the ability not only to do your best work, but to be your best self. It’s a powerhouse for potential.”
Essentially, mindfulness is awareness in the moment. It’s looking past the ringing phones, the email alerts and the constant brain activity you’re doing to plan your day to truly focus on what is happening now.
How Does Mindfulness Work?
Kabat-Zinn, whom O’Neill praised, established mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) in the 70s. This widely recognized practice combines two methodologies — “that of science, medicine, and psychology, on the one hand, and that of Buddhist meditative traditions and their teachings and practices, known collectively as the Dharma, on the other.”
“Employees can practice mindfulness every day simply by finding a place to just breathe and focus on that,” O’Neill explained. “It can be eight minutes, it can be one minute. The challenge with mindfulness is that it takes practice and dedication. Eight minutes is currently the suggested optimal amount of time needed daily (over eight weeks) to retrain your brain into a more mindful state — to be present in the exact moment and focus solely on that moment, that project, that conversation, that meeting. I often suggest baby steps — one minute everyday as a gift to yourself to just breathe.”
The Penny Hoarder instituted wellness practices like “mindful moments” over a year ago. Each day, employees take eight minutes and focus their attention on their breath and quieting their minds.
“We started our mindfulness program after implementing Gallup’s StrengthsFinders. Part of the process was interviewing the entire staff individually, and some of the words and phrases I kept hearing (in relation to a question about challenges we face) were similar: never-ending to-do list, need more hours in a day, so busy, moving so fast. I realized at that moment that part of supporting our people… was a method of bringing calm when needed.”
Forbes.com lists a couple other simple mindfulness exercises to retrain your brain, like becoming aware of the temperature of your skin and the background noises or slowing your pace when walking enough to notice the ground against your feet.
What are the Benefits of Mindfulness in the Workplace?
Eight minutes a day from some, if not all, employees is quite an investment because, as they say, time is money. So I asked O’Neill if mindful moments were truly that valuable.
“So. Much. Value. Can I talk in terms of value as humans first, before employers and employees?” she asked (which is just the kind of question a good HR employee should ask).
“Mindfulness allows people the ability to respond instead of react and to incorporate that ability into the way they communicate, collaborate and operate on the planet, in the workplace, at home, at the grocery store. Using mindfulness techniques leads to increased empathy, kindness and compassion.”
O’Neill also explained the employer and employee benefits. Mindfulness reduces unhealthy conflict, eliminates or shortens unnecessary meetings, leads to better prioritizing and increases productivity. Most importantly, it reduces stress for those 58% of Americans who are plagued by it at work each day.
My Own Mindfulness Experiment
As a highly anxious person who juggles a full-time gig, freelance work, nonprofit board responsibilities, a family and an active social life with friends, it’s fair to say I could benefit from some mindfulness at work. After speaking with O’Neill, I gave it a shot.
Eight minutes proved challenging — I only lasted six and a half. But as O’Neill said, “baby steps.”
I sat at my desk in my home office and stared out my window into the backyard, watching the wind in the trees, birds take dives in a rainstorm and the garbage truck empty my bins. I became acutely aware of the hum of my computer, the whir of my ceiling fan and the obnoxious sound of my dog cleaning himself.
Sure, at moments I got distracted from present mindfulness. I saw a tree out back that is one storm away from falling onto our driveway and reminded myself that I need to arrange to have it removed, and I frequently found myself having epiphanies about how calm I felt and planning what I would write for this article (this sentence included).
But for the most part, I focused on the present and felt an amazing calm. My body felt relaxed and my head clear afterward — and this was only day one.
Interested in learning more about mindfulness? Jon Kabat-Zinn himself is a good start, but the internet is full of resources and even apps to help you on your quest to becoming more mindful.
Timothy Moore is a full-time editor and freelance writer. He has been featured on The Penny Hoarder, Glassdoor, Mad Money Monster, The News Wheel and more.