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Chaos to Calm: Building a Mindful Workplace

Initiatives to introduce mindfulness into the workplace, hold great promise.

Despite our increased understanding of human psychology and brain functions, workplace problems associated with employee productivity, engagement, mental health and good leadership are persistent. The fast pace of technological change has been shown to have detrimental effects on people’s ability to concentrate and focus. With decreased attention spans and a lack of focus comes anxiety and stress and for many, a feeling of overwhelm at work and in their personal lives.

Initiatives to introduce mindfulness into the workplace, holds a promise for a cost effective way to improve employee productivity and well-being, while reducing health care costs, most of which are stress related. In my work with CEOs, senior executives, business owners and professionals, mindfulness is a key part of their leadership training and coaching experience. And the results have been significant.

Mindfulness meditation has successfully been used to treat patients with a variety of physical ailments and diseases including chronic pain, stress reduction, high blood pressure, insomnia, depression and anxiety. Studies have demonstrated that mindfulness mediation dampens the activity of the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with fear, anxiety, anger and the “fight or flight” response, while strengthening and developing those parts of the brain associated with attention, focus, cognition, emotional self-regulation, memory and empathy.

What constitutes mindfulness training? A key cornerstone is the practice of mindfulness meditation on a daily basis. In addition, effective mindfulness training includes strategies of thinking, emotional responses and behavioral tendencies that increase the individual’s capacities for non-judgment, acceptance, compassion, emotional control, self-awareness and self-management.

Many companies such as Raytheon, Proctor and Gamble, Google, eBay, Apple, General Mills, the U.S. Military and scores of others have implemented mindfulness meditation programs for employees and the participants have reported a positive change in work capacity, stress management, relationships, reduced absenteeism and reduced health costs.

Mindfulness training can also be effective in developing leaders. Most leadership books and training programs focus on how leaders can achieve more, do more, better, faster, with spectacular results. Most leadership development programs focus on how to become better at time management, goal setting, performance measures, team schedules and complex systems. All these efforts have been shown to result in incremental success at best. That’s because they are all external strategies to address the issues that are essentially internal.

The demands of leadership can produce what is known as “power stress,” which often leaves even the best leaders physically and emotionally drained. Leaders can easily find themselves moving from an “approach” orientation, where they are emotionally open, engaged and innovative, to one of “avoidance” characterized by aversion, irritability, aggression, fear and close-mindedness.

The point here is simple. Work and personal lives that build greater, resilience, well-being, success, fulfillment and happiness are not constructed from grandiose theories or plans, but through mastering internal capacity—self-awareness, self-management, constructing meaning and becoming more mindful.

Daniel Goleman, author of Primal Leadership, and Richard Boyatzis and Ann McKee, authors of Resonant Leadership, argue that the first tasks of management have nothing to do with leading others, but in knowing deeply and managing oneself, which requires time for quiet reflection. Michael Carroll, author of The Mindful Leader, contends that being more mindful will help leaders heal toxic workplaces and reduce stress; be more resilient through difficult times and lead with wisdom and gentleness, rather than through ego and aggression.

There is no question that current times call for a new kind of leader, one who is a master of self rather than a controller of others; and it calls for a workplace where employees mindfully go about their work under less stress with greater productivity. Mindfulness can be a powerful force to accomplish both these ends.

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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