Mindfulness is definitely getting its share of attention in mainstream news and for good reason. There seems to be no shortage of research on the benefits of mindfulness. A recent article in the American Psychological Association provides a summary of empirically supported benefits of mindfulness including: reduced stress, enhanced memory, improved focus, enhanced self-insight, and increased cognitive flexibility just to name a few.
What I find inspiring is the increasing number of organizations introducing mindfulness initiatives. In March 2013, Arianna Huffington wrote about companies introducing mindfulness and the benefits they are realizing in terms of employee health and bottom line results. But in my experience talking to leaders in corporations around the globe, there is still skepticism and resistance.
Last year, I met with a senior vice president with a large manufacturing organization. He was facing challenges related to performance and retention. When talking about mindfulness he said, "I don't want my employees to slow down and be more relaxed. We work in a highly volatile and competitive market. I want them to stop complaining about the pace of change and how hard they have to work to keep up and just get on with it. Can mindfulness do that?"
"Well, yes and no."
Mindfulness is not a magic pill that will address all the challenges organizations face. But it is my contention that any organization that wants to survive, thrive, and excel in our increasingly complex, fast-paced, high pressure work environments should pay attention to the organizational effectiveness benefits of mindfulness programs.
One key reason for bringing mindfulness into daily work is to help address the realities of our highly distraction-filled work environments.
American psychiatrist, Dr. Edward Hallowell has done extensive research on attention. He writes about the "dangers" of modern office life where people are continually distracted. In his Harvard Business Review article, "Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform" he warns that "modern office life and an increasingly common condition called 'Attention Deficit Trait' are turning steady workers into frenzied underachievers."
Specifically, he looks at the neurological challenges when people are overwhelmed with too many inputs. According to his research, the brain goes into "survival mode" leading to impulsive judgements, reduced flexibility, limited creativity, increased frustration and even hostility. Clearly, this can present challenges for an organization that wants enhance performance and get the most out of its human resources.
Not only are workplaces filled with external distractions, there are also many internal distractions. Research done by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert presents a rather bleak view of how much time we spend not in the present moment. In assessing samples of 2,250 adults, they found that "stimulus-independent thought" or "mind wandering" occurred 46.9 percent of the time. In other words, almost half the time, people were thinking about something other than what they were currently doing.
This is not to say mind wandering is all bad. There are times when allowing your mind to wander might help you relax or generate a moment of insight. The question is whether or not we have the ability to recognize when our mind is wandering and choose whether to pay attention to the task at hand or not.
This is where mindfulness training becomes so beneficial. A core element of mindfulness is to increase awareness of our wandering mind and develop the mental fitness to maintain focus on an object of our choice. In a workplace filled with distractions, and with minds that have tendencies to wander, this mental capability can be hugely beneficial to individuals and organizations.
Just think about how much faster and more effective meetings would be if everyone was actually paying attention. Or think about the return on investment in training dollars if participants were both physically and mentally present in the room. Or consider for yourself how much more efficient and effective you could be if you could let go of unhelpful distractions and maintain focus on the people you are with or the things you need to do.
And there is growing empirical evidence of benefits of workplace mindfulness. For example, researchers Erik Dane and Bradley Brummel recently published findings that positively linked workplace mindfulness to job performance and reduced turnover intentions. Another study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology showed participants training in mindfulness experienced improved job satisfaction and less emotional exhaustion relative to a control group. As I said to the senior vice president, "Mindfulness will not address all the challenges you are facing, but increasing focus and awareness and reducing emotional exhaustion is bound to have notable results in terms of performance and retention."
Mindfulness set in an organizational context can be so much more than the benefits of individual health and wellness. When effectively applied to daily work, and put into the context of larger corporate objectives, it can be foundational for enhancing performance and I believe, key to real organizational effectiveness.