Zen and the Art of Mindfulness at Work

Could you really be 10% happier?

What do some of the largest employers in America, the U.S. military, and ivy-league business schools have in common? MINDFULNESS. Big, forward-thinking organizations are leading the movement toward creating a society that is more focused, centered, and connected through the ancient practice of mindfulness.

What is mindfulness anyway?

While the common answer is “meditation,” mindfulness also means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. What mindfulness does is create space in our minds so we can “respond” rather than “react” to what passes through. This practice, which has roots in the ancient Buddhist religion, is now taking hold in corporate America.

A 2016 employer study conducted by the National Business Group on Health and Fidelity Investments reveals that 22% of employers currently have mindfulness programs and 21% are thinking about introducing one in 2017.

You can also find mindfulness training in the military, business schools, and even at healthcare companies such as Aetna. The nation’s largest healthcare company recently announced a major mindfulness initiative. Each Aetna employee is given a postcard that announces:  “Come back in 20 minutes, I’m taking a mindfulness break.” Employees are instructed to put these cards on their door to allow for some quiet time.

So what if employees could learn to be calm, relax under pressure, and de-stress without losing focus? According to Abby Davis, RN, a leading health and productivity consultant at Alliant, “As traditional wellness programs progress from cost containment to workforce engagement solutions, this is the logical next ‘big idea’ given how much research is being published linking mindfulness to health and performance.”

At the end of the day, companies want to enhance employee productivity and increase performance. They also want to lower healthcare costs and absenteeism.  Conveniently, the benefits of mindfulness include:

• Improved mental and emotional health

• Reduced stress

• Increased attention span

• Improved memory

• Enhanced workplace morale

More simply, the practice of being mindful can allow employees and leaders to clear their heads and become aware of reflexive, emotional reactions that may lead to bad decisions. Employees can reduce what’s known in meditation circles as “monkey-mind,” when we lose focus and our thoughts change like a monkey frenetically swinging from branch to branch.

ABC News’ Dan Harris in his book, 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Workspresents a rational argument for the value of meditation.  In 2004, the ABC News Nightline co-host suffered a visible, on-air panic attack live on Good Morning America.  The Dan Harris meltdown was the crescendo of years of exhaustion and stress. Harris was a rising star at ABC News, reporting on-air with Peter Jennings and Diane Sawyer at only 26 years old. The meltdown was the spark that encouraged Harris to look for another way.  He found his answer in the ancient art of mindfulness and meditation. The book has been wildly popular and is currently the ninth best-selling self-help book of all time on Amazon.com.

Although skepticism about meditation remains in the western world, today’s version does not require a lot of the things that give people pause. For example:

You don’t have to sit in a contorted position (unless you want to, of course)

• You don’t have to chant or burn incense

• You don’t have to abandon your existing faith tradition

Meditation is a lot more like learning a musical instrument or training for a 10K race. There’s nothing to buy and you don’t have to wear a frock, Birkenstock sandals, and patchouli perfume.

Increasingly, big companies are exploring the benefits of integrating mindfulness training into their wellness strategies. According to Colleen Saringer, Ph.D., an Atlanta-based health and productivity consultant: “Our clients are seeking creative, low-cost ways to lower stress and reduce the prevalence of anxiety and depression. We’ve become experts on mindfulness and meditation vendors and strategies due to increased demand. Our best advice: go slow and do your research on vendors before you allow anyone access to your employees.”

So is it the next big trend in creating the perfect workforce or simply a flash in the pan? We will be keeping a (mindful) eye on this trend.

Tom Greene

Tom Greene is Executive Vice President with Alliant Employee Benefits. With more than 25 years of experience servicing some of the nation’s largest companies, Tom specializes in the design and delivery of innovative healthcare solutions that increase health and productivity and improve business outcomes.

You can follow Tom on LinkedIn

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Zen and the Art of Mindfulness at Work