Working with Mindfulness
Paul Gerard looks at the issue of workplace stress and the benefits of mindfulness in alleviating it.
According to data from the UK Government’s Health and Safety Executive, the prevalence of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2015/16 amounted to 488,000 cases, which works out at a rate of 1,510 per 100,000 workers. The public service industry, which includes healthcare workers; teaching professionals; business, media and public service professionals, is said to have comparatively higher levels of stress than other jobs. According to the Clockoff survey, carried out in 2015, 93% of the 3,700 respondents working in public service claim to be stressed “either all, some, or a lot of the time”. A sizeable number of employees within the sector cite going beyond the contracted hours, an increase in the workload, and shorter breaks as factors of their stress.
One of the UK’s largest trade unions, Unison, observed a general lack of support from employers when dealing with work-related illness. They assert that: “too often, workers suffering from stress are signed off sick for significant periods of time with little support from their employer”. Ailments, that are the result of work-related malaise, manifest both physically and mentally. The Clockoff survey elaborates that this takes its toll on employee wellbeing, citing 39% of public service employees having sought medical advice or counselling.
In many facets of our lives, we endure complex obstacles that challenge our wellbeing. The workplace is a common setting for these challenges, which are susceptible to lowering a person’s morale and becoming a burden in home life. Mental health charity, Mind, makes the point that “organisations work better when their staff are healthy, motivated and focused”. Businessballs.com stresses the importance of work not undermining our aims and needs in our lives, and “by extension, those of our families and loved ones”.
Such is the essence of the human condition, we are prone to self-absorption when dealing with our issues, often internalising them negatively to detrimental effect. In the workplace, these hurdles can come in the guise of overwhelming aspirations, or a lack of goals being met. We become so fixated by sources of dissatisfaction that the appreciation of the present moment is ironically an afterthought.
To help alleviate this common disposition, numerous employers are incorporating mindfulness in the workplace.
In its application to a workplace setting, Elisha Goldstein posits that mindfulness aims to allow the individual to become increasingly aware of “ineffective habitual patterns” that they are unwittingly engaging in, thus establishing a “sense of control and choice in the present moment”. Goldstein continues that the objective of the practice is to “break the cycles of distraction and wasted time that too often leads to stress”.
So, what exactly is mindfulness?
Jon Kabat-Zin, who is credited in helping bring mindfulness to the mainstream, defines it as “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”. Practitioners develop mindfulness techniques that are meditative in nature, experiencing “the now” to a much a greater capacity. It takes into consideration aspects of our life that we take for granted, like bringing our full attention to our breathing and simply acknowledging the air flow in and out of the body.
Rather than embed your own unhappiness or stress with self-critical thought, a mindful perspective encourages the individual to acknowledge these obstacles as “if they were black clouds in the sky, observing them with friendly curiosity as they drift past”. Non-judgemental observation requires the practitioner to strip away the bullshit that festers in the mind, but doing so in a compassionate way and withholding from scorn for our own perceived misgivings.
Mindful.org asserts that “mindfulness is not a drive for perfection – in fact, it’s quite the opposite”. There’s an impossibility in being mindful all the time, as people aren’t hardwired that way. Instead, the practice encourages the individual to embrace imperfection and come to the acceptance that mindlessness is a natural trait of the human condition.
Mindfulness is taking prominence in a variety of workplaces and is utilised by organisations that range from Google to the NHS.
Mirabai Bush, a mindfulness expert, who introduced it to Google, says: “Introducing mindfulness into the workplace does not prevent conflict from arising or difficult issues from coming up. (However), when difficult issues do arise… they are more likely to be skilfully acknowledged, held, and responded to by the group”. Again, mindfulness makes no proclamation in the eradication of defective circumstance, instead treating any issue with acceptance and dealing with it in an unprejudiced manner.
According to the Mental Health Foundation, developing these skills will allow people to become more engaged in their work. With a greater sense of energy and diminished anxiety, the employee is less likely to endure symptoms of stress. Stephen Canning, of the Huffington Post, considers the reduction in employee tension that mindfulness promotes, both for the individual and within-group, owing to a growth in empathetic and compassionate behaviour.
In acknowledging grievances and developing a stronger appreciation of everyone’s input, Canning elaborates: “It’s a dog eat dog world out there, but in reality, there isn’t a job in the world where being able to remain calm with others isn’t a bonus”.
Mindfulness in Ayrshire
Although I don’t utilise mindfulness to a degree that warrants a personal admission as a practitioner, it is close to my heart. My own mother, Anne Gerard, is a practitioner and teacher of mindfulness, who, after retirement, set up her own organisation, Mindfulness in Ayrshire, with three friends and former colleagues. Mindfulness in Ayrshire was established after Gerard realised that mindfulness was becoming more ‘in vogue’, after locals, who were aware of her training, began to ask how they could enrol on a course.
Forgive me for getting personal, but a lasting impression of mine from childhood is remembering how hard Mum worked. Before Dad had built Mum her own office, I remember work-related documents and papers being sprawled across any given surface of the home, full of edits and scribblings and green highlighter ink. Mum loved a green highlighter pen.
I felt that the job in National Health Service management had overwhelming demands of Anne, as she was under pressure to be especially meticulous with work, even before and after her shift. As immensely proud as I am of her, I could see the toll that it took on Mum’s wellbeing at the time.
“I first got into meditation at a time in my life when I was in a very stressful job, as a Senior Manager of a large NHS Mental Health department. I saw myself becoming and feeling more disassociated with what I saw as the ‘unnecessary bureaucratic demands’ in the workplace, believing that many of my colleagues were losing a sense of the core values of what we ought to be providing as part of a caring organisation. In other words, I noticed the extent to which I was feeling quite cynical about many of the people I worked with and had respected. However, I knew that deep down this wasn’t my ‘true state’, and saw it more to do with the volume and pressures of work, so I sought out an opportunity to learn meditation to see if this might help”.
Through her work in the Mental Health sector, Anne attended several mindfulness workshops, during a period when the practice was coming to the fore in Scotland. Her first foray into mindfulness was a peculiar one, however.
“In all honesty, I found a couple of the introductory practices that I attended a bit ‘out there’, eating raisins and walking meditation, so I hadn’t initially grasped the core elements of what mindfulness practices were working towards in my early experience”.
It was only after attending a conference, at which Jon Kabat-Zinn spoke, that Anne began to grasp the inherent benefits that mindfulness could offer. She was inspired by the idea that through regular mindfulness practice, individuals can gain an insight into how their mind works, increasing an awareness that habitual life patterns are often detrimental. Gerard appreciated the structure of an evidence-based 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Course that JK-Z endorsed, feeling that it could be taught to people with mental health issues and any stressed-out staff who were looking after them.
Upon retirement, Anne decided that she wanted to personally teach mindfulness to groups of interested people in the community, and subsequently applied to the University of Aberdeen, where an MSc course in Mindfulness had been established. Although she had first hand practical experience of its value and benefits, Gerard decided that it was important to have suitable training to legitimise her practice and training. However, due to a delay in the validation procedure, Anne was offered the option of taking a practical Mindfulness course over one year, which she did, followed by another two years of training in compassion and insight.
Feeling reflective, I asked Mum whether it would have made a significant difference to her life in the workplace and beyond if she had adopted mindfulness sooner, during the peak of her working career, rather than its twilight.
“Practicing meditation itself helped me, before I fully embraced mindfulness. However, mindfulness provides a structure of being aware of our habitual thoughts, feelings, emotional responses, etc.
While meditation enabled me to feel more at ease with myself, I feel that if I had been able to apply more awareness to my present moments, thoughts, feelings, emotions, and judgements, I could have made improved and less reactive decisions. I would have made less assumptions about circumstances, by taking a bigger and broader view of what was happening in the workplace. I would have felt more authentic, rather than someone playing out a role, devoid of any sense of self.
I have realised that in a leadership capacity, it can actually be a source of strength to acknowledge vulnerabilities without appearing weak, out of control, or unable to manage”.