Silicon Valley's enthusiastic embrace of mindfulness might be dismissed as a wayward indulgence, but when sober corporates including US health insurance giant Aetna, and German IT heavyweight SAP adopt the practice, it is harder to ignore. Even governments have started paying attention to it, with Britain's cross-party parliamentary report on its benefits hailed as "a model to legislators across the developed world".
So, what are the claims made for mindfulness in the workplace, and how does it measure up?
"From a wellbeing perspective, the individual benefits have been well established through clinical studies," says Business School alumna Debbie Schultz, whose company BlueSkyMinds provides mindfulness training in the workplace.
"We know that it modifies stress reactivity and improves resilience, and naturally that will have flow on effects in organisations."
Schultz says mindfulness also has been shown to improve work relationships, performance, and creativity.
"In relationships, in particular, research is pointing to links between mindfulness and emotional intelligence – the ability to be aware of oneself and others, and to regulate emotion."
At times, through the day, we can slip into autopilot and miss the opportunities to connect with others, or to sense what is going on in the room, says Schultz. And that can be a real challenge, especially for leaders in an organisation.
"People really struggle with that need to connect at a time when, increasingly, they are being pulled away by emails and other demands on their time."
The reality is that we are living in a state of continuous partial attention, says Schultz, and unless we bring some intentionality to what we do, this cognitive overload will have a major impact on productivity.
"One of the benefits of mindfulness is that it allows us to step back and ask whether what we are doing at a particular moment is the best use of our time. It can improve productivity, but it also helps you see things as they really are and gives you the space to respond skilfully."
Research suggests that mindfulness also has a significant effect on creativity, which may go some way to explaining its allure for Silicon Valley.
"A stressed out mind shuts down possibilities, so if you can activate your relaxation response, you are more likely to be able to tap into parts of the brain that are the sources of creative thinking."
Schultz is helping to implement mindfulness programmes in a range of organisations, from small property developers and legal firms to one of New Zealand's largest district health boards. She says an effective approach is to run a 6-8-week pilot, and use hard data on its impact on productivity, resilience, and creativity, along with personal stories, to win over sceptics.
"In some respects, it is easier in a small organisation, because if you can get that critical mass of people all having a shared experience, they can make some significant changes to the way they work together."
Schultz says one of the largest barriers to success is the confusion over what mindfulness is and how easy it is to develop.
"Anything popular is going to start getting commodified, and mindfulness is not immune to that. You can almost see it on a scale. At one end is what you might call 'mindfulness lite' – the two-minute app that claims to change your life – and at the other end eight-week programmes such as MBSR [mindfulness-based stress reduction], that involve a bigger investment of time, but which also offer long-term sustainable change."
"Part of the role of mindfulness teachers is to educate people about the difference. It is not merely about brain training, there are other layers. And to a certain extent, you need to work with the culture – what people can and can't commit to, without diluting it down so much that the benefits are lost."
She says mindfulness is not merely "a good idea", but a practice, and that it is the week-upon-week implementation that establishes the all-important neurological, behavioural, and emotional changes.
Her advice: "Don't judge mindfulness by the hype or the opinions of others. Learn about the science behind it, and then judge it by your own experience."
Watch the Short Takes video The Science of Mindfulness (8:33)
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