At the time of writing, work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounts for 50% of all work-related ill health. This is a staggering statistic. By its very nature, work-related stress is difficult to measure. People may find it difficult to talk about, especially if they think it could affect their work progression. This means it’s quite likely the true figure is even higher.
The long-term impact of stress is burnout and the development of more serious mental health conditions like clinical depression or anxiety disorders. Physical health conditions are also likely to develop. As well as the huge personal cost of work-related stress, it definitely isn’t good for business. Thankfully, mindfulness can help.
What is Work-Related Stress and What Causes It?
Work-related stress is defined as ‘a harmful reaction that people have to undue pressures and demands placed on them at work’. Common causes of work-related stress include:
– Long working hours
– Heavy workload
– Tight deadlines
– Productivity pressure
– Email overwhelm
– Job insecurity
– Lack of autonomy
– Boring work
– Harassment and discrimination
– Poor work-life balance
Workplace culture is a key factor. In the current economic climate, employees are being asked to do more with less, working long hours with increasingly heavy workloads. Leading mindfulness academic, Professor Mark Williams, believes working in a culture where stress is a badge of honour is counterproductive. He says:
‘We can spend so much time rushing from one task to another. We may think we’re working more efficiently, but as far as the brain is concerned, we are working against the grain. No wonder we get exhausted.’
While there is ever-growing pressure for workplaces to improve working conditions and safeguard the mental health of their employees, we also have a responsibility to manage and look after our own wellbeing. This is where mindfulness at work comes in.
In simple terms, mindfulness is a practice that trains the brain to focus only on the present. It induces a sense of acceptance and makes our mind more attentive towards our feelings. It’s like being a spectator and observing everything from a safe distance. No judgments, no worries about being right or wrong. In a mindful state, you’re able to live every moment to the fullest.
The calmer your mind is, the more your brain is operating from its pre-frontal cortex. This part of the brain is creative, broad in its thinking style, resilient and able to take risks. In contrast, a stressed brain is shut down, narrowed in its thinking and not very cooperative.
Mindfulness enables us to take a step back and consider alternative perspectives. Rather than simply reacting to events using the least intelligent part of our brains, mindfulness helps us flick the switch back to the smart parts, giving us control of our emotions and enabling us to choose a more appropriate response.
Will It Solve All Our Problems?
In short, no. But it has the potential to make a huge difference.
Mindfulness expert Mirabai Bush, famous for introducing the practice at Google, points out that introducing mindfulness into the workplace does not prevent conflict from ever arising. But when difficult issues do arise, they are more likely to be skilfully acknowledged, held, and responded to by the group. She says:
‘Over time, with mindfulness, we learn to develop the inner resources that will help us navigate through difficult, trying, and stressful situations with more ease, comfort, and grace… Mindfulness helps you become more aware of an arising emotion by noticing the sensation in the body. Then you can follow these guidelines: stop what you are doing. Breathe deeply. Notice how you are experiencing the emotion in your body. Reflect on where the emotion is coming from in your mind (personal history, insecurity, etc). Respond in the most compassionate way.’
Mindfulness at Work
Break up your day with a few short mindful meditations. Brief 10 minutes slots at your desk, in your car or in another quiet space are all you need to boost your brain. Try this:
Focus your attention on your breath. Notice your posture. Sitting upright and strong, allow yourself to feel grounded and held by your chair. Let your face relax into a slight smile. Close your eyes or lower your gaze.
Notice the rhythm of your breath. Follow each breath all the way in and all the way out. If it helps you focus, you can count each breath up to 10 then start again. If your mind wanders (and it probably will), bring your concentration back to your breath. Then relax as the calm unfolds. Most importantly, don’t judge yourself. We have tricky brains, and this is not easy.
Can You Improve the Workplace Culture?
If you have the power to improve the culture at your workplace, make mindfulness at work a priority. Try letting the first two minutes of any meeting be silent, allowing everybody to arrive both physically and mentally. Then, if possible, end the meeting five minutes before the hour to allow all participants a mindful transition to their next meeting or task. Self-care often meets resistance and blocks. Suggest trialling this approach for a few weeks then report back and see what the whole team thinks.