We spend a good chunk of our day at work, and it’s no surprise we’re stressed more than ever. Have a look at these sobering statistics:
- Canada – According to a joint study on mental health in the workplace by The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell, those who were surveyed reported that work stress is the primary cause of their mental health challenges.
- U.S.A. – According to American Psychological Association (APA) 65% of American employees point to their workplace as a significant source of stress.
- U.K. – Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reports that 57% of all working days were lost due to work-related ill health.
- Japan – This BBC article cites that employees at close to a quarter Japanese companies work 80+ hours overtime a month, and often unpaid.
Have a look at this Work Stress Statistics infographic we created using data from ComPsych’s 2017 StressPulseSM survey:
It’s alarming to see these numbers, yet we subject ourselves to stress at work on a daily basis. Part of the problem is that we’ve become accustomed to it, and it’s a social norm to work long hours and have a massive workload. We don’t want to be seen as a ‘slacker’ by working only 40 hours per week.
Another contributing factor as to why we remain stressed at work is that we don’t have the tools to help us lessen the stress. In the ComPsych study, 35% said that they work even harder to cope with the stress.
Fortunately, there is help for us. The practice of mindfulness is one of those powerful and effective tools that can aid in alleviating our stress not only in the workplace, but anywhere that we find ourselves suffering or not at peace.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is to pay attention on purpose to our thoughts, the sensations in our body, our emotions, and what is happening around us in the present moment without any judgment.
To put more simply, it’s when our body and mind are both in the same place, in the now. For example, you are having dinner with a friend, however, if you are thinking about a terrible event that happened to you earlier, then your mind is somewhere else.
What are the Benefits of Mindfulness?
According to a study by Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert, our mind wanders almost half of the time. And during activities when our mind is mentally checked out, we’re unhappy.
In the study where 2,250 people participated, their minds wandered most and were least happy during times of rest, work, or using a home computer.
If we’re not happy when our minds wander, then are we happier when we’re practicing mindfulness?
There is a mountain of evidence that supports this. The American Psychological Association (APA) cites the key benefits of being mindful:
- Reduced stress
- Less anxiety, depression and somatic distress
- Improved working memory
- Increased focus
- Decreased emotional reactivity
- Less rumination
- Increased cognitive flexibility
- Higher relationship satisfaction
How to Cultivate Mindfulness in the Workplace?
Become a Single Tasker
Multitasking, the ability to perform more than one task or function at the same time, is often a job requirement at work. At the time of this writing, I went on Indeed.com, a job site, and found over 19,000 jobs in their database that asks for “multitasking” in the job description.
In my old corporate job, I didn’t know anyone who didn’t multitask. A typical day consisted of work getting constantly interrupted by colleagues coming by to chat, incoming phone calls and emails, and urgent items that needed immediate attention.
Does Multitasking Make Us Dumber and Inefficient?
There are several studies that point out significant costs to performing multiple tasks at once:
- Decline in IQ – a study found that participants experienced a decrease in IQ score when they multitasked during cognitive functions.
- Less efficient – in this study researchers found that there was a significant time cost when participants changed tasks, which got worse as tasks got more complex.
- Hinder brain function – this University of Sussex study revealed that ‘media multitaskers’, those who spent long periods of time on multiple electronic devices at the same time, had lower grey matter density in the part of the brain responsible for cognitive and emotional control functions.
How to Be a Single Tasker
- Remove distractions and disruptions – if you work in an open style environment, book a meeting room or a quiet place where you can do your work without interruption.
- Turn off phone – see if you can put your phone, both landline and cell phone, on silent or completely off, when performing a task.
- No social media – close down all social media if you’re doing an important task, so no Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn. And no dating apps either!
- Close all unnecessary applications – aside from the application required to do your task, shut down all others
- Block off time in your schedule – when you need to get something done, see if you can block time in your calendar so that you’re not interrupted
Some of you may be wondering how switching from multitasking to single tasking have anything to do with mindfulness. Because it is possible to be a mindful multitasker, and if you’re one of these people, bravo to you!
But most of us who are juggling multiple things at once are terrible at it, and the studies mentioned above validate what we’ve known all along.
To perform a single task at a time creates a desirable environment for mindfulness. The quality of our work increases because we can be fully present to the task at hand. We’re also less stressed when disruptions are minimized and we’re getting our jobs done in an efficient and thoughtful way.
Practice a Mindfulness Exercise
Having a mindfulness technique in our back pocket is key to riding out the ups and downs of the workplace. Whenever we are upset, bored, or anxious at work, it’s important that we practice being mindful on the job instead of reacting inappropriately or getting lost and stuck in our thoughts.
This simple breath awareness practice can be done anywhere.
- Sit comfortably in your chair
- Take a deep inhale
- Follow your breath as it enters your nostrils and down into your lungs
- Pay attention to your belly as it rises when your breathe
- Then do a slow exhale
- Follow your breath as it leaves your body
- Be aware of your body as the air leaves
- See if you notice any sensations in your body
- Do you feel any discomfort? If so, is it possible to breathe into that part of the body that is feeling uneasiness?
- If a thought arises, notice it gently, and then return your attention to the breath again
Another option is to learn how to reduce stress through a mindfulness program, like the MBSR.
Take a Mindful Break
Many of us work through our lunches and breaks especially when there are deadlines that need to be met. We think that we’re being productive, yet there are studies that confirm that taking the right breaks can improve brain function, decrease mental fatigue, and increase our focus.
In other words, we are more productive employees when we take the appropriate kinds of breaks during our work day.
In their book , “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World”, neuroscientist, Dr. Gazzaley, and psychologist, Dr. Rosen, state that taking a break and doing the right activities during that period can restore the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for goal management.
The prefrontal cortex coordinates attention, working memory and other cognitive functions to help us achieve what we want. For example, I’m using my prefrontal cortex to help me write this content.
The Right Work Breaks
Gazzaley and Rosen described effective ways we can take breaks such as:
- Go into nature
- Physical exercise
I interpret these activities as mindful breaks. At my corporate job, my favourite mindful break was to go to a yoga class if I had the time, I was fortunate that there was a studio close to the office.
These days I work from home, so I have my yoga mat laid out and every so often I practice a few poses in between writing, when I feel stuck, bored, or when I start to worry about the other projects on my plate. I also enjoy quick guided meditations when I’m not motivated to do it alone.
If these practices aren’t accessible, you can do the breath awareness exercise mentioned above, or better yet, go for a walking meditation to a nearby park.
The Wrong Work Breaks
In their book, Dr. Gazzaley and Dr. Rosen write:
“Whatever relaxes you and takes you away from your over stimulating technological environment will help you re-engage with greater arousal, more capacity for attention, and less susceptibility to being interrupted.”
One of the activities they mention as causing more harm than good is the habit of checking our phones and getting sucked in by our news and social media feeds.
According to Gazzaley and Rosen, the more we check our phones the more we reinforce the habit, which leads us to an even greater reliance on our phones.
This research posted in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, discovered that even the mere presence of smartphone devices reduces available cognitive capacity.
Still, there are many different techniques to cultivate mindfulness at work. Find a practice that suits you. Every moment is an opportunity to be aware and engaged in the present moment.
Studies upon studies validate the benefits – we’re more productive, less stressed, more efficient, less reactive, and more compassionate towards others. Taking mindfulness breaks seems counterintuitive but they do help us. Don’t take my word for it, be open to the idea and see for yourself, give it a go!
How do you cultivate mindfulness at work? Share in the comments.