My first experience with mindfulness started with a little note on Skype “be present” that I wrote many years ago after attending a yoga teacher training in India in 2013. Since that time, I have developed self practice without knowing it’s something to do with a fancy fad that the media blows up these days — mindfulness. I definitely experienced a positive, helpful effect on my stress level through being aware of body sensations (body-scan) and paying attention to parts of the body that are more tensed and releasing that tension and applying an intention to do so.
Being aware of my own breath helped me to manage my emotions and not to react automatically to adverse situations. Breathing techniques assisted me on the path of public speaking and dealing with the fear related to this activity. Breathing deeply helped me to handle dozens of stressful events. It helped to improve sleeping patterns and to slow down when I speak fast due to nervousness. I also have a habit not to talk about something before I experience that, therefore my own exploration of mindfulness shifted from yogic practices to academic research.
For thousands of years, mindfulness has been practised in Buddhism and other Eastern traditions and is believed to originate from Brahmanic tradition in India (Cousins, 1996). Jon Kabat-Zinn brought the concept of mindfulness to his innovative stress reduction programme, which aimed to reduce chronic pain. After that, mindfulness was applied in the treatment of stress and anxiety in western society.
Modern practitioners and occupational therapists introduced mindfulness interventions to the workplace not long ago in the late 1990s. Nowadays, mindfulness interventions are used not only to deal with ill mental health, but to prevent stress and burnout as well as to improve well-being.
Scientists look into the outcomes, forms and length of mindful meditation, and whether the evidence is of such an enormous impact on well-being — if there is scientific proof of the impact. In one year between 2016 and 2017 more than 160 academic papers were published on the subject of mindfulness. However, the quality of the research is questionable.
Tim Lomas et al, 2016/2017, conducted a systematic review of empirical literature on the impact of mindfulness on well-being and performance in the workplace which looked at 153 academic papers. “These studies suggest that mindfulness can potentially reduce mental health issues, enhance well-being-related outcomes, and improve aspects of job performance. However, there are numerous issues with the research base which limits the conclusion that can be drawn”. Often the interventions are run in health-care set-ups, rarely in corporate environments (more diverse occupational representation is suggested in the future), sample sizes are often not large enough for statistical significance, active control groups could uncover if the positive effect is because of the intervention or participation in a group activity (Tim Lomas et al, 2017).
Speaking about the corporate application of mindfulness interventions, I would add a bit about my own experience of teaching yoga with bits of closing meditation at the end of each session in the office of 600+ people (call centre, London). Not all of the employees could attend or wanted to attend, however, the classes were fully booked and people reported increased patience towards clients and work-related stress, increased work performance and changed attitude towards the office — the days when yoga was scheduled, the work was perceived more positively and people admitted willingness to go to work.
Andrew C. Hafenbrack speaks about On-The-Spot Workplace Mindfulness Interventions (2016–2017), which is more cost-effective time and money-wise and does not require daily practice, but is used as a tool in problem situations at work. And again, the author mentions the importance of noticing and being aware of the present moment. A lot of critique about mindfulness has been offered, such as decreased motivation, avoidance risk when mindfulness is used to disconnect from unwanted experiences rather than dealing with them actively, whether dragging attention to the present “cancels” the ability to learn from past experiences or even incubates creative ideas. I will leave it to you to explore the literature in more detail.
What I know from my yoga journey is that the meditation is one of the final stages of spiritual practice that can be indeed helpful and beneficial, but yet dangerous if used without professional guidance. When I say “professional” in this context, it stands beyond modern certifications, but refers to a holistic, inclusive approach to human mind, body and soul as a complex living organism with thousands of processes happening every second of life. When we extract and operationalise a spiritual practice, we should be also aware of negative consequences that appear if mishandled.
In the Eight Limbs of Yoga from Ashtanga tradition all yogic practices starting from Yama and Niyama, Asanas, Pranayamas and so on — are preparation for meditation, implying that before one meditates one should “purify” one’s body, thoughts, intentions and attitudes.
Therefore, I may conclude that mindfulness is indeed an interesting topic to explore, practice and share with others, but mindfulness meditation should be done under guidance and in moderation. Step-by-step. Mindfulness in the workplace is the way to reduce stress, but it may trigger emotional turbulence if a person is highly distressed and experiencing a lack of social support outside of the office. The mindfulness trait can be used as a tool in certain situations and be less harmful than if developing awareness of present sensations and present moments as a constant practice.
By Svetlana Elfimova – our own MSc Organisational Psychology Graduate and Account Manager at Red Square International