meditating in front of the ocean
PHOTO: Chelsea Gates | unsplash

Mindfulness is having a moment. Certainly it's big business, with mindfulness app revenue alone reaching $1.1 billion in 2021.

As a long-time meditation practitioner, yoga teacher and — more recently — someone in the process of becoming a certified mindfulness and mediation teacher — I was curious about its ubiquity and usefulness in the workplace.

What Do We Mean By Mindfulness?

Let’s start by defining mindfulness. While there are many definitions, let’s settle on one from UC-Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center: Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.

How might mindfulness and mediation be helpful? Mindfulness mediation offers many benefits, in particular with the reduction of depression, anxiety and stress. A 2012 paper published in Behavior Change journal found, “that mindfulness training is beneficial in reducing the symptoms of subclinical depression and anxiety and can substantially reduce stress.”

That’s promising news. So how do we go about becoming more mindful? One proven way is to meditate on a consistent basis. Becoming more mindful and becoming a skilled meditator takes ... practice. Lots and lots of practice. There are few shortcuts. It’s essential to put in the time.

The relationship between meditation and mindfulness may not be immediately clear. Meditation — when practiced correctly and consistently — helps one to become more mindful. Becoming more mindful, in turn, helps us to widen our window of tolerance and expand our field of awareness. This helps us to get out of auto-pilot mode (being zoned out) or reactive mode (acting without thinking). It helps us pause and to manage our fight or flight response. It helps us to be more present and aware, both for ourselves and for others.

We are building our mindfulness muscles every time we meditate. If that sounds confusing, think of it this way — according the Ten Percent Happier blog: “Meditation …. is an activity. It’s a thing you do. If mindfulness is like strength or flexibility, meditation is like running or going to the gym.”

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Mindfulness Complements Workplace Wellness Programs

Workplace wellness programs offer numerous ways and formats to improve mindfulness and meditation. In fact, corporate workplace wellness spending expected to reach $80 billion USD by 2027.

The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have caused mental health support to figure strongly in many workplace wellness programs. A recent survey conducted by Easy Offices in the UK found that employees rate various forms of mental health support as the most important benefit, and that “34% (of those surveyed) equally rated mental health insurance, support groups and mindfulness tools as (the) most valuable benefits.” Employees appear ready to embrace mindfulness in the larger context of mental wellness.

Unfortunately proof that mindfulness and meditation has a benefit — specifically in the workplace is an under-studied area. While it has been studied extensively, sadly, it has not always been studied well. One exception is in The Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. This study is one of few that used random controlled trials and was also conducted in such a way that participants were trained in a half-day workshop by an instructor with more than 18 years of teaching experience. In this study, mindfulness was defined as “three specific attention skills working together: Concentration, Sensory Clarity, and Equanimity.”

The study was conducted with 60 employees at a Midwestern digital marketing firm. Interestingly, the findings concluded that, "participants showed reduced work-life conflict, increased job satisfaction, and an increased ability to focus their attention. Notably, this was the first study to research the effects of mindfulness training on attentional focus during the workday."

Results like these show great promise, especially for the workplace context. While it's an area that would benefit from more research, companies looking to improve employee well-being might do well to support this type of workplace wellness programming.

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Sit. Stay.

A 2021 University of Cincinnati study by Lynley Turkleson and Quintino Mano found that mindfulness reduces mind-wandering and mistakes at work, and that, as Forbes cited, “mindfulness meditation — focusing your attention on the present moment — indeed abates mind wandering and keeps you on task.”

Research suggests humans are happiest when we remain in the moment. An article by Matt Killingsworth in the UC-Berkeley Greater Good magazine posited that “… results suggest that happiness is indeed highly sensitive to the contents of our moment-to-moment experience. And one of the most powerful predictors of happiness is something we often do without even realizing it: mind-wandering.” Killingsworth based his findings on results from his “Track Your Happiness” app, which studies the happiness levels of subjects in real time. 

Given our always-on, multi-tasking work culture, who couldn’t use a little more focus at work? Mindfulness as a means to better focus and stay on-track can be a major benefit in work settings.

While there are studies that call out some of the downsides to mindfulness in the workplace — one omnibus study in particular provides a long list of potential positive and negative outcomes (and I hope to cover more of those aspects in future articles), the benefits to workers are very promising.

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Mindfulness in the Workplace Outlook: Mostly Sunny With a 100% Chance for More Research

As the workplace continues to evolve, and we as a human family continue to face more challenges, mindfulness and meditation can be a useful antidote to stress and anxiety, and a tool to help navigate these waves of change.

From a personal perspective, I can share that mindfulness meditation has been nothing short of utterly transformative. It has helped me considerably in terms of managing work-related stress and anxiety, maintaining focus, cultivating patience and empathy, and fostering feelings of wellbeing and a sunnier mood.

Although I have been practicing for many years, you need not be a long-time meditator to realize the benefits. What it does take though, is consistency. Put in the time and reap the benefits. I’m hopeful that more organizations will embrace mindfulness and mediation in the workplace — to make for happier and healthier workers and a happier and healthier workplace.