Harnessing the Power of Mindfulness

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Luisa Heitor

 

By Luisa Heitor, Clinical Psychologist, EAP Counselor

If you are feeling burned out at work, you are not alone. A Gallup poll found that 23 percent of employees reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44 percent reported feeling burned out sometimes.

Burnout is not a medical diagnosis, but it can affect your physical and mental health. Caused by chronic stress, burnout is often characterized by overwhelming exhaustion, detachment, cynicism or dissatisfaction with job performance. In addition to fatigue, burnout can lead to insomnia and feelings of sadness, anger, or irritability.

In the workplace, burnout is thought to contribute to absenteeism, declining productivity and conflict. With this in mind, many organizations are turning to mindfulness as one way to optimize employee wellbeing and minimize the risk of burnout.

Mindfulness seeks to counteract stress by turning one’s attention to the present moment. A vast number of scientific studies have shown that having a mindfulness practice can greatly enhance our wellbeing through actual brain change, more fulfilling relationships, improved health, and an increased ability to live with joy. Clinical research shows that mindfulness can enhance compassion and empathy, leading to improved communications and a deepened capacity for intimacy and true connection.

At Workplace Options, we surveyed participants of Aware, our Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, and found that even six months after the program ended, those who completed the program continued to experience an increased ability to focus, sleep and manage.

If you are interested in trying mindfulness, here are some helpful tips to get you started.

  • Make a clear decision at the start of your workday to be present as best you can. Pause for a few moments before you start your work day to set this intention in your mind.
  • Find the time. Mindful exercises can be as short as you wish. Even one minute of consciously connecting with one of your senses can be classified as a mindful exercise. You don’t need to close your eyes. You don’t even need to be sitting down. Be creative about finding slots in the day to practice mindfulness exercises. The process helps to rebalance your nervous system, toning down the “fight-or-flight response” and engaging the wise part of your brain, so that you make reasoned decisions rather than automatically react to situations.
  • Use reminders. The reason you forget to be mindful is because your brain’s default state is to be habitually lost in your own thoughts, like an internal narrative. Being on auto-pilot means that you’re not fully present and awake to the opportunities, choices and people around you. By using some form of reminder, you can be mindful again as it shakes you out of auto-pilot mode. A reminder could be as simple as setting an alarm on the phone. (A vibrating alarm that doesn’t disturb others can work well.) Use this reminder to take a small step back and reflect, rather than automatically react, to what’s coming at you in the form of demands, tasks and challenges.
  • Recognize the positive. Humans have a natural “negativity bias” which means that you’re much more likely to focus and dwell on something that’s gone wrong at work than on things that have gone well. As a result we can activate the “complaining mode”, adopting an excessively negative and unbalanced way of thinking. Gratitude is the antidote for that. Being mindful of what’s going well at work, what’s positive, what you gain, what you have accomplished so far, etc., helps to improve your resilience and wellbeing.
  • Accept what you can´t change. Acceptance lies at the heart of mindfulness. To be mindful means to accept this present moment just as it is, and to accept yourself, just as you are now. It doesn’t mean resignation or giving up, but it does mean acknowledging the truth of how things are at this time before trying to change anything. Personal acceptance is even more powerful as it encompasses embracing all aspects of yourself – your weaknesses, shortcomings, aspects you don’t like and those you admire. When you accept yourself, you cut down on energy-draining self-criticism. You’re then much better able to enjoy your successes and smile at your shortcomings.

Sample a portion of an Aware Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction session by Workplace Options.

Now, let’s take a practical look at what mindfulness might look like on a typical work day.

First, start off your day right. Researchers have found that we can release stress hormones within minutes after waking. Why? Because thinking of the day ahead can trigger our fight-or-flight instinct and release cortisol into our blood. Instead, when you wake up, try spending two minutes in your bed simply noticing your breath. As thoughts about the day pop into your mind, let them go like clouds in the sky and return to your breath.

When you get to work, take 10 minutes to do a short mindfulness practice to arrive in presence, before you dive into activity. Close your eyes, relax, and sit upright. Place your full focus on your breath. Simply maintain an ongoing flow of attention on the experience of your breathing: inhale, exhale; inhale; exhale.

To help your focus stay on your breathing, count silently at each exhalation. Any time you find your mind distracted, simply release the distraction by returning your focus to your breath. Most important, allow yourself to enjoy these minutes. Throughout the rest of the day, other people and competing urgencies will fight for your attention, but for now these ten minutes belong only to you.

As the day progresses and your brain starts to get more tired, mindfulness can help you stay sharp and avoid poor decisions. Especially after lunch, remind yourself to take regular breaks where you can do a one minute mindfulness practice. When you encounter difficult situations at work, remind yourself to pause for a few moments and reconnect with your breath and with yourself.

As the day comes to an end and you start your commute home, for at least 10 minutes, turn off your phone, shut off the radio, and simply be. Let go of any thoughts that arise. Attend to your breath. Doing so will allow you to let go of the stresses of the day so you can return home and be fully present with your family.

Mindfulness is not about living life in slow motion. It’s about enhancing focus and awareness both in work and in life. It’s about removing any distractions while staying connected and focused with individual, as well as organizational, goals. So give yourself the chance to be more mindful in your daily life. Test these tips for 14 days and see what they can do for you.

Workplace Options helps employees balance their work, family and personal needs to become healthier, happier and more productive, both personally and professionally. The company’s world-class employee support, effectiveness and wellbeing services provide information, resources, referrals and consultation on a variety of issues ranging from dependent care and stress management to clinical services and wellness programs. To learn more visit www.workplaceoptions.com