The Mindfulness Initiative: Mindfulness in the Workplace

The Mindfulness Initiative is a policy group that developed following mindfulness training for British MPs, peers and staff and now works with politicians from around the world.  It helped UK politicians to establish a Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG).

It is interesting to note that the primary patrons of the policy group are Emeritus Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn and Ruby Wax, comedian, who has completed a Masters in mindfulness-based, cognitive therapy at the Oxford University Mindfulness Centre.

The Mindful Initiative also assisted the MAPPG to undertake a parliamentary inquiry into mental health in a number of arenas, resulting in the production, after 8 parliamentary sittings, of the Mindful Nation UK report.

Shortly afterwards in 2016, The Mindfulness Initiative published a new document, developed by the Private Sector Working Party, which was called, Building the Case for Mindfulness in the Workplace.   This document is the primary focus of my post.

The latter document focused on mindfulness in the workplace and provides an explanation of mindfulness, identifies the potential benefits for business and discusses workplace implementation issues and strategies.  The ideas advanced in Building the Case are strongly supported by reported research and shared experience captured in documented, organisational case studies.

It provides an excellent starting point for any organisation envisaging the development and implementation of a mindfulness program for their executives, managers and staff.  Besides individual mindfulness training, it also touches on organisational mindfulness as a cultural approach.

One significant point that Building the Case makes is that mindfulness is not the province of a particular religion, such as Buddhism.  The report contends, based on the work of Dane (2011) and Kabat-Zinn (2005), that:

mindfulness is best considered an inherent human capacity akin to language acquisition; a capacity that enables people to focus on what they experience in the moment, inside themselves as well as in their environment, with an attitude of openness, curiosity and care.

The problem of course is that with life in our fast-paced world, obsession with social media and concerted efforts by interested parties to disrupt our attention, we are fast losing the power to concentrate and focus – we increasingly experience “disrupted attention” and recent research confirms that our attention span is declining rapidly.  Additional research demonstrates that we spend almost 50% of our time thinking about the future or the past and not being present to our internal or external environment.

We also carry with us memories, emotions, prejudices and biases that distort our perception of reality.  This, in turn, results in workplace stress, mental illness and declining productivity.

The Building the Case report highlights the potential business benefits that accrue from the pursuit of mindfulness, focusing on:

  • enhanced well-being and resilience
  • improved relationships and collaboration
  • enhanced performance
  • improved leadership
  • better decision-making
  • growth in creativity and innovation.

To ensure that people approach the implementation of workplace mindfulness programs in a level-headed way, the report challenges a number of myths about mindfulness and addresses the issues involved.

Of particular note, is the emphasis on regular practice of meditation and organisational support mechanisms beyond the initial training to sustain mindfulness within the organisation.

It is clear from the research and case studies cited, that as people in the workplace grow in mindfulness and sustain their meditation practice, they experience real personal benefits that, in turn, flow onto the organisation, work teams and colleagues.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of Free-Photos on Pixabay

Creating a Mentally Healthy Workplace

If you revisit the previous post and listen to Goldie Hawn’s statement about the tools and skills that children are given in MindUP™ , you come to realise that she is creating the foundations for mentally healthy workplaces . As Goldie pointed out, she set about creating a new culture, conducive to world peace, by developing children as future leaders with dignity and humanity.

In their guide, Mental Health at Work, produced by Portner Press, the authors discuss the need to create a workplace culture that is conducive to developing and maintaining mental health in the workplace. What they identify as the elements that go into making a mentally healthy workplace culture align very well with Goldie’s focus and goals.

They also align very closely with the manager development work I have been doing over more than a decade with my colleague, Julie Cork.  The Confident People Management Program that we have been facilitating for over 2,000 managers is a longitudinal, action learning program of four to six months focused on people management skills.

To create a culture that is conducive to mental health in the workplace, requires, fundamentally, an awareness of, and willingness to address, the basic needs of staff.  Staff have three basic needs, (1) tell me what is expected of me, (2) give me honest feedback about how I am doing, and (3) provide me with the resources to meet the expectations of the job.

Job expectations

Clarity around job expectations is particularly critical for creating a workplace environment that is conducive to mental health. Much stress, conflict and mental illness is caused by unclear job expectations which are manifested in role confusion, role ambiguity and/or role overlap.

Communication of expectations should cover both performance expectations and behavioural expectations. Performance expectations, in terms of the quantity and quality of work to be done, have to be reasonable and not excessive. It is okay to establish high expectations as long as you enable negotiation of those expectations and provide the requisite level of support to achieve the desired outcomes.

The other aspect of job expectations is behavioural standards. It is one thing to communicate workplace values, e.g. professionalism, it is another thing to explain these values in behavioural terms so that staff understand what is required of them behaviourally. So for a value like professionalism, a manager would need to ask, “What does professionalism look like behaviourally in our workplace context?” (or, alternatively, “what would be considered unprofessional behaviour in our context?”).

Clarity around job expectations, both performance and behavioural, is a critical first step for a mentally healthy workplace.

Feedback

An essential component for a workplace culture that is conducive to mental health is regular feedback about performance and behaviour. This involves both positive and corrective feedback.

Positive feedback builds a person’s self-esteem and sense of self-efficacy. It respects and values their contribution and encourages positivity in the workplace.

Corrective feedback is designed to correct performance/ behaviour so that the staff member can meet the job expectations. If it is provided in a professional manner it can be generate respect – the focus being on the performance/ behaviour, not the person or their personality.

In both forms of feedback, it is important that the feedback is timely, specific, accurate and sincere.

Resources

It is unreasonable and damaging to mental health to provide staff with resources that are inadequate to enable them to meet job expectations – this includes the provision of training in both performance and behavioural requirements. In terms of assisting people who have mental health issues, it is important to provide access to independent, external health professionals to give adequate support for the individual involved. What is often overlooked is the need to train managers in how to deal with mental health issues in the workplace – resulting in managers experiencing undue stress and, potentially, burnout.

Listening for understanding

If a manager is to genuinely meet the needs of staff, they have to have skills in active listening. One component of this is empathetic listening skills – the ability to understand the emotions involved for the other person, to empathise with them and to work with them to help alleviate the associated pain where possible.

Being present

Underpinning the above elements of a healthy workplace culture is the capacity of a manager to be really present to their staff.  Listening for understanding, communicating expectations and providing feedback (both positive and corrective), require the manager to be in-the-moment and really present to their staff.

As managers grow in mindfulness, they are better able to create workplace environments conducive to mental health. Kindness and gratitude form part of the emergent skill-set and these, in turn, contribute mental health and happiness, not only for staff but also for the manager.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source:  Courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

Mental Illness in the Workplace

There are two compounding trends that, in concert, are beginning to increase the issues associated with mental illness in the workplace.  They are the incidence of narcissistic managers and the growth in the number of people in the workforce who have a mental illness.  I will deal with each of these trends in turn and link the issues to the offsetting influence of mindfulness.

The Incidence of Narcissistic Managers

Many significant publications such as Psychology Today, Harvard Business Review, Inc.com, Health.com and Time.com, have recently discussed the incidence of narcissistic bosses and ways to self-manage in the workplace to protect yourself from psychological damage caused by these bosses.  It is suggested that most people will encounter at least one narcissistic manager in their working life – I have experienced three that I can recall.

What are the characteristics of narcissistic managers that contribute to mental illness in the workplace?  Well the characteristics of these managers have been summarised by the underlying philosophy of “me, myself, I” – that is  I “first and foremost”.

Characteristics of Narcissistic Managers

There are many characteristics of narcissistic managers described in the articles and in research. Some of the more common traits described (and confirmed by my own experience) are:

  • Self-aggrandisement – believe they are more capable, competent or efficient than they actually are (believe they create high performance teams when the reverse is true)
  • Obsession with self advancement – their careers come before anything or anybody else
  • Over-concern with visibility and being seen in a good light
  • Blame others when mistakes occur (to deflect blame from themselves) – always looking for a “scapegoat”
  • Will lie to save their projected image
  • Take credit for other’s work if it advances their own positive visibility
  • Insensitive to the needs of others, especially their own staff
  • Will constantly change priorities depending on what advantages them, without regard for the impact of such constant change on others
  • Will have an in-group, but any member can become part of the out-group at anytime if they cause embarrassment
  • Create unrealistic time pressures for staff to try to show that their area is highly productive
  • Will publically criticise their own managers in front of the manager’s own staff
  •  Will micromanage to try to ensure that mistakes do not occur and that what they want to occur will actually happen.

The Impact of Narcissistic Managers on Mental Health

The reality is that these managers do not achieve control. In fact, their situation becomes progressively out of control  and they experience high levels of stress as a result, on top of their self-induced stress caused by self-obsession.  They may gain compliance through fear, but lose commitment because people physically or psychologically withdraw to protect themselves – no longer caring about the work, unwilling to offer suggestions for improvement, avoiding contact with the manager or engaging in covert sabotage (to get back at the narcissistic manager). They also lose confidence and begin to question their own competence.

The narcissistic manager, then, not only creates an environment conducive to the development of mental illness in staff, they also potentially aggravate  the condition of staff who already have a mental illness before joining the narcissistic manager’s workgroup.  The compounding issue is that the narcissistic manager lacks the insight to see how they contribute to the conditions creating, or aggravating, mental illness; nor are they overly concerned about the individuals negatively impacted by the highly stressful workplaces they create.

People in the Workplace with a Mental Illness

Beyond Blue, an organisation dedicated to improving the mental health of all Australians, estimates that there are 3 million people in Australia suffering from anxiety or depression and eight people die each day from suicide.  This suggests that anxiety and depression are an issue in the workplace.  Beyond Blue funds an extensive research program covering anxiety and suicide for all categories, including young people, women, men, aged people and the LGBT community.

The Black  Dog Institute also supports the development of mental health in the community.   They draw extensively on research to support their role.  From this research, they are able to maintain that:

Mental illness is very common. One in five (20%) Australians age 16-65 experience a mental illness in any year.  The most common mental illnesses are depressive, anxiety and substance  use disorders.

What is particularly concerning is that they report that suicide “is the leading cause of death for Australians aged 25-44 and second leading cause of death for young people aged 15-24”.

This means that suicide is potentially prevalent among people who are in early-career or mid-career as well as those entering or about to enter the workforce.

The role of Mindfulness 

The narcissistic manager exhibits the characteristics that are the opposite of the mindful manager.  They particularly lack self-awareness and hence self-management. They are by nature lacking in empathy and compassion and are unable to communicate with insight as they are blinded by their own emotions and selfish-obsession.  Their only motivation is to advance themselves – they have no source of motivation beyond themselves and  are thus unable to engage committed individuals.

As we mentioned in recent posts, emotional intelligence skills can be learned through mindfulness.  The challenge is finding ways to engage narcissistic managers in mindfulness training when they have a “keep busy” mindset.  Offering mindfulness training as a means of stress reduction may provide the motivation for them to be involved – because it focuses on “where they are hurting”.

Hence, mindfulness has the potential to help narcissistic managers to manage their stress levels, change their management style and assist other individuals experiencing mental illness.

Jon Kabat-Zinn has demonstrated over more than 30 years that his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training has very substantial benefits for people suffering different levels of stress and forms of mental illness.  His findings through his practice have been confirmed by neuroscience research.

As individuals in either group grow in mindfulness, they will experience the benefits, and contribute to the development of a more humane workplace.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of Maialisa on Pixabay

What Will You Do With the Surplus in Your Life?

Seth Godin – the famous internet marketer, author and daily blogger – suggests that if we have personal safety, good health and food to sustain us, we are living with surplus in our lives – we have spare time and energy to devote to making a contribution to others and to the community at large.

In a recent blog post, he challenges us to think about how we will spend our surplus:

You have enough breathing room to devote an hour to watching TV, or having an argument you don’t need to have, or simply messing around online. You have time and leverage and technology and trust.

When you stop to think and reflect on your life, you begin to see what eats up your time.  Some things become a compulsion – they take over your life.  Meditation and other mindful practices can help you to see how you spend your time and help you to identify ways to expend the surplus that should be in your life.

Mindfulness also enables you to understand the leverage for change that you do have and to appreciate the trust that you have built up over time.  Technology, itself, provides incredible leverage power and opportunities to build trust and relationships. So whatever your surplus situation, as Seth suggests, there is opportunity to contribute – rather than just consume.

When you move into semi-retirement as I am starting to do, you have even more surplus on your hands.  It’s a challenge expressed eloquently by Jeri Sedlar and Rick Miners in their book, Don’t Retire, Rewire.  They argue that on retirement you have to find creative ways to expend the energy that you previously used in your work environment.  If you don’t find a way to use this surplus energy, your energy reserves can decline rapidly and you can also find that your life loses meaning.

When I confronted this challenge of using my surplus, I decided that a key way for me to contribute to others is to help people to grow in mindfulness through this blog and mindful workshops I run.  This way of spending my surplus enables me to utilise the core skills I have developed over my life – writing, researching and facilitating workshops – to help others deal with the winds of change in their lives and to build resilience, wellness and mental health.  Hopefully, it will also help others to overcome or stave off depression.

Of course, one of life’s lessons is that true happiness and fulfilment comes from helping others.  While my plan is altruistic, it also has resounding benefits for me – it gives meaning to my life; helps me to learn, grow and develop my mind; keeps the need for personal mindful practice at the forefront of my mind; and staves off depression (that can be precipitated by loss of work identity).

So, how will you answer Seth’s challenge – what will you do with the surplus in your life?

 

Image source: Courtesy of fancycrave1 on Pixabay

Tai Chi – A Pathway to Mindfulness

Tai Chi is described as “poetry in motion” and is a popular pathway to the development of mindfulness. It builds the connection between body, mind and spirit.

I first encountered Tai Chi practice when, as a manager in the public service in the 1980s, I engaged a Tai Chi instructor to conduct training for myself and my staff on a weekly basis.  At the time I felt extraordinarily uncoordinated but persisted with the practice in the weekly lessons, only to drop away as pressure of work took over.

In 2014 my wife and I undertook the beginners class in Taoist Tai Chi before going overseas to Europe.  I think it certainly helped our fitness and presence of mind.  More recently, I returned to the weekly beginners classes but was unable to maintain attendance and learn the full 108 movements owing to work commitments.

The Tai Chi classes provide social support and motivation to master the art of Tai Chi. However, I became discouraged with the classes because I could not keep up owing to my work-induced absences.  However, I had really appreciated the benefits of practising Taoist Tai Chi, so I located a training video that takes you through the first 17 moves and now I attempt to use this video to practise Taoist Tai Chi on a daily basis.  This video takes you through the steps very slowly with a clear explanation:

The advantage of this video is that the 17 moves take only about 4 minutes and they can be completed in sets of three or more repetitions. The creators of the video also provide a practice video for the highly recommended warm-up exercises.

As with mastery of anything, Taoist Tai Chi requires regular practice, ideally on a daily basis. The more frequently you practise, the greater are the benefits you can experience in terms of physical and mental health and the growth of mindfulness.

Tai Chi is an antidote to the business of life and work. As the Fung Loy Kok Institute of Taoism (FLK) observes:

Taoist Tai Chi® arts offer a powerful opportunity to unplug from our phones, tablets and computers, and reconnect with the world.

There are many health benefits attributed to Tai Chi.  The Taoist Tai Chi Society of Australia explains the basis for these benefits as follows:

The significant degree of turning and stretching in each of the movements, combined with the adaptability of the form to suit individual needs, are just some of the factors that contribute to its focus on restoring, improving and maintaining health. 

The specific health benefits they identify include:

  • improved circulation
  • improved balance and posture
  • increased strength and flexibility
  • reduced stress
  • alleviation of the symptoms of illness such as arthritis, high blood pressure and migraine.

Tai Chi, like mindfulness, develops calmness, focus, concentration and clarity.