Being Mindful of Mental Health in the Workplace

There are at least five pieces of legislation in Australia that require directors, executives and managers to be mindful of mental health in the workplace.  These pieces of legislation highlight the duty of care responsibility of organisation office holders and managers to be mindful and proactive in developing a mentally healthy workplace.

The Portner Press publication,  Mental Health at Work Guide 2018,  identifies the following pieces of legislation that are relevant and reinforcing of this responsibility:

  • Fair Work Act
  • Common Law
  • Workplace Health & Safety legislation
  • Anti-discrimination legislation
  • Worker’s Compensation legislation

Despite this legislative responsibility very few managers are adequately trained to be aware of mental health in the workplace or to know how to take appropriate, compassionate action.  The Heads Up organisation, a mentally healthy workplace alliance, identifies awareness and responsiveness of managers and staff as one of the nine attributes of a mentally healthy workplace:

Ensure that managers and staff are responsive to employees’ mental health conditions, regardless of cause and that adjustments to work and counselling support are available.

There are numerous video resources available to help managers and staff become more aware of, and responsive to, mental health issues in the workplace.  One such resource is the video of the webinar conducted by Belinda Winter, partner  of law firm Cooper Grace Ward, where she explores managing mental illness in the workplace.

A toolkit for a mentally healthy workplace

WorkSafe Queensland provides a superb and comprehensive Mentally Healthy Workplaces Toolkit which is accessible online to help managers exercise their responsibility to be mindful of mental health in the workplace.  The toolkit is built around the four pillars of awareness and responsiveness, namely:

  1. Promote positive mental health at work
  2. Prevent psychological harm
  3. Intervene early
  4. Support recovery

Each of these steps requires managers and staff to be mindful about the state of mental health in the workplace and to be proactive in pursuing processes, policies, systems, leadership style and an organisational culture that are conducive to positive mental health.

Mindfulness training supports managers in their duty of care

Mindfulness training, along with appropriate action learning interventions, can help build the requisite culture and assist managers and staff in exercising  their duty of care and maintaining their own self-care.

As managers and staff grow in mindfulness through meditation practice and training they can become more mindful of mental health issues in the workplace and more responsive to the needs of individuals.  The managers will be better equipped to exercise their duty of care and related responsibility for creating a mentally healthy workplace.

 

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Advanced Training for Mindfulness Trainers

In a previous post, I discussed resources for mindfulness trainers – free resources through Sounds True and a paid online training course, The Power of Awareness, by Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach.  In this post, I will discuss an advanced course that takes training for mindfulness trainers to another level.

The Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program

This is  a teacher program over two years conducted by Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach supported by global leaders in mindfulness.  One of the prerequisites for this certification program is completion of the 7 week, online Power of Awareness Course.

The Mindfulness Certification Program for teachers of mindfulness incorporates a range of activities designed to build your capacity to teach practices in awareness and compassion, while simultaneously building your own practice in these areas.

The content of the course is provided mainly by online audio and video training supplemented by two, three-day weekend events with Jack, Tara, guest teachers and fellow international participants in Washington.  Where participants are unable to attend the in-person sessions, live streaming is available at the time of each session and the sessions will be available in downloadable video format.

The core audio and video training is augmented by additional presentations by Tara, Jack and globally recognised, guest mindfulness teachers such as Deepak Chopra, Dan Siegel, Eckhart Tolle, Kristin Neff (self-compassion) and Anne Cushman (integration of meditation and yoga).  Participants in the certified teacher training program will also have access to the latest research findings on the benefits of mindfulness and specific forms of meditation.

Mentoring in the mindfulness teacher training program is led by Pat Coffey, assisted by highly trained mentors from the Awareness Training Institute.  Mindfulness practice will be developed through individual and group mentoring, online training sessions, practice groups with peers, a “self-designed practicum” and home practice of meditation exercises provided in audio format through the program.

Skill development will cover not only a wide range of meditation practices and applications (such as managing pain and suffering, dealing with trauma, handling relationship problems and conflict) but also specific skills to give presentations, mentor individuals and facilitate group sessions with mindfulness learners.

Certification will be provided in the form of a Certificate of Completion jointly authorised by The Awareness Training Institute and the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) at the University of California, Berkeley.

As we grow in mindfulness, we will experience a desire to share our learning with others to help them also realise the benefits of mindfulness and meditation.  In teaching, we can enrich our own learning and practice.  The Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program is designed to give us the credentials and confidence to engage in mindfulness training.

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The Power of Awareness: Mindful Breathing

Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, in their online Power of Awareness Mindfulness Training, stress the importance of mindful breathing as a universal practice that is foundational to developing mindfulness.  Jack not only leads participants in a mindful breathing practice, but also explains the rich rewards of this practice.

Why practice mindful breathing?

Mindful breathing is, perhaps, the simplest and most accessible mindfulness practice.  It can be done anywhere, anytime because we are always breathing, whether we are conscious of it or not.  Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that it is lucky that our breathing is not dependant on conscious thought, otherwise we would stop breathing because we are so often unaware of what is going on within and around us.

In a talk to Google staff, he explained to the managers and programmers present that they could easily take a few moments and do mindful breathing at their desk during the day.  Mindful breathing is so powerful because it gives us access to both self-awareness and self-management.

Developing self-awareness through mindful breathing

Jack talks about breathing mindfully as opening a window to ourselves.  If we are having trouble starting the practice – by locating a place in our body where we sense our breath (e.g. in our chest, throat, nose or stomach) – then this tells us something about our lack of awareness.

As a window, mindful breathing allows us to look in on ourselves – to notice the thoughts and their content that pass through our minds, to sense the tightness in various parts of our body and to understand the link between our emotions and our bodily reactions, e.g. fear creating tightness in our chest, nervousness causing us to shake.  We become acutely aware of our emotions and the connection between our mind and emotions and our emotions and our body.

The secret to mindful breathing is to not entertain our thoughts but to let them float by, while noticing what they are telling us about ourselves.  What do we think about most – is our mind always in the past or the future?  Do our thoughts depress us or create anxiety?  Are we always planning, not stopping to experience the moment?

Developing self-management through mindful breathing

Even the way we are breathing is rich with information about ourselves – is our breathing getting faster (anxiety coming on) or slower (learning to relax).  Are we becoming conscious of the space between our in-breath and our out-breath?  With our growth in self-awareness comes the opportunity to develop self-management.

Conscious breathing is used worldwide for self-management in a range of contexts – midwives encourage birthing mothers to breathe slowly and deeply; remedial massage therapists encourage you to breathe through the pain; and people who teach singing, like Chris James, begin with explaining to people how to breathe properly to release the tension in our bodies and vocal cords.

We know intuitively that if we slow down our breathing, we can become more relaxed and less anxious.   Some self-management practices, such as the SBNRR process previously explained in relation to managing negative triggers, begin with stopping and breathing consciously but slowly.

Mindful breathing practice itself does not require us to control our breath, but to notice it by focusing on where we can sense it in our bodies.  Increasingly, we become aware of the stillness and spaciousness in mindful breathing.  However, it does take practice to realise the full benefits of mindful breathing.

Jack suggests that, as a starting point, we practice breathing mindfully twice a day for five minutes each time.  He suggests that if we do this at a regular place and time, the habit will be sustained.  The secret to success in developing awareness is to start small, but start now.

Breathing mindfully helps us to slow the pace of our life, to access our creativity and to develop calm and clarity.  As we grow in mindfulness through mindful breathing, we open the window to self-awareness and enhance our capacity for self-management.

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Mindfulness and Organisational Interventions

The Mindful Nation UK  report stated that mindfulness alone will not fix dysfunctional organisations.  Where narcissistic managers or leaders exist in an organisation, the result is typically a toxic environment for employees where they are devalued, overworked and subject to public, caustic criticism.

Mindfulness can build resilience but the desired intention is not to build people’s capacity to endure unreasonable workloads or a toxic environment.  It is designed to build their capacity to contribute to the organisation where reasonable stressors exist.

Narcissistic managers see resilience as a way for employees to “toughen up” so that they meet their unrealistic demands.  I have even heard one senior narcissistic manager say of his subordinate manager that he “needs to be more resilient” in a situation that involved ever-changing deadlines, public criticism by the senior manager in front of his own staff, constant blaming for things outside his control and demands that border on unethical behaviour.

The Mindful Nation UK report was cognisant of the very relevant views expressed by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) in its 2013 document on “Work and Wellbeing: A Trade Union Resource”.   In this resource, the TUC expressed concern that wellbeing programs were being used as a substitute for addressing more fundamental issues such as workload, hours of work and inappropriate management style.

In their discussions with the working group developing the Mindful Nation UK report, the TUC were particularly concerned about the need to address toxic work environments and not assume that mindfulness training for staff will change the level of toxicity by osmosis – that is, by unconscious assimilation of the values, ideas and skills of mindfulness by narcissistic managers who create toxic environments.

The Mindful Nation UK report recognised the validity of the TUC’s concerns by stating:

Mindfulness will only realise its full potential when it is part of a well-designed organisational culture which takes employee wellbeing seriously (p. 45)

Despite this assertion and the statement that “as an isolated intervention it [mindfulness] cannot fix dysfunctional organisations”, the report recommendations relating to mindfulness in the workplace still failed to include explicit intervention in the organisational culture.

As organisations help managers and leaders to grow in mindfulness through mindfulness training, they also need to design interventions to directly address the culture of the organisation in a planned, constructive way that creates values and behaviour consistent with those espoused in mindfulness programs.

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Training the Mindfulness Trainers

In their report, Mindful Nation UK, the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG) expressed concern that many people offering mindfulness training to organisations are not adequately trained or not trained at all.  When there is any major movement, there are all sorts of people who “get on the bandwagon” to make a name for themselves and/or to make large profits.  For example, Reg Revans, the father of action learning, complained that unqualified and unskilled people were offering action learning consultancy at USD$10,000 per day and were in it only for the money.

MAPPG stated at the time (2015) that there seemed to be no recognised way for trainers in mindfulness to gain appropriate training and certification. This gap in training and certification is closing with a number of reputable organisations moving to ensure that people who offer training in meditation are themselves properly trained and certified.

Training and Certification for Trainers in Mindfulness and Meditation

Sounds True, is a multimedia publisher founded by Tami Simon in 1985.  The organisation provides resources and training to enable personal transformation with a strong emphasis on mindfulness and meditation.

Resources include free weekly audio interviews with inspiring speakers such as Goldie Hawn, downloads of videos & other publications, and online training tools.   These resources are provided to support you in your own mindfulness journey.

The Mindful Nation UK report acknowledged the growth of digital mindfulness training in many organisations throughout the UK and viewed it positively as a means of extending access to mindfulness training in the workplace as well as providing back-up resources for trainer-led mindfulness activities.  The report acknowledged, however, that there needs to be more research to support the efficacy of digitally-based programs (p.43).

Sounds True combines the best of both worlds – interaction with mindfulness trainers along with digital delivery – in a series of offerings that are available, some paid and others free.  For example, the recent Mindfulness and Meditation Summit, one of a number throughout the year, included video presentations by leading mindfulness trainers such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach with Q & A sessions at the end of each presentation.  The summit was offered free during the live presentations by 32 speakers over 10 days, along with guided audio meditation practices.  A paid, upgrade option is also available to be able to download the video presentations and additional resources from the completed summit.

Sounds True also offers more formal training for potential teachers of mindfulness and meditation.  A paid, online course, The Power of Awareness, offered over 7 weeks by Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach includes live video presentations (downloadable), online library resources and other gifts.  The online course offers both interactive and personal study resources:

  1. 26 mindfulness training sessions recorded live and available on video for download
  2. Personal Mentor and Group Online Study Sessions
  3. Resources for guided meditation practices
  4. Workbook incorporating reflections
  5. Exercises for personal journaling.

Completion of the Power of Awareness Course entitles the participant to a Certificate of Completion provided jointly by The Greater Good Science Center at The University of California, Berkeley and The Awareness Training Institute (ATI).

As you grow in mindfulness and experience its many benefits, you will feel compelled to share your experience and insights with others.  One way to do this is to provide training in meditation and mindfulness.  However, you really need to have established your own mindfulness practices and undertaken adequate training to be able to effectively helps others as a teacher.

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Research Study on Mindfulness for Postnatal Depression

The incidence of postpartum depression in Iran is reported to be in the range 30-40 percent of women giving birth to a child.  One suggested factor is the early age that Iranian girls become married and have children – understandably, placing them in a position where they are both physically and mentally under-prepared for the exhausting physical and emotional demands of birthing and for the care of their new-born babies.

Four researchers, motivated by these alarming statistics, established a research project with first-time mothers in Iran to explore the effectiveness of mindfulness in reducing the incidence of postpartum depression.  The researchers – Hajieh Sheydaei, Azizreza Ghasemzadeh, Amir Lashkari and Parvaneh Ghorbani Kajani – published their results in an article titled, The effectiveness of mindfulness training on reducing the symptoms of postpartum depression.

Their research established that “mindfulness training was effective in reducing postpartum depression symptoms in new mothers”.  The researchers describe some of the symptoms of postnatal depression as:

…increase in appetite and overweightness. Irritability, aggressive behavior, panic attacks, seclusion, and uncontrolled crying … Maternity blues are the most outstanding symptom of postpartum depression which is considered the direct result of mothers’ anger and irritation.

The research group of new mothers who undertook the mindfulness training were exposed to a course involving 8 sessions and based on Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) – which entails combining mindfulness practices with cognitive therapy.  They were exposed to a range of mindfulness practices such as mindful eating, mindful breathing, sitting and walking meditations.  Some of the exercises were designed to challenge their negative thinking and emotions and to develop strategies to cope with the challenges of motherhood, while caring for themselves.

The MBCT approach helped the participating mothers to grow in self-awareness.  They were also able to enhance their self-management skills through an increased ability to identify the links between their thoughts and mood disorders and to develop new ways to deal with them (rather than the former strategies such as isolation, aggression and irritability).

As new mothers grow in mindfulness through meditative practices and exercises based on cognitive therapy, they can develop a different level of emotional intelligence which will equip them to deal with the challenges of motherhood and reduce symptoms of postnatal depression.

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Mindfulness for Childbirth

In the previous post, I discussed mindfulness for postpartum depression and shared the story of Kristi Pahr and a range of relevant mindfulness resources.  In this post, I want to focus on the research that has been conducted on the use of mindfulness in preparation for childbirth.

Research in the area of mindfulness for mothers suggests that developing mindfulness during pregnancy can assist the mother not only during the perinatal period but also during the birth of a child and the postnatal period.  The benefits of mindfulness practice before birth can flow over to the postnatal period and help to prevent or alleviate the effects of postnatal depression.

Research on Mindfulness for Childbirth

Both pregnancy and childbirth challenge the resilience of a mother and the postnatal period brings its own stressors with the need to care for a newborn baby.   Mindfulness, in concert with social support, can help to ward off postnatal depression and assist in keeping both mother and baby healthy and happy.

Fear associated with expecting the worst in labour and the graphic sharing, both orally and in writing, of difficulties experienced by other mothers, compounds the natural anxiety of expectant mothers.  This, in turn, can make labour more difficult and prolonged and lead to other undesirable outcomes such as increased need for pain relief or other medical intervention and increased possibility that the mother will experience postnatal depression.

The Guardian in June 2017 carried a report of research conducted by Dr. Larissa Duncan and her colleagues based on the 2.5 days, weekend workshop, Mind in Labor (MIL) – developed and conducted by experienced midwife Nancy Bardacke, author of Mindful Birthing: Training the Mind, Body, and Heart for Childbirth and Beyond.

The focus of the Guardian article was on the question, Can mindfulness reduce the fear of labour and postpartum depression?  The reported research involved a randomised group (with some participants randomly assigned to complete the mindfulness course, while others [the control group] did not undertake the mindfulness training).  The research group covered 30 expectant, first-time mothers in their 3rd trimester of pregnancy.

Participants in the mindfulness training were given specific coping skills for birthing including learning to reframe the experience of pain, learning how to decouple pain sensations from negative thoughts and emotions, and developing personalised strategies with their partners to cope with the birthing process and beyond.  They were also exposed experientially to a range of mindfulness practices such as mindful walking, mindful breathing, body scan, sitting meditation, mindful eating and coping with pain through experiencing pain mindfully (holding ice blocks in their hands).

The conclusions reported in the research project by Dr. Duncan and her colleagues were stated as follows:

This study suggests mindfulness training carefully tailored to address fear and pain of childbirth may lead to important maternal mental health benefits, including improvements in childbirth-related appraisals and the prevention of postpartum depression symptoms. There is also some indication that MIL participants may use mindfulness coping in lieu of systemic opioid pain medication. 

Translated this means that the mindfulness training participants had increased belief in their capacity to handle the pain of birthing (self-efficacy), better ability to manage the pain through mindfulness techniques, greater body awareness, more positive perception of their experience of childbirth and less symptoms of postnatal depression.

As expectant mothers grow in mindfulness through tailored mindfulness training and practice, they are better able to manage the pain associated with childbirth and at the same time are less likely to suffer postnatal depression.

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Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity

Norman Doidge, in his book The Brain That Changes Itself, explained that early brain researchers discovered what became known as “neuroplasticity”:

They showed that the brain changed its very structure with each activity it performed, perfecting its circuits so it was better suited to the task at hand.  If certain “parts” failed, then other parts sometimes take over. (p.xv)

For example, people who meditate or teach meditation have been shown to have a thicker insula – a part of the brain that is activated by paying close attention to something (p.290).

Dr. Bruno Cayoun observed that neuroscience has demonstrated that brain plasticity explains how mindfulness training increases our perceptual ability leading to a greater sense of self control and self-awareness.  Perceptual ability, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is “the ability to be able to deal with and give meaning to sensory stimuli”.

Research conducted jointly by the Fudan University in China and the University of South Florida showed that Tai Chi- often described as “meditation-in-motion” – actually increased the size of the brain of seniors who practised Tai Chi for 40 weeks and did so at least three times per week.  Tai Chi has many other benefits and these are discussed elsewhere in this blog.

Norman Doidge discusses the work of Michael Merzenich, Emeritus Professor in neurophysiology, who started a company called Posit Science to extend neuroplasticity of the brains of people as they age, as well as extend their lifespan (p.85).  Professor Merzenich maintains that, if we are in the older age group, we may not have been developing our brain plasticity since middle age because we are often working off already mastered knowledge and skills.

So, learning new skills such as mindfulness meditation and Tai Chi, with the attention and concentration required, will help to alleviate this problem of mental decline.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and approaches such as Tai Chi, we increase the size of our brain, enhance brain plasticity and enjoy the consequential benefits such as self-awareness and self-control.

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The Power of Awareness

In an interview with Tami Simon, Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach share their insights on The Power of Awareness to Change Your Life.   In exploring these ideas, I will be building on my previous post based on Albert Flynn DeSilver’s ideas about developing mindfulness and awakening through writing.

Jack & Tara have developed together an online course on The Power of Awareness Mindfulness Training.   They each bring to the training discussion and resources, more than 40 years of experience in mindfulness and awareness practice and training .

The first question that exercises your mind when you hear about what Jack and Tara offer is, “What is awareness?”  It is not something that can be accessed by definition or thought alone, because it is an experience of a stillness within, a quiet place that precedes thought and sensation.  It’s that realisation that you, the whole person – not a part of you – is aware of your thoughts and sensations as you are experiencing them.  As Tara explains:

Awareness is the silence that’s listening to the thoughts or listening to the sound; it’s more prior to any of the felt experience through our senses…And you can begin to intuit that there is a space of knowing that is always here and that we are not always aware of it, but it’s here.

That is why The Awareness Training is highly experiential with guided exercises and personal journaling to make explicit the learning and develop deeper insights.

In summarising the ideas presented in this interview, I have identified two key areas that manifest the power of awareness.

Sense of self – changing the narrative

Both Jack and Tara shared what was happening for them prior to awareness training.  They discussed their negative thoughts and the stories they told themselves which served to diminish who they actually were and what they were capable of.   They spoke of the constraints of their own narrative and the expectation entrapment that locked them into particular patterns of thinking and behaviour.

They see awareness as creating freedom from habituated denigration of self and the realisation of a real sense of self and creative capacity.   They maintain that through developing awareness, we can change our self-deprecating narrative, as we step back from our thoughts and perceptions and allow our true selves to emerge.

Relationship building

As we grow in mindfulness and awareness, we are better able to identify and manage the space between stimulus and response.  We gain a deep insight into what we bring to a relationship and the associated conflicts – we become more aware of our habituated responses in a conflict situation.  We gain a clearer realisation of our self-talk, our tendency to defensiveness, our self-protection born of childhood experiences and our inattentiveness when experiencing conflicted emotions.

Added to this self-awareness, is a clarity about our projections and assumptions about the other person and their behaviour, increased capacity to pay attention to the other person and an openness to their needs and perceptions.

Awareness enables us to deepen our relationships, as it frees us from habituated thoughts and responses and opens up the capacity to listen empathetically and respond creatively.

So, as we grow in mindfulness and awareness, we discover our true self and its potentiality and are able to deepen our relationships through a stronger sense of self and a heightened sensitivity towards the other person in the relationship.

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Why Kids Need Mindfulness

In her interview with Tami Simon, Goldie Hawn explained in depth why children need mindfulness training and what led her to develop and conduct MindUP™.

At one level, it concerned Goldie that American children rarely smiled – a stark contrast to children in Third World countries who smiled a lot despite experiencing incredible deprivations.

Goldie was also concerned about school-age children needing psychological help to deal with anxiety and stress.

School-age children have their own direct sources of anxiety – such as performance expectations of parents and teachers, peer acceptance and sibling rivalry.  Performance expectations can relate to academic performance, achievement in a sporting arena or meeting career expectations.

Self-generated anxiety in children can be compounded by parental anxiety and stress – generated by economic downturn and associated job losses, the threat of terrorism and career stresses.

Anxiety in parents is contagious and can contaminate  the emotional life of children.  They, in turn, carry their accumulated anxiety and stress to school and bring home anxieties from school experiences, including bullying.

The recent suicide death of 14 year old, Dolly Everett, because of online bullying, highlights the pressures that kids are under from peers.  Dolly was a bright, happy and caring child who was subjected to cruel, cyber bullying.

This form of devastating peer presure carried out via mobile phones and social media, is one of the many stresses that school children today have to deal with.

What Goldie has done through her MindUP™ program is expose children to brain science and enable them to understand their own emotions and reactions.  She has also given them a common language to express themselves via metaphors, e.g  the amygdala as a “dog barking”.

Another key feature of the program is “mind breaks” – a simple process focused on breathing that enables the children to learn how to calm themselves.  As they grow in mindfulness through mindful practice, they are able to attain calmness and clarity and better manage their lives at home and school.

As Goldie points out, she is giving  school children the tools to be positive and caring leaders of the future:

They are going to be able to manage their emotional construct, their reactivity, to become better listeners, ideate better, problem solve better, and have some dignity, some level of humanity that they have learned through their early education.

Children need mindfulness to equip them to better manage the stresses of day-to-day living and to have the resilience to handle bullying behaviour.

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