Mindfulness: Enabling Sustainable Agency in the Workplace

In a previous post on agency and mental health, I stressed the need to create healthy workplace environments where employees had a sense of control over their workplace environment and the authority and responsibility to decide how the work is done.

Mindfulness enables worker agency by impacting positively on both the manager and the employee and thus enabling the development of employee agency – which is conducive to mental health.

Mindfulness and the Manager: Enabling Agency

Managers need to cope with their own thoughts and emotions when providing agency (some control and power) to employees.  There is a natural fear of loss of control which can impede the delegation of authority and responsibility to employees.  There is also the ongoing concern when things do not turn out as hoped for or mistakes are made.  Managers need the self-awareness and self-management skills developed through mindfulness, if they are to remain calm and to resist the temptation to curtail employee agency to prevent any reoccurrence.

The more positive and healthy perspective is to encourage honesty when mistakes are made, to undertake a systemic analysis of what went wrong (rather than an inquisition of the individual involved) and enable all concerned to learn from what happened.  This requires robust self-esteem on the part of the manager and a willingness to trust employees – a trust that helps to develop a constructive, mentally healthy environment.  This does not preclude the manager from ensuring that adequate training is provided to employees to undertake the tasks assigned to them.

The manager’s calmness, self-control and empathy in an apparent crisis (developed through mindfulness practices), will inspire employees and build their trust, confidence and risk-taking as they move outside their comfort zone and take up the opportunities presented by increased agency – increased authority and responsibility over their work environment and how work is done.

Mindfulness and the Employee: Building Capacity for Agency

Mindfulness builds the capacity of employees to contribute effectively in an organisation by taking up the authority, responsibility and opportunity provided by increased agency.

Like the manager, employees need to develop self-awareness (understanding their own thoughts and emotions) and self-management (keeping their thoughts and emotions under control).  It is natural for employees to feel fearful as they move outside their comfort zone (typically based on dependence) to exercise more independence and judgment.

Some employees are reluctant to agree outcomes and outputs in advance, even while having control over how they are achieved, because this freedom of choice and agency brings with it a new level of responsibility.  Self-awareness and self-management developed through mindfulness, and support of an empathetic manager, can help employees to take on the responsibility associated with increased agency.

Mindfulness, too, enables employees to develop clarity in relation to their role and responsibilities while enabling them to develop creative solutions.  It also helps them to build resilience, not in the sense of endurance of unreasonable demands, but in the sense of being able to bounce back from difficulties and setbacks when pursuing specific goals and outcomes in the workplace.

Relationships in the workplace are enhanced as employees develop social skills through mindfulness training and become better able to contribute to the team effort and collaborative endeavours.

Mindfulness: Enabling Managers and Employees to Build Sustainable Agency 

Mindfulness, then, enables managers to offer increased agency to employees and, in turn, assists employees to take up the opportunities and responsibility that come with increased agency.  These mutually reinforcing outcomes of mindfulness training, not only enhance productivity in the workplace but also employee wellness.

As Tali Sharot points out in her research-based book, The Influential Mind:

Just giving people a little responsibility, and reminding them that they had a choice, enhanced their well-being (p.98).

As managers grow in mindfulness, they are better equipped to provide the psychological and productivity benefits of giving increased agency to employees; on the other hand, employees trained in mindfulness are more able to take up the responsibilities and opportunities entailed in increased agency and to enjoy the satisfaction and well-being that results.

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

Image source: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

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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

Multitasking or Single Focus?

I drafted my previous post about support for meditation while in Hong Kong en route to Italy.  Now that we are in Lake Como in northern Italy, I have been able to reflect on my experiences in Hong Kong.  This post is a result of those reflections.

During our Hong Kong stay we visited Chi Lin Nunnery which is a functioning monastery for Buddhist nuns. The Nunnery is an exquisite structure and in the cloisters surrounding the central gardens are sculptures made from Yantan Stone, each with an inspirational subscription.

The inscription for the stone sculpture in the image for this blog post highlights the value of a single focus. The text is taken from the Trainings on Landscape Painting written in Dahua in Guangxi Province China – a province famous for its natural beauty and the influence of its artists on the evolution of landscape art in China.  The text can be seen below:

It reads:

The key to everything is that we should focus on one thing at one time.  Otherwise, we will not be able to concentrate on the essence.

It is interesting that the Chinese knew about the deficiencies of multitasking long before neuroscientists demonstrated through research that multitasking is inefficient, consumes vital energy and is counter-productive.

Dr. Daniel J. Levitin, neuroscientist and author, addresses the negative impact of multitasking in his book, The Organised Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.

He maintains that constantly changing our focus through multitasking drains our neural resources.  In the process, we are consuming our vital glucose reserves which is why multitasking makes us tired.  It also increases our stress levels.

According to Dr. Levitin, multitasking also negatively impacts our capacity to discriminate, e.g. discern the difference between fact and fiction.  He also argues that when we are multitasking we are storing information in a part of the brain that is difficult to access – so information is incorrectly categorised in the brain.

Other neuroscientists have also demonstrated that multitasking is inefficient and impacts negatively on our productivity and creativity.

in contrast, a single focus is an essential element in building creativity. Dr. Levitin, being a musician himself, studied the behaviour of great songwriters and musicians, like Eric Clapton and Sting, and found that their capacity for a single focus and ability to be-in-the-moment were key factors contributing to their creative success.

As we grow in mindfulness, we increase our capacity to maintain a single focus during our daily endeavours thus increasing our productivity and creativity and avoiding the downfalls of multitasking.

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

Start Your Meeting With Reflection Time

When we arrive at a meeting, our thoughts are often elsewhere rather than in the room – with the unfinished task we have just left, the things that we have to do, the work that will not get done as a result of the meeting.

So we do not have a meeting of minds, because the minds of people “present” are elsewhere – we have a physical collection of people.  People are not present in the sense that their attention is not fully on the meeting, its purpose and goals.

What exacerbates this situation is that many people “at” the meeting are checking their phones for their latest emails or social media updates, doing their to-do lists or planning another activity.  This multitasking in itself is both personally injurious (can cause inflammation of the brain) and contaminates the meeting (inattention spreads).

What some organisations are starting to do now is to begin their meetings with a short reflection time (5-10 minutes) so that people can become grounded and really present.  Besides helping people to become focused on the meeting and its purpose, this reflection time reminds people why they are at the meeting and the need to attend to (pay attention to) what is going on.

At a recent mindfulness conference, a group of digital designers from a bank decided then and there that they would start their meetings with a ten minute reflection time.  They realised the power of reflection to develop focus and release creativity.

If you do build in time for reflection at the start of a meeting you will experience a heightened level of focused energy and strengthening of team spirit.  You will also be more productive as a team.  Residual resentments about missed opportunities will be less likely to contaminate the meeting process.

Starting your meetings with time for reflection also helps your team to grow in mindfulness and focused attention so that the benefits flow beyond the meeting.

Image Source: Courtesy of ForMyKerttu on Pixabay