The benefits of mindfulness


From the world of politics to big business and education, everyone is talking about the benefits of mindfulness. And with more than 2,000 separate research studies indicating that this ancient Zen Buddhism meditation technique can improve mental and physical wellbeing, Director asks: isn’t it time you introduced some brain training to your company?

We all know the problem. Waking at 5am with a feverish to-do list buzzing in our heads, switching to automatic pilot as we shower, eat breakfast and drive to work; lost in thought as we start one task while leaving another unfinished – all the time wrestling with past mistakes and future problems, and never quite acknowledging the here and now.

Given the frantic pace at which most of us live our lives, it is little wonder mental health issues have begun to dwarf other wellness concerns of the 21st century.

In Britain alone, 105 million days are lost to stress each year, costing employers £1.24bn. In the view of the World Health Organization, mental illness will overtake cancer and heart disease to become the biggest burden on global healthcare resources within 15 years.

And yet the snowballing popularity among business people for a meditation technique dating back 3,000 years (but reworked in a modern, secular context) is seeing a growing list of organisations, including BT, Google, JP Morgan, PwC, Capital One, Transport for London and the Home Office, climbing aboard the brain-train.

Seemingly, they’re sold on a simple, inexpensive way to boost concentration and memory, unlock creativity, and boost leadership potential – while significantly reducing underlying anxiety and depression.

Meanwhile, a growing awareness of the concept in the wider public consciousness is resulting in everything from the world’s first ‘mindfulness opera’, to be launched at the Barbican in London this September, to designated ‘mindfulness retreats’ for ‘glampers’ in the mountains of Snowdonia (created by outdoors company Wilderness Minds).

“At its heart, mindfulness is all about indulging in a short period of constructive inactivity every day,” says Mark Williams, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford and director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre.

“It’s when we shut out all the extraneous noise, refuse to engage with negative thoughts, and help ourselves achieve some much-needed mental clarity and inner calm.

“Most of us were told to pay attention at school and it’s something we may think we can do fairly easily until we actually try it. Paying real attention to the here and now, rather than being hijacked by the distractions of yesterday or tomorrow, is a skill which requires a great deal of patience and practice.”

Although taking time out of a busy day to concentrate on deep breathing, ‘check in’ with your prevailing mood and mentally scan your body for areas of discomfort and ease may appear like self-indulgence, Williams, who helped develop the influential approach known as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), says that for most people who try it, mindfulness can lead to far greater focus and productivity.

For PwC, which offers mindfulness workshops as part of an overall wellness package, it also helps build long-term resilience among staff, according to head of diversity, inclusion and employee wellbeing Sarah Churchman.

“Mental health issues such as stress and depression are the biggest cause of sickness absence for PwC, and as part of a holistic approach to physical and psychological wellbeing, mindfulness is proving very popular,” she says.

“It’s about spotting signs of stress and learning how to manage them before they lead to a downward spiral of below-par performance. As an employer, we take the view that any tried-and-tested technique for relaxing the mind, as this one undoubtedly is, has got to be welcomed.”

A gym for the mind
While sceptics may choose to dismiss mindfulness as little more than new-age psychobabble, it has attracted support from some surprising quarters.

The US military offers marines mindfulness training before they’re deployed in combat and, having carried out its own study into its impact on the ground, believes it enhances problem-solving and improves emotional control in complex situations.

While this January, scientists from the University of British Columbia and the Chemnitz University of Technology were able to determine via a pool of more than 20 studies that subjects who employed mindfulness were better at decision-making and resisting distractions – essential skills in the business world.

Closer to home, coalition politicians are considering rolling out a mindfulness for schools programme nationally in a bid to tackle under-achievement and youth unemployment; while in the private sector, top independent schools such as Tonbridge and Wellington College have embedded mindfulness meditation as an essential part of the day for pupils and teachers.

“We think of our product as a gym membership for the mind,” says Andy Puddicombe, a former monk and co-founder of the digital health firm Headspace, which offers a free, 10-day introductory guided meditation course online or via an app, and has 1.6 million users worldwide.

“Studies of mindfulness have shown it helps with stress, focus and even empathy – aren’t those all things you would want your team to excel at?”

Neuroscience appears to back up such claims. Of the more than 2,000 research studies suggesting that mindfulness meditation improves mental wellbeing, one, undertaken in 2012 by University College London for the British Heart Foundation, examined the impact of mindfulness on workplace stress in two major multinational corporations.

It found a significant increase in wellbeing, as well as reductions in anxiety, depression, and that other curse of the age, insomnia. Separate studies have indicated a lowering of hypertension, better heart health, and upturns in cognitive functions such as attention, memory and rational decision-making.

Mindfulness may even resculpt the brain, says Juliet Adams, director of A Head for Work, which applies neuroscience to leadership and workplace productivity issues.

“Studies at Harvard suggest that after about eight weeks of mindfulness training there’s a significant increase in brain areas associated with attention, memory and empathy,” she says. “There’s a discernible impact too on activity in the left prefrontal cortex – a predictor of happiness and wellbeing.”

But she adds a note of caution. “At the present time, anyone can set up as a mindfulness teacher and offer a quick-fix solution to workplace stress – even though good practice guidelines suggest a training period of at least 18 months to two years. [It’s advisable to] look carefully at the individual trainer’s track record and to evaluate their previous outcomes and methodology.”

She adds: “What we desperately need are more employers willing to share the results of their mindfulness programmes with the world at large and to abandon the illusion that stress and ill-health don’t happen in their organisation. We already have some fantastic scientific evidence to build on, but we need the co-operation of the corporate sector to go further.”

Hotline to health
Last year, 400 BT staff signed up for an online mindfulness pilot in conjunction with the Mental Health Foundation’s Be Mindful campaign. While the results were good in terms of improvements in stress, anxiety and depression, both during the eight-week course and a month after it ended, the organisation found the dropout rate to be too high.

BT has now integrated mindfulness practice into its existing mental health service and is using a combined online and telephone-based approach based around MBCT.

Dr Catherine Kilfedder, BT’s head of wellbeing, believes it’s an important tool in overall mental health and wellbeing portfolios, but thinks overcoming scepticism relies on the right approach.

“If you present this technique as something soft and fluffy, then managers will dismiss it as a bit ‘West Coast’ and turn off. If you talk about the existing body of scientific evidence, they do tend to be more interested,” she says.

Puddicombe believes that while there may be a danger of untrained teachers jumping on the bandwagon, few staff – having experienced the benefits of regular meditation – will be prepared to kick the habit.

“Like any form of teaching, mindfulness can be done well or badly. I think that people should take the same care in choosing a mindfulness programme as they would with any other provider for their business; and clearly, HR managers should thoroughly check people’s experience and training before they put any proposal in front of a director.

However, we’re very confident that once people develop a regular meditation practice, it’s not something they’ll readily give up on. Some people do start to experience the benefits quite quickly and once that happens, people often become advocates of it to their friends and colleagues.”

Kilfedder believes that while mindfulness still has much to prove, the future looks bright. “It’s already fairly robust in terms of its therapeutic value; now, it’s beginning to build up a similar picture in terms of the prevention of stress and mental ill-health too. This will take it to the next level in my view.”

The SME experience
For the 55 staff at two-year-old music technology start-up ROLI, which earlier this year raised £7.6m in investment funding, the morning meeting is followed by an obligatory 10 minutes of office cleaning, during which talking is kept to a minimum.

Whether it’s mopping the floor at the firm’s HQ in Dalston, east London, or washing up the dishes, it’s a chance to “engage with the present, show some humility and enjoy the experience of working physically as a team”, according to chief executive Roland Lamb.

Lunch is served at one outsized table each day at 1pm, and while external mindfulness speakers and internal meditation sessions are a regular event, Lamb believes that a ‘light touch’ approach works best.

“Mindfulness is very much part of the DNA of the firm, but we also value diversity and you don’t have to be a regular practitioner of mindfulness in order to work here,” he says.

The big firm approach
Some 250 employees of credit card firm Capital One (a quarter of its UK workforce) have attended one of the company’s Introduction to Mindfulness workshops held at its Nottingham headquarters over the last two years – and according to employee relations adviser Emma Wardropper, they have gone down a storm.

“Such was the interest, we created a dedicated mindfulness room, which is always open and available to anyone needing a quiet five minutes,” she says.

In Wardropper’s view, mindfulness is about far more than emotional wellbeing for people feeling stressed. “It can help everyone in many aspects of their lives, whether that’s their relationship with their children or simply the desire to enjoy life more and slow down a bit. It can also make you feel calmer and more contented generally.”

While she accepts the results can be hard to prove, qualitative improvements are clear. “Whether it helps them become more innovative, improves their productivity or perhaps their ability to get on better with their team, there is a difference in people who have taken a mindfulness course.”

Mindfulness is…
•    Concentration on the present moment
•    Acceptance of negative thoughts without being caught up in them
•    Calming the mind with conscious breathing
•    Enjoying and taking time over one task at a time and abandoning multitasking
•    Applying the principles of mindfulness to the more mundane aspects of our lives such as walking, eating, cooking, cleaning

And isn’t…
•    Sitting with your legs crossed on a mat
•    Only for followers of Buddhism or any other religious belief system
•    Trying to ban the wrong sort of thought
•    A short-cut to sainthood


About author

Virginia Matthews

Virginia Matthews

Freelance writer and editor, she contributes regularly to the national and specialist press on a range of business, education and consumer topics.

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