Mindfulness Matters: Strategies for Centering, Reflecting and Meditating in the Workplace

Winter 2019-20
Jennifer Addleman

Chiming in on a conference call while driving. Watching a webinar while working on a project. Scrolling through social media while watching your favorite show. Sound familiar? Being busy is the modern-day badge of honor, and many of us are self-declared multitaskers as a result. The variety of tasks that get tossed onto our desks in higher ed HR requires us to juggle our day-to-day work with the unexpected, making it easy to see why we place so much emphasis on multitasking.

For years we’ve heard that multitasking is a positive skill. As recruiters, we know that candidates who claim multitasking as one of their best attributes may be more likely to snag a job than those who can handle only one task at a time. However, in reality, being pulled in so many different directions can lead to stress, depression and nagging agitation. A 2017 Gallup poll found that eight out of 10 Americans feel stressed. Chronic stress can lead to difficulties with digestion, sleep, reproduction and overall health.

Maybe it’s time to bring manic multitasking to an end and focus on mindfulness instead.

Why Mindfulness?

There is plenty of research in the area of mindfulness and the effects it has on the body and mind. The University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center uses a mindfulness attention awareness scale to determine how distractions interfere with mindfulness throughout daily activities. The survey asks respondents to rate the prevalence of statements, such as “I tend to walk quickly to get where I’m going without paying attention to what I experience along the way;” “I forget a person’s name almost as soon as it’s been told to me for the first time;” “I drive to places on auto pilot and then wonder why I went there;” and “I find myself preoccupied with the future or the past.” If you relate to these statements, try practicing mindfulness to help you concentrate on the present moment and the task at hand.

What comes to mind when you hear the term meditation or mindfulness? Does the thought of closing your eyes and sitting still in the midst of a busy workday make you squirm? Before you toss the idea altogether, let’s break down what mindfulness is, and what it’s not:

  • Mindfulness is the practice of being present, aware of and accepting your thoughts, emotions and sensations as you experience them.
  • Mindfulness is not religious practice, nor is it necessary to sit on a pillow while chanting, surrounded by candles and incense.
  • Mindfulness is not about emptying the mind. It’s about recognizing your thoughts from a place of appreciation, without letting them take over.

Thoughts race across our minds at light speed — some positive, some negative — while our minds engage in an internal dialogue. We choose the thoughts to which we give the most attention. Being mindful doesn’t mean ignoring negative thoughts completely. Rather, it means to observe negative thoughts and then let go of the power they have on your mind. Doing so will free up headspace for kind and positive thoughts, and you may find that you react more positively and productively when negative situations arise.

Effects on the Brain

There are numerous studies that explore the positive effects mindfulness and meditation have on the brain. Our brains are powerful and complex organs made up of three parts: the prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus and the amygdala. The prefrontal cortex helps with awareness and decision-making. It’s the logical part of your brain that helps you remember not to touch a hot stove. The hippocampus helps with your memory and the ability to learn new things. The amygdala is responsible for fear, or the “fight or flight” response.

The amygdala was helpful to our ancestors when facing dangerous situations, like deciding whether to fight or run from a saber-toothed tiger. The amygdala signals a response from other parts of the brain and body, causing an increase in heart rate, rapid breathing and extra oxygen flow to the brain to make you alert. While we’re no longer threatened by saber-toothed tigers, we may be confronted by a colleague or have to deliver bad news at our institution or a speech in front of a large crowd. Meditation has been proven to help tackle these modern-day saber-toothed tigers.

A University of Oregon neuroscientist studied the effects of meditation on the brain and found that regular meditation decreases the amygdala’s brain cell volume, which is responsible for fear, anxiety and stress. Other studies showed that when the amygdala shrinks, it also thickens the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, which enables you to handle stressful situations in a more productive way and enhances decision-making abilities. Further studies conclude that long-term memory can benefit from meditation. If you have difficulty recalling facts under pressure, meditation may help.

Studies support that mindfulness exercises can benefit the way we behave and feel. Some higher ed institutions have conducted research and offer courses that weave in mindfulness and meditation to boost the health and productivity of employees and students. Northeastern University, Harvard and Headspace researched the effects of participants using a meditation app for two weeks. Results showed that participants experienced an increase in compassion for others and self and decreased aggression, irritability and depression.

Additionally, medical provider Blue Cross Blue Shield performed a study that found meditation helped employees through changes they encountered in their professional and personal lives.

Participants reported feeling calmer and better equipped to handle changes in a more productive way after taking part in mindfulness exercises and meditation. Practicing mindfulness during a season of change allows individuals to pinpoint and process their feelings, in turn helping them become more aware of their reactions and gain more control over their responses.

On the Institutional Level

Employers are taking notice of the positive impact mindfulness programs have on their workforces. Promoting mindfulness programs not only fosters a greater sense of community, but doing so can also improve productivity and absenteeism rates among the organization.

Companies like General Mills, Delta Airlines, Apple, Google and Goldman Sachs value the benefits of mindfulness programs by offering meditation apps, meditation rooms, classes and on-site wellness centers that promote meditation and emotional health. Many higher ed institutions, including Harvard, Clemson University, The Ohio State University and the University of California San Diego offer a variety of mindfulness programs and spaces where faculty, staff and students can practice mindfulness exercises. A recent study by the University of Miami reported that offering its football team the option to participate in mindfulness activities as a part of its training program helped improve players’ moods and focus.


Putting Mindfulness Into Practice

There are many ways to practice mindfulness. Some include meditation, breathing exercises and sensory impressions. One of the easiest ways to practice mindfulness is to focus on your breathing.

Most of us default to shallow breathing and poor posture, especially during stressful times. Shallow breathing results in poor oxygen flow throughout the body. Recent studies have shown that practicing controlled breathing for short periods of time can improve focus, reduce anxiety, slow the heart rate and lower blood pressure.

Other breathing exercises include box breathing and alternate nostril breathing. To practice box breathing, imagine a square in front of you and breathe around the square. Sit or stand up straight to maximize lung capacity, then inhale for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of four, exhale for a count of four, wait for a count of four and repeat. Box breathing is a quick exercise to help calm the body and can be done anywhere. Alternate nostril breathing is alternating inhaling and exhaling through each nostril. This exercise can help boost energy levels and reduce anxiety.

Sensory exercises have been used to help with anxiety, especially in group settings. Positive psychology uses the raisin as an example, but this exercise can be done with any kind of food or object. With the raisin (or other object) in front of you, pay attention to how it looks, feels, smells and tastes. What happens to the raisin when you move it around in your hand? Concentrating on each detail of the object helps you focus on the task at hand. This exercise can be done simply by paying attention to the senses around you. What do you see, hear, smell, feel and taste? This application helps you become more aware of the present moment and can be done while on a walk or waiting in line.

Results at Rollins College

Rollins College utilizes various mindfulness techniques on campus. Michele “Micki” Meyer, Lord Family assistant vice president for student affairs–community, asks her staff to meditate before team meetings. Meyer also leads mindfulness sessions across the campus throughout the year for faculty, staff and students. “I’ve found that meditation has helped employees across campus build resilience in the workplace,” says Meyer. “Taking a few moments to allow staff members to slow down, tune in and center before a meeting has helped them focus on the task at hand. In a busy workplace, building in deliberate time to pause and breathe is critical to both the well-being of individual employees and the collective health of the organization.”

In a busy workplace, building in deliberate time to pause and breathe is critical to both the well-being of individual employees and the collective health of the organization.

Several units on campus have implemented mindfulness sessions during meetings by encouraging team members to follow along with a meditation app for 10 minutes. During a study on the effectiveness of mindfulness practices, a mindfulness quiz was distributed before the meditation to evaluate the staff’s ability to remain present and focused. The same quiz was distributed after several sessions. The results were positive and identified improvements in most areas, such as being more present in situations and staying focused while performing tasks. Employees expressed their interest in practicing mindfulness on a regular basis.

Another way Rollins College is committed to the mental well-being of faculty, staff and students is by offering mindful meditation, yoga and tai chi classes. A new student residential housing facility will include a yoga and meditation room. The college’s well-being committee recently awarded financial grants to faculty and staff departments to help purchase meditation apps for their teams to promote mindfulness.

Practice What You Preach

As HR leaders, we often put the needs of others before our own, but it’s important to take a few mindful moments for ourselves so that we can engage in positive interactions with colleagues and better serve students.

What can you do to practice mindfulness throughout your workday? It doesn’t have to be an in-depth course. It can be as simple as taking several small moments throughout the day to do a breathing exercise.

Remember, mindfulness is not a quick fix. Just like a regular wellness regimen, it takes time and practice. Start with a small challenge to practice mindfulness for five days. Once your five days are up, reflect on how the practice influenced your interactions at work.

A Breath of Fresh Air

While we don’t always have control over the projects that pile onto our desks, the interactions we have with our coworkers or the distractions that derail our workflow, we can control how we react and approach each task. Immersing mindfulness into your daily routine can help you begin each workday with a positive mindset, better prioritize your to-do list and cultivate a more productive work environment, one deep breath at a time.

About the author: Jennifer Addleman is director of benefits and well-being at Rollins College.