Mindfulness and resilience at work
Yeah it's just an excuse – or is it?
Dave in the office downstairs is always off sick, they tell me. He says it is stress. "Just an excuse – he's lazy", says Brenda, his manager. With a focus on targets and performance improvement, it is unsurprising that Brenda has this view. The problem is she is not seeing what is behind the apparent lack of performance nor how to fix it.
It's surprising that there isn't more done to prevent stress at work or, at the very least, alleviate it. If a company is going to be wasting 23 days a year then investing 5 days a year in stress management for employees is a small price to pay for prevention.
A key method for both stress-prevention and reduction, as well as resilience-building, lies in a rapidly-growing discipline known in the field as 'Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy', or 'Mindfulness' for short.
This technique is a method for surfing the emotions and removing oneself from the heat of their impact. Doing that means that we can effectively become immunised against stress.
How stress happens
The body has its natural psychological defence system, called the 'fight or flight response', an ancient technique that prepares all of us to run or fight any situation that we are confronted with.
This automatic response was designed for times when we were faced with wild animals, such as angry, slathering, sabre toothed tigers, and flight was usually the best option, unless we had huge confidence and a very large, wooden club, in which case 'fight' could be a choice.
To fight something like that, or indeed to run fast enough away from it, our body needs to be geared up and rapidly. So we evolved this mechanism. It increases our heart rate, tenses our muscles, tightens the stomach (who would eat at a time like that?) and makes us generate gallons of adrenaline and cortisol. Thus supercharged, we then use up the energy, chemicals, and so on, in physical activity and all our tension dissipates by the time we have reached safety (or won the fight).
The huge problem is that now we do not have many problems that we actually can physically run from or fight. Yes, the body still reacts and creates the tensions and super-chemicals to prepare us, but it cannot get rid of them because we do not use them up. Why is this bad? Well because keeping all that tension and filling ourselves with cortisol is like pumping our system with ten cups of coffee at once. We have to come down sometime and it is usually with a big crash. This is especially so if we have kept up our stress levels for a long period of time. Prolonged stress can lead to serious problems and even mental illness if allowed to continue unchecked.
Solutions: the middle way
Finding the balance between the peaks and troughs of our stress is something that many of us have not been taught to do. In schooldays we are taught to be stressed out and focus solely on intellectual pursuits, like exams. If only schools taught stress management skills, as a long-term stress prevention strategy, there would be a lot less days off work!
So what is mindfulness? Mindfulness is a particular way to think that we are usually not used to. It requires practice to learn and utilise effectively. It is not a quick fix but can have extremely long-lasting benefits.
It begins by talking a new perspective. We literally think 'outside the box' in a process that starts by developing the habit of observing our thought processes. We do this without any form of judgement and without becoming too involved in the thoughts that we are having. Just watch them. It is a bit like watching birds fly and land on trees then fly off again. We pay them no mind.
Similarly, with our thoughts, we can simply observe them. Notice and acknowledge things, such as "I am thinking about shopping later", or "I am feeling hungry", but we do not need to act on those thoughts. Before we discovered mindfulness we would have possibly acted on the hungry thought at least, but now we can just watch the thought arise, wash over us and fall - a bit like a wave.
How does that feel?
Practising this regularly can work wonders. In order to arrive at this state some people may need a relaxation technique to begin with. However after enough practice people usually find they can switch on the mindful state at will and in any situation. This can be handy for presenting to board meetings or entering potentially demanding situations. Ongoing mindfulness practice builds inner resilience. There ceases to be a need for artificial mood controllers, like alcohol or vallium - or even cigarettes.
Building a resilient workforce
Developing a programme of mindfulness training for employees can help instil this resilience within them. Enhanced by a focus on work-life balance and the right environment, can add to this with a knock-on effect of higher retention rates. Understanding how the brain works is a good thing and just may reduce losses as a result of employee illness.
For advice and consultancy and his Total Quality Mindfulness approach, John Chacksfield can be contacted via: easymentalfitness.co.uk.