It was in the early 2000s, when mindfulness had not yet hit the mainstream medical world, that trained psychiatrist, mindfulness expert and bestselling author Dr Elise Bialylew attended a conference where leading neuroscientists discussed research supporting the ways mindfulness could transform the body and brain, including improved attention, focus, emotional intelligence and wellbeing.
She felt she was witnessing a paradigm shift in the world of wellbeing and became passionate about sharing what she had learned. When the phrase Mindful in May came to her mind during meditation, she knew she had to act on it.
Thus, the 10 minutes each day, for the month of May online program was born, where people can learn mindfulness from leading experts and make a positive difference in the world by raising funds for global poverty.
Elise is definitely onto something, with the World Health Organization‘s research showing there are many risk factors for mental health that may be present in the working environment. We speak to her about mindfulness and how to maximise it in the workplace.
Q. Why is mindfulness important?
A. We’re living in a time of unprecedented hyperconnectivity where ideas spread faster than ever before. Mindfulness is not a new idea. It originates from Buddhist contemplative traditions which are more than 2,500 years old.
Mindfulness has certainly become a buzzword and although there are a lot of people jumping on the bandwagon, many others think it’s just the latest fad. If I hadn’t studied science, I’d be sceptical about its sudden popularity too.
There is enough research to support that fact that this mental training can be profoundly transformative on a psychological, emotional and physical level.
Technology is developing exponentially and at the click of a button we can access a near infinite amount of information. With this privilege, comes the potential cost of information overload, increased distractibility and low-grade background anxiety as we try to keep on top of all of our “to-dos”.
Mindfulness is an antidote to this. It gives us a way to focus our attention and calm down our nervous systems that are on chronic overdrive.
Q. How can leaders integrate mindfulness into the workplace?
A. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to enhance productivity in the workplace. These days innovative companies such as Google and Twitter have become early adopters of mindfulness meditation practices by bringing it to their employees as a way of enhancing workplace wellbeing and effectiveness.
Two practical ways of bringing mindfulness into the workplace include introducing mindful meetings and being more mindful while you work:
Mindful meetings involve encouraging people to take two minutes before a meeting starts to practise mindfulness meditation – this could be through guided meditation or simply by inviting people to close their eyes and tune into the feeling of their breath moving in and out of their bodies.
Set a timer for two minutes and invite people to count their breaths, counting the breath after each exhalation. Tuning into the breath in this way helps to shift the nervous system from a state of stress to a state of relaxation helping teams to be more present and receptive, and less reactive in meetings.
Be mindful while you work by switching from multitasking to monotasking. Before you start working bring an intention to do one task at a time. Choose one task, set the timer for 30 minutes and be mindful of when you have the urge to switch between tasks.
Keep a piece of paper next to you and when you feel the urge to do something else write down what you want to do and come back to it once you have finished your designated task.
Q. What are the benefits?
A. There are so many benefits of becoming more mindful in the workplace:
Sharpening your focus
With invisible umbilical cords connecting us to our devices, staying focused is an increasing challenge. Our attention buzzes around with the restlessness of a mosquito fluttering between emails, Facebook, Twitter and text messages. We need to upgrade our ‘inner technology’ of attention to meet the demands of an increasingly complex world.
A regular meditation practice helps to develop an inner witness that monitors your attention. Over time it’s like an inner coach who points out behaviours, thoughts or actions that are at odds with your goals or values. With mindfulness, you are more able to stay on task.
Communicating more effectively under stress
Being a good communicator is a fundamental ingredient to being effective and successful at work. Under stress our communication skills significantly decline and there are neurobiological reasons for this. The fight or flight response, driven by our amygdala, is a reflex response to a perceived threat, which evolved to protect us from danger.
The problem is that this warning system has not changed for about 100,000 years. Nowadays rather than the threat of physical predators we face psychological stressors, like an argument with our partner or a looming deadline. It requires mental power to solve issues effectively but our higher functioning brain – the prefrontal cortex – goes offline when the amygdala response hijacks us.
Regular mindfulness meditation has been shown to increase the thickness of the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with much higher level brain functions when calming ourselves down in the heat of emotion and being able to communicate and problem-solve more effectively.
Managing the discomfort of uncertainty
In the face of exponential technological development, the world is changing more rapidly than ever before. This means that uncertainty is the only thing we can be certain about. We need to build our capacity to adapt to the ever-present uncertainty of our time and build our inner resilience to manage the inevitable outer turbulence.
Mindfulness teaches you to make room for difficult emotions and helps you learn more effective ways of managing uncertainty. When we experience unpleasant feelings, sensations or thoughts, our natural response is to push away or want things to be different.
Mindfulness is a training that helps us get better at managing whatever is happening. We learn to be calm amidst the chaos and respond with more self-awareness, rather than react to situations on autopilot and in ways that can worsen the stress or conflict we face.
Mindfulness meditation is a powerful practice that supports us in bringing our bodies back into a balanced, healthy state, protecting us from the long-term impact of stress. Some studies have demonstrated that mindfulness meditation can positively impact our bodies down to the level of gene expression in ways that counter the effects of stress and inflammation (a risk factor for chronic disease).
Q. What are some specific techniques we can use to be mindful?
A. I wrote a book that guides readers along a one-month mindfulness roadmap to better living with daily mindfulness practices to integrate into life and work and guided mindfulness meditations to weave into your day. Here is a free sample of the book that offers some of the science that supports the benefits of mindfulness and some practical techniques.
Dr. Elise Bialylew, is author of the #1 bestselling mindfulness guidebook, The Happiness Plan and founder of Mindful in May, the world’s largest online global mindfulness campaign that teaches thousands of people to meditate, while raising funds to build clean water projects in the developing world. She teaches online and offline mindfulness training at The Mind Life Project where she supports individuals and organisations to thrive. Learn more about mindfulness through her FREE beginners online mindfulness workshop here.