A Slower, Mindful Approach Can Improve Efficiency

It may sound counterintuitive, but slowing down just might ramp up productivity in your workplace.

For many people, the word “mindfulness” conjures an array of imagery, such as a group of yoga-pants-clad vegans assuming physics-defying poses that only a chiropractor could love, while eucalyptus-scented candles burn and Krishna Das music plays softly in the background. 

Well, hold on to your yoga mats: Mindfulness is going mainstream — and busting a lot of stereotypes in the process. In fact, AON Hewitt, a business-consulting firm, estimates that 35 percent of American employers now offer such stress-reduction programs, and that includes respected entities ranging from Google, Aetna and Target to General Mills, Intel and Time Warner. 

And why not? After all, only the most unmindful company or organization wouldn’t want more focused employees who think more clearly, make better decisions, handle stress more effectively, build better internal and customer relationships and are, in general, happier people. Other benefits include reduced employee turnover, increased productivity and decreased absenteeism. What’s not to like? 

To be clear, we’re not talking about turning workers into Stepford-ish robots that suddenly become living personifications of smiley-face emoticons. Instead, mindfulness programs better equip workers to handle the stresses and strains caused by reduced staffing, increasing workloads, constant technological connectivity with work, striving for that precarious proper life/work balance, and ever-fluctuating priorities and responsibilities. And along the way, mindfulness programs might even improve your organization’s bottom line. 

To appreciate the benefits of mindfulness, consider its polar opposite — mindlessness, says Kimberly Schaufenbuel, program director of executive development at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School. “As employees and individuals, we can all relate to mindlessness … think about when you’ve gone through your day, going through the motions, being distracted and relying on past assumptions and experiences,” Schaufenbuel noted while speaking during a recent webinar sponsored by the Human Capital Institute (www.hci.org). 

“And also think about the times you’ve experienced mindless service — spoken to someone who’s physically with you, but not mentally there,” she adds. “And what are the business and relationship consequences of those behaviors? They’re pretty significant.”

Mindfulness defined

So what exactly is mindfulness? There seems to be as many definitions as there are yoga positions. But in essence, mindfulness is an “in-the-moment” state of mind — a total awareness of the present that keeps at bay the endless and mindless chatter and clatter that all too frequently wracks our brains — and makes us less efficient. 

Achieving this pure clarity of mind is no simple task, as evidenced by a recent University of Virginia study in which most of the 700 participants found it difficult to sit in a room, alone with nothing but their thoughts for company. In fact, 67 percent of the men and 25 percent of the women in the study actually chose to press a button and shock themselves, rather than quietly contemplate their innermost thoughts. 

Shocking? Perhaps it is — until you stop and think about it. After all, we live in a society that’s all about external stimulus. Internal reflection? Not so much. 

“Mindfulness is something most people would rather avoid because when we’re not multitasking, we tend to focus on things we haven’t yet figured out, like difficult personal or professional challenges,” Schaufenbuel says. “Technology provides us with limitless ways to stay busy and avoid reflection.” 

If all this sounds a bit too mystical and “out there,” perhaps this will convince you: Emerging science backs up everything that mindfulness proponents are championing. “Eastern wisdom is changing Western business in a meaningful way, and it’s finally being backed by neuroscience evidence,” Schaufenbuel notes. 

In 2011, Harvard researchers, using magnetic-resonance images, proved that participants in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program experienced increased growth of gray matter in brain regions that control learning, memory, emotional regulation and perspective taking. Another study performed by neuroscientist Richard Davidson at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds demonstrated that mindfulness boosts cognitive flexibility, well-being, empathy, creativity and innovation. And other studies indicate that mindfulness reduces levels of a stress-related hormone called cortisol, reduces blood pressure, boosts immune systems and improves sleep quality. 

Breathing is the mechanism or gateway to a truly mindful state. While teaching mindfulness techniques is not possible within the limited confines of a magazine article, suffice it to say that focusing only on each breath taken — each inhalation and exhalation – quells the noise that clamors within our brains. If you lose concentration, just bring your focus back to the breathing. As the modern-day guru of mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, once noted, “Pay attention to attention … be aware of awareness.” 

It takes practice, for sure; cessation of thought is not for the undisciplined among us. But there are plenty of training resources available and most people can get the hang of it with about 100 hours of practice, Schaufenbuel says. And practicing mindfulness for even just a few weeks can bring about a variety of physical, psychological and social benefits. 

“It’s like building muscle through weight lifting,” she says. “If you do it repetitively, you’ll strengthen that muscle … and create positive changes in brain structures by strengthening neural connections.

“And you don’t need to sit on a floor for an hour to achieve mindfulness,” she adds, noting that mindfulness proponents may have to debunk some deep-rooted stereotypes in order to gain a foothold in the workplace. “All you need is 10 minutes a day and the chance to learn some techniques.” 

At first, asking employees to slow down in order to act faster and perform better may seem at odds with most corporate goals of speed and quick goal attainment. But in the long run, it’ll all make more sense as the benefits of mindful employees begin to emerge. And in an era when employee engagement is of primary concern to so many companies, mindfulness programs just might be the answer — with no yoga mats, eucalyptus candles or chiropractors required.


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