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Minding the business brain

Experts say practicing mindfulness can lead to better productivity and help employers attract and retain employees.

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From the pages of In Business magazine.

Mindfulness, according to Psychology Today, is described as “a state of active, open attention on the present.” When a person is mindful, according to the magazine, they observe their thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Mindfulness is about living in the moment and is often achieved through meditation.

So what comes to mind when you hear the word mindfulness? Does the very thought seem inviting or make you roll your eyes?

Whatever your opinion, the fact is mindfulness is proving to be effective in life and at work, and is being practiced — and yes, even encouraged — to the benefit of employees around the globe. These days, when everyone seems to be short on minutes in a day and employees are at a premium, mindfulness programs are also being offered by employers as a way to attract and retain employees. Why? Experts say its benefits are being proven, and frankly, couldn’t we all use a few moments to de-stress?

The World Health Organization estimates that stress costs American businesses about $300 billion annually and suggests stress-related maladies — heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure — could cost even more. With corporations looking to decrease health care costs, many are taking a more holistic approach. Aetna, Intel, and Keurig Green Mountain Inc. have taken the virtual leap into mindfulness, with Aetna, an insurance giant with 50,000 employees, reporting lower health care costs as a result. On average, Aetna workers practicing mindfulness reported a 28% reduction in stress levels, a 20% improvement in sleep quality, and a 19% reduction in pain, according to a 2015 Forbes article from contributor Jeanne Meister.

The practice of meditation has been around for thousands of years, but only in the past 30 years have researchers been working to unleash its beneficial qualities. The focus is on treating our brains to some well-needed TLC and retraining through practice, much as athletes reshape their bodies through exercise.

Mindfulness as a tool

At the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where Dr. Richard Davidson has been conducting groundbreaking work on emotion and the brain, mindfulness is proving to be an important tool in the work-life balance.

Social Psychologist and Assistant Scientist Pelin Kesebir, Ph.D., works with Davidson at the Center. “Work requires high levels of emotional and attentional resources, the effective management of which is critical to both employee well-being and performance, and mindfulness can help with both,” she explains. “We know from scientific work accumulated over the last 30 years that mindfulness-based practices can reduce anxiety and stress, improve focus and memory, help with creativity, problem solving, and decision-making, and strengthen the immune function.”

Global research is beginning to hint at other potential benefits that could be of particular interest in the business world, Kesebir notes. “Some early studies indicate that mindfulness has the potential to reduce unconscious bias toward stigmatized groups.” Unconscious bias may already exist in our brains and affect our views on race or age or social status.

“Mindfulness is supposed to decrease automatic processing and responding, so in this study, too, presumably it reduced the activation of negative automatic associations like ‘old = bad,’” Kesebir explains. “A different meditation practice, called loving-kindness meditation, has also been documented to reduce unconscious bias toward blacks and homeless people.”

While in their infancy, these studies suggest that such meditation could one day positively contribute to diversity and inclusion issues. Kesebir cautions that these early studies can only be considered suggestive at this point. “We need more study in this area.”

(Continued)

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