Minding the business brain
Experts say practicing mindfulness can lead to better productivity and help employers attract and retain employees.
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It’s that kind of research that excites Ed Maxwell, founder of Third Left Wellness. “The implications for not only less turnover and better recruitment, but also for reducing the risks of lawsuits [in the future] as they pertain to discrimination are huge,” he notes. “So there are good financial incentives for companies to put these programs in place.”
Maxwell has been practicing mindfulness on his own for nearly a dozen years. A couple of years ago, while employed in the corporate finance department at Springs Window Fashions in Middleton, he asked the human resources department if he could offer a course for employees. After a pilot program and requests from Springs employees, HR asked Maxwell for a second go-round to get even more employees involved. Participants, he reports, noticed reduced stress, better sleep, and most felt happier. In fact, Maxwell says there is a strong connection between an ability to focus and happiness. “The positive feedback at Springs is what really catapulted me forward to launch my own business,” he states.
He left Springs about a year ago to pursue mindfulness in the workplace full-time. [Full disclosure: Maxwell blogs for IBMadison.com.] Admittedly, most of his time is devoted to educating people about the benefits of mindfulness. “Some people know what it is and others have never heard of it,” he notes.
There are also misconceptions he must plow through. Some think mindfulness is religious (it is rooted in Buddhism), or complicated, or even easy. “In fact, I practice it in a very secular way,” Maxwell says. “It’s not complicated, but it’s not necessarily easy, either, because it’s about developing more focus, and our minds like to wander. It’s training for your brain.”
Restoration project: The new restorative room at American Family Insurance gives employees a quiet respite to decompress, improving their well-being and productivity.
Maxwell prefers to use the term “practicing mindfulness” rather than “meditation” in his work because of the latter’s connotation with religion. The difference, he explains, is that meditation is the primary way to increase mindfulness. “Mindfulness replaces a person’s view of the world through a lens of judgment and evaluation with a lens of curiosity and eagerness to learn,” he explains. “The way to develop that mindset is through meditation.”
Kesebir says mindfulness has been criticized as an “upper class, white, liberal” practice and she admits there might be some truth to the claim, but only in the sense that vulnerable populations with worse health outcomes tend to benefit less from the practice. Perhaps they have less access to it, and if that’s true Kesebir suggests employers reach out and bring mindfulness to them. Workplace mindfulness programs, she says, “should be socially and culturally sensitive and be led, at least part of the time, by leaders or teachers who come from diverse backgrounds” in order to attract more diversity.
Whatever the stigma, experts argue that 30 years of research is proving that it can alter the brain to the positive. Engaged employees report stress reduction, increased focus, happiness, and greater emotional intelligence, Maxwell says, while employers can benefit from reduced turnover rates and better recruitment because of higher job satisfaction. “At least one study shows that workplace mindfulness programs really increase employee job satisfaction and employees are more likely to stay and talk positively about their workplaces to others,” he cites. “Millennials are very interested in a positive workplace environment, so offering mindfulness programs has helped employers recruiting the younger generation.”
Some studies have shown that people in customer service jobs, in particular, tend to benefit from mindfulness training because by increasing emotional intelligence, they are able to relate better to customers and deal better with strong emotional reactions they might receive on the job. “That’s true in any industry,” Maxwell notes, “but people don’t need to be going through a rough time to benefit from mindfulness.”
Mindful class in session
What does a mindfulness session entail? First of all, throw out any preconceived notion of incense, bells, drums, or dancing around a fire — at least at work. All Maxwell needs is a relatively quiet space in an office. He prefers a room that is not dark — to stave off the occasional napper — and an ideal class size of up to 24 people. Participants can choose whether they want to close their eyes. “It’s really just about blocking out distractions,” he says. To ward off skeptics, Maxwell explains the science first in an effort to move beyond any unconscious bias toward meditation.
Sessions usually last a half-hour and begin with basic breathing techniques. The goal is to help people “learn to regard their thoughts as thoughts,” Maxwell states. “Often, we conflate our thoughts with reality, but the truth is, a thought is just a thought.” It takes practice, he cautions, because people must learn to observe their thoughts objectively and separate them from their emotions.
But mindfulness, he says, is also about recognizing how the brain and body influence each other and how to positively impact both. “There’s a kind of feedback loop between the brain and your body, so it’s about taking advantage of that loop rather than letting yourself spiral downward. It’s about building yourself up.”
Research has shown that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. In fact, a 2010 Harvard University study found that humans spend about 47% of their waking hours worrying about what isn’t going on. Imagine that amount of brain energy refocused on more positive thoughts and behaviors.
Maxwell explains that the wandering mind tends to gravitate toward the negative because of a negativity bias humans have. From an evolutionary perspective, that makes sense in terms of threats to our survival, he notes, but it also results in a lot of unhappiness. “The more we can consciously control our focus, the better we can focus on positive or at least neutral things.”
It doesn’t take long because the brain is amazingly receptive to change. In fact, Kesebir says the human brain is changing all the time. “Even the smallest amount of mindfulness training would change our brains,” she asserts. More robust changes have been noted after practicing mindfulness for just 30 minutes a day over a two-week period. “The more time one devotes to practicing mindfulness, the more benefits one will experience,” she says, comparing it to physical exercise.
Some employers have designated meditation rooms where employees can escape from the daily noise and gain a few moments of quiet reflection. Kesebir notes that while mindfulness rooms are wonderful, mindfulness is something that can be practiced all day long. Employees can benefit from something as simple as taking a couple of minutes every day to stop, breathe, or take mindful walks to reconnect with their senses.
Kesebir suggests people set an alarm on their phones or display a picture on their desks to remind them to be mindful. “Although longer, formal practices are very helpful,” she says, “the positive impact of little mindful moments scattered throughout the day should not be underestimated.”