Washington Post: Staying Mindful at Work

This article originally appeared in the Washington Post and is reposted with permission from author Joyce Russell, senior associate dean of learning at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Stressed? Overworked? Feeling out of control? Sound familiar? Thanks to technology and the 24/7 world we live in, the pressure seemingly never ends. Workers feel they are on call at all times, day or night, and that they are never caught up. Most would say they work too many hours, and often with few real breaks.

In fact, according to the World Health Organization, the cost of stress to American businesses is as high as $300 billion. This includes health care and lost productivity because of diabetes, high blood pressure and other illnesses. The real question is what to do about it. We are all in search of the answer, and one that has been gaining in popularity is the practice of mindfulness.

The concept is not new. Mindfulness originated in Hinduism and then Buddhism, and has become more pervasive in the West as a way to handle emotions and help alleviate depression, anxiety and other symptoms. It is also a part of positive psychology as a way to help individuals enhance their well-being and life satisfaction.

What is mindfulness? It is a meditative practice that revolves around paying focused attention to the present moment, without judging or labeling the experience. This enables a person to acquire mental and emotional rest throughout the day. So, instead of immediately reacting to issues that create stress, a practitioner can employ mindfulness techniques to regain control of the situation.

With more and more research showing the practice can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, improve memory, and lessen depression and anxiety, programs have multiplied in schools, prisons, hospitals and many work places. In fact, the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business just added a mindfulness session in its executive MBA program. Likewise, companies such as Google, Target, Aetna, Procter & Gamble, Apple, McKinsey & Co., General Mills and others have instituted mindfulness programs to help employees cope with stress.

Generally, mindfulness programs involve multiple sessions that teach meditation techniques, such as controlled breathing and bringing thoughts back to the present. They also include exercises for toning down mental chatter and improving listening skills. Employees are taught to apply the techniques in their daily routines on the job and in their personal lives.

Several strategies for practicing mindfulness include:

Starting each day with conscious awareness. First notice how you feel, then consciously set your intentions for the day, rather than jumping right out and starting the day. Maybe even stating that today you will be more aware of XYZ.

Slowing yourself down throughout the day, if you are the type to race through the day.

Using music or other techniques to practice meditation at work.

Spending at least five minutes each day doing nothing.

Practicing mindful breathing for some period of time (five to 30 minutes), throughout the day. Take bathroom breaks or short walks to force you to build in mindful breathing. Sit upright and focus on the natural flow of your breath. Focus on your breath, rather than letting your mind wander to get you stressing on the chore or negative aspects of the day ahead.

Checking in with yourself throughout the day. Set up reminders to do this, and periodically take deep breaths to see how you are doing throughout the day. Even taking periodic three-minute breathing breaks where you just stop what you are doing, inhale and exhale deeply, focusing on your breath will help rejuvenate you for the day.

Taking the time before making a call or interacting with someone to think about what you want the outcome to be. You could take a deep breath before a meeting and just think about the objective for the meeting.

Listening to others. Take the focus off of your own “to-do-list” and focus on the other person.

Thinking about ways to recognize others throughout the day, and to better understand their needs and issues. Practice being empathetic and showing kindness to help them.

Taking regular breaks instead of sitting at your desk the entire day. Try taking a walk or go tech-free at lunchtime. This can often enhance your creative thinking.

Unplugging from technology throughout the day to give your brain a rest and to keep your stress levels at bay.

Doing some quick self-reflection at the end of your day to think about the day, but not necessarily to overly judge yourself.

We may not rid ourselves of all of the stress in our everyday lives, but mindfulness is one way we can make it more palatable. One way that we can try to regain control of ourselves again.

Joyce E. A. Russell is the vice dean and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.