The health and business benefits of mindfulness
By Tony Denton
Research on the subject of mindfulness has more than doubled in the last five years1. While earlier research focuses on the benefits of mindfulness for mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety, more recently the interest has been in the wider benefits of mindfulness practice, and how it can yield results in other areas. Some of these other areas include blood pressure, arthritis, infertility, learning and memory and emotional regulation2.
The usefulness of mindfulness has even caught the attention of parliament, who are responsible for the publication of the Mindful Nation report in October 2015. In this document the potential impact of mindfulness in education, healthcare, business and the criminal justice system is discussed in detail, with recommendations for further funding to train more mindfulness teachers to meet demand.
It is a practice with millennia of history and yet it is only in recent years that it has attracted mainstream attention and government support. In healthcare, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy has been recommended as a treatment for depression by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence since 2004, but there has been limited availability and visibility.
With the rise of mindfulness this is likely to change, and the numerous studies evidencing the real benefits of mindfulness in mental, physical and emotional wellbeing are changing the perception of a practice that had previously been associated with Buddhist spiritualism.
Benefits of mindfulness in leadership
The wide-ranging benefits of mindfulness and meditation have also been adopted in the corporate world, and now some of the biggest names in business are adopting mindfulness approaches within their company values, including Google and KPMG. The impact on cognitive skills and emotional intelligence also makes mindfulness practice desirable for leaders in particular, since they are often required to inspire and support individuals during stressful and turbulent periods. Being able to maintain focus and balance in a crisis is one quality that every good leader needs.
“A mindful leader can reduce disorder by bringing focus and intent to the situation. By acknowledging and accepting change, the leader can step back, observe and respond with composure and purpose4.”
Studies in the USA on the fire and police services have found that individuals participating in a mindfulness-based fitness training programme have demonstrated significantly less brain activity related to emotional reactivity, anxiety and mood disorders. These studies also revealed improved sleep, better working memory capacity and a stronger immune response5. The intense pressure of these roles is similar to the pressure of being a leader, and the results would be just as beneficial, enabling individuals to cope with the demands of their position.
Mindful leaders benefit their business by guiding with a clear vision. By reducing their stress and increasing their rational decision making skills they are able to take the right actions, and encourage the people they lead to do the same. In Paul Wielgus’ article on “Mindfulness: leadership imperative or leadership choice”, he further explores how mindfulness helps a leader to be authentic and values-centred, linking this to wider benefits for the individual, the organisation, and the world.
Mindfulness and absence reduction
One of the more pragmatic reasons for mindfulness’ absorption into the corporate world is its ability to reduce illness and stress-related absence. According to studies, the leading cause of sickness absence in the UK is mental ill health, and Mindfulness-Based Interventions are acknowledged as effective in the treatment of this.
One study of NHS staff between 2011 and 2014 found significant reductions in mental health related absence following a Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy course, resulting in cost savings of £109,4146.
Savings can also be found in the reduction in staff turnover that is also associated with the corporate practice of mindfulness7. Employees with a greater sense of well-being are more likely to be happy in the workplace, giving organisations the security of retaining key talent and knowledge.
Mindfulness for optimisation in business
Beyond the retention of staff and reduction of absence, it has been suggested that mindfulness can help a business to optimise its people by improving productivity, memory, learning ability and creativity. The full range of cognitive benefits of mindfulness can affect an individual’s overall performance:
“As research in this vein suggests, mindfulness contributes to performance by improving cognitive flexibility and alertness and guarding against distractions and performance blunders. Taken together, these fi dings raise the possibility that workplace mindfulness facilitates job performance8.”
It can reduce ‘cognitive rigidity’, which is a barrier to creative thinking and innovative problem solving9, and allows individuals to refresh their approach to difficult problems.
Findings from specific workplace contexts to evidence these include:
Experienced mindfulness practitioners showing faster reaction times and reduced error responses
Increased likelihood of making a rational choice after completing a short mindfulness exercise
Ability to generate more creative strategies after a short mindfulness exercise
Improvements in emotional intelligence and resistance to bias in decision making10
As the increasing amount of studies on mindfulness demonstrate, it can improve our mental and physical well-being. Until recently, the practice of mindfulness has been an individual choice; people have sought to gain greater self-understanding, or re-order their hectic minds. However the advent of corporate interest has been spurred by an awareness that happy, balanced people make a stronger workforce.
The Mindfulness Nation report warns against mindfulness being used purely as a corporate tool, stressing that mindfulness is no substitute for an appropriate workload and work-life balance:
"While it seems that mindfulness can offer real benefits for reducing stress and absenteeism, it is important to emphasise that as an isolated intervention it cannot fix dysfunctional organisations."
Mindfulness Nation Report Pg. 46
The concern is that organisations may encourage the use of mindfulness to help their people deal with workplace stress, instead of taking steps to reduce the causes of stress such as long working hours or heavy workloads.
Mindfulness, as part of a corporate culture which supports the health and well-being of its employees, can be a very effective way to increase productivity.
For individuals, it can be a way of improving general health, with particular emphasis on mental and emotional resilience. But mindfulness, as any experienced practitioner can tell you, is not a short- term or instant solution to problems. It takes a genuine commitment to make positive change, and this can only happen by thinking about how it can benefit your people, before you think about how it can benefit your business.
At Insights we think that the practice of mindfulness makes Insights Discovery more powerful. By being mindful about the personal preferences of others, you will be able to adapt and connect with them more easily, enhancing relationships and enabling workplace harmony. The self-awareness that Insights Discovery brings can also be enhanced by mindfulness, extending to your awareness of your mind and body, so that you gain deeper levels of self-understanding.
What both mindfulness and Insights Discovery have in common beyond this is their intent; their purpose to inspire individuals to make a positive difference. When individuals are able to think and act positively, this has wider implications for their team, their organisation and society. For this reason, Insights are interested in the practice of mindfulness, and its benefits, and we’ve introduced it to our own leaders.
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1 D.S. Black 2014
3 Mindful Nation Report, October 2015
5 Mindful Nation Report, 2015. P22
6 Before the course mental health related absence days were recorded at an average of 14 days. After the course this was reduced to an average of 3 days.
7 Examining workplace mindfulness and its relations to job performance and turnover intention. Erik Dane and Bradley J Brummel, Human Relations published online 3 June 2013.
8 Examining workplace mindfulness and its relations to job performance and turnover intention. Erik Dane and Bradley J Brummel, Human Relations published online 3 June 2013.
9 “Mind the Trap”: Mindfulness Practice Reduces Cognitive Rigidity, Greenberg, Reiner and Meiran, May 2012
10 Mindful Nation Report, 2015, Pg. 22.