Like yoga before it, mindfulness is the latest eastern practice to go thoroughly mainstream in the west. Classes are offered by the NHS for mental wellbeing and schools are teaching it to help pupils stay calm and focus on their studies. So what can it offer the workplace and can it help your career?
Gelong Thubten has been a Tibetan Buddhist monk for more than 20 years. He teaches monthly classes at Google’s headquarters in Dublin and says there are three ways that mindfulness can help you at work.
Mindfulness became popular in the west when University of Massachusetts professor Jon Kabat-Zinn adapted eastern meditation methods into a stress reduction programme for the chronically ill. Thubten says it does more than help people manage their stress – it transforms how they deal with it. “You’re going for a deeper approach,” he says, “because you look at how to get the mind to let go of stressful thinking.”
But in high-octane working environments, a newsroom or a stock exchange for example, is there ever a benefit to stress? “That adrenaline can get people going,” says Thubten. “But the problem is that if you live on that, you are flooding your body with stress hormones all day, and you become exhausted, age faster and get ill. It does make people achieve, but it’s very short-lived.”
Stress in the workplace has been found to reduce mental ability and Thubten claims people who practice mindfulness can achieve more than adrenaline-junkies. That’s because they are more aware and “don’t miss a beat”.
A 2011 study of HR staff found that those who had done an eight-week mindfulness meditation course were less likely to switch between tasks and showed improved memory. Regular practice brings “a greater sense of focus, non-distraction and concentration,” says Thubten – all things that will improve work performance. “I find it very important to bring that side into it,” he says “because focusing on stress is negative, and some people don’t even want to admit they’re stressed.”
Compassion and empathy
“Compassion and empathy is so important because of all the conflicts, judgements and irritations that go on in the workplace,” explains Thubten. “If you can engage in meditation practice and learn how to develop a more positive attitude towards others, it has amazing benefits.”
Can too much empathy dull a competitive edge that might be necessary to get ahead? “That’s a really interesting question,” says Thubten. “It depends how you define compassion. If we think of compassion as being a pushover then of course it’s not going to be useful, but the kind of compassion we talk about in Buddhism is a deep understanding of others.
“A sense of tolerance and non-prejudice are essential for any workplace to function well. If we are going through our working day feeling resentful of our colleagues, our boss, our clients, and we don’t know how to let go, then our life is a misery.”
Key to this approach is to have compassion for yourself as well. “In the western world people are so self-judgmental, so hard on themselves and meditation is an amazing tool for developing self-acceptance, a sense of peace within.”
That sense of self-acceptance can help people when they are looking for a job and during the interview process. “Mindfulness definitely makes people more confident, more comfortable in their own skin,” says Thubten. “They learn how to be more in control of the present moment and they come across better.”
How much meditation do you have to do to feel the benefits? Thubten recommends 15-20 minutes a day, but also to integrate it into everyday life. “I teach techniques that my students can do when they are at their desk, in a meeting or going home on the tube. At all these times you can learn to connect to the present moment and to de-stress.”
Mindfulness is going through an intense surge of popularity at the moment with countless articles in the media extolling the benefits of the practice and apps such as Headspace promising to help us pause and be present no matter how busy we are.
There has been some criticism of the practice’s mainstreaming, which has been dubbed “McMindfulness” – a commodified package separated from its spiritual roots. Thubten is generally very happy that mindfulness has become so popular and so accepted, but does have concerns about people who are not well trained, offering classes for money. He doesn’t accept payment for his work, but asks that the companies he teaches at donate to his charity. “I don’t mind if people earn a living through it, but if they’re doing it as a way to get rich then it loses its heart,” he says.
Mindfulness meditation has a proven ability to ease anxiety and to help people to have greater powers of concentration, but Thubten says that the main benefit it can bring to your career is that it makes you a nice person. “If you are kinder to people, you get along with them better,” he says. “And you do well in the world when you get along with people. They reward you and your career will go well.”
Source: The guardian