This post was originally published in the Good Company Blog, a publication of the APA Center for Organizational Excellence, on March 3, 2014.
I have been teaching an eight week mindfulness class since 1997 that is based on the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD and Zindel Segal, PhD. I do this most frequently in my office at my clinical practice, but I have also taught the class in business and other organizational settings.
An exercise that is used for teaching a beginning mindfulness group is to have participants eat a raisin. This is a single raisin and the process takes about 10 minutes. In the discussion that follows, those who are first learning mindfulness talk about this raisin experience as quite different than the way they usually eat raisins. Using all of the senses to engage with the experience, they notice shape, texture, smells, sounds (yes raisins actually make sounds) and tastes that enrich and enhance eating of the raisin. There is more going on in the eating than is usually noticed, because usually we are not fully present to the moment as it unfolds. That is the point of this exercise. It helps those who are curious about mindfulness to discover that there is much more that is happening in each moment than is commonly noticed.
This is true in the workplace as well as in the classroom setting. There are many moments during the day that have the capacity to be much richer than is recognized. The day-to-day tasks can be managed, measured and recorded. But the opportunities for a deeper connection with a customer, or a better process for the workflow, or a recognition of something that is well done might be discovered if the workplace is a mindful place. A colleague of mine, Al Bellg, PhD coined a phrase for this – mindful tasking. Rather than being distracted by trying to do more than one thing, as occurs in multi-tasking, mindful tasking involves bringing full attention to what we are doing right now. In a more mindful state, there are many opportunities to make choices that will influence how the day unfolds.
This is not a simple process. It is certainly not as simple as eating a single raisin in a guided exercise. Yet developing a mindful workplace holds great potential for making the workplace more psychologically healthy and effective. Developing a mindful workplace supports higher levels of employee engagement. The personal growth and development that comes from becoming more mindful can enhance professional development in the workforce. Continuous quality improvement is more reliably achieved when there is a commitment to be present in the moment and employees are able to see what is actually happening as the work is being done.
The first step in developing a mindful workplace is to become more aware of what is possible. Most employees spend much of the day on “automatic pilot.” The day-to-day responsibilities can become so familiar and routine that they can be done without conscious attention. This works, but it is not an ideal state of mind for you or your workforce to be in when you are trying to get work done. It leads to careless errors, accidents at work or even to conflict with customers who feel (sometimes rightfully) that they are being treated as an object rather than as a real human being.
Developing a mindful approach to work means that attention is being paid to what is happening in the moment (mindful tasking). The mind isn’t wandering off to something else that is irrelevant or counterproductive. It is awake and fully present to this moment.
This type of training of the mind does not occur simply by reading about mindfulness or even by understanding what it is about. It requires utilizing a systematic process that is practiced on a repeated basis. Neuroscience research shows that regularly practicing mindfulness results in a series of changes in the brain that, like exercise strengthens muscles, strengthens key brain areas so that they are able to function more effectively. One of the challenges of creating a mindful workplace is to make space for consistent and systematic practice, essential for developing this type of mind strength.
In the next article, I will discuss what we have discovered in research about how this works in sustainable ways and what is necessary to make it effective in the workplace.