The Mindful Nation – Are You Ready?

Some things about the UK are fabulous: scones and the Tower of London for example. Another fabulous thing that you may not know about is that for the past year, we have had a Mindfulness All Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG).  They met regularly in Westminster to carry out an inquiry into how mindfulness can be incorporated into UK services and institutions. They focused on the role of mindfulness in health, education, the workplace and the criminal justice system.  In addition, by June 2015, 115 Parliamentarians and 80 of their staff had attended eight-week mindfulness courses led by Oxford Mindfulness Centre teachers Professor Mark Williams and Chris Cullen.

The MAPPG published their final report last week.  It’s a rich document so if you have the interest and the time, I highly recommend that you read it.  For those of you who are mainly interested in the impact mindfulness can have in the workplace, I have summarised their findings below.  Although their work focuses on the public sector, it readily translates to all industries. 

What is mindfulness?

As mindfulness is better understood in the west, the definition is being expanded to take in its nuances and subtleties.  There is no one perfect description to sum up what an individual uncovers over the course of a lifetime of practice.  The MAPPG report’s definition is lengthy, but rightly so, to take in the various facets:

“Mindfulness is a way of being in wise and purposeful relationship with one’s experience, both inwardly and outwardly. It is cultivated by systematically exercising one’s capacity for paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, and by learning to inhabit and make use of the clarity, discernment, ethical understanding, and awareness that arise from tapping into one’s own deep and innate interior resources for learning, growing, healing, and transformation.”

 “Basically, when we are talking about mindfulness, we are talking about awareness – pure awareness. It is an innate human capacity that is different from thinking but wholly complementary to it. It is also “bigger” than thinking, because any thought, no matter how momentous or profound, illuminating or destructive, can be held in awareness, and thus looked at, known, and understood in a multiplicity of ways which may provide new degrees of insight and fresh perspectives for dealing with old problems and emergent challenges, whether individual, societal, or global. Awareness in its purest form, or mindfulness, thus has the potential to add value and new degrees of freedom to living life fully and wisely and, thus, to making wiser and healthier, more compassionate and altruistic choices.”

 So you could say that mindfulness is about the intention to pay attention with a range of kind and warm–hearted attitudes.  Paying attention in this way cultivates space and the ability to access our innate wisdom.  Its purpose, the reason people practice mindfulness, is to reduce the amount of suffering in our lives.

Considerations for a mindful workplace

Mindfulness based programmes have consistently been found to have many different impacts:

  • Our physical health improves when we practice mindfulness regularly, e.g. our immune system produces more flu antibodies.
  • The impacts on mental health have been widely reported: participants report less perceived stress, anger and rumination, they have reduced reactivity to emotional stimuli and report positive effects on wellbeing and burnout.
  • Participants’ attention and cognitive capacities improve as demonstrated by improved reaction times, comprehension scores, working memory functioning and rational decision-making
  • Creativity problem solving skills increase, and
  • Resistance to bias, including racial bias and age-related stereotyping decreases.

It is easy to use these findings to define the objectives of a workplace mindfulness programme,  e.g. as it has been shown that an 8 week mindfulness course can improve our immune systems, we may find that we want to bring in a programme purely to reduce the amount of sick-leave taken in the firm.  Or if we know that mindfulness programmes can increase our focus, and therefore lead to less errors, we may find this to be an appealing way to improve employee performance and company profits.

However it is crucial that employers do not bring in a mindfulness programme purely to impact the bottom line.  Mindfulness doesn’t “work” like that.  From the MAPPG:  “There is some mindfulness teaching which gives cause for concern … training in workplace settings has erred towards goal-orientated, institutionally-favoured ends, rather than focusing on addressing the causes of individual and collective distress.” It is paramount that the driver behind any organisational mindfulness programme is to improve employee wellbeing.  All other “benefits” of mindfulness should be seen more truthfully as “side-effects”.  Also, there is a risk that employers bring in a mindfulness course and expect their employees to now be able to function well under stressful conditions.  Mindfulness should not be seen as a “get-out-of-jail-free-card” but should be introduced as part of a broader employee wellbeing programme.

“Despite these valid concerns, it seems that mindfulness has considerable potential across a very wide range of capacities needed in employment ranging from emotional resilience and empathy to cognitive skills and creativity. 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 will only realise its full potential when it is part of a well-designed organisational culture which takes employee wellbeing seriously.”

How good is your mindfulness teacher?

One key challenge is how do you know whether a mindfulness teacher is any good?  Mindfulness isn’t a regulated industry; currently there is no certification process that teachers must complete. 

“The training of teachers is critical. Mindfulness is a subtle practice and can only be taught well by people with considerable personal experience. It is not something that can be learnt quickly. It is deceptively simple, and people can easily think that they know what it is when they are actually only using a small aspect of mindfulness (e.g. taking a mindful pause). Presented simplistically, or with misinterpretations, the radical perspective-shifting potential of the approach is lost. There is considerable and justified concern about the quality of teachers and how to ensure integrity.”

What to consider when selecting your mindfulness teacher

  • Ask about the teacher’s own mindfulness practice – How frequently do they meditate? Why do they meditate? What have they learned through their own practice?
  • Their motivations and intentions: Why do they teach mindfulness? Do they teach a myriad of things, mindfulness being just one of them? Or is mindfulness at the core of all their services and offerings?
  • How have they learned to teach mindfulness? The MAPPG list a number of recognised teaching schools: “The main university-based training centres are at Bangor, Oxford and Exeter. Excellent models also exist of “in house” training within the NHS, as well as independent training organisations such as Breathworks, the Mindfulness Association and London Meditation.”
  • Do they follow the Good Practice Guidelines set by the UK Network for Mindfulness-Based Teachers?

 Are you, and your organisation ready?

If your company is ready to become a Mindful Organisation, then get in touch; it would be wonderful to explore ways to introduce mindfulness to you and your teams.  Govani Coaching offers introductory taster sessions, 8 week mindfulness courses (upon which much of the research is based), Authentic Leadership programmes (based on twin cores of mindfulness and coaching) and 1:1 coaching.

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