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In these tough economic times most employees are working with constant change and stress.  They are constantly having to multi task; juggling work, home, finances, and other conflicting demands leaving them emotionally exhausted and not having the resilience to cope.  For employers, stress in the workplace means higher absenteeism and loss of performance.  

As most people do not have effective strategies for managing stress, they often focus on "surface acting”, making sure others do not realise they are worried, concerned and out of their comfort zone; trying to appear happy even if they are not.  

Surface acting requires a huge amount of effort, it is psychologically draining and if used often, it will eventually lead to burnout, causing longer term problems for the business or organisation and the employee.

Over the last couple of years the popular media have reported the benefits of practising and using mindfulness, including reduced stress, improved focus, objectivity, flexibility, enhanced working memory, Emotional Intelligence and improved ability to relate with others.

In the UK, mindfulness training has been embraced by organisations as diverse as Google, Transport for London, PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Home Office.

"Mindfulness is a translation of a word that simply means awareness” (Professor Mark Williams (2011), Oxford University). It can be thought of as a direct, intuitive, knowing of what you are doing while you are doing it. It is knowing what is going on inside your mind and body and what is going on in the outside world as well.

Mindfulness theory suggests that mindfulness is about learning to pay attention, in the present moment and without judgement. It's like training a muscle - training attention to be where you want it to be. This reduces our tendency to work on autopilot, allowing us to us choose how we respond and react, thus reducing our stress levels. 

Recent research by Ute Hülsheger and her team examined whether using mindfulness in the workplace will actually reduce stress.  What is so useful about this research is its focus on the impact of mindfulness on surface acting, given how common surface acting is as a strategy for trying to reduce stress.

Hülsheger and colleagues theorised that practising mindfulness would reduce a person’s tendency to surface act. Being mindful would put negative experiences in perspective, stopping the tendency to entertain negative thoughts which would lead to the necessity of surface acting. 

Results showed that participants who were more mindful (both on the average and daily) used less surface acting and felt less emotional exhaustion. They also felt more satisfied in their jobs.

Mindfulness is a useful tool that will enhance and help people develop their Emotional Intelligence. If organisations (leaders, managers, team supervisors) encourage the practice of mindfulness at work, research suggests that it should build resilience, enabling people to cope better with life & work stress, thereby reducing absenteeism and improving performance.

The good news is that practising mindfulness need not be difficult or expensive. 

Here are some basic exercises to be more mindful at work:
  • Start even before you enter your workplace. As you walk to your car or wait for the bus, pay attention to your body.
    • Do you feel any tension anywhere?       
    • Focus on the body part which feels tense and relax it.
  • While on your way to work, turn off your mobile phone, try to stop thinking about work (or any stressful thoughts) and focus on your breathing. 
  • When walking to your workplace, pay attention again to your breathing and how you’re walking.
    • Breathe in and out with every three steps and notice each step you’re taking. 
  • Occasionally eat by yourself, with nothing and no one to distract you from your meal.
    • Leave your mobile and other gadgets somewhere and just focus on the food.
    • Eat slowly and savour each mouthful.  
    • Focus 100% on eating.
  • Just before going inside your home, sit outside for a few moments and listen to yourself breathe.
    • Is there any part of your body that’s tense?
    • Try to relax it, and breathe in and out slowly and regularly.
These exercises may be harder than you expect at first because they involve changing ingrained habits and attitudes that we have used to control our emotions and limit our Emotional Intelligence.  However, once you and your team members learn how to be more mindful, you should see its benefits manifest in the workplace, including improved Emotional Intelligence and performance. 

Given the growing body of literature on the benefits of mindfulness at work, we would suggest leaders and managers develop a culture of using Emotional Intelligence in the workplace and using mindfulness as a tool to promote the better use of managing emotions and stress to improve performance. 

Reference: Hülsheger, U., Alberts, H., Feinholdt, A., & Lang, J. (2013). Benefits of mindfulness at work: The role of mindfulness in emotion regulation, emotional exhaustion, and job satisfaction. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98(2), 310-325

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