“People fight reality. They fight it tooth and nail, with everything they’ve got. And anytime you are arguing or fighting with reality, reality will win. You can’t outsmart it. You can’t trick it. You can’t bend it to your will. Not now. Not ever.”
— Bill Burnett & Dave Evans
We all know the pressures that come from our hectic working lives. It often seems like there’s not enough time in the day to get things done, and to-do lists can feel like the office equivalent to Pi – never ending.
When it comes to work-related stress, it is a significant and growing problem. Around six in ten workers experience increasing stress levels in their jobs, and this not only has a considerable impact on employees, but also greatly affects economies. To give just one example, each year, almost 14 million working days are lost in the UK due to work-related illness. The total cost of this loss is around £30 billion per year. 
Neglecting the seriousness of this problem can only lead to a greater dip in productivity levels, as well as a further dent in the emotional well-being of employees. As author and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg notes: “It’s hard to give from a source of depletion.”
The main source of this depletion stems from the tendency of our minds to constantly be on the go. Who has the time to be at peace when there are so many emails to attend to, deadlines approaching, demanding bosses to handle, and impatient clients to satisfy? And much of the pressures we have to juggle often comes in addition to our sizeable to-do list and our day-to-day duties.
Why mindfulness matters in the workplace
With the demands of the job appearing to outstrip our supply of time, we spend much of the time we do have thinking ahead to the next task, and analysing past meetings, interactions and communications. In a nutshell, the workplace is notorious for encouraging our minds to wander.
In a 2010 study, Harvard psychologists found that, on average, we can spend almost half of our waking hours with minds that wander, which means that we spend many hours each day somewhere elsewhere than in the present moment. In relation to the findings, the researchers discovered that wandering minds are also unhappy minds. In turn, an unhappy mind leads to dissatisfaction and this sparks a rise in our stress levels, which is caused by the release of the hormone Cortisol.
Cortisol, within the right context, is a useful hormone; it’s what induces the “fight or flight” response when we need to get away from perceived threats. The hormone also raises our blood sugar levels and suppresses our immune system, which is why people under constant stress tend to report higher instances of illness.
In an interview about effective leadership, Professor Richard Boyatzis suggests that corrosive stress often comes about from an accumulation of the little annoyances that build up over time, rather than the experience of significant difficulties. In the context of the workplace, perhaps a day comprising of a long and aimless early morning meeting, a rushed lunch due to an unexpected commitment, a disagreement with a colleague, a deluge of emails demanding attention, and being stuck in a traffic jam on the way home after a long day leaves us with mental exhaustion and a sense of dread as we look to the week ahead.
If there’s no pressure valve, the stress that is allowed to snowball is precisely what leads to significant mental health issues for us, and drives increasing economic losses for business. If we consider that many people the world over experience a consistent flow of “small stresses” without sufficient time to engage in renewal processes (e.g. going for a walk, meditating, going to the gym, watching a movie reading for pleasure), we can see that mindfulness practice is a vital and beneficial method of allowing people to attend to their well-being.
One main advantage of mindfulness is that it encourages the mind to wander less, which has been suggested to help lower levels of stress, anxiety and depression. There’s good reason why companies such as Apple, Google, McKinsey, Procter & Gamble are just a few among a number of corporations that run mindfulness programmes for their employees. When practised consistently and with commitment, mindfulness provides a wealth of emotional, mental and physiological benefits.
Mindfulness at work
In their book, Designing Your Life, Bill Burnett and Dave Evan talk about “gravity problems” we all share. The term describes the issues we face that we can’t, for the moment at least, do anything about. For example, if you have a demanding job, the chances are that it will remain a demanding for the foreseeable future.
What you can change, however, is your relationship to your reality as you find it, to become mindful of how you can respond to challenging situations rather than remain at the mercy of impulses and reactions. While developing a mindfulness practice does take time, both ancient wisdom and modern research strongly suggest that the effort of developing mindfulness is worthwhile in a number of ways.
While mindfulness has been shown to be effective in reducing stress levels, it’s important to keep in mind that it is a practice – the benefits of which increase over a period of consistent practice. It’s like going to the gym: you can’t become an Olympic athlete in your first week – but you do gain immediate benefits from exercising, which continue to grow as you continue to exercise appropriately. The same is true of mindfulness: regular practice offers more and more benefits over time.
Our careers are likely to span a number of decades, and while we can never control external circumstances, we are able to shape and influence how we conduct ourselves within the circumstances we face. Either way, each of us will often encounter circumstances that are less than agreeable to us.
With that in mind, it’s with a great sense of urgency that we should at least consider the benefits of mindfulness, and make a commitment to ourselves to take the time to engage in a few simple practices that have been shown to reduce stress, anxiety and depression, and boost our emotional well-being and mental resilience.
Try This: 3 mindfulness practices to use at work
- If you have a presentation to give or a meeting to attend – or there’s anything challenging in your schedule during the day – take some time to take some deep breaths: breathe in for a count of four; hold your breath for a count of seven; and then breathe out slowly-but-firmly through a partially closed mouth (as though you’re whistling) for a count of eight. Repeat this four times. The exercise expands the arteries, increases flow of oxygenated blood, and reduces the fight-or-flight-response.
- At some point in your day, spend five minutes doing nothing. Close your eyes and focus on the experience of your natural breathing and note the sensations in your body. Bring your attention to yourself and be in the moment, without clinging to any expectation or judgement.
- Whenever you feel an uncomfortable emotion arise, rather than getting caught up in it or trying to suppress it, try to observe it as it is, reminding yourself that emotions are like weather clouds – they soon pass. By consciously observing in this way, negative emotions will soon begin to lessen in their potency as we observe, and cease to identify ourselves with them (e.g. I am angry vs. I am feeling angry).
 Cash, M., & Whittingham, K. (2010). What facets of mindfulness contribute to psychological well-being and depressive, anxious, and stress-related symptomology? Springer Science + Business Media, Mindfulness (2010), 177-182