Introduction to Reducing Workplace Stress with Mindfulness

Updated August 09, 2018 - Max Barnard

Work-related stress is one of the greatest causes of poor physical and mental health. Jon Kabat-Zinn noticed this link between stress and ill-health and in 1979 he created a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course which led to significant improvements for his chronically ill participants.

From this work mindfulness has continually gained popularity and is widely recognised for its value in reducing stress and increasing resilience to it. In this article we have provided an introduction into using mindfulness to reduce workplace stress.

What is mindfulness?

Have you ever driven to work and not remembered the journey? Eaten a bar of chocolate without realising? These are examples of operating on auto-pilot and it's easy to fall into this habit in our busy lives. This is the opposite of mindfulness.

Now imagine eating that chocolate bar and savouring every bite. You use all your senses to focus on its smell, taste, texture and you find that each bite is more satisfying than usual. This is a simple example of mindfulness - where you pay close attention to your present moment experiences. This helps you enjoy the world around you more and you begin to experience things you have taken for granted in a new way.

You also understand yourself better because you become more aware of your thoughts, feelings and reactions. This is described in more detail later but it's important to note that this awareness helps you notice signs of stress early and deal with it more effectively.

To sum up: mindfulness is being right here, right now, so you are fully involved in the present moment.

Attentional skills

When you practice mindfulness you're refining three attentional skills:

  • Concentration – you are able to focus on something for as long as you want to without the usual distracting thoughts getting in the way of completing the task.
  • Clarity of thought - having a fair judgement and observing what is actually happening rather than your own judgement obscuring the situation.
  • Equanimity - accepting that you cannot change certain situations so you go along with it calmly.

Get past the initial stigma

When it comes to mindfulness, there still tends to be an underlying cultural scepticism in Western societies that forms of knowledge that have originated anywhere other than the West are unscientific and ultimately muddle-headed.

Unfortunately mindfulness, which is rapidly gaining in popularity, is often misrepresented by individuals or groups thereby repelling those that have not been introduced to the practice. In other words, when we talk about spirituality and the context of modern mindfulness, we need not to be talking about new ages and the hippie movement. We need not be talking about something that opposes scientific method, reason or tool.

Mindfulness for reducing workplace stress

It's often our anxiety about the tension between scientific rationality and spirituality that is the reason why mindfulness remains mysterious and provocative today. So even if you’re not someone who worries about this personally, the chances are that you live in a society in which this is a general concern of modernity.

How can mindfulness help?

Mindfulness helps reduce stress by:

  • Decreasing blood pressure.
  • Increasing immune function.
  • Regulating the heart.
  • Enhancing memory.
  • Decreasing levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.
  • Helping you focus which consequently makes you feel calmer. This will also help you work more effectively as you will be able to "get into the zone" more easily - this is called "flow" in mindfulness teachings.
  • Teaching you how to become an observer of your thoughts - you can step back from your thoughts and not take them so seriously. This prevents your stress response from being activated as you won't interpret situations as threats.
  • Increasing your awareness of others' emotions thus reducing your chances of conflict.
  • Instead of immediately reacting to a situation and potentially reacting poorly and feeling more stressed, you will pause and come up with a reasonable reaction.
  • Making you more aware of your body's needs - you will notice your symptoms of stress or ill-health early.
  • Increasing your compassion for yourself and others which is calming.
  • Research has shown that the amygdala, a part of the brain responsible for the activation of the stress response, decreases in brain cell volume after mindfulness exercises. There are many other links between mindfulness and changes in the brain.

Supporting research

One of these brain areas is the hippocampus:

In Hölzel et al's (2011) study, participants completed an eight-week mindfulness course. After the eight weeks they found significant increases in the density of grey matter in the participants' hippocampi. This is important because the hippocampus is covered in receptors for the stress hormone cortisol.

Also studies have shown that the hippocampus can be damaged by chronic stress and this is smaller in people with stress-related disorders. This again suggests that mindfulness can lead to changes in the brain which can increase stress resilience.

There are many studies showing that mindfulness reduces stress. In Mulla et al's (2017) study, 22 executives from an oil company completed a sixteen-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course. Recordings were taken before and after the program and the measures were:

  • Blood cortisol levels
  • Blood pressure
  • Self-reports of stress
  • Self-reports of physical and emotional health

After course completion participants reported less stress, improved physical and emotional health, improved sleep and better health-related behaviours. There were significant declines in blood cortisol levels and blood pressure. This, as well as many other studies, suggest that mindfulness helps reduce stress.

These are just two studies showing the positive effects of mindfulness on stress but there are many more.

Benefit of mindfulness for employers

Research has shown that stressed workers are less engaged, less productive and have higher levels of absenteeism and turnover. By encouraging mindfulness employees will learn how to manage stress better and become more resilient to it. This will subsequently will help you tackle the problems stress can have on your staff.

There is also evidence suggesting that mindfulness can increase morale, productivity and creativity. Large corporations are even providing mindfulness programs to employees, such as Google who offer "Mindful Lunches" consisting of staff eating in silence.

How to approach mindfulness

A good place to start is to approach mindfulness with sincerity, not seriousness. This is an effective indicator of where you currently stand: if you find that the seriousness is leaving situations then you’re beginning to receive the benefits of mindfulness. View this as a light-hearted teaching that is pointing you in a positive direction. Listen to some Alan Watts or Eckhart Tolle, there is almost always an underlying element of humour in their teachings.

It can be hard to accept teachings which make light of situations your mind has labelled serious. Breaking the mind stream with meditation techniques provides an opening for deeply rooted thoughts to be removed creating space for a light-hearted approach to life. Remember, life is a game.

You can’t stop thinking

You're probably used to feeling like you're in control and you try to control everything around you: your situation, your circumstances etc. But it's unlikely that you are actually in control of your mind and your thinking. For the majority of your day, your mind has your full attention and is providing you with a sort of inner-dialogue. You can’t stop thinking. It is like an inner voice that is running throughout the day.

When I first heard about this inner voice I definitely wasn’t aware of mine and didn't know what these teachers were talking about. Now I realise that the reason I wasn’t aware of it was because I didn’t know life without that constant inner voice.

Imagine if from the day you were born you were exposed to a non-stop whistle - right now you wouldn’t be aware of that whistle at all. That is what thinking and your inner voice is like. If you can’t see it then you have never had a long enough break from it to realise that it is occurring. You have probably had glimpses of “no-thought” but not enough to realise the significance of it.

Reduce the amount you use your mind

So for now, just realise that you will have an inner voice that comes from your mind and mindfulness is largely about reducing the amount you use your mind. Incidentally, this is why Eckhart Tolle doesn’t like to use the word “mindfulness” because it implies your mind should be full when in fact the teaching points towards emptying your mind.

Right now you might be asking: “Okay, I’m not aware of my inner voice but even if I was what is so bad about having this inner voice?” Essentially, what difference does it make if I’m aware of this inner voice or not?

For most people the mind creating the inner voice has stopped being a tool, which is what the mind should be, and has instead taken over the way you live your life. The mind is creating all sorts of unnecessary suffering for you and because most people live in a way that they are dominated by their mind, it appears normal. It isn't normal. It's not how human beings are supposed to live.

Eckhart Tolle seminar

Eckhart Tolle talking at a seminar.

The mind is what gets you thinking far too much about the past and the future, ultimately taking you out of the present moment. It also generates your ego or perception of yourself which you constantly try to protect and enhance, creating a lot of friction in your everyday life. Killingsworth and Gilbert (2010) found that people spend 46.9% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what is currently happening/what they are doing and this generally makes them feel unhappy.

For example, you may be working on a project with a deadline rapidly approaching. As the deadline gets nearer, your attention shifts more and more away from the task at hand to your perceived consequences if the task doesn’t get done the way you think it should be done.

This thinking could reduce your productivity and you may even begin thinking about how your productivity has dropped in the past and start beating yourself up for repeating a negative behaviour. Your prediction of the future consequences are almost never accurate.

Remarkably you quickly forget how wrong your prediction was to the point where when the next deadline comes around, you repeat the same process of formulating worrying and incorrect predictions about the future. That being said, we can render most thinking about the future or the past useless when it comes to performing a task effectively. In fact, these thoughts not only hinder productivity due to the fact that they are taking your attention away from the, but they also trigger negative emotions that massively impact your wellbeing and productivity.

This topic is so detailed it will have a blog to itself in the near future. I have outlined some of the key points in case you want to look into them further but I’m aware that it is not enough of an explanation for you to realise how detrimental allowing yourself to be taken over by your mind and inner voice can be.

So, don’t be at all disappointed if you still can’t see why being run by your mind is a bad thing. This can just be a guideline for when you look deeper into mindfulness.

Learn to identify when your mind takes over

Not living your life through your mind is a major hurdle for most, and one that keeps on coming up. You do however learn ways to identify when your mind has taken over and also ways to more easily move away from your mind. The more you practice this, the easier it becomes.

Essentially you are re-learning how to go about your daily life so it does take time to break old habits and get over the addiction of thinking. Eckhart Tolle talks more in depth about how thinking is the biggest addiction out there - I would suggest looking at what he has got to say about it.

Tips for identifying when you mind has taken over:

  • Focus on something deeply. This can be your breath, the sound of a plane passing overhead, the feeling in your hands, whatever. The point here is to draw your attention away from your mind so you can more easily catch the mind coming in again.
  • Throughout the day regularly practice focusing on your breath. It can only be for three or four breaths but doing this often is the best way to provide some pauses from the stream of thinking.
  • If you find yourself on a break, making a cup of tea, really focus on the activity. Put your attention on the water from the kettle filling up the cup. All the little breaks you take throughout the day, put all your attention into them. The simple things is where our mind wanders the most.
  • If you realise you have been making a tea and your mind has been wondering all over the place for the last five minutes, don’t beat yourself up! This is going to happen a lot. Giving yourself a hard time just generates more thoughts which bring up negative emotions. Accept it and focus on the rest of the process, for example, be attentive to the sounds and sights as you take the tea back to your desk. Use the fact that you caught yourself lost in thought to perform the next actions concentrating on the present moment.
  • Whenever you’re experiencing a negative emotion, put your attention on that emotion as best as possible. Couple this with focusing on your breathing. It was likely a thought you believe to be important (in reality I can promise you the thought is not important) is what caused the negative emotion. Focusing on the emotion and breathing prevent the thoughts going further and break the negative spiral.

At this stage, the most important thing is patience. Remember, don’t be so serious - contrary to a lot of your previous achievements, this is an area where trying too hard can hinder you.

How to be more mindful

Observe your mind and body: Notice your thoughts, emotions and reactions to the world around you. Pay particular attention to any patterns that occur. This will help you to avoid taking your thoughts so seriously.

Don't judge your thoughts: You might experience a lot of thoughts and worries. Mindfulness isn't about making them go away, it's about viewing them just as mental events. View these thoughts as clouds, coming and going without you having to engage with them. This is difficult at first but with practice it gets easier.

Label thoughts and emotions: Some people find it helpful to develop an awareness of thoughts and emotions by naming them, for example "This is anxiety", or "This is a thought that I might embarrass myself." You detach from the thought in this way because the label won't produce an emotion. Note that the next step is to detach yourself from the labelling thoughts and be fully in the present moment.

Mindfulness for reducing workplace stress

Notice the everyday: Notice your everyday experiences through the five senses. This will interrupt the autopilot mode and provide you with new perspectives on the world and life. It's easy to incorporate these informal practices into your daily life, for example, on your way to work you may focus on the journey. What are you seeing/smelling/hearing/tasting/feeling? What have you never noticed before? Become aware of your body, the feeling of your feet on the floor, the breeze hitting your exposed hands and face etc.

Practice regularly: It can be a helpful to pick a time everyday where you will focus on the present until you get used doing this, for example, you may choose to be mindful on the journey to work.

Create reminders: Your default is to be lost in your own thoughts so select reminders which frequently appear during your day. For example, you may assign the phone ringing as a reminder and when it rings, rather than thinking "Oh no, what if..." you take a mindful breath, come into the present and answer the call. Perhaps when your phone vibrates when receiving a text message, pause to be mindful of your surroundings instead of instantly checking the text. Or when you come across a stop sign or a red traffic light come into the present again. Take a step back and reflect rather than instantly responding to your demands. You can also create more formal reminders by:

  • Setting an alarm
  • Placing a note or image on your desk
  • Associating certain activities with mindfulness
  • Putting reminders in your calendar

Try something new: Trying new things, such as going somewhere different for lunch can help you see the world differently.

Recognise when you are thinking about the past and future: Recognise when you have been trapped reliving past problems or future worries. Realise that these do not exist because you are in the present.

Accept what you cannot change: You cannot control everything, for example, if you have made a mistake the first thing you need to do is accept it and then you can manage the situation. Lack of acceptance can lead to further problems.

Concentrate on your breathing: You can engage in some simple mindfulness exercises throughout the day. There are two techniques:

  • See if you can follow the flow of air into your lungs as you inhale and then follow the flow of air back out on the exhale.
  • Focus on the sensation as the air flows through your nostrils or mouth on inhalation and exhalation.

These sessions can last for only three or four breaths but they should be done regularly throughout the day. You can even engage in them whilst having a conversation with someone.

Remember that mindful exercises can be as short or long as you prefer. When you're feeling very stressed a simple and short mindfulness exercise can really help you.

What do you want to achieve with mindfulness?

Ask yourself why you want to master this? Why are you looking into mindfulness? You need to be okay with eliminating your desire to enhance your self-image or ego. It's easy to have the desire to understand these teachings so you can use it to enhance your self-image.

You have to work on letting go of this way of looking at it. A good indicator that you’re in the right place is if you are truly deep down okay with not achieving anything noteworthy. It takes time to get there and sounds like a negative aspiration but it’s not.

Now, being okay with not achieving anything is different to not actually achieving anything. You will eventually get to the stage where you can treat the external world almost as a playground. You still have goals but they become more enjoyable which often coincides with drastically increasing your chances of achieving them.

You keep your primary way of living as being, and then from that point you go for your external goals from the right place. Reducing the amount your mind runs your life means you spend much more time in the present rather than worrying about the past or the future.

We’ll cover how much more effective you will be in the external world when you sort out your inner world in the future, but for now just bear in mind that sorting out the inner is primary and the rest follows.