The pressure on organizational leaders and professionals is increasing with the pace of change, the volume of information available, and the scale of complexity. Our ability to focus at work is declining due to information overload and distractions. Resilience is all about our capacity to handle difficulties, demands and high pressure without becoming stressed.
According to Hougaard, “researchers studying the mind’s natural tendency to wander calculated that on average our mind wanders 46.9% of the time; (...) in other words, while at work, 53.1% of the time our mind is on task” (2018). This is highly problematic. Since we live in an era that has been often described as the “attention economy”, any tangible tool helping individuals to develop the brain regions associated with focused attention is worth examining further.
What is mindfulness and how can it help? Mindfulness is about being our best self every day. Dr. Kabat-Zinn who pioneered bringing the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program in the 1980’s to medical centers worldwide, coined the definition of mindfulness as “the awareness that arises by paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” (2005, 2013). As Dr. Viktor E. Frankl (the famous Austrian-Jewish psychotherapist who survived the Holocaust) said: "between stimulus and response there is a space… in that space is our power to choose our response… in our response lies our growth and our freedom (2018)". Since there has been a lot of scientific research on the benefits of mindfulness (especially in the last 15-20 years as the amount of positive evidence is growing) this article will share some of the highlights.
Several researchers from the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology conducted a very important meta-analysis study on “the impact of mindfulness on well-being and performance in the workplace”, which included a “systematic review of the empirical literature” on the topic (Lomas, Medina, Ivtzan, Rupprecht, Hart, and Orosa, 2017). As the authors described, the reality is that today’s workplaces impose many challenges which can be “detrimental to the physical and mental health of workers”. The observed interventions based on mindfulness training were generally associated with consistently positive outcomes in the following measures: increased awareness, concentration, and well-being, and improved work performance. Participants across the 150 studies that were examined, also frequently reported decreases in stress, anger, burnout, anxiety, and depression.
Furthermore, as summarized by Tang and Posner, “recent studies indicated [that] mindfulness meditation improves attention and self-regulation, which has the potential for stress-reduction, well-being, performance improvement, and the like” (2018). The authors demonstrate significant neurological evidence, obtained through brain scanning techniques (fMRI), on how the brain mechanisms which are typically better developed in long-term mindfulness practitioners; also tend to overlap with the brain regions responsible for attention, such as: the prefrontal cortex, midfrontal, and parietal cortex (2018).
Improved Cognitive Functions
Studies have shown that regular mindfulness training results in improved cognitive functions. This is because of brain plasticity or neuroplasticity (Herring et al, 2016). The neurological underwiring of our brains essentially changes and adapts as a result of our life experiences or deliberate training. The positive effects that mindfulness practice has on our cognitive functions includes specifically the areas of selective attention, memory and executive functions. Understanding this process even just a little bit better, helps us to literally become masters of our own fate. For more details on this topic, please check out this blog post.
In his flagship book, Full Catastrophe Living, Dr. Kabat-Zinn describes in detail the physiology of the fight-or-flight (typically stress induced) reaction on our human body which heavily impacts all major neurological networks (2013). On the flipside, the same diagram revised by Dr. Kabat-Zinn describes the mindfulness-mediated stress response; which also affects the: hypothalamus, pituitary gland, adrenals, autonomic nervous system, and the immune system; although to a lesser extent. Furthermore, the mindfulness-mediated stress reaction includes: “possible arousal, but also an awareness of the body: breathing, sensations, awareness of thoughts and emotions, greater acceptance; awareness of the full context, emotions-focused strategies, seeing new options, quick recovery of mental equilibrium and allostasis” (2013). The second alternative stress response undoubtedly sounds like a way better option! For more information on this topic, please check out this blog post.
David Rock offers the following definition of emotional intelligence: “[it] involves the ability to perceive, assess, and positively influence one’s own and other people’s emotions and intentions” (2009). In other words, “emotional intelligence has come to refer to a person’s abilities to perceive, identify, understand, and successfully manage his or her emotions and the emotions of others” (Rock and Ringleb, 2013). As per Dr. Kirk, “self-control frees us from being prisoners of our feelings and emotions, and research shows that utilizing emotional-regulation strategies can change behaviour in dramatic ways” (2013). Since mindfulness training not only allows for greater levels of introspection, but also taps into the brains neuroplasticity and the ability to create new connections / new ways of responding to stressful situations, it supports the expression of more constructive emotional styles. For more information on this topic, please check out this blog post.
To summarize, the benefits of mindfulness on work performance span across many dimensions including improved cognitive functions, stress management, and emotional intelligence.
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Frankl, V. E. (1984). Man's search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Herring, J., Roche, M., & Masters, R. (2016). Mindful Rumination Aids High Performance Leadership in the Workplace. New Zealand Journal of Human Resources Management, 16, 19–31
Hougaard, R., & Carter, J. (2018). The Mindful Leader. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from http://www.hrb.org
Goleman, D. (2017). Emotional Intelligence – Here’s What Mindfulness Is (and Isn’t) Good For). Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from http://www.hrb.org
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full Catastrophe Living – Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. Bantam Books Trade Paperbacks. New York.
Kirk, U. (2013). Neural substrates of corporate decision making. Handbook of NeuroLeadership. (225 – 241). NeuroLeadership Institute.
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Lomas, T., Medina, J.C., Ivtzan, I., Rupprecht, S., Hart, R., & Eiroa-Orosa, F.J. (2017) The impact of mindfulness on well-being and performance in the workplace: an inclusive systematic review of the empirical literature, European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 26(4), 492-513, DOI: 10.1080/1359432X.2017.1308924
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Rock, D. (2007). Quiet Leadership – Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work. Harper. New York.
Rock, D., & Page, L. (2009). Coaching with the Brain in Mind – Foundations for Practice. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. New Jersey.
Rock, D., & Ringleb, A. H. (2013). The emerging field of neuroleadership. Handbook of NeuroLeadership. (3 – 31). NeuroLeadership Institute.
Ribera, A., & Guillen, J. L. (2014). Mindfulness and Business. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from http://www.hrb.org
Ribera, A., & Guillen, J. L. (2014). Mindfulness: Multiply Productivity Through Undivided Attention. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from http://www.hrb.org
Tan, C. M. (2012). Search Inside Yourself – the Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace). Harper One. Harper Collins Publishers.
Tang, Y., & Posner, M. I (2013). The neuroscience of mindfulness. Handbook of NeuroLeadership. (215 – 225) NeuroLeadership Institute.