By MCC member Jackie Smyth of The Fairlight Project (http://thefairlightproject.com/)
Government statistics (http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/overall/hssh1415.pdf) show that as the UK economy has moved from the industrial into the service sector, so stress, depression or anxiety now outstrip musculoskeletal disorders as the most cited self-reported illnesses “caused or made worse by work”.
The impact of this on productivity, and the days lost to business are clear. The question, then, is what can companies do to support their people in their mental health and wellbeing?
One approach that is gaining popularity – and credibility – is the practice of mindfulness, and the results it is getting in developing resilience for people in the workplace. In outline, mindfulness is described as a “way of being” and/or a way of literally, “coming to your senses”. It helps people – through meditation and learning to break unhelpful thinking habits and cycles – to restore equilibrium and boost resilience.
By resilience, we’re talking about “a person’s ability to get through difficult circumstances without lasting psychological damage”1. Or at a more day-to-day level, it’s the ability to recover from setbacks, to bounce back, and adapt well to change, encompassing tenacity and perseverance.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, Professor of Medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the ‘founding father’ of the mindfulness movement, tested whether meditation/mindfulness could boost peoples’ scores against these resilience traits. The results were clear: not only did the participants feel happier, more energised and less stressed, they also felt that they had more control over their lives, and that challenges were opportunities more than threats2.
These outcomes were supported by the neuroscientific community. A 2012 study by Harvard Medical School-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston University using brain imaging techniques, found that the effects of meditation (for people who have been meditating for 8 weeks) on the amygdala – the part of the brain associated with emotions and specifically, the stress response – can be seen even when they are not actively meditating. And as the amygdala activity decreases, so the prefrontal cortex thickens. What this means is that in effect, the brain is moving out of stress (fight or flight) mode towards the higher brain functions of awareness, concentration and decision-making. Or to put it another way, the more primal responses to stress are being superseded by more thoughtful ones.
Brain bit over. But what the experts can now prove is that the links between mindfulness and resilience really do appear to be there. According to the Britain At Work survey published on 14 April 2016 (http://lansons.com/download-britain-work-2016/) almost a quarter (21%) of employees in the study said they do not receive any health or wellbeing benefits from their organisations, with almost one in four (24%) saying that they had had to miss work over the past 12 months because of stress-related conditions.
Stress in the workplace is now a major factor for UK business, and unless it is addressed and checked, its impact on productivity will only increase. Against this, the growing body of evidence of the efficacy of mindfulness and its ability to boost resilience to counter workplace stress, is gaining in credibility. Given these factors, adopting a mindfulness approach to managing stress at work must surely be a win-win for all?
1 Linda Lantieri, Director of New York-based Inner Resilience Program
2 Mindfulness: A Practical Guide To Finding Peace In A Frantic World (Mark Williams and Danny Penman, 2011)
The Fairlight Project ( http://thefairlightproject.com/ )is a behavioural management consultancy working with businesses to manage the cultural challenges of corporate growth and change