Reduce Workplace Stress Through Mindfulness

When most American’s think of the act of mindfulness, they picture someone meditating. The truth is, mindfulness and meditation are two different things. Meditation is just one of the many practices that are used to achieve mindfulness, but there are many things one can do to be more mindful without hitting the meditation cushion.

Mindfulness, by definition, is known to be a therapeutic technique that brings a person to a clearer, calmer mental state. It’s said to be achieved when one focuses their awareness on the present moment. There’s a process when one does this that involves acceptance of their own feelings, physical and mental, and their thoughts.

The practice of mindfulness has gained widespread, mainstream popularity in many of the nation’s largest companies. Major conglomerates like Google, Aetna, General Mills, and Intel, just to name a few, make space for mindfulness training and practice with their employees. Specifically, companies are using Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR, to help support employees. Statistics show that employees that use these techniques are calmer, more focused, and all around happier in the workplace.

Stress is not only unpleasant, but it can trigger a ton of serious health problems. This is mainly because stress has been proven to suppress the immune system. Chronic stress, like that experienced daily at the workplace, can wreak havoc on the body. Stress has been linked to everything from minor ailments like headaches to more serious conditions like ulcers. It creates anxiety, which is a terrible state to suffer through and has a major effect on motivation and productivity.

You do not have to be a yogi or have an intense meditation training to practice mindfulness as a way to lower workplace stress. Mindfulness starts with simply paying attention. We have become a nation on autopilot. Research shows that American’s spend 47% of their day thinking about something other than what they are doing. Add stress to the mix and that number shoots up even higher. We spend so much time with thoughts that have nothing to do with the task at hand. Add in worrying and ruminating to the mix, and it’s likely that way more than half of the day is spent not paying attention. We are full of thoughts, but still rather thoughtless towards our main objectives, which in the workplace is, of course, our work.

With mindfulness, the objective is to train your brain to focus better. This practice reduces those thoughts that keep us “busy”, but not productive. The main byproduct of doing this is a major decrease in the stress that is triggered from all of the consuming – and mostly useless – thinking about things other than what you are doing. The best place to start is becoming comfortable in the now. There are many exercises that can help you achieve that.

Beginning in the morning is key. When we wake up, we naturally think about the future – what lies in the day ahead. This triggers the fight-or-flight instinct and releases the stress hormone cortisol into our bodies, just minutes after we wake. Learn to set yourself up for success by retraining your brain to be present and still for a few moments before that flood of thoughts comes rushing in.

The key is not to stop the thoughts, but to notice them and label them as useless. Over time, they become less impactful and shorter in duration, allowing more space for focus. Simply sit up in your bed before rising and be still for a couple of minutes, noticing your breath and letting any intrusive thoughts pass through without focusing them. It may be helpful to envision the thoughts as text scrolling by. Simply let it scroll and try not to read it. You’ll use this two to three-minute practice throughout your day.

On the way to work, try to make a portion of your commute silent. Take time to practice just noticing what’s happening and not distracting yourself with noise, like music or podcasts. Once you get to work, do the exact same practice you did when you woke up at your desk for a few moments before beginning the workday. Begin to identify attention seeking triggers throughout your day. Try to take a break for a few minutes several times per day and do that two to three minute practiced you started in the morning.

One very prominent attention thief are e-mails. They come flying in all day long and, regardless of their priority, each gets your attention. The same with text messages and social media comments. There’s a scientific reason for this. The task of checking these messages happens very quickly, and quickly accomplished tasks release the feel-good hormone dopamine in our brains.  It literally makes us addicts of these tasks that take our attention. Start breaking the addiction. Don’t check your e-mail as the first thing you do. Use a priority setting tool – such as filtering e-mails by company roles so you see the manager and collaborative colleagues e-mails first. You can find a slew of other great tips here.

The goal is to begin focusing your awareness on what’s important and reducing distractions.  Noticing when you become overwhelmed and identifying the feeling can be a very powerful way to reduce its impact. You can also practice simple awareness with the most mundane tasks, like hand washing or coffee making. Mindful eating is a great example of this, with wonderful benefits. Many people feel crunched for time, or simply famished by lunchtime and tend to eat too much too fast. This can lead to an energy crash later in the day, which is a ripe environment for stressors.

Another mindful key is to begin accepting the things you cannot change. This can be an extremely liberating and life-changing practice. Making the decision to not fret over inevitable things frees up so much time to focus on the things you can change. Your shift to making an impact rather than wasting time (and creating stress) is a core element in living a mindful life. In a work environment, it helps you accomplish more because it keeps you squarely in your lane, where productivity matters the most. Many people find that the antidote to worry is gratitude. A good gratitude practice can help you along this process. Here’s a great introduction to gratitude practices.  

It’s also important to learn how to leave work at work. In order to recharge and have the brainpower to be focused, you naturally need a break. With what seems like never-ending to-do lists, and increasing pressure from employers, many people stay attached to work well into their time off.  Unplugging –  literally – is crucial in combatting workplace stress. Working all the time is proven to create burnout, a very real condition that many of American’s live perpetually in. If you feel that non-stop connection is a demand from your boss, there are ways to gently take that pressure off. Check out this article for great tips on talking to your employer. Whatever you do, find some quiet time to yourself every day, ideally for at least thirty minutes.

Transform the time you create for yourself by learning new strategies that support mindfulness. These include meditation. There are some practical tips here. There are a number of meditation applications, such as the Calm app, that can help guide you through simple and effective meditation practices. Remembering to be mindful in your personal time will help support your mindfulness practice at work. Remember, concentration is a skill. You are creating a new habit and it will take practice. Over time, most people notice a slow and steady shift to a less tense, more enjoyable workday when they strive to be mindful. Your life is so dear, and it’s made out of time, which is a precious commodity. Learning to slow down will help you appreciate your days so much more, even while meeting the demands of your career.