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Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the mindfulness-based stress reduction programme defines mindfulness as ‘paying attention in a particular kind of way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally’. In other words, to be mindful is to engage in whatever it is that you are doing with complete intentionality and awareness; to not be mindful is to let your mind wander. When you are mindful, you don’t ruminate over details of conversations or contemplate the ‘what ifs’. These types of beliefs can heighten someone’s risk for depression, as people who are diagnosed with depression often dwell on the past. Depression is a debilitating illness which has no easy remedy – but as Kabat-Zinn teaches, often the first step to recovery starts with being more mindful.
When a thought comes up, a mindful person doesn’t interpret the meaning of it and instead they let it pass. The consequence of this is that they refrain from letting self-talk and emotions cloud their judgement, making them react in unhelpful ways. By establishing some distance from their own thoughts, they reduce the automaticity of their reactions. For some people, this means they don’t explode when their boss confronts them about underperformance or they are better able to stop personal stress from interfering with their relationships at work.
Mindful people perform better because they dedicate all their cognitive resources to the task at hand. They are not thinking about the argument they had in the morning or what they are having for dinner later. When distractions are attended to, they have to divide their attention between several things. When this happens they can run into trouble. I recall one particular day when I was talking to my boss while pouring freshly boiled water into a mug. I managed to pour it onto my hand because I didn’t think pouring water required as much of my attention and focused mainly on the conversation. Fortunately, I was quick enough to stick my hand under a running tap so I didn’t end up with visible scars. But that incident shocked me enough so that in the future I didn’t multitask when a second of negligence could result in serious consequences.
Receiving performance evaluations
When people are mindful, they don’t think of negative feedback as an attack on their character or worth. They don’t worry about what a colleague or superior thinks of them after they have been told off. Instead, they accept that they didn’t perform to a certain standard and will adjust their performance accordingly. Why think unhelpful thoughts such as ‘Now she won’t promote me for another year’ when you can think of ways to better your performance? Although it is an unpleasant situation that nobody wants to be in, it can be made better with the right kind of thinking.
Dealing with stress
When people are mindful, their working memory capacity is at its greatest and they don’t react to stressors as strongly. If they’re thinking about how to confront a colleague who has been stealing their ideas when they need to be tutoring a social psychology class, they probably won’t be teaching very well or be enjoying it either. It’s possible the conflicted tutor might not even be able to remember the material they prepared to answer a student’s question because they are overwhelmed with distracting thoughts. When people process emotional stimuli in a mindful way, they don’t let their emotions get the better of them. This allows them to maintain a calm detachment during tense work situations when others feel anything but cool, calm or collected.
Interacting with colleagues
Mindful people are more prosocial, more compassionate and are better listeners. They deal with annoyances with open-mindedness and empathy. For example, if in a team project your colleague’s contribution is below standard, try not to assume they are attempting to undermine your work. Perhaps they are having a bad day or they weren’t entirely familiar with the requirements of their role. Instead of launching into a tirade or thinking they shouldn’t be allowed to work on challenging projects, you can be mindful by asking them if you can do anything to help. Often, people attribute someone’s character from a brief encounter as they mistakenly think it’s a complete and accurate representation of them. It’s not enough to glean information about someone’s personality outside of work, their strengths or how dedicated they are to the organisation. Showing mindfulness through compassion towards others goes a long way.
When people are mindful, they are more mentally healthy as they don’t perceive situations as being more stressful than they actually are. Over time, people who engage in mindful practices are physiologically and psychologically less reactive towards stress. If the boss has reprimanded them for not performing to a certain standard, a person who has been mindful won’t worry the boss thinks they’re a bad employee and then begin to sweat profusely. They won’t catastrophise and mull over the experience for an inordinately long time after the event. A mindful person will choose an appropriate reaction over a maladaptive one. Then by overcoming adversity at work, their coping self-efficacy improves and it makes them more confident at achieving organisational goals. Restructuring their thoughts can motivate them to become more productive employees.
There is a strong business case for mindfulness at work. While focus is essential for keeping us safe, it also allows us to flourish. What happens when you work with people who continually complain about a new management style or bring their stresses into work? Individual productivity decreases, morale declines and business can ultimately suffer. On the other hand, a mindful person focuses on what needs to be done and leaves the drama aside.
Lauren Mak did her degree in psychology from the University of Sydney.
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