mentally” by Jon Kabat-Zinn, profes- sor of medicine emeritus at the Univer- sity of Massachusetts Medical School. When he developed the popular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, he integrated science, yoga practice, and Buddhist teachings. The antithesis of multitasking, mindfulness has captured widespread attention, especially in medical, tech- nical, and creative fields, where calm, clear-thinking, creative employees are highly valued. In mid-2016, 22% of the companies surveyed by the National Business Group on Health and Fidelity Investments had imple- mented mindfulness training pro- grams, and another 21% were consid- ering adding one in 2017. Mindfulness training is the logical extension of corporate wellness pro- grams. Companies and individuals invest billions of dollars and hours in physical fitness programs, gym mem- berships, exercise equipment and attire, and trainer fees. Yet in most work environments, mental capacity is much more critical than physical prowess. Think of mindfulness practice as brain training. Those who find them- selves planning their third meeting of the day while the second meeting is still underway, who allow their cell phones to interrupt any- and every- thing they do, and whose minds wan- der while they are reading—and then have no idea what they just read—may benefit from mindfulness training. A mindfulness class looks like a group meditation session, which it basically is. But instead of escaping one’s immediate surroundings (the goal of many types of meditation), mindfulness students focus on the present, specifically one’s breathing. As external stimuli interrupt (e.g., voices, a breeze) and thoughts arise (e.g., what’s for lunch), mindfulness practitioners acknowledge the inter- ruption, without judgment (e.g., stop thinking about lunch!), and refocus their attention on their breath. It sounds so simple, and in many ways it is. But the impact is profound when employees learn to decouple thoughts from emotions; eliminate knee-jerk responses; and generate more rational, thoughtful decisions. Researchers at Harvard have found that mindfulness practice actually al- ters neural pathways in the brain, disrupting autopilot reactions and prompting fresh responses to familiar stimuli. Neuroscientists at the University of California at Los Angeles found that mindfulness practitioners access more of the brain’s circuitry, specifically, increased activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which helps manage emotions. Another mindfulness technique— “beginner mind”—encourages practi- tioners to approach a familiar situa- tion or activity as if encountering it for the first time, pondering what, why, and how, instead of plowing through the experience on autopilot. Beneficial results of mindfulness training are re- ported by thousands of employees: im- proved focus, greater clarity of think- ing, more effective communication, better memory, greater cognitive flex- ibility, improved intuition, more inno- vation, deeper self-insight, stronger decision-making, more effective stra- tegic thinking, healthier relationships, and lower stress. Documented Gains The Association for Talent Develop- ment published specific mindfulness outcomes reported by a number of well-known corporations. At Intel, where 1,500 employees completed a nine-week mindfulness program, participants reported an increase in creativity, mental clarity, insights, and original ideas. After General Mills’s seven-week mindfulness and meditation program was completed by 500 employees and 90 corporate leaders, 89% of the leaders reported that they had become better listeners, while 80% said their decision-making had improved. Additionally, 50,000 Aetna employees completed either a mindfulness or a yoga class and generated $9 million in healthcare savings. In “Mindfulness Isn’t Supposed to Be a Cure-All,” Workforce mag- azine Associate Editor Andie Burjek acknowledged that employees’ mind- fulness won’t eliminate organizational issues, such as low wages and unclear performance expectations, but she made a case for the potential benefits of such a program using a quote from Ruth Hunt, principal for Xerox HR Services: “Mindfulness training is not a panacea; it’s not going to solve all the world’s problems. However, it’s one of many tools that employers can offer, along with others like stress manage- ment or resiliency programs, that address the stress in many employees’ lives. For some individuals, it may just give them the skills and permission to engage in healthier actions, to be able to get something done without being paralyzed by distractions.” Attuned to the significant and esca- lating cost of stress, a growing num- ber of employers are strengthening employees’ mental and physical capa- bilities through wellness and mindful- ness training programs. ; Niehaus, LEED GA, is an instructional designer and writer and the president and founder of Communication by Design ( communicationbydesign.net). She can be reached at 314-644-4135 or Jan@ CommunicationByDesign.net.
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