Why is a Mindful Workplace Essential to Thrive in the New Era?

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By Peter Calin, Mindful Leader MBSR Instructor

The level of stress we’ve experienced in the past two years has increased significantly due to an environment full of uncertainty created by the pandemic, climate change, social unrest, inclusivity and diversity issues, a heightened awareness or concern for work-life balance, and a myriad of other factors.  As a result, the workplace is a fast-paced and stressful environment. How do leaders now lead their organizations in a global market that has clearly undergone significant change?  Even before these events, there was significant evidence that the old hierarchical organizational structures were antiquities that could not survive the new norm.  As a McKinsey study on future-readiness definitively stated, “any organization that isn’t seeking new approaches is on borrowed time.”

Burnout, Stress, and Wellbeing

Leaders themselves may be on borrowed time as the personal toll of the events of the past years become more evident and are studied further. A recent survey by Verizon Media and the mental health nonprofit Made of Millions has elucidated the emotional impact of the pandemic on management. Sixty-six percent of the 1,000 managers, human resource executives and corporate leaders polled confided that they had suffered from burnout over the past year–not surprising given that 76% of them felt overwhelmed managing their people. In a recent article I wrote, I noted that the WHO now refers to burnout as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Somewhat surprising, however, was that although only 28% of the Verizon study respondents confided that they themselves suffered mental health issues, 86% acknowledged that depression and grief had become more pervasive in the workplace overall. Nevertheless, 58% of those polled described their state of mental wellbeing as “healthy.”  

The study concluded that management was largely ill-prepared to help workers navigate the global health crisis, and they themselves struggled to juggle their own wellbeing, while ensuring the wellness of their people as well as keeping business on track during one of the most challenging times in modern history and, perhaps, in its aftermath.  Aaron Harvey, co-founder and executive director of Made of Millions shared, “There’s a lot of groundwork that needs to be done between managers and employees to better support mental health in the workplace.”  

A New Era Is Upon Us

Mindfulness is incredibly fertile soil for grounding managers and leaders in the skills needed to navigate not only the mental health challenges and stress in the work environment, but also in developing sustainable and mindful leadership as a new norm.

The McKinsey study speaks more eloquently to this:

“The pressure to change had been building for years. Well before the COVID-19 pandemic, senior executives routinely worried their organizations were too slow, too siloed, too bogged down in complicated matrix structures, too bureaucratic. What many leaders feared, and the pandemic confirms, is that their companies were organized for a world that is disappearing.”

Brigid Schulte, the Director of the Better Life Lab at New America, recently shared in an interview with Slate that she didn’t

“think that we should go back to the way it was. Work defined our lives before the pandemic, and it didn’t really work. If you were a professional with a college degree or more, or you worked on Wall Street, well, maybe it paid you a whole lot, but it also ate you alive. It costs health. It costs relationships…Work was the dominant force in our lives before the pandemic…so tied with identity and meaning, and…very complicated in the United States.”  

According to a Pew Research study, prior to the pandemic, 20% of the workforce worked from home all or most of the time. Now, roughly six-in-ten U.S. workers who say their jobs can mainly be done from home (59%) are working from home all or most of the time. Truly, this is a new era, a new environment that requires new, creative, sustainable, and effective approaches.

Why Mindfulness?

Many organizations have already implemented various aspects of mindfulness in leadership, wellbeing, and self-development programs. However, because of perceived time-constraints, organizations only offer abbreviated programs with little or no consideration of how important it is to nurture and foster the capacity awakened and developed through regular mindfulness practices.  

My retort to leaders and managers of organizations who are reluctant to commit the time is two-fold. First, perhaps, consider/realize that time is constrained because it’s already being wasted. In a 2010 Harvard study, researchers concluded that people are present, i.e., the mind is not wandering, only 47% of the time. Mindfulness practice is proven to develop the capacity to be more present moment-to-moment–or better said, less distracted 53% of the time!  What leader would not prefer to have their teams/employees more fully present?  Scientific studies have shown that mindfulness cultivates presentness. Second, top CEOs, business leaders, and athletes now understand that mindfulness practices–meditation, mindful movement, mindful attitudes of acceptance, non-judgment, patience, beginner’s mind/creativity/curiosity–all enhance peak performance.

Mindfulness is not about taking a prescriptive pill or turning on an illuminating (or enlightening) light switch. It’s not intended to fix or heal or repair anything. Perhaps, it is just a journey towards being present on purpose, by choice, without judgment, as Jon Kabat-Zinn defines it.  How do organizations reconcile this approach against mandated short-term, shareholder-driven objectives, especially given that mindfulness attitudes like non-judgment, patience, non-striving, acceptance, and pause could easily be misinterpreted as antithetical to the organization’s mission, however antiquated?  

Acknowledging and accepting the evidenced-based benefits of self-awareness and self-regulation, such as improved focus and clarity as well as resiliency and an evolutionary growth mindset, every organization and leader could use an infusion of mindfulness.  

For the past year, I have had the good fortune to work with one of the most forward-thinking organizational psychology minds in the world, Dr. Christine McCarthy of TEC Leadership Institute. For years, she has been coaching and promoting a more sustainable leadership style, a mindful leadership, rather than, as McKinsey warns, one that drives an organization solely focused on profits and shareholder returns. For many organizations, the pandemic and its aftermath have changed everything. The pain, grief, and economic challenges employees are facing will not vanish overnight.  Now more than ever, managers need to lead with empathy and compassion as they work to revitalize and re-energize their teams and organizations. Empathy and compassion are innate to mindfulness practices.

9 Foundational Attitudes

McCarthy’s approach helps organizations learn to develop their emotional intelligence and apply the capacity of mindful self-awareness of emotions and values, self-regulation, empathy and trust for social relationships–all of which are so necessary in managing today’s changed workforce.  Also, using mindfulness principles of awareness and presentness, leaders develop the capacity inherent to the 9 Foundational Attitudes of mindfulness (as coined by Jon Kabat-Zinn):

  1. Non-Judging
  2. Patience 
  3. Beginner’s Mind
  4. Trust
  5. Non-Striving
  6. Acceptance
  7. Letting Go
  8. Gratitude
  9. Generosity

Practice enhances and embodies awareness, presentness, and focus and clarity. The benefits are adaptivity, collaborative and trustful leadership, empowerment, and an inclusive and embracing diversity.  

In more practical terms, leaders learn and impart to their teams how to be aware of and manage stress, self-regulate, cultivate resilience, as well as develop self-compassion and compassion for others.  Also, through practiced, trained and developed awareness, leaders use a newfound/rediscovered and heightened capacity for focus and clarity on what matters are most important for the organization. 

A Growth Mindset

There are also elements of positive psychology interweaved that cultivate the leader’s own and others’ much needed (in this current uncertain and ambiguous environment) optimism. Leaders are taught to develop an optimistic explanatory style and use active constructive response techniques to build relationships, as well as lead through ambiguous stress (i.e., COVID). 

Finally, leaders are exposed to the cultivation of a growth mindset, wherein failure is accepted in a mindful way (rather than in the context of a blame culture) as a learning opportunity. They are taught to promote continuous lifelong learning and foster a learning culture throughout the organization (akin to the foundational attitude of a Beginner’s Mind). This mindset is something that high performing companies promote that encourages and supports people to adapt and reinvent themselves to meet shifting needs. By instilling this growth mindset, curiosity, creativity as well as an openness to experimentation and failure, organizations will encourage accelerated personal growth and improvement for their employees. 

Will your organization be ready for the new norm?  Even if you’re a middle-sized company, you could benefit enormously from leadership development programs. Not employing them could cost dearly. Whether a large or mid-size organization, perhaps a mindfulness infusion could help.

Peter Calin has been teaching for almost 10 years, has privately counseled and coached individuals on ways to manage trauma, anxiety, and stress and find balance, authentic purpose, and more joy and happiness in their lives. As an MBSR teacher, Peter has taught over a dozen MBSR training programs and workshops in the past three years. Peter is also an Ivy-League educated attorney and MBA graduate, holds an LLM degree in Intercultural Human Rights, is a former Fortune 100 corporate executive, intercollegiate athlete, Aikido practitioner and triathlete.

Peter is an instructor for our MBSR course. Click here to learn more and view upcoming classes. 


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