Why mindfulness at work is so effective at improving performance

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Marion Chomse
Marion Chomse

Dr. Russell is a Clinical Psychologist, neuroscientist, martial artist, and Founder of the Mindfulness Centre of Excellence. She is a renowned mindfulness consultant and trainer worldwide, conducting research exploring the link between movement, the mind and the brain, and is the author of two books, ‘What is Mindfulness’ and ‘Mindfulness in Motion’.

What is mindfulness meditation?

Currently there are ninety-four definitions of mindfulness across the various literature, but the really simple definition that I like to work with is that mindfulness is care, plus attention, to prevent future harm. As such, these practices are best used as preventative medicine, even though we do find them in our modern healthcare setting as treatments. Some people may have come across Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) for pain management and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) for depression. But ultimately, it's best positioned as a preventative technique.

How do you practice mindfulness?

We're bombarded with images of classical meditation postures: crossed legs, eyes closed, empty mind. There are some people that are able to attain that, but for your average, busy, working professional, this may not be possible and actually not particularly helpful. Much of my work is trying to myth bust the concept that there’s only one way to approach mindfulness and meditation. I'm a bit more pragmatic because I work with busy, stressed out entrepreneurs and business leaders, who tend to roll their eyes when they're invited to do this sort of practice. So I've tried to simplify things to make it accessible to everyone—particularly those people who are trying mindfulness for wellness and peak performance in all areas of their life.

Ultimately, it’s all about paying attention to our minds, our breath and what’s going on in the present moment. Yes, you can do this the classical or traditional way, sitting on a cushion with your eyes closed but it’s also possible to do this at your desk, in the shower, taking a walk or doing most daily activities.

What happens to our brain when we're being mindful?

I'm really inspired by the work of Dr. Wendy Hasenkamp, who’s the scientific lead at the US-based Mind and Life Institute. She has done some great work with this dialogue between contemplative practice, a mostly Buddhist practice, and modern science. There is a great study on classical mindfulness, where she scanned people practising mindfulness by focusing on their breath and used functional MRI - a machine that records (roughly) where the blood is flowing around the brain. She asked the participants to click a button when they noticed that their mind had wandered off the breath and used this to model the neuro-imaging data.

What she discovered was that there are four cognitive stages during mindfulness that activate three brain networks. The first movement of the mind is the decision to focus the attention on a single object. We have to tell our brain to just focus on the breath, which activates the attention network. Two seconds later, the mind wanders. This happens in about 95% of people. The minute we try to focus, the first thing we notice is that we're not focusing. So we start to focus again, and again the mind wanders. The reality is, at this moment, your attention network has switched off and your default mode network has activated.

Some call the default mode network the mind wandering network. It's a place of memories, of thinking and creativity. It's not a bad place—it's a fantastic place in fact, but if you ask your brain to focus on one thing, it's not where you told your attention to be. So we focus, the mind wanders, and then there's this moment of realisation, of ‘oh, hang on a minute, I’m not focussed on my breath, I’m thinking about all the things I need to do’. This moment of noticing is what we call the salience network.

What is the salience network?

The salience network is designed to alert us when things are not as we expected them to be. So, if we set a strong intention to focus on the breath, in the background, our executive functioning network and working memory are constantly checking that we’re still on track. And as long as we are still focussed on the breath, that system is ticking along in the background. But say you start thinking about emails, the salience network is triggered and offers you the opportunity to reset your focus.

Focusing, getting lost, noticing and bringing the attention back to the object in question are the four cognitive stages that sequentially activate the attention network, the default mode network, and the salience network. This is called the neurocognitive model of mindfulness. And that for me is a mini gym that trains you in mindfulness. For that reason, it’s important to remember that while it can be frustrating to find yourself distracted frequently, it's actually really helpful to go through this cycle many times. In doing so, you work out the muscles in your mind and you learn to switch networks with awareness.

The salience network is especially interesting to me as a clinical psychologist because it's there that we spot how we react when things are not how we want them to be. In mindfulness practice, we might wish we were focussed on the breath but the reality might be that we’re not. It's the very same network that's activated when things go wrong in our life too. That's why you hear these incredible stories of mindfulness practitioners who, for example, get a diagnosis of a serious illness, and say things like, ‘It's not how I want it to be but I know that if I get reactive and struggle, it will make things worse’. It’s not about being passive, but actually developing the skills to minimise reactivity in order to deliberately choose where you direct your attention.

How can practising mindfulness at work improve wellbeing and performance?

Stage one is about learning to focus your attention on what you want to do. The work applications of this are fairly obvious and it’s something I talk about a lot with my clients. If you've got a million tasks to do in the day there's probably variable levels of attention and focus that you need for each one. Our job is to figure out where our attention is best directed. How do I work best to achieve my most focused attention? Which tasks need it and how do I factor that into my working day?

The benefit of practising mindfulness at work is getting to know the landscape of your mind—something I call ‘managing the mind space’. This is especially important now, because when I talk to my clients, worries are what occupy a huge portion of their mind space (everything from uncertainties and anxieties, to genuine fear and COVID, etcetera). We want to create a clear space in our mind for things like creative thinking, strategic thinking and problem solving. We don't want all this extra stuff in there because it takes up energy and space. So, by practising mindfulness exercises at work and going around that focus loop I’ve described, one of the benefits is that we're gathering data about our mental patterns in order to change them if we need to.

As I’ve mentioned, the salience network is there to help us learn to respond rather than react. An example of mindfulness in the workplace might then be pausing before sending an email when you're really agitated with a colleague. One of my clients yesterday asked how they could encourage self awareness in the workplace and train their team to prioritise tasks well? The answer I gave was to show them by example. As a leader, implement these mindfulness exercises at work, show your team the relationship between mindfulness and performance first hand.

Mindfulness at work can really bring a huge amount of benefits with practice. We see time and time again how it helps not only the individual, but the collective group in a business. Imagine if your entire team could better manage their mind space so they could focus and prioritise their efforts. Imagine the increased emotional intelligence that comes from the ability to respond rather than react. Mindfulness at work is sometimes seen purely from a wellness angle—a personal development perk for individual employees if you will—but the implications for increased work performance are immense. As a tool to build highly functioning teams and help senior leadership get really clear on priorities, mindfulness tools, techniques and support are things businesses should really be investing in for the future.

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