Many mistakes made in HR are not made from ignorance or carelessness, but simply because things slip our minds in the busyness of life. We may think we do not have the luxury of time for dedicated, concentrated thought, but increasing research reveals that intentional mindfulness is an effective and much needed competency.
During 2016, Harvard Business Review published ten articles on mindfulness in the workplace – more than they published in the prior five years combined. One 2016 survey found 22 percent of companies had some form of mindfulness initiative and projected those types of initiatives would nearly double in 2017. There’s been plenty of discussion, and more than a little debate, on the impact, value, and the appropriateness of introducing mindfulness practices at work. While several marque companies have integrated mindfulness into their workplaces, most HR people remain unaware or uncertain of what “it” is or if “it” is right for their organization. In times of limited resources and patience, what’s a Florida HR leader to do?
As a recovering HR executive, including SVP and chief talent officer roles at Pfizer and Aetna, I have seen, and sometimes chased, my share of bright, shiny objects. As a certified teacher of yoga, martial arts, and diving, I have also experienced and seen the tangible benefits of mindfulness practices with employees, teams, and leaders. Whether you are already a meditating yogi or a skeptical show-me type, there are a few things about mindfulness you might want to consider before diving in or slamming the door.
What It IsWhen considering mindfulness in the workplace, HR leaders may do well to accept the definition developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn: “Paying attention in a sustained and particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Mindfulness practitioners learn how to balance awareness and attention to effectively manage their reaction to what they perceive. Mindfulness has been around in the clinical sense since the 1970s. As many students of mindfulness know, the practices often associated with it – yoga asana (poses), pranayama (breathing), and forms of meditation – have been around for centuries. The clinical benefits are well documented: reducing stress response, improving memory and focus, reduced emotional reactivity, improved cognitive flexibility, and even enhanced relationship satisfaction. Mindfulness practice has also been shown to enhance self-insight, morality, intuition, and fear modulation.
Given these benefits, it’s not surprising that there has been an increase in attention to the topic in business as a path to reduced healthcare costs and improve performance. While I have not yet seen any studies showing the benefit of mindfulness interventions in the workplace, as HR professionals we know there are few studies proving the hard benefit of any particular skill-building program (or specific benefit program, for that matter). Also, as HR professionals we don’t introduce something because it’s trendy or our own passion. As with any program, the first question is, “what problem am I solving / benefit am I seeking?”
Improving Employee Health & WellnessThe health and wellness benefits of yoga, breathing, and meditation practices are genuine and attainable. However, similar to any behavior modification program, the benefits are commensurate with consistent practice. And similar to any skill-building program, the reinforcement and support must also be there. Mindfulness is more successful when integrated and aligned with other company programs, benefits, or training – but with voluntary participation.
Improving Team PerformanceAs stewards of team practices and the performance culture, introducing mindfulness can be the means of facilitating team effectiveness. Simple techniques like the “mindful pause” help people transition from the last meeting into the current one. A shared breathing practice can re-energize a lagging meeting or help people get centered, enhancing collaboration in a tense meeting. Teams that share routines of fitness and fueling increase familiarity, which increases the mindful trait of empathy and accelerates the value of keeping teams intact.
Improving Leadership PerformanceConsidering the benefits outlined earlier, the advantages to individual leadership performance seem clear and are being written about many professionals, like HR guru Dave Ulrich. Considering the impact leader behavior has on the organization, there are broader positive implications including crisis response and strategy development. In the author’s experience, there is sometimes a misperception of mindfulness as tolerating low performance, accepting the unacceptable, or delaying or suspending decisions. While mindfulness practices can increase empathy and reduce anxiety, it’s important to know that they focus on improvement, not diminishment.
How Do I Do This?If your intended benefit is to impact broadly employee health and wellness, introducing mindfulness can involve having your benefits plan cover mindfulness programs on or offsite. Many companies provide optional yoga, fitness, or nutrition offerings as well. If your intended benefit is more focused on improving team or leader performance, this can be achieved through heightened awareness and some initial training. However, before you start, consider these guides:
• Make clear the company’s intention behind introducing mindfulness in the workplace: focusing on performance and wellness as well as cost and productivity.
• For employee wellness, include mindfulness training as part of the basket of wellness options provided in the workplace. Provide training in a basic set of yoga poses and breathing practices suitable for the office desk and in class.
• For teams, if you have a template of teamstart practices such as chartering, goal setting, or norm development, include a mindfulness practices overview.
• For leaders, if you have a leadership development curriculum, include mindfulness training for selfmanagement and the challenges of leading.
• Communicate that the adoption of mindfulness practices, breathing exercises, yoga power poses, and meditation are not unexpected at the desk or meeting room.
• Do not make participation or practice mandatory. Allow the practices to happen in the workplace while maintaining non-religious standards. • Get professional advice. Just as you engage reputable professionals for employee services, team consulting, or leadership development, engage certified professionals to help inform you of the introduction and provisions of mindfulness practices in the workplace.
SummaryThe costs of stress and the needs for productivity and leadership for companies are only increasing, and the potential contribution of mindfulness is tangible and attainable. The bright, shiny object of mindfulness comes with very real issues that must be managed, but the value of the practices is likewise very real. In fact, they just may be a competitive edge for lower healthcare costs, higher productivity, and a better work environment for which HR is expected to be the faithful steward.
A version of this article by Chris Altizer will appear in Strategic HR Review, Vol. 16 Iss: 1 (2017) Emerald Publications, titled, “Mindfulness: performance, wellness, or fad?”
Chris Altizer, MA, MBA, has been a senior global HR executive with Fortune 100 companies including Pfizer and Aetna, serving in top roles including senior business partner, chief talent officer, and head of HR strategy and operations. He is now writing and consulting with his wife in Florida. Alter was published in Dave Ulrich’s 2009 book “HR Transformation,” and co-authored “Mindfully Mobile” in 2016. He has also been published in numerous journals, conferences, and publications, most recently in Strategic HR Review’s February 2017 Wellness Edition.
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By Chris Altizer, MA, MBA