Mindfulness at work: supporting employees for positive mental health (May 2018)
It’s Mental Health Awareness Week, so what better time to evaluate your organisation’s approach to supporting employees with mental health issues?
Before I describe my insights on how mindfulness can positively impact mental health at work, I wanted to share my own personal experience…
I arrive 15 minutes early, as per usual. Taking a seat in the waiting room, I scroll though the agenda for the meeting ahead.
I put my phone back in my pocket and look around the room. I stare into the distance, absorbing the floor-to-ceiling fish tank behind reception.
My eyes glaze over. To change perspective, I look out onto London’s busy Gracechurch Street. Despite the office’s pristine glass-walls, I can barely make out shapes of the buses, taxis and people scrambling to work. The city scene starts to move very slowly – like a magic mug where an image gradually appears as it heats up from the inside.
I look back at the fish, but the tank has become a kaleidoscope of colour (slowly rotating beyond my control). It’s as if when I turned my back, a giant hand poured litres of orange, lemon and blackcurrant squash into the underwater scene. The fish becoming explosions of colour – like a series of flares suddenly set-off at a football match.
Suddenly the colours seem too bright, everything starts to pulse slightly and I feel nauseated. It feels as if the world is rushing at me. Noises become very pronounced and it makes my head swim. My heart rate soars and I become very aware of my own breathing. I fall to my knees. Then it all goes black. I faint in reception.
I wake-up in hospital to learn I had suffered a severe panic attack brought on by stress and anxiety at work. I think ‘panic attack’ is a misnomer. It suggests the panic is what starts it off, but the panic itself can result from something unidentified, too. Safe to say, I didn’t see it coming.
Mental exhaustion was the trigger. The very physical loss of breath, consciousness and cognition, was the consequence. I have tried to explain this to a fair few people. Some people think ‘anxiety’ means ‘worrying,’ but attacks manifest with very pronounced physical effects.
At 29 years old, the decade before had been loaded with University (late nights, exams pressure and tight deadlines); early career years (first in the office, last out); before more recently setting-up my own business (all the above).
I consider myself healthy. I keep fit (running, swimming and playing football), and I eat all the right things to stay well nourished. But, until this point, I completely side-lined my mental health. Physically I was a well-defended castle, unbreakable at the top of my own hill. But mentally, I had set-up camp on a flood plain – and the storm clouds were looming.
Though stories like mine are rarely shared, sadly, they are all too common.
While recovering in hospital, my doctor gave me a piece of advice I will never forget: a puzzle a day helps keep stress at bay. Puzzling, moments of mindfulness and journaling transformed things for me – I began to better manage stress, feel better and improve my on-the-job performance. Personally, I find such ‘attention training’ techniques really boost my mental health and general wellbeing.
Enlightened by my experience, I quit my job, and set out to make a change. I began an intrepid mission to introduce puzzling, ‘attention training’ and mindfulness to the wider working community. My focus was simple: to help improve and protect the mental wellbeing of time-pressed individuals.
Based on what I’ve learned, here are five tips to help promote positive mental health in the workplace.
1. Be in your teammate’s corner
We live in a time where having a life crammed to the hilt is considered a success story. Rightly or wrongly, many employees are tied to the job for hours above and beyond expectation (for reasons including culture, promotion opportunities, being over-stretched etc.)
Whatever the reason, the more entrenched this sense of expectation becomes, the less and less likely employees are to be seen to take time out during the day. Coupled with the impact of disruptive technologies, now more than ever we need to support busy professionals to improve and protect their mental health.
Taking time to unplug from digital and to be mindful is one of the tools we can equip busy people with, to achieve this.
2. Break the stigma
It’s important for each and every organisation to set their own cultural tone around managing and supporting colleague wellbeing, creating a culture where employees feel secure to talk more openly about what can be a taboo subject – feeling stressed.
The key is to keep it simple and secular. Popular terms like ‘mindfulness’ are often associated with therapy or religion, sometimes resulting in pushback from colleagues who might be put off by the perceived stigma.
Similarly, the term ‘stress’ can scare off employees with a desire to be seen as strong leaders.
Personally, I believe it’s all about getting the message across, in an interactive and engaging way, motivating every single person to take action for better mental health.
As I know all too well, anyone can be affected anytime. Now is the time to value mental health and wellbeing in your organisation. The good news is that all of this helps to support a more successful workplace in numerous ways.
3. Improve stress management
One of the biggest impediments to workplace productivity is stress. Mindfulness has been shown in studies to decrease all of the markers of stress, including cardiovascular health issues, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression and the presence of the stress hormone cortisol.
4. Enhance innovation and creativity
Stress and ‘mind chatter’ are a major impediment to problem-solving and creative thinking. Mindfulness can help with settling down these inner distractions so that a higher level of innovation is possible.
Mindfulness also increases overall happiness and wellness levels. Happier employees tend to be more productive and pleasant to be around, which naturally raises morale in the workplace. In a more peaceful corporate culture, employees are more likely to keep working there and speak highly of the brand.
By George Kiley, as published in The Training Zone on 14th May 2018