Mindfulness At Work: On-the-spot Tools And Techniques
Mindfulness at work is a popular and trending topic right now. Many employees have turned to mindfulness to reduce and deal with the stresses they face at work, and improve performance and productivity. Fortune 500 corporations such as Google, Ford, Intel, and General Mills have started mindfulness-based training programmes for their employees. And corporate CEOs have spoken publicly about the benefits they have experienced by practicing mindfulness.
Contrary to media images of business people in suits, sitting cross-legged in the lotus position on their desks, mindfulness at work does not necessarily involve meditating at work. The Journal of Business Research has recently published an article by Andrew Hafenbrack introducing the concept of mindfulness as an on-the-spot intervention to be used in specific workplace situations. It presents a model of when, why, and how, on-the-spot mindfulness meditation is likely to be helpful or harmful for aspects of job performance.
Here, Christopher Lorenz, Co-Founder and Head of Science at Soma Analytics, speaks with Juliet Adams, one of the world’s leading mindfulness at work authors and teachers, to share valuable mindfulness tools and techniques that can be practically applied on-the-spot, in the heat of the moment, whilst at work.
Christopher: It’s an absolute pleasure to welcome an expert on mindfulness today – Juliet Adams. Juliet organised the first international conference on mindfulness at work in 2012, after setting up Mindfulnet.org as a free information resource. She acts as an expert advisor to the Mindfulness Initiative, a government think tank on Mindfulness. Juliet has helped develop Mindfulness at work trainer training that is recognised by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI). Working with Marina Grazier, she works with mindfulness teachers, coaches and business consultants to help them develop the skills to deliver mindfulness training in a workplace setting. Finally, she has also authored two books on mindfulness: “Mindfulness at Work for Dummies” with Shamash Alidina; and “Mindful Leadership for Dummies.”
Mindfulness is becoming ever more popular these days. It’s in the media, it’s coming to schools, to classrooms. It’s even offered by the NHS as a treatment. Google is doing it, the US Military does it. And Soma also includes it as part of our smartphone solution. However, at the same time, there seems to be some amount of ambiguity and confusion about what mindfulness actually is. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” Now, for someone who is new to mindfulness that sounds a bit cloudy. So, Juliet, how would you explain mindfulness?
Is Mindfulness Just Meditation?
Juliet: Mindfulness is a natural human capacity, present in all of us to some extent. It involves paying purposeful attention to our present moment experience with particular attitudes like openness and curiosity. So, by paying attention to your thoughts and emotions and physiology, you become aware of them but less caught up in them, making you better able to manage them. When we spend more time alive to our experience, we unlock our potential for learning and growing and are better able to respond creatively to life’s challenges.
Mindfulness helps you to change the way you relate your experiences in life, especially the challenging ones. At one end of the mindfulness development spectrum is mindfulness as a way of life, with mindfulness becoming part of every waking moment. At the opposite end of the mindfulness development spectrum is the area that I specialise in – mindfulness in a workplace context. At this end of the mindfulness spectrum, mindfulness is treated as workplace training that helps you to manage your mind better. The training is based on the latest scientific evidence, and is designed to help you enhance productivity, relationships at work, resilience, and wellbeing.
Christopher: So, you said mindfulness is paying purposeful attention to our present moment experience with particular attitudes. And you mentioned two important words: openness and curiosity. Mindfulness is a particular state of mind that encapsulates being aware of emotions and thoughts within oneself, and cultivates the ability to manage our responses in relations with them.
Juliet: Yes, that’s right.
Christopher: We’ve just talked about mindfulness and what it is but you haven’t mentioned the word meditation. How is mindfulness different to meditation?
Juliet: Mindfulness training involves three key elements: formal practice exercises; informal or on-the-spot techniques; and psychological principles. The formal practice exercises are very specific meditation based exercises designed to help you structurally change the brain for the better via neuroplasticity. Informal or on-the-spot techniques supplement formal training aspects. Typically, these techniques involve adding a little mindful attention to things you normally do on autopilot.
You can mindfully walk, eat, shower, even wash-up. They are naturally occurring opportunities. Being mindful every day, all day and doing so helps to strengthen your mindfulness muscles. To get back to your question, the difference between mindfulness and meditation is that mindfulness training includes some very specific meditation based exercises blended with psychological elements, and the application of insights gained to everyday life.
Christopher: So, mindfulness is much more than and different to generic-meditation. And you’ve also talked about the spectrum. At the one end of the mindfulness development spectrum is mindfulness as a way of life. At the other end, we have mindfulness as a workplace tool that helps you to manage your mind, emotions and relationships better. But you also mentioned that there is a formal element of training your mind to notice these patterns of thinking and behaviour, and that this involves specific meditation-based exercises.
I’d like to compare it to going to the gym. There’s a formal aspect of training and there is an informal aspect. The formal aspect might be you going to the gym, doing 20 push-ups, 50 biceps curls, and 100 burpees. There’s also an informal training aspect, such as taking a flight of stairs, or taking the bike to the office instead of taking the tube. We’re going talk about this later. Before that, I’ve got another difficult question for you – ‘How is my mindfulness different to relaxation?’
Juliet: The meditation-based element of mindfulness training is not about relaxation, deadening the mind or escaping reality. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Mindfulness is about approaching the present moment and seeing more clearly what’s really going on. It’s a really common misconception that mindfulness is all about relaxation. Relaxation may be a welcome by product of practicing mindfulness but it’s not the aim.
Mindfulness Benefits The Workplace In Many Ways
Christopher: You are a learning and development professional with many years of experience of managing learning in large organisations and developing leadership programmes. You are also a fellow of the CIPD. How did you become interested in mindfulness?
Juliet: I started my career as a trainer and then moved on to managing the training function. I specialised in training design for national programmes for the police before focusing my attention on leadership development. About 12 years ago or so now, I was designing a leadership programme for a client and although I had fulfilled all their requirements, it just felt that something was missing. I felt that there was something that I needed to equip the leaders with to cope with the pressures and uncertainty that they were facing on a daily basis. I didn’t know quite what that something was at the time.
A couple of years later, I was at a Coaching Association conference and I heard a presentation on the neuroscience that underpinned mindfulness and how it was starting to be used within executive coaching – and I was hooked.
A number of research studies have concluded that practising mindfulness for as little as eight weeks increases grey matter density in areas the brain is associated with, concentration, decision making, judgments, social interaction, memory, and learning. It also decreases grey matter in your amygdala, your brain’s fear centre, making you less likely to default to fear-based instinctual responses.
I started to investigate the potential of mindfulness in the workplace, which in those early days was relatively little researched. There were lots of research studies on the impact of mindfulness from a clinical perspective. It’s well proven to decrease stress, anxiety, and depression, and improve resilience. And there were early indications of its usefulness in the workplace with early adopters such as Google. However, there was really very little information out there on mindfulness at work.
This motivated me to set up mindfulnet.org as a free information resource aimed at a professional audience. Mindfulness in some shape or form now accounts for 80% of my work.
Christopher: You’ve just mentioned some of the benefits of mindfulness, especially decreasing stress, anxiety, and depression, improving resilience, and I think this is exactly what our readers will want to hear more about it. So, from your experience, could you give us a practical example of the benefits of mindfulness?
Juliet: A recent meta-analysis published in the Journal of Management studied the best available research to-date on the impact of mindfulness in the workplace. It concluded that there was robust evidence that mindfulness improves productivity, relationships at work, and many aspects of wellbeing. Let’s look at a couple of case studies.
The CEO of a major charity I once worked with was getting increasingly frustrated during board meetings. When politics and game playing rose his frustration tended to spill over and he would have an angry outburst derailing the meeting completely. These outbursts were becoming career limiting. I thought him mindfulness on a 1:1 basis. In one training session he learned to use his body as an early warning system. It helped him to recognise at an early stage when anger and other negative emotions start to rise. He then used this to prevent his emotions from escalating out of control, and as a result, he was better able to keep meetings on track.
Another example. A busy young consultant working for one of the big five consultancies was suffering from stress. The stress was making it hard to focus and keep up with their workload – and he started working longer and longer hours to compensate. I used the DASS-21 tool to measure their depression, anxiety, and stress. We identified that they were experiencing an extremely high level of stress and above average level of anxiety. They attended a six-week WorkplaceMT course and by the end they had managed to decrease their stress and anxiety levels to normal. They also deliberately reduced their overtime to a more manageable level and found they were much more focused, and more productive, when at work, getting more done in less time.
Christopher: You’ve just mentioned two immediate benefits of mindfulness. The first, in the case of the CEO, is managing difficult emotions and having more effective meetings. The second, in the case of the accountant, is getting more done in less time. Both of these examples are applicable in many contexts. Why do you think it is that mindfulness is such a crucial skill to have in a working environment?
Mindfulness Is A Crucial Business Skill
Juliet: There are many, many reasons, but here are a few that come to mind…
Businesses now operate in a VUCA world – a world that’s volatile, uncertain, complex and often very ambiguous. Staff and leaders face an always-on business environment in which the requirements can be tough on personal life. Some feel they need to be available for work at any time.
In addition, the explosion in technology has also put new pressure on workers. The pressure that many staff operate under, and the working cultures, are leading to a reduction in productivity that is, for example, costing the US economy billions of dollars every single year. Recent research indicates that employees report being destructive or unproductive for an average of 57.5 days a year. This level of presenteeism costs the economy an estimated $1,500 billion a year.
Jeremy Hunter from the Drucker Business School, lists attention management as being the most critical skill of 21st century.
In addition, absence and sickness related to stress is estimated to cost the US economy $300 billion a year, and the IORG estimates that digital interruptions cost the US economy $1 trillion annually.
And lastly, but really importantly, in comparison to many leadership development tools and techniques, mindfulness is very well researched. Thousands of papers are being published now on the impact of mindfulness, and over 200 of them focus specifically on the impact of mindfulness at work. Compare that to most leadership development models that may have little or no underpinning research basis.
Christopher: You mentioned workplace pressures and stress in the US and the enormous associated business costs – the same applies to the UK. And I agree that the costs, in terms of absenteeism (people not coming to work), presenteeism (people being less productive at work), and staff turnover (people leaving the company because they are under too much pressure or stress), are huge. And I believe we are completely aligned that mindfulness could be a solution.
Let’s talk a little bit more about your experience in training companies, their staff and their leaders. What do the organisations that have embraced mindfulness look like?
Organisations Are Adopting Mindfulness In Different Ways
Juliet: Well, at this point in time there are very few examples of whole organisations who’ve embraced mindfulness. At present, it tends to be a department, team or even an individual. Two good examples of organisational mindfulness in the UK are CVS Vets and Roli, where they feature in the 2015 Mindful Nation UK report and 2016 Making the Case for Mindfulness at Work reports, respectively.
Typically, mindful organisations tend to design working practices which work with, rather than against, the brain’s inbuilt bias. There is a higher emphasis placed on life-work balance and wellbeing. Systems and structures encourage the development of good working relationships and collaboration within and across organisational teams. Examples of departmental mindfulness include Capital One and the US Military. In the of case the latter, US Marines received mindfulness training pre-deployment to encourage focus and clarity while reducing the risk of inappropriate autopilot, fear or panic-based responses.
Well known examples of leaders who practice mindfulness include Apple Founder Steve Jobs, Ford Chairman Bill Ford, and Twitter Founder Evan Williams.
Lord Andrew Stone, ex-Chair of M&S, is a huge advocate of mindfulness, and he was kind enough to let me interview him for my most recent book “Mindful Leadership For Dummies,” sharing details of his work as a member of the House of Lords in the UK Parliament. He gave me a really impressive example of how he had used mindfulness to remain calm and focused when involved in tense, high-stakes, Middle East negotiations.
A high proportion of organisations now offer staff access to mindfulness training in some shape or form. These range from two-hour introductions to gold standard WorkplaceMT 6-week, 1 hour a week mindfulness training programmes.
Some organisations provide space for people to practice mindfulness. For example, Capital One have a mindfulness room and they also have special mindfulness chairs – little-screened pod chairs with a sign on the back saying ‘practising mindfulness’ – and these are located around the staff seating areas.
10 Minutes Daily Is Enough To Improve Resilience And Collaboration
Christopher: We’ve talked about mindfulness training and how it can be difficult to fit it in around busy diaries. I’m working very long hours, I’ve lots of stuff to do, I’m in meetings back-to-back, I just don’t have the time to meditate every day for two hours. What can I do?
Juliet: Well, first things first. Who said anything about having to practice mindfulness for a couple of hours a day? Clinical models of mindfulness training require patients to meditate for 20 to 45 minutes a day, but work focussed mindfulness programmes such as WorkplaceMT, simply require 10 to 15 minutes of practice a day.
A number of research studies, including a recent Ashbridge Research study published last year, concluded that 10 minutes or more of mindfulness training a day produced statistically significant improvements in a number of desirable workplace outcomes. The more it is practised, the better the outcome, but 10 minutes or more was the minimum time needed to improve resilience and collaboration.
Leaders participating in the Ashbridge study reported that busyness, lack of routine and lack of support from others were barriers to practising mindfulness at work. But once they managed to incorporate mindfulness into their daily routine, and experience the positive benefits, this helped them to manage the highs and lows of their practice time.
Another thing to consider if you feel you’re too busy to practice mindfulness is that many people mistake activity for productivity.
Recent Harvard research by Matt Killingsworth concluded that on average the human mind wanders for 47% of the day. At work, that figure can be even higher, and this means you may be unproductive almost half of your day. Ten minutes of mindfulness can reduce mind wandering. It’s a really small investment that pays substantial dividends.
Mindfulness As An On-the-spot Intervention
Juliet: Returning to your question ‘what can I do?’, I’d like you to consider the idea of mindfulness as an on-the-spot intervention. Many people are miserable at work, engage in unproductive forms of conflict and have a great deal of trouble cutting their losses and admitting when they’re wrong. Cultivating mindfulness on-the-spot can help to reduce this.
Contrary to the media images of executives in suits, sitting cross-legged on the boardroom table, and meditating deeply, this is not really what mindfulness at work is all about. For a start, most people don’t have the luxury of a quiet space dedicated to mindfulness practice in their office – so they do the formal meditation based aspects to their mindfulness training at home. This gives them the ability to flick on their mindfulness switch when they really need it in the heat of the moment. And here’s how it works.
This model is adapted from a recently published paper by Andrew Hafenbrack. When you encounter a challenging situation at work it could lead to an unconscious response, threat activation and negative emotions. Using mindfulness, you become consciously aware of what’s going on. You have an awareness of the situation and an awareness of the need to be mindful, so you then deploy an appropriate informal ‘on-the-spot’ mindfulness technique to increase your clarity and focus.
There are lots and lots of on-the-spot tools and techniques to reduce your threat response and prevent things from escalating. Simple examples of on-the-spot intervention include using your body as an early warning system to monitor and regulate your emotional state. It can be as simple as taking a few sips of your tea with full mindful attention, or paying mindful attention to the physical movements involved in walking from room to room as you flit between meetings. All of these can be very easily integrated into your work day without closing your eyes or anyone noticing that you’re actually doing it.
Christopher: What I find very interesting, is that you mention that the mind wanders 47% of the time. That is staggering because we are also thinking about optimising our productivity, increasing it by 1%, by 2%. However, 47% of the time our mind is wandering!
Moving on, mindfulness is known to have very few side effects, but still I’m wondering, could too much mindfulness actually be a bad thing?
Juliet: According to the mindfulness research of Andrew Hafenbrack, the speed of adoption of mindfulness practices is outpacing the research on the topic. So, having an unclear understanding of the consequence of mindfulness could lead to mindfulness as a cure for all work ills. Mindfulness is certainly not a band aid for toxic working cultures. Companies should never insist on people attending mindfulness training – they have to want to. You cannot force someone to be mindful.
Mindfulness emphasises the importance of living in the present moment because when the mind wanders off to the past, or the future, humans have a tendency to worry or catastrophise. Sometimes when mindfulness is taught, there can be an overemphasis on present moment focus. And this, if used without discernment, can lead to problems.
If a person was only mindful of the present moment and focused no attention on the future, this could result in reduced motivation, no opportunity to learn from past experience, and an inability to think critically about how to manage or prevent future problems. Workplace mindfulness training such as WorkplaceMT emphasises the importance of this discernment.
When at Work, it can be useful to focus on the future or to draw on past experiences and memories. What mindfulness training helps you to do is to bring conscious awareness to the moment when your mind wanders, and then make a conscious choice about what happens next, avoiding negative thought spirals and autopilot behaviours that may no longer serve you well.
There’s a really big difference between consciously choosing to think about the past or the future, and your mind wandering off there on autopilot, distracting you when you’re supposed to be writing that report, engaging in conversation or spending time with loved ones.
Christopher: Let me ask you something I ask all of our expert guests, what are your secret #StressBusters? Do you have a technique, or tips, that you can share with us?
The STOP And RAIN Models Can Be Used To Beat Stress
Juliet: I have two suggestions to share with you today. Firstly, there is a way to pause, take stock, reboot your brain and reconnect with your day. The STOP model is based on a model developed by Elisha Goldstein and you can use it when you’re stressed out or you can’t think straight.
When you’re really stressed and you just can’t see straight, just stop. I know it may feel completely counterintuitive, but actually carrying on achieves little and may actually and escalate thing out of control. Stop what you’re doing for a minute. Take a really conscious big breath. with full attention. Observe what is going on for you in this moment, allows you to decide wisely how to proceed.
Doing this helps you to centre yourself, and reconnect with the present moment. Having created a gap between the stimulus and the response, you decide wisely what to do next.
Christopher: Very good. So, stop, take a breath, observe what’s going on and then pick a conscious choice to proceed. And your second suggestion?
Juliet: It’s called the RAIN model. You’re under pressure or overwhelmed, so the first step is RECOGNITION. Actually, recognising what’s really happening at this moment. Next ALLOW the experience to be just as it is rather than questioning it, getting angry with it, frustrating, wanting it to be different. It is as it is. This may feel counterintuitive, but prevents the escalation.
You then INVESTIGATE with openness and a sense of curiosity what’s really going on, with an open ‘approach orientation’. Lastly, you apply NON-IDENTIFICATION. You are fully aware of any thoughts or emotions you are experiencing, but are a detached observer, helping to de-escalate any strong emotions or impulses. This again creates a nice little gap so that you can see clearly and discern wisely what to do next.
Christopher: Very good. The RAIN model. Recognise, allow, investigate, non-identify.
Valuable Mindfulness Resources For Free
Christopher: What further resources can you recommend for mindfulness?
Juliet: My latest book “Mindful Leadership for Dummies.” is written with busy professionals in mind. Chapters 8-13 contain the full 6 Week WorkplaceMT programme. You can use the book to help you to develop mindfulness at work.
There are free MP3 recordings to download which accompany the formal practice elements available on my website. See http://www.aheadforwork.com/workplacemt-guided-exercises.
Another excellent resource is “Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World” by Professor Mark Williams and Danny Penman. It’s got an eight-week Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) based course with shortened practices. There’s also “Mindfulness for Busy People.” It’s got some really good on-the-spot tools and techniques.
Christopher: Let’s quickly recap what we talked about today:
- Mindfulness involves paying purposeful attention to our present moment experience
- Formal practice elements of mindfulness training include very specific meditation-based exercises
- Unlike some forms of meditation, it’s not about escaping the present moment, it’s about learning to approach, explore and deal with whatever life throws at us
- Organisations face enormous costs associated with employee absenteeism, presenteeism, digital distractions as well as challenges with engagement – mindfulness could be a promising option to tackle these issues
- Informal ways to practice mindfulness include the STOP and RAIN models
Thank you for joining us today Juliet and to our readers too, thank you very much.
If you’re interested in implementing mindfulness at work programmes, adopting mindful working practices, helping leaders to become more mindful or WorkplaceMT trainer training, then you can email , or visit her website: http://www.aheadforwork.com.
Last but not least, the work that we are doing here at Soma has been awarded a European Union grant in order to deliver the largest ever randomised controlled trial using a smartphone-based intervention to reduce workplace stress. If you’re interested in our research, or you think your organisation might benefit from taking part, please email
Juliet is a Director of “A Head for Work” – an organisation that provides mindful approaches to leadership, change and performance. Her work is a combination of designing and delivering workplace focused mindfulness programmes, helping organisations integrate mindfulness into their development programmes, and writing guidance to help organisations work with mindfulness in practical, creative ways, at work.
Together with Marina Grazier from the Mindfulness Exchange, they developed Workplace Mindfulness Training (WorkplaceMT for short). WorkplaceMT is a 6-week, time light, high impact, evidence-informed approach to teaching mindfulness in the workplace. Juliet and Marina currently run six trainer training programmes in the UK and in the Netherlands.
Organisations Juliet has worked with recently include: Allianz, Bank of England, KPMG, PWC, NHS Trusts and Local Authorities.