We talk to mental health counselor Noel Coakley about a more mindful office
Mindfulness in the workplace gets a fair amount of lip service, but recent studies have provided scientific evidence that the busier you are, the more mindfulness matters. A study of 50,000 Aetna employees who took place in a mindfulness program showed stress levels dropped 28%, sleep quality improved 20% and pain dropped by 19%. The company gained on average 62 minutes of productivity per employee – worth $3,000 per person.
If you haven’t been seriously considering mindfulness and meditation as an initiative, it might be time to think about it. Here today to give us insight is Noel Coakley, an independently licensed mental health counselor, yoga instructor and trainer and consultant for mindfulness and meditation practice. Noel provides meditation training to a variety of companies across the Greater Boston area.
What is the difference between meditation and mindfulness, and how does one “learn” it?
To a certain degree, meditation is a skill set that you learn. While you can go to meditation classes or sessions, you can also practice it in an individualized way. While the concepts aren’t complicated, the practice of meditation can be a challenge. But once you understand it, you’re able to do it anytime, anywhere.
Mindfulness is keeping yourself focused on what lies in front of you at any one moment, and not allowing yourself to become distracted by the past or future. By practicing meditation, you can develop mindfulness in your everyday life.
How does mindfulness affect the bottom line? In other words, why should companies care to provide it to their employees?
There are three areas of benefit for having more mindful employees: physical, mental and social/relational, all of which apply in and out of the workplace. One of the offshoots of practicing meditation is the reduction of your fight or flight response, and when that diminishes, you have a whole slew of positive health effects.
Think about it this way: your body’s fight or flight response is set up to tackle a lion coming at you, not to meet a deadline or present at a meeting. But when your mind goes unchecked, your body starts firing off a response that doesn’t match the situation. Your heart rate goes up, and everything goes towards your motor muscle function instead of things like the immune system, digestion and sleep system. And when you’re stressed, your body becomes unhealthy and your systems don’t work well.
The other benefit is better cognitive functioning. Meditation helps develop a present-minded, focused awareness to concentrate on what’s in front of you instead of what’s happening next, stories about the past or worst-case scenarios.
And finally, the relational benefit is an offshoot of the other two. Our ability to pay attention to people is improved with meditation and mindfulness. The mind, when relaxed, works better. Our focus, attention, mental regulation, empathy and compassion – none of these exist when the lion is around, and they’re all required for healthy work and personal relationships.
Why do companies invite you in to teach meditation and mindfulness seminars?
Sometimes a company will reach out in the same way they might to a yoga instructor or massage therapist. That’s the initial link. Yoga or massage is something you do for an hour and then move on from, whereas meditation is developing a skillset that affects your entire life.
Often, companies come to me when everyone is stressed, or they’re going through a change, or they just want to do something nice for their employees. Many look at meditation training as a way to develop performance, focus and attention among their employees. It’s a lot about self-care as well as a good tool to use in your work.
How do you justify mindfulness to people who feel they are too busy to meditate or do other mindfulness exercises?
It takes five minutes to meditate – and everyone has five minutes. Often, a very busy mind creates chaos around you. But here’s something to consider: your body can go from full tilt fight or flight panic to fairly sedated in seven minutes or less. Since for the most part, you’re not in panic mode all the time, even seven, five or three minutes of focused attention on your breath can impact your physical wellbeing, mental clarity and ability to interact with people throughout the day.
The best way to understand it is to simply give it a try.
You can also try to find something you already do and use that for meditation. For example, during a workout or run, hold your concentration on your breath and keep your mind on breathing in and out. That activity might be cooking, or knitting, or anything you do regularly.
How do you suggest employers implement mindfulness? Is there something they can do today to improve this area?
One immediate change you can make is to take 30 seconds to pause and either meditate or practice mindfulness each time you switch gears during the day. After you fight traffic, take 30 seconds before your first meeting. Walking into a meeting, tell everyone, “We’re here, this is our objective – let’s take 30 seconds to get in that mode.”
How do you help companies in teaching mindfulness and meditation?
How trainings look are catered to what the company needs. Whether this is a one-time workshop, every month, every other week–the goal is to help people get set up so they don’t need me anymore.
I go in and teach them how to meditate, and often will help them create a space where they can meet on a weekly basis without an expert and meditate together as a group.