Be mindful to work more effectively


Honest mistakes are often made instinctually, while better decisions are made mindfully

HR directors are bound to be faced with stress, difficult decisions and complex situations as part of their jobs. Effective HR directors will have a range of tools to be able to face that stress and make good decisions, and mindfulness should be one of those tools.

Mindfulness has generally been found to be a helpful tool in reducing things like physical pain and psychological stress. When it is used effectively it can be an extraordinarily useful tool in the workplace for mitigating stress and strengthening decision-making.

The science of mindfulness

A strong undercurrent of scientific research has been emerging on the effectiveness of mindfulness. In medical and clinical literature it has been found to particularly beneficial to managing pain.

Mindfulness-based stress-reduction (MBSR) training involves training oneself to manage reactions to pain or stress, being aware of oneself in the moment, and non-judgmentally evaluating one’s own emotions, sensations and perceptions.

MBSR has been found to be most effective when combined with a range of different tools and techniques from cognitive behavioural therapy and biofeedback to meditation and yoga. Ultimately mindfulness does not act as a cure, but helps the person practising it to make sense of situations and experiences without judgment or reacting automatically. In a practical sense, it helps people make better and more constructive decisions.

The practical and personal benefits show mindfulness can significantly reduce stress at work.

In practice

The essential component of mindfulness is watching your own emotions, thoughts and feelings as a dispassionate observer. We aren’t talking about sitting on a hilltop in Tibet for six months. For HRDs, day-to-day mindfulness at work can be a matter of sitting, taking a deep breath and pausing before making a bad decision. Or it can mean taking a moment while you feel irritated to consider the cause of that irritation, instead of reacting automatically or lashing out.

Mindfulness means observing one’s own feelings as they occur. The feelings can be good, bad or neutral. The emotions that are brought on by a difficult colleague or a challenging work situation may well be justified. The practice is to step back from it, take a deep breath, and consider the situation for a moment or two. Consider how someone else might view the situation. Think about how the other person is interpreting the situation. Imagine how you would explain the situation to a friend who knows nothing about your work. Take yourself outside of the instinctual response. This may or may not change the resulting behaviour but a more considered response leads to better decision-making.

Mindfulness practices at work can be even more useful for those in more senior roles or more stressful situations. Consider the leader who always seems cool under pressure. It’s not that their job is not stressful; they likely have tools to manage the stress and to avoid letting the pressure overwhelm them and cause them to lash out and make unnecessary mistakes.

Mindfulness interventions and training can be even more important when the stress at work is more acute and important. In cases like bereavement, sexual harassment or other difficult situations, both the practical and emotional challenges can be extreme. Mindfulness will never solve the situation, soothe the trauma or fix the problems but it can make subsequent reactions and dealing with the problem more constructive.

Honest mistakes are often made instinctually, while better decisions are made mindfully.

The result

Some people think we are supposed to achieve some magical end goal of being free from attachment, worry and stress. The reality is stress, worry and challenge will always be part of work life, and mindfulness will only help to shift the reaction. Sometimes stress can fuel good decision-making and sometimes it leads to errors. It’s not possible or realistic to make work a perpetually stress-free environment. But mindfulness is an excellent tool to mitigate stress, be aware of the reasons behind your own decision-making, and use that knowledge to be more effective at work.

It is also necessary to remember that mindfulness is a practice. It is not always easy to disengage yourself from instinctual responses or examine your emotions dispassionately. It’s a process and a practice that needs to be developed.

Ian MacRae is director of High Potential and co-author of Myths of Work