Mindfulness at Work

When I worked as a vocational rehabilitation counselor, I had close to 200 clients in my case load and the demands were overwhelming. Each person had a history of injury, disability, and needs that were often heart wrenching. For instance, my clients included an office worker whose desk collapsed on her one day leaving her in chronic pain for the rest of her life plus many others with head injuries, spinal cord injuries, or mental health disabilities.

The stress for both my clients and me was over powering at times. I was constantly filled with gratitude that I had a longstanding mindfulness practice that supported me and contributed to my clients. However, it’s a very limited view to see mindfulness training as simply a stress reduction or wellness program.

Mindfulness is the capacity to be aware of what’s happening in the present moment with a quality of attention that’s curious, and accepting. The point is to pay close attention, to see more clearly what’s happening in the moment, including physical sensations, thoughts and emotions.

How is this helpful? As one example, when I’m aware of physical sensations, it’s possible to catch tension and tightness in my body quickly before thoughts and emotions escalate. This deeply affects how we interact with customers, clients, patients or co-workers since interactions often happen in stressful moments. Mindfulness supports an ability to be more open and sensitive to others, to recognize when a busy mind or outside distractions take us away from being really present. It helps us find more sensitivity to our customers’ needs.

I experienced this a couple years ago when I had eye surgery. It was a little nerve wracking considering I was to be awake for the whole procedure. I got to the surgery center early in the morning and was greeted by nurses who did everything physically necessary to get me prepped for surgery but didn’t pay a lot of attention to my emotional state. At one point my surgeon came over. I’m sure she was far busier than the nurses or staff, yet she took the time to notice my anxiety and she showed that sensitivity with the smallest of gestures. She lightly touched my shoulder and said “Are you OK?”. In that moment she was able to be mindful in a very small way that made a huge difference.

Being sensitive to patients or clients also includes mindful listening. This might involve collaborating on projects, for instance, which is more and more necessary in today’s workplace, or navigating that difficult encounter with your boss. Many people think they’re listening when they’re really thinking about their response. While the other person is speaking it’s common for one’s mind to be analyzing, judging, problem solving, agreeing, or disagreeing rather than tuning into what the other person is actually saying. Mindfulness helps in bringing a sense of curiosity and compassion without an agenda while listening. This then becomes a firm basis from which to respond.

Here’s an example where mindful listening and empathy were crucial. In this video, police Lieutenant Richard Goerling describes a very stressful situation when he was on a call to deal with a 12-year old boy who was totally out of control.

The boy’s mother was an admitted prostitute and drug user. Goerling says, in the past, he might have been very judgmental to the mother but after learning mindfulness skills he has found it possible to be more compassionate. He comments:

In that moment she found humanity in this encounter with police. And even though everybody around her in her neighborhood was likely judging her and had their own conclusions and knew the right answer and had a prescription for how she could change her life, in that moment she got to encounter a police officer who wasn’t judging her or her world and who was simply able to help her. Mindfulness can really transform the relationship between police and the people we are sworn to serve.”

Just as important as empathizing with others is practicing self-acceptance. Accepting yourself means embracing even those parts you don’t like, including your weaknesses and short comings. For instance, sometimes, after a difficult day, my mind is perseverating about all the difficulties and challenges I had that day, judging my actions, blaming myself. Being mindful means, first, just noticing I’m doing that which can make a big difference. Maybe I’m only thinking about the one thing I had difficulty with and forgetting the four things that went beautifully. Sometimes I really need to troubleshoot difficulties and plan new approaches. In that case, slowing down, taking a pause, listening to myself carefully allows inner wisdom to emerge in a way it never can when my mind is going in endless circles of judgment and recrimination.

There are many other ways that mindfulness can be helpful. For instance, when a multitude of demands are coming at me from many directions, it’s often difficult to focus. That happened every day on the job I mentioned above. It was easy to be pulled in many directions, to start something, get interrupted, move off in 5 directions at once or get distracted by all the things that needed to be done to the extent that not much got done. Mindfulness was invaluable in helping me focus. First, I’d tune into my body and notice the tension. I would follow that with a mindful breath, a pause. Then I would remind myself to just come back to one thing, just this one thing, right here, right now, simply coming back to the present moment over and over.

Mindfulness is not just about adapting to a difficult situation, however. Sometimes, the word “acceptance” is used when explaining mindfulness and this might imply passivity, accepting things as they are. Instead, mindfulness helps with realizing we have the option to make choices in every moment, which leads to wise and skillful action. For instance, maybe you’re considering a job change but feel conflicted. Part of you is anxious about starting over in a new situation, or blaming yourself for difficulties you’re having with your current boss. Seeing difficulties with openness and curiosity means seeing the actual situation clearly. We can see whether we’re acting out of habit, or fear or anger or truly responding to this particular situation and this particular set of circumstances. We can open up to a whole range of options instead of being fixated on only one or two possibilities. We can work with anger and other strong emotions and find skillful responses which is the opposite of passivity.

Even in areas not directly thought of as soft skills, or people skills, mindfulness can be crucial. These engineers explain that both art and science, technical skills and ability to think out of the box are necessary for product design. Finding inspiration and innovation comes when you can quiet the mind, quiet the voices of judgment and criticism, move off of autopilot and move into an intuitive frame of mind.

Mindfulness helps us to be more fully present in our relationships at work, whether with a supervisor, coworker, customers, clients or patients.  As we learn to sit back and listen to others we can learn to respond more out of a creative, intuitive, connected place.  This can allow us to step out of fixed ideas of who we are and begin to see each other as fellow human beings.  This is an active, not passive, role that contributes to seeing more options and to identifying actions that will contribute to the overall mission and purpose of the organization. Yes, mindfulness is about much more than stress reduction.

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