The Secret Weapon to Reducing Stress and Improving Organizational Effectiveness

It was a Thursday afternoon and I was on Metro North taking the train back home from New York City after a day of meetings. I usually drove into the city but for some reason decided to train it instead. As I sat there, I noticed people’s faces, their body language and more surprising, their exhaustion. Most had headphones on listening to music or maybe a podcast, some were on their phones playing games, but all of them were decompressing from a day of hard work and probably stress.

It was obvious to me that this commute was something they looked forward to as a way to let go of the day and come back to a place of calm. I was looking to decompress too after my hectic day, and so I used the time to practice my Mindful meditation. My practice has evolved over the last 12 years from a practitioner to a teacher and guide, having the honor of studying with and being certified by Dr. Jack Kornfield and Dr. Tara Brach, two of the world’s renown experts in Mindful Meditation.

From the moment I close my eyes and begin my practice, a warm sense of calm washes over me and I can feel the day fall off me like shedding a skin I no longer need. The stress disappears and is replaced with a sense of peace.  People, places and things take on a different, softer perspective and my mind becomes sharp and clear.

As a change agent managing large projects, this comes in very handy when things get hectic or issues arise. My role is more than just implementing change, it’s also to limit stress within the organization and create a safe, meaningful experience for everyone involved.  I do this using change management techniques but also Mindfulness techniques. I wondered…if it helped me so much in my work, why isn’t every company using Mindfulness to combat stress in the workplace?

I have been studying the benefits of Mindfulness at Work for some time at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, and while some companies understand it’s benefits to reduce stress, the majority of the corporate world is still on the fence about it.

My goal (or shall I say challenge) is to prove that Mindfulness is a secret weapon companies need to learn and understand to give them a little push off the fence.  To demonstrate it, I decided to us a simple process (DMAIC) to explain work related stress and the benefits of implementing a Mindfulness program in the workplace.

DEFINE: What is work-related stress?

  • Work-related stress is the response people may have when presented with unrealistic work demands and pressures that are not matched to their knowledge and abilities and which challenge their ability to cope.
  • Stress occurs in a wide range of work circumstances but is often made worse when employees feel they have little support from supervisors and colleagues, as well as little control over work processes.
  • There is often confusion between pressure or challenge and stress, and sometimes it is used to excuse bad management practice. We see it in managers and leaders bad behavior towards employees.

MEASURE: What data conveys the problem?

Data from The American Institute of Stress shows just how stressed out employees are. These are just a few of many data points, but you get the idea, stress is a major problem in most companies.

  • 80% of workers feel stress on the job, nearly 50% say they need help in learning how to manage stress
  • 42% say their coworkers need help learning how to cope with stress
  • 40% of workers reported their job was very or extremely stressful
  • 60% to 80% of workplace accidents result from stress
  • 1,000,000 employees miss work each day because of stress
  • $300 Billion in lost productivity due to stress according to a recent report by Health Advocate.

ANALYZE: What are other companies doing to solve the problem?

One of the biggest interventions companies are using to reduce stress in the workplace is a Mindfulness program.Some companies include SAP, Google, Aetna, Beiersdorf, Bosch, General Mills, Goldman Sachs, Intel, Royal Dutch Shell, Target, the UK’s Parliament, and even the U.S. House of Representatives.  What helps leadership buy into programs is that it’s based on neuroscience with real evidence to back it up. So there is a strong scientific explanation of why this is helpful.

At Aetna, it’s not a surprise to have someone start a meeting with a two or three minute Mindfulness practice.  I’ve used this concept at many clients to set the tone for the meeting by removing stress, opening minds and providing a forum for collaboration and open communication.

There’s lots of evidence to support it’s benefits. A new comprehensive analysis of Mindfulness research, co-directed by a management scientist at Case Western Reserve University, suggests that injecting a corporate culture of Mindfulness not only improves focus, but the ability to manage stress and how employees work together.

What is Mindfulness at Work and why is it a secret weapon?

Mindfulness is defined as present-centered attention and awareness.  It’s easy to learn, doesn’t require a lot of time and anyone can do it, making it a secret weapon most companies are unaware of.

After considering 4,000 scientific papers on various aspects of Mindfulness, Science Daily recently reported that Mindfulness in the workplace improves:

  • Stress reduction
  • Reduced rumination
  • Decreased negative affect (e.g. depression, anxiety)
  • Less emotional reactivity/more effective emotion regulation
  • Increased focus
  • More cognitive flexibility
  • Improved working memory

Specifically, Mindfulness has been shown to improve three qualities of attention — stability, control and efficiency. This is huge when it comes to reducing stress to increase productivity in a company.

Mindfulness increases our ability to be resilient after a tough meeting, conversation or event and provides the coping skills to bounce back instead of being stressed and stuck.

It allows employees to be more open minded and less reactive, reducing the automatic reaction and providing enough space to have an unemotional response.

Mindfulness can stabilize attention in the present. Individuals who completed Mindfulness training were shown to remain vigilant longer on both visual and listening tasks, making them twice as productive as those who didn’t do the training.

Consider this. Our minds are wandering from what we are doing 46.9% of the time, as research by Paul Gilbert and Matt Killingworth reveals. In a work context, this means that almost 50% of our time we are not truly present with our tasks. In fact, other businesses are making money from our wandering attention like Facebook, Amazon and Google. 

Although Mindfulness is an individual quality, initial evidence suggests that it affects interpersonal behavior and workgroup relationships driving better collaboration and innovation. 

To that end, Mindfulness may improve relationships through greater empathy and compassion — suggesting mindfulness training could enhance workplace processes that rely on effective leadership and teamwork.

Mindfulness at SAP

A great case study is SAP,  the world’s leading supplier of business software with 290,000 customers, 75,000 employees in 130 locations. While it’s a poster child for a Mindfulness program, it didn’t start out as a program at all, rather a community of like minded employees.

Peter Bostelmann is an industrial engineer from Germany working for SAP for 17 years.  About 10 years ago, he found Mindfulness made its way into his life and he realized how much it helped him in his role as a program manager running large scale software implementations. It would help him to settle himself, to be more calm, perceive people and relationships differently and allow him to be open minded about new concepts and ideas.  Because of this, he came to the conclusion he wanted to find a way to bring this to SAP.

Peter began with a grassroots approach and was able to build a strong team across the globe with people who understood the benefit of the practice and who could guide small groups in their prospective regions.  They began using surveys to track the short term and longer term affects to prove the positive affects Mindfulness had on the employees. The scores came in at 6.5 out of 7 and you can see the blue part is how people reported after four weeks, and the green part is how they reported after six months, proving it had sustained benefits.

After 1 and 1/2 years, they had a wait list of 1,500 people to join the community and practice group. The shift came when the global learning center of excellence decided to make it a global Mindfulness practice inside the company. This is where it went from grassroots to a global sponsored program.  It became centrally funded and accessible to all employees.

More than 6,000 employees have taken two-day Mindfulness courses.  “For many managers, it has become the new normal to open meetings with short meditations,” commented Peter.

SAP has seen dramatic results in the reduction of stress, but also in other areas. And the best part is the changes have been sustainable, proof that it works.


IMPROVE: What are the steps to implement a Mindfulness Program?

The biggest question I get from clients is “How do I start?”.  This can be a daunting task if you aren’t familiar with Mindfulness, but it’s actually like any other project

Get Sponsorship

Have an executive sponsor or sponsors who understand the value and the science behind it. The most important factor is sponsorship by a leader in the company, whether the BOD, the CEO, or an Executive, you must have support from the top. This is where most companies fail. They hand it over to Human Resources and hope they can garner up enough interest through focus groups and newsletters, but it’s not enough.

Identify SMEs

Find people within the company with a deep experience in Mindfulness and also have proven success in your business, and identify one to lead the program.  If you are smaller or don’t have anyone, you can hire an outside consultant.  Make sure whomever you hire has a personal practice and walks the walk.  Check their credentials and have them guide you through a Mindfulness exercise to see their style and approach.

Create Interest

Create a specific pitch for your organization that speaks to the rewards of such a program. Employee buy-in is critical to this being successful, and the first step is teaching the employees what it is and how it benefits them. The key is to share the information in a simple format that’s easy to digest where they see the impact to their lives immediately. Using a story of a colleague and how it helped them is a great way to get employees bought in.

Conduct Pilots

The best way to start is with a pilot program to test the adoption. Begin with a small group in a couple of different areas and see what works well and what needs adjusting. Use a survey to get feedback on the sessions. There are many different Mindfulness practices and you may want to try out different ones to see what works best for your groups. Warning! Don’t make it mandatory.  Instead, allow them to make the decision to be part of it.

Link to Company Goals

Link it to the objectives of your organization, whether employee engagement, productivity, change resiliency, customer service complaints, even innovation or creativity.  While there have been lots of studies proving the effectiveness of Mindfulness in organizations, you want to make sure what you’re doing is working. Set up surveys that measure key metrics and track the results for short term and long term benefits. Metrics to look at include employee turnover, employee sick days, employee productivity, number of accidents, number of products produced, etc.


CONTROL: How to sustain the results of a Mindfulness Program?

Keeping a good thing going is hard. Like anything else, it takes focus and attention of one or more individuals to sustain a program and keep the benefits accumulating.  The best way to do this is to identify an owner for a period of time and make it a stretch assignment that gives the person exposure to senior leadership. Again, this should be run like any other project and should have a cadence of report outs to the sponsors with data and updates on how the program is doing.

Making this an “annual” assignment that allows for others to take the reins and continue to infuse new blood into it. With new blood comes a different perspective and maybe new ideas. This should be a learning and growth experience and should not add more stress to the individual.  Make sure it’s someone who is passionate about the practice and the program.

While this is not an easy, quick fix, it does have long term benefits that are guaranteed to help your employees and the organization improve effectiveness.   Anyone wishing to shift their culture and create a “Best Places” to work environment should consider Mindfulness as an internal part of your employee experience.

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