Workplace Evolution and the Well-Being of Employees

For 30 years, Carl Lemieux worked with executive teams on strategy, transformation and leadership at an international level.

In this interview, he shares his observations on workplace evolution and his recommendations for sustainable well-being in the workplace, such as:

Changes in organization
How does the pace in organizations today affect people?
How are people coping?
How can organizations adapt to these new challenges?
Are you interested in learning more about well-being opportunities in the workplace?

 

Beginner’s Mind for Mindfulness in Everyday Life

The opposite of mindfulness is mindlessness. Whereas mindfulness involves paying purposeful attention and meeting experience with openness and curiosity, mindlessness means functioning on automatic pilot—following routines without paying attention, without appreciating, and without awareness of what’s happening inside and around us.

It’s easy to be mindless and it takes effort to be mindful. Here are two ways to avoid mindlessness and increase mindfulness in everyday life:

Beginner’s mind: We usually perceive everyday people and situations without appreciation or awareness, and through the lens of what we think we already know or understand about them. In contrast, beginner’s mind means experiencing people and situations as though for the first time, without the filter of history and established beliefs.

There are several advantages to consciously cultivating beginner’s mind. First, it allows us to appreciate things and people we take for granted. Think about the first time you see your partner or a beloved family member after a long separation. You notice every new freckle or wrinkle; you appreciate his or her smile and scent—that is, you see and appreciate your loved one as if he or she were new. Think about when a friend comes to visit your town or city and points out and appreciates features you barely notice anymore because you see them every day; that’s beginner’s mind. When we talk about beginner’s mind in MBSR, I ask participants to try to experience their morning shower as if for the first time—to imagine being from a planet where there are no showers, and to feel the amazement of stepping into an abundant stream of hot steamy water.

Second, beginner’s mind can be helpful in difficult interpersonal situations. We usually see our friends, partner, boss, colleagues, parents, and children through the cloudy lens of our history with them and our feelings about them. Beginner’s mind means seeing people as they actually are in the moment and not making assumptions. I used this technique to cope with a former colleague who drove me crazy; rather than assuming that she would react negatively or do something irritating, I waited to see what would happen, as though I’d never interacted with her before. Using beginner’s mind allowed me to approach our interactions with greater equanimity and to avoid unnecessary advance frustration.

Break your routine. Routine promotes automatic behaviour, and automatic behaviour is the death of mindfulness; eating the same thing for breakfast, shopping at the same stores, and taking the same routes to work every day doesn’t exactly inspire careful awareness and attention. I recently read a book that suggested that novel experiences can promote mindfulness and add excitement and meaning to life.

In the weeks that followed, I made an extra effort to switch up some of my habits: I went into stores I’d never been into, tried food I hadn’t tried or hadn’t tried for years, switched up my running routes, and spent time with different people and in different parts of the city.

Did breaking out of my routine dispel mindlessness and increase meaning? Yes. When I was discovering an area of the city I’d never visited before or spending time with a new friend, I felt more present and aware. I had to pay more attention because I had no history to predict what would happen—and that was exciting. To be sure, it was also uncomfortable and effortful. At restaurants, my instinct is to order the same dish I always order so I can be sure I’ll like it; when I go running, I like to run my same old routes so I know the exact distance covered and the precise location of public drinking fountains. It wasn’t easy to change my routine, but it was worth it. Two experiences in particular stand out:

a) After years of dedicated avoidance, I discovered that I like fish after all and don’t hate cilantro;

b) I had an unforgettable run: I’ve been running on the mountain in Montreal for nine years and always run in the same direction around the loop at the top. One morning, I purposely ran around the loop in the opposite direction and was rewarded with a stunning sunrise—slanting through the trees and beaming in my face—that must have been at my back on every other morning run. It actually stopped me in my tracks; it was as it were my very first run on the mountain (beginner’s mind).

Bringing beginner’s mind to routine and breaking up routine are can’t-miss routes to mindful awareness and appreciation. The next time you interact with your boss, parent, partner, or child, imagine that you’re seeing him or her for the very first time. The next time you have to decide where to go, what to do, or what to eat, try something different.
What do you notice?

Sarah Roberts is a psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher at the Numinus Clinic.

Why Taking Time for Yourself is a Good Investment

Over the weekend, I had a chat with a close friend of mine about the challenges of modern family life. Rebecca (not her real name) is a dependable doctor, supportive wife, and dedicated mother of two active little boys.

With all that responsibility on her plate, she takes life one jam-packed day at a time, feeling a sense of achievement in the evening over what she had been able to pull off in the previous 18 hours. She thrives on the challenge.

Yet, she was concerned about subtle but chronic feelings of fatigue, irritability, and self-doubt. That is until recently, when she tried something revolutionary: taking time for herself.

Rebecca took up jogging. She ran twice a week for several months and eventually got into good enough shape to run a half-marathon. It was a glorious experience that filled her with a deep sense of connection to herself and her family.

From her first slow 3-k runs to the moment she crossed that finish line at 21k, it was a project for herself, by herself, and with herself. Yet, she felt an even deeper connection with her family and friends than before. Why had it taken her so long to pay attention to herself?

Sure it was tough to run off the weight she had gained from two pregnancies. Sure she had to arrange for someone else to look after the kids while she trained. Sure it was tough to get going on those cold April mornings. But the biggest obstacle she faced was getting used to the idea that it was worth it. She was worth it.

How many times have you said, about an activity that you know would be good for you, something to the effect of “I really should do that, but I don’t have time”? This story is an argument for why it’s time to reassess your priorities and make time for yourself.

There is no doubt that stress, fatigue, and irritability create a drag on productivity.

Though it’s difficult to quantify this drag, but the science is clear: anxiety interferes with cognitive functioning and emotional reactivity complicates life’s problems.

There is also compelling evidence that a certain class of activities are effective in reducing these states. These activities involve taking time out from the daily grind, connecting with sensory experience, and cultivating kindness toward oneself.

So, it stands to reason that the time it would take to meditate daily, go for a run several times per week, or listen to music on the weekend will pay off in greater efficiency the rest of the week. Taking a break may actually save you time!

There appear to be health benefits to these activities as well. The health benefits of exercise are widely reported. But meditation, as another example, has been shown to reduce stress, improve immune function, reduce blood pressure and heart rate, and control pain. At the same time, it appears to promote well-being: meditators report increased sense of calm, clarity of vision, and compassion for self and others.

Rebecca is an intelligent person. It’s not that she didn’t know about the benefits of exercise. It’s just that she was operating under the faulty assumption that she didn’t have enough time for it. She was never able to get down to the self-care items on her to-do list because the other items came first.

She understands now that the energy rut she was in was a consequence of that problem. But, since carving out 40-minutes for herself twice per week, she has renewed energy, creativity, and confidence.

She also considers herself to be a better doctor, wife, and mom now.

The small, seemingly selfish act of taking time for herself, turned out to be an excellent investment for everyone.

The Confusing Science of Wandering Minds, Focused Attention, and Well-Being

An interesting study out of Harvard confirmed last year that “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” But, what about the evidence suggesting that letting the mind wander can actually be helpful for concentration and memory. What do these seemingly conflicting findings mean for your Mindfulness meditation practice?

You’ve probably heard people talk about the importance of staying present in the moment. Well, an interesting new study out of Harvard confirmed last that “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” That should provide further motivation to use meditation to stay present. But, judging from some of the other recent news from the science of human attention, the story is a little more complex than that. Take for instance, some of the compelling evidence that letting the mind wander can actually be helpful for concentration and memory. What do these seemingly conflicting findings mean for your Mindfulness meditation practice? Let’s see.

The study by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert at Harvard University just came out in the Science – perhaps the most prestigious scientific journal in the world. The researchers used smart phones to ask 2,250 participants, at random times, what they were doing at that moment, and whether they were thinking about their current activity or about something else that was pleasant, neutral or unpleasant. Amazingly, on average, people reported that their mind was wandering about 47% of the time and no less than 30% of the time during all activities (except sex!). People were happiest when making love, exercising, or engaging in conversation. They were least happy when resting, working or using a home computer. However, it turns out that what you think about is more important than what you are doing. “How often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged,” Killingsworth says. The authors go on to suggest that “the ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.” They conclude the paper by saying that “many philosophical and religious traditions teach that happiness is to be found by living in the moment, and practitioners are trained to resist mind wandering and to be here now. These traditions suggest that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”

Now consider a different line of research suggesting that mind wandering is actually a good thing. Eric Klinger from the University of Minnesota argues that the ability to think about things other than the unbearable present (stuck in traffic?) is an asset because it “serves as a kind of reminder mechanism, thereby increasing the likelihood that the other goal pursuits will remain intact and not get lost in the shuffle of pursuing many goals.” (Incidentally, I think this is why many people in my Mindfulness groups prefer not to do their Mindful eating meditation over lunch; they tend to rely on this break as a time to loosen their thinking and check back in with the big picture.)

Apparently, this state of “Mindwanderness” (Mindfulness’ ugly cousin?) is actually the default setting of the brain’s attention circuits. When we want to concentrate on something for a sustained period, the executive network of the brain (part of the frontal lobes) has to inhibit this default circuit and actively keep us on task. But this is a demanding process, so we tend to zone out easily and often – some estimate 10% of the time, I suspect it’s more – and rely on meta-awareness to bring ourselves back on task. Unfortunately, we have a limited amount of mental resources to sustain that kind of directed attention, according to University of Michigan brain scientist Marc Berman. In short, we get tired. In that sense, the frontal executive network is not that different from a muscle that gets tired after a workout. You need to take breaks and recover before you can use the muscle effectively again.

That line of thinking is at the heart of an exciting new movement in education, which pushes for children to spend more of their school time outdoors, in nature. Marc Berman argues that nature offers “soft fascination,” in that natural stimuli spontaneously call our attention, without overwhelming us (think waves on the water, a fluttering butterly, or leaves rustling in the wind). This means that the brain’s other attention network – the one that supports effortful, directed attention – gets to rest. According to Berman’s attention restoration theory: “Urban settings aren’t as restful because they require more vigilance to avoid cars, buses or other hazards. Television, movies and computer games may be too absorbing to allow the circuitry involved in paying attention to recharge.” So far, the data have provided clear support for “attention restoration theory:” students that spend time in nature consistently score better on attention and memory tasks (and may even be more creative). Research us currently under way to understand how much nature is needed and how all of this plays out in the brain.

So what are the implications for Mindfulness practice? Is it time to give Mindwanderness another chance? Well, that depends on what you mean by Mindfulness. Many beginners tend to think that Mindfulness involves having a completely clear and relaxed mind; that with practice and discipline, they will get better at suppressing distraction and staying focused. While it’s true that Mindfulness can help cultivate better focus, it is about more than that. It is about being awake in life – being aware of the impact the quality of our attention has on our experience. The study by Killingsworth and Gilbert supports the ancient principle that attention in the present moment is a key to happiness. Our ability to think about things other than the present means that we can waste all kinds of time ruminating on the past or worrying about the future. Meanwhile, life is passing us by. But staying present in the moment doesn’t necessarily mean keeping a sustained, narrow focus on one object of attention. Letting our attention be guided by the flow of stimuli in nature – what Mindfulness people called “choiceless awareness” – is another excellent way to be present in the moment. In fact, the research reviewed here suggests that cultivating that choiceless awareness may actually help us to concentrate and remember things at work later in the day. Ultimately, the practice of Mindfulness helps you become more aware of how you are paying attention right now. From there, it’s up to you to decide what to do about it. Do I still have enough mental juice to finish reading that memo? Or is it time to take a break and let the mind wander for a bit? Either way, you’re awake and aware of the options so that you can make optimal decisions for yourself. I’m feeling pretty drained at the moment, so it’s time for me to go for a run on the mountain.