Workplace Mindfulness Remains a Critical Leadership Issue

Employees at every level of a business experience stress—from fresh-out-of-school to the CEO. The causes of stress may be different, but it’s just as important to recognize it, regardless of what role you hold in a company. Nearly nine in 10 employees report that their workplace stress affects their mental health, and such a significant statistic warrants immediate and widespread action.

Creating a positive and calming work environment, therefore, is really important, especially as we start to return to offices following the COVID-19 pandemic. The prospect of going back to a shared environment after so long in the comfort of our own homes can be a daunting prospect for some, and each business needs to find ways to support its employees through this latest, often intimidating, transition.

Our leadership team actively reminds employees of the importance of pausing throughout their workday and practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness encourages us to obtain a balanced emotional and mental state by taking time to pay attention to the present moment. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the first person to bring meditation to traditional medicine, describes mindfulness as “tuning your instrument before taking it out on the road.” You wouldn’t play an instrument to an audience before tuning it, so why do we insist on forcing our stressed and overactive minds to perform without taking care of them?

Leadership Stress Spreads

Be in no doubt, this is a leadership issue with the potential to create wide-ranging challenges, including the impact it has on the well-being of those at the top of the organization. While being a leader in the contemporary workplace can be rewarding and fulfilling, with greater levels of responsibility can also come high levels of pressure. This can affect not just individual leaders, but by extension, the workplace as a whole. We’ve all seen it: stressed leaders can be edgy, grumpy and impatient, and employees are quick to pick up on it. Studies into the issue bear this out, with 1 in 2 employees viewing their stressed leader as ineffective or even harmful.

So, what role does mindfulness play in helping leaders manage their personal stress levels and the potential impact their well-being may have on their colleagues?

Management Mindfulness

Key to the process is self-awareness. A mindful leader does not allow their mind to be absent as stress builds; or, in other words, they aim to take back control over their feelings, sensations, and behaviors. This happens when a composed mind appreciates the space between stimulus (stressor) and response (stress/behavior).

As a result, mindful leaders are more likely to manage stressful situations or show empathy with colleagues who are also under pressure. Over time, building new habits where the mind is no longer trapped in an automatic response to stress can be a game-changer for mental well-being.

What’s more, research suggests that leaders who invest in mindfulness training develop different, more effective self-leadership characteristics, including mindful task management, self-care and self-reflection, and two leadership capacities: relating to others and adapting to change.

Now, what are some of the practical approaches leaders can take to build this kind of mental wellbeing into their working ethos and organizational culture? 

Putting it into Practice

One important step is to focus on self-awareness. Being aware of overall work goals and intentions for any specific day helps leaders to align thoughts and behaviors with the type of person they want to be. As a result, a leader who is self-aware is much more likely to notice when their approach needs adjustment.

Leaders should also actively consider how they can make better use of those key moments between stimulus and response. This can be as undemanding as pausing for thought before going into a meeting or giving a response in a difficult conversation, or can involve scheduling even a small amount of downtime to take a breath. Both are forms of mindfulness and can play a role in helping to manage the challenges inherent in today’s busy working environments.

There may be some leaders who maintain that there simply isn’t time to make these issues a priority, and by extension, many who go through entire careers without focusing on their own well-being or the people around them. But those who can strike a balance between stress and well-being are much better placed to build a healthy environment that benefits everyone in their organization.

Danny Lopez is CEO at Glasswall Solutions. His previous roles include COO at Blippar, British Consul General to New York, CEO of London & Partners, Marketing Director at the UK’s Department for International Trade, and senior international positions at Barclays Bank.