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Can mindfulness reduce stress at work?

If you’re already feeling stressed at work – or even if you’re not – a pandemic definitely doesn’t help. Incorporating mindfulness into your workday can not only reduce stress but also improve task performance, new research suggests.

Dr. Lasse Lychnell. Photo: Emelie Åkerberg

According to psychologists, mindfulness is a state of mind characterized by a receptive attention to and awareness of the present moment. It is perhaps not a state that all of us associate with work. But interdisciplinary studies have showed an association between mindfulness-based interventions and positive work-related results, such as reduced stress, better mood, increased job satisfaction and improved task performance, and proactive behavior, explains Lasse Lychnell, whose research investigates how mindfulness initiatives in companies may – or may not – contribute to organizational outcomes. 

“While these results are interesting and promising, we need to be careful when we draw conclusions because mindfulness is an elusive phenomenon that is difficult to research,” says Lychnell.

Enabling awareness and presence 

Mindfulness also encompasses a set of practices aimed at enabling this awareness and presence, such as meditations, body scans, and conscious movements. In these exercises, the practitioner trains their ability to step back in order to observe the mind’s content rather than being absorbed in it, Lychnell explains. 

“Instead of thinking that you ‘are’ angry, for example, you notice that you ‘experience’ feelings of anger. In this way, you develop a meta cognitive capacity. This shift creates a gap between stimulus and response which helps reducing automatized behaviors and rumination.”

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it anxiety and stress for a lot of people. Fear for the health of yourself and your loved ones, reduced social interactions, and increased workload or even looming unemployment. It has also brought with it an incresed need for – and interest in – mindfulness practices. 

“Because the whole practice is about being with yourself and your thoughts, mindfulness is an excellent activity for these days. Especially as there are many apps and videos online where one may find instructions and guidance. While mindfulness will not change the situation in itself, it may help people to accept a situation which they cannot change and to discover the opportunities available. However, for some people, mindfulness practice may be uncomfortable and then it is not recommended to continue. Mindfulness is not about pushing oneself. And for those suffering from mental illness, of course, it is better to see a professional.

Mindfulness to promote employee health

Today, many companies offer mindfulness as one of several alternatives to promote employee health. Sometimes it is organized by the company itself, sometimes employees can choose their own mindfulness activities, paid for the subsidy for preventative health care that many Swedish companies offer. Many managers explore mindfulness on their own as a way to find ways to cope with stress, efficiency, and work-life balance. However, while mindfulness works for many people, we have to be cautious not to use mindfulness as a “pain relief” in order to keep up with an unsustainable lifestyle, Lychnell emphasizes.  

He believes that exploring mindfulness should be voluntary. But employers can facilitate the process for employees who are curious. 

“It is also possible to use very simple informal techniques in a team, such as taking a minute to just focus on the breath before a meeting starts in order to still the mind and let go of the previous activity. While this is not necessarily mindfulness, it may still have very positive outcomes.”

Mindful Mondays

Lasse Lychnell is no stranger to incorporating mindfulness into his own workplace. Since 2017, he is one of the people behind a mindfulness initiative at the Stockholm School of Economics called Mindful Mondays, open to students, staff and faculty at the School, as well as alumni. It all stemmed from a conversation with Elin Wiklander, a bachelor student who was writing a thesis on mindfulness and its benefits for students. The two, who were both certified mindfulness instructors, decided to explore if offering 20 minutes of mindfulness every Monday could help improving student health at SSE. 

The team quickly grew to include more students, researchers, teachers and staff. Since the pandemic started, Mindful Mondays has gone online and streams live every Monday. 

“The whole situation brings us closer to existential questions and I would not be surprised if there will be an increased interest in mindfulness as well as in other contemplative practices,” Lasse Lychnell concludes. 

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