Think Piece: Mindless or Mindful?
Sebastian Cater asks what can we do to make mindfulness less of a dirty word at work.
With mindless business practices often being endemic in arts organisations, what can we do to make mindfulness less of a dirty word at work?
As people who love working in the arts, our passion can be all encompassing. But when that passion drives us to unhealthy, mindless working practices, does it take burnout to stop our unhealthy ways of working, or is it time that we took a bold step, showed leadership, and tried another, more mindful way of working?
If I was to ask you to create a manifesto that listed all the mindless ways in which we work – let’s call it a Mindless Manifesto for fun - what would you put on the list? Think about all the unproductive things we do to try and manage a busy workload, to get through the day, to just survive…
Feeling compelled to answer every email within minutes? Tick. Feeling obliged to go to every meeting we’re invited to, even if it means having no desk time? Yup. Work at our desks over our lunch breaks just to clear that email backlog? Try and stop me!
And of course, there’s those things we do ‘out of hours’, in our personal time, to try and avoid getting overloaded the next day – like staying late – just an extra hour or two, to clear the action list. And maybe taking some work home, just so we can do some thinking away from all the craziness at work. Don’t forget that we need to check those emails first thing in the morning, while it’s quiet.
Sounding familiar..? But while the idea of a ‘Mindless Manifesto’ might sound a little strange, if we’re living and working by these rules, whether consciously or not, we are not looking after ourselves, nor our teams. When we put all these things together on our ‘Mindless Manifesto’ what we get is a big list of unproductive, unsustainable and unhealthy ways of working. And this way of working is always manageable – until it’s not.
The statistics about mental health in the workplace are pretty shocking. 1 in 6.8 people experience mental health problems in the workplace[i], and 12.7% of all sickness absence days in the UK can be attributed to mental health conditions[ii]. The costs of poor mental health are not only damaging for the individuals, but also businesses – and yet preventative measures can actually save UK businesses up to £8 billion a year[iii]. Healthy workers are happy workers – and productive workers – and certainly more productive than people having to take time off for stress-related issues.
As digital innovation changes the way we do business, we’re now operating in an environment where being ‘always on’ is the default way of working. But while the systems we use get increasingly sophisticated, why are we still suspicious of embracing innovative ways of working, so that we’re in charge of the technology, rather than the other way around?
There are more and more studies showing that mindfulness practices are incredibly powerful in creating happy, healthy human beings – which makes it harder to resist adopting this thinking in a working environment.
“Mindfulness appears to be effective in reducing levels of stress and increasing levels of resilience and emotional intelligence. It raises the level of self-awareness and awareness of others; it increases interpersonal sensitivity and communication skills. It lowers rates of health-related absenteeism, leads to increased concentration and extends one’s capacity to hold and manipulate information. It lowers levels of psychological distress and realises levels of well-being and overall work and life satisfaction”[iv].
With such a glowing list of benefits, it’s hard to argue against embracing mindfulness practices, which is why it’s so encouraging to see more and more arts organisations testing initiatives that encourage healthy debates and practices. But as arts leaders and managers, we also have a role to play to ensure that these company-wide initiatives don’t just become something that happens once a year, or becomes something imposed by our HR departments? If we are to change the way mental health is perceived, we need to make it real, tangible, engaging, meaningful. We need to feel comfortable talking about it, and as arts leaders, we all need to lead the conversation.
One easy way is to turn our subconscious ‘Mindless Manifestos’ on their heads, and create a Mindfulness Manifesto for ourselves, our teams, and our organisations. These manifestos will not be the same for everyone, but the most important thing is that we each have one that we use as a guideline for how to live a healthier, more balanced working life.
Some of you may already be have your own Mindfulness Manifesto that you’re working from – you just might not call it this. You may be getting up from your desk every hour or so to stretch and have a break from your screen. You may be working from home occasionally to get a good work/life balance. You may regularly practice yoga, or meditating, taking long walks in the country, and cooking delicious cakes at home and bringing them in to work. You may even be watching the kettle boil mindfully, without checking your phone while it reaches boiling point! If you’re doing all this already – congratulations! You’re already starting to walk the talk. For anyone who’s a leader, leading by example is the truly best thing you can do, and you will feel better for doing it.
So have a think – now – about what would be on your Mindfulness Manifesto. What things could you do differently in your day to give your head some space, your mind a rest, and which would make you feel better – and ultimately be more productive at work? Try and come up with five things that you could do each day, or over a week, that would change the way you work.
To give you some other examples of what could go in your Mindfulness Manifesto, Action For Happiness create some fantastic calendars, with ideas for mindful activities we can easily do every day: https://www.actionforhappiness.org/calendars
One of the best benefits of these initiatives is that they are free! So being skint is no excuse for not trying them. Of course, we may also be time poor, so as part of this initiative, we need to find some time in the day to make space to think and reflect on which of these activities will work for us. An easy way of doing this is to book in some time on a Saturday or Sunday, and plan your mindfulness activities for the week.
Once you’ve created your own Mindfulness Manifesto, the next step is to talk to your teams about it – and not just in the kitchen while the kettle’s boiling. Next time you have a team meeting, or one-to-one meetings with your team, add ‘Mindfulness Manifesto’ to the agenda, and talk to each person about the importance of living and working in a healthy way.
One important thing to say about mindfulness is that there’s no right or wrong way to do it. Each person will discover that some ideas work better for them than others. The main thing is that you at least try them – and share your learnings with your team - so that over time, you can all find things that work for you.
The more time we invest in positive approaches to mental health, and the more visibility we give it the less scary it becomes, and the more we encourage people to take pride in their mental health. Imagine if we all worked on our Mindfulness Manifestos until we reached a point where mental health was talked about in the same way as physical health, and when we didn’t shy away from asking our colleagues ‘how are you?’ in case they told you they were struggling.
So now it’s up to you to find ways in which mindfulness practices can be embedded in your and your team’s working lives – good luck.
[i]Lelliott, P., Tulloch, S., Boardman, J., Harvey, S., & Henderson, H. (2008). Mental health and work, from gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/212266/hwwb-mental-health-and-work.pdf
[ii]ONS. (2014). Full Report: Sickness Absence on the Labour Market, February 2014, from webarchive. nationalarchives.gov.uk/20160105160709/http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_353899.pdf [Accessed 28/07/16].