Recent guidance recommended the promotion of mindfulness training to help develop mentally healthy workplaces, but what does this mean in practice and what benefits can it offer in a workplace context? Ruth Ormston and Andrew McNeill explain.
In the past few years, mindfulness has become a popular offering within UK workplaces, going from what was perhaps a ‘secret’ practice undertaken by individuals without their employer’s knowledge, to a form of training encouraged by HR and wellbeing teams.
In a recent development, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence – or NICE – which is the body that publishes guidance and advice to improve health and social care, has published a set of Guidelines on Mental Wellbeing at Work, which clearly recommends mindfulness as an evidence-based training that should be offered to all employees.
What is mindfulness?
Although it is used liberally within a number of settings, the term ‘mindfulness’ is in danger of being misused to describe types of training that have limited connection to the term. Within The Mindfulness Initiative’s guidelines on Building the Case for Mindfulness in the Workplace, we set out the following definition:
“Mindfulness is best considered an inherent human capacity akin to language acquisition; a capacity that enables people to focus on what they experience in the moment, inside themselves as well as in their environment, with an attitude of openness, curiosity and care. In fact we are all somewhat mindful some of the time, but we can choose to cultivate this faculty and refine it to ever-greater degrees through practice.”
We all have the capacity to be mindful, but through training we can help to refine this skill – one which is often tested through the ‘mindless’ modes of being and habits that can accompany digital distraction, multi-tasking, and stress.
Mindfulness practice requires individuals to ‘turn towards’ their experience as it is, even if at times it is uncomfortable or unpleasant. Whilst feeling relaxed may come as a by-product of practising mindfulness, it isn’t the same as relaxation training. Mindfulness is also not, contrary to many people’s perceptions, about clearing one’s head or emptying it of thoughts.
What the guidelines say
The NICE guidelines were published in early March. They are for all employers of whatever size, and sets out key recommendations for creating the right conditions for mental wellbeing at work.
The guidelines recommend that a three-tiered approach, with organisational strategy being set as the foundation for good mental wellbeing, and individual and targeted approaches then sitting on top of that foundation. The guidelines make clear that the individual and targeted approaches should be in addition to, rather than a substitute for, an organisational approach.
In relation to individual-level approaches for employees, the guidelines recommend offering all employees (or helping them access) “mindfulness, yoga or meditation on an ongoing basis”. The committee that reviewed the evidence concludes that “mindfulness, meditation and yoga were the most effective overall in reducing job stress.”
And where employees have or are at risk of poor mental health, where a more targeted approach may be required,they should be offered or provided access to cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness training or stress management training.
Where treatment is commissioned by an employer under the targeted approach, the guidelines note that “they are required to check that the provider has the necessary qualifications and is accredited and regulated by relevant professional organisations to offer the interventions”.
The guidelines provide some signposting for employers, and suggest that there are low cost resources for employers with limited resources.
For employers who want to roll out mindfulness more widely to employees, there are a number of considerations they need to have – including what programme, how they will run it, and who it will be offered by.
For employers who want to roll out mindfulness more widely to employees, there are a number of considerations they need to have – including what programme, how they will run it, and who it will be offered by.”
A few years ago, The Mindfulness Initiative published Building the case for mindfulness in the workplace, a document published by a steering group of mindfulness experts, and employers engaging with mindfulness. The document sets out an evidence review as well as key considerations that employers should have when implementing mindfulness.
That toolkit was followed up in 2020 by the creation of the Mindful Workplace Community, an online independent and international community of mindful workplace champions, organisations and trainers who come together to support one another in sharing best practice.
What next for mindfulness?
Whilst mindfulness is assessed within the NICE guidelines as an individual intervention linked to mental wellbeing, that is only the start of the potential positive impact it can have at work and beyond.
Mindfulness can be thought of as a way of managing and increasing self-awareness to help individuals better relate to themselves, their colleagues, and the wider world. And so it provides a means of not just ‘surviving’ the stresses and strains of the modern workplace, but of flourishing within it.
Research and interest has increasingly turned towards the potential for mindfulness-based training to make a difference at a community or organisational level. It has the potential to help teams communicate better with one another, reduce division and polarisation, and help senior leaders be more responsive rather than reactive in the decisions they make.
The potential for mindfulness-based training to make a difference to individuals, and to society at large are infinite. The NICE recommendations are just the tip of the iceberg.