The case for mindfulness

April 21, 2021 Share this article:


You’ve mastered a year of sourdough, banana bread, Dalgona coffee and DIY home updates. Now for something that will really help your career: mindfulness. We talk to Jessica Leonard Hull, Founder of LUME, about mindfulness as an antidote to executive stress in the time of Covid.

A recent Oracle survey showed that 2020 was one of the worst years for executive stress, with the COVID-19 pandemic impacting workers differently depending on their seniority, generation and location.

The grave danger of executive stress is the tendency to assume that it comes with the territory, along with the corner office and the share options. And while a certain amount of pressure is beneficial when it comes to galvanising teams, feeling overwhelmed and out of control impacts on your health, mental well-being and relationships.

Jessica Leonard Hull, whose mission it is to teach people how to use mindfulness to combat stress and improve well-being, says that this is particularly important when so many people are still working from home. “In an online environment, it’s easy to miss the cues that will alert you to colleagues who may be suffering burn-out or stress. You can’t see the person’s body language because you’ve got a limited amount of time, and you no longer have the pre- and post-meeting informal interaction, which is when people tend to share more personal information.

“The stresses of working from home in dual-income households have been well-documented, especially for women who are disproportionately affected by remote working because they’re usually the ones doing the online schooling and the cooking and cleaning while trying to work a full-time job.

“Not only do lockdowns add to domestic workloads and create workplace complexity, they also prevent people from blowing off steam in other ways, such as playing sport or eating out and socialising. Not only are we deprived of our usual stress-releasors, but with many organisations treating employees who work remotely as ‘always on’, the boundary between work and play has blurred. In short, we’ve gone from working from home to sleeping at the office.”

Companies who invest in mindfulness at executive level tend to see a positive impact across the organisation. This is because employees take their cue from management. If managers wear their stress as a badge of honour, employees will feel compelled to behave similarly. Likewise, if managers enforce healthy boundaries and demonstrate respect for work/life balance, employees will feel comfortable doing the same.

Despite the many benefits that reportedly come from practicing mindfulness, there is a certain resistance to it – especially in A-type environments.

“I invariably have to start with the business case before managers are convinced. In the UK, a total of 12.5 million working days is lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety which works out to an annual cost to employers of between £33 - £42 billion according to a 2017 UK Government review of mental health in the workplace.

Over half of that cost is “presenteeism” – employees turning up for work even if they are too ill or stressed or disengaged to function properly.”

The same report found that companies that take mental health seriously outperform their competitors financially: Over a 27-year period, companies that looked after their employees best outperformed their peers on stock returns by 2.3% to 3.8% per year. Mental health training programmes also led to a significant reduction in work-related sickness absence, with an associated return on investment of £9.98 for each pound spent.

A recent study makes the case for mindfulness as an antidote to the negative impact of social media and technology use, while a report issued by The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has shown that mindfulness has been proven to reduce depression, anxiety and stress by more than 50%. It concludes that there is a positive relationship between workplace mindfulness and job performance, after controlling for the influence of three dimensions of work engagement on performance, namely vigour, dedication, and absorption.

So, what is mindfulness? Is it just dressed-up meditation; and is it for everyone?

“All mindfulness is meditation, but not all meditation is mindful – just as all running is exercise, but not all exercise is running. There are many, many different types of meditative practices.

Meditation means to cultivate. When we practice mindfulness meditation, we are cultivating awareness and attention, both of ourselves and our surroundings. We do this by training our capacity to focus, on our breath for example, because when we focus, we start to relax deeply. When we are stressed, adrenaline and cortisol is released, and this takes a toll on your mind and body over a prolonged period of time. We train people to tap into this rest response, so that they are equipped to deregulate and focus regardless of how stressful the situation. Being practised at entering this state of flow helps anyone to perform optimally.

“At the end of the day though, mindfulness is not a ‘thought’ thing. It’s an experiential thing. And usually, once I get people to experience that deep sense of calm, they’re hooked,” says Jessica. Ironically, the biggest resistance comes from high performing individuals who fear that they will lose their edge by practicing mindfulness.

“They worry that if they relax, they’ll somehow going to lose the qualities that make them successful. But this edge is like having a double-edged sword without a handle on it. The trick is to know when to wield your sword. You must be able to sheath it or you’ll end up – over time – wielding it at inappropriate moments – like with your friends and family. It doesn’t make you great company to be around. Practicing mindfulness is like putting a handle on that double edged sword so you can choose when to use it. Ultimately knowing how to deal with your emotions is a necessary life skill to be able to excel in our busy, modern world.”

AltoPartners’ top tips for optimal mental health awareness

April is stress-awareness month. What better time to review your company’s commitment to mental health.

  1. Set clear mental boundaries between work and home. Adopt policies that ensure that managers respect their own work life balance and that of employees’.

  2. Make sure employees take leave. Covid has seen large tranches of leave-time being accrued, leaving employees exhausted. Encourage employees to take a proper break. Many are reluctant to take leave during Covid as they want to travel when restrictions are lifted, or they fear being on call if they spend it at home.

  3. Acknowledge that mental health is an issue that needs to be managed in the workplace. This is not mental illness, but the sort of periodic depression, stress and anxiety that anyone can undergo, just as healthy people can contract a virus or suffer a sprained ankle.

  4. Set an example. Executives must be able to talk openly about mental health. If burn-out is treated as a shameful weakness, no-one will seek help regardless of the measures in place.

  5. Measure employee mental health and well-being through surveys and mood trackers. Report on findings internally in order to encourage discussion throughout the organisation and increase accountability of the organisation to employees for delivering against the mental health core or enhanced standards.

  6. If you consider developing a daily mindfulness practice, it is essential to make time for it. There is no point in having lunchtime mindfulness sessions if employees are too stressed to leave their desks for 20 minutes, or their line managers treat it with derision.

  7. Develop a healthy relationship with tech. While being open to apps and AI that can help to strengthen mental health and provide more administrative assistance is crucial, it’s equally important to have a policy that deals with the potential negative impact of tech on mental health, such as limiting back-to-back video calls and streamlining tech platforms.

  8. Encourage employees to upskill to manage stress – including learning meditation or related coping techniques – exactly as you would if they had to master new processes and technology.

  9. Remove the taboo from mental health by reporting on it on your website or other channels.

  10. Adopt workplace mental health indicators in employer rating initiatives and equip managers to have conversations with employees about mental health.

Related Practice

Leadership Consulting