In this age of constant distractions and long hours, it’s difficult to find even a few minutes of time to reflect. Yet finding that time and space can help ease the stresses of your demanding working life. Peter Jaret of BerkeleyWellness interviewed Jason Marsh, director of programs for the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC), about the benefits of mindfulness at work, which will be the topic of our upcoming conference hosted by the GGSC on Nov. 13-14 in Berkeley, California.

Jason Marsh

Peter Jaret: First, what exactly is mindfulness?

Jason Marsh: Mindfulness describes a moment-to-moment awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. It’s a state of being attuned to what’s going on in your body and in the surrounding environment—being in the present moment without thinking about the future or what happened in the past. An essential component of mindfulness is acceptance. Whatever you’re thinking and feeling at that moment is neither right nor wrong. You notice it, and accept it, and move onto the next moment without getting caught up in judging what you’re thinking or feeling.

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PJ: How is mindfulness different from meditation?

JM: They’re practically synonymous but they’re not exactly the same. Mindfulness meditation is one form of meditation, but it’s not the only form. And formal meditation is one way to practice mindfulness, but it’s not the only way. Once you learn mindfulness skills, you can practice them at almost any moment of the day—sitting at your computer, stuck in traffic, even eating. In fact, there has been a lot of interest in promoting mindful eating as a way to help people be more aware of what they eat, to enjoy each bite more, and even to control how much they eat. And there’s also growing interest in using the practice of mindfulness in the workplace to provide a buffer against stress.

PJ: Let’s talk about mindfulness in the workplace. What are the benefits?

JM: There are many. Some of the earliest studies, which involved the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, showed that mindfulness can help ease stress. Mindfulness fosters positive emotions and helps provide resilience against negative experiences. There’s also evidence that the practice of mindfulness promotes empathy and a sense of compassion.

Indeed, brain imaging research shows that a half hour of mindfulness meditation a day increases the density of gray matter in parts of the brain associated with memory, stress, and empathy. Finally, mindfulness seems to increase concentration and focus. Research looking specifically at mindfulness in the workplace is relatively new. But there’s good reason to think it makes employees more satisfied and less stressed. A 2014 study of employees at the Dow Chemical Company, for instance, showed that mindfulness training increased vigor, lowered stress, and gave employees a greater sense of resiliency. Preliminary studies suggest that a program in mindfulness also can increase productivity and reduce the number of sick days.

PJ: Are there specific health benefits to mindfulness practice?

JM: An early, small study suggests that mindfulness may help boost the immune system. By serving as a buffer against stress, mindfulness may also lower the risk of heart disease. A 2015 study looked at people who score high on a mindfulness awareness test, and found that they had a healthier cardiovascular risk profile than people with lower scores. One small pilot program also found that mindfulness training helped decrease depression.

PJ: How is mindfulness practice taught?

JM: There are many different approaches, from apps that provide audio of guided meditations to on-site workplace training programs run by outside facilitators. A growing number of companies are offering mindfulness workshops. The earliest model, developed by Kabat-Zinn, is an eight-week course run by a trained facilitator, with mindfulness exercises that participants practice on their own. But people can learn mindfulness on their own. Simply learning to focus your attention on your breathing in the present moment is a big part of mindfulness. At a new website we’ve created, called Greater Good in Action, we offer several step-by-step guides to mindfulness practices.

PJ: What kinds of companies are taking an interest in mindfulness training?

JM: Here in the San Francisco Bay area, we’re seeing growing interest. Initially, that was among tech and social media companies. Google has been a pioneer in providing mindfulness practice training for its employees. In fact, an engineer at Google first instituted a mindfulness training program there, which has now become the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, offering mindfulness training for companies around the world. Facebook has its own in-house mindfulness program. Pixar, the animation company, recently set aside a meditation room where employees can go to practice mindfulness. Nationally, General Mills, Ford, insurance giant Aetna and other more traditional companies have also started to offer mindfulness training programs. So have financial firms like Goldman Sachs and BlackRock.

PJ: Some tech companies have been criticized for harsh working conditions. Could mindfulness training become a “Band-Aid” fix to serious workplace problems?

JM: I think that’s definitely a risk. But given that stress is a reality in many people’s working lives, I think mindfulness can be an effective tool to buffer its negative effects. And ideally, mindfulness may even help change workplaces for the better. Research suggests that mindfulness training helps make people more compassionate and empathetic toward others. By improving the way people relate to one another, ideally it can change corporate culture for the better, creating a more supportive, friendlier workplace with better relationships. In many organizations, there are bigger, systemic changes that need to be made, but I don’t think that instituting a mindfulness program will prevent those changes from happening. At the least, a mindfulness program provides workers with some relief from stress and anxiety while they campaign for systemic changes; at best, it helps to catalyze those bigger systemic changes.

PJ: What advice would you offer someone who works in a company that doesn’t offer mindfulness training?

JM:You can start by learning how to practice mindfulness yourself, perhaps by taking a class, checking out a mindfulness app, or reading a book with instructions. If you’re happy with the benefits, you can build a community at work by telling your co-workers. If it’s appropriate, you can approach human resource or training departments to see if they have any interest in sponsoring workshops or providing a quiet place where people can go to practice mindfulness.

PJ: How do you use mindfulness training at the Greater Good Science Center?

JM: We had the idea a few years ago to institute five minutes of silent meditation before staff meetings. People were enthusiastic about the idea, and we’ve been doing it ever since. It helps people have a break with whatever they were doing before the meeting, and to focus their thoughts and respond to one another in a way that’s more thoughtful and respectful.

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