Meditation can recharge working minds

By Dr Jenna Filipkowski, head of research at the Human Capital Institute

Before you start reading this article, stop. Look at your mobile phone and notifications. How many alerts do you have? How many unread e-mails are sitting in your inbox? For how many minutes (or hours) during the working day do you engage in this stimulus-response behaviour with your mobile? It’s likely to be longer than you care to admit.

Humans have become dependent on mobile phones as a primary source of information. No longer just a device for connectivity, we rely on mobiles for e-mails, messages, shopping and news alerts, and this onslaught of data interrupts our personal and working lives.

A few years ago, our research team at the Human Capital Institute (HCI) studied workplace distractions like this and evaluated their impact on individual and organisational performance. We collected survey responses from more than 400 HCI members, who work in strategic talent management, and 500 employees in individual contributor roles.

We asked individual contributors to rate how often distractions affect their work, and found that the biggest nemeses of productivity are overhearing co-workers’ conversations in open offices, e-mail, lack of sleep and personal internet use. Millennials reported spending more time using their smartphone at work compared with other generations. Sixty per cent of human resources managers agree there is a pressure to respond instantly to e-mail rather than continue with their work.

Meditation practices and mindfulness can be an effective antidote to the sensory overload of life in the 21st century

Despite this, we found HR professionals and leaders are not overly concerned with these distractions affecting employees, though they do note its impact on task speed and employee engagement. Nearly half of organisations with technology usage policies say they are leniently applied and 13 per cent have policies that are rarely enforced. The most effective technology policy was implementing a “no device” rule during work meetings, but most HR leaders agree it is the individual employee’s responsibility to manage his or her time.

We crave escape from boring or challenging tasks by distracting ourselves. Researchers from the University of Virginia found that study participants would rather give themselves electric shocks than sit alone with nothing but their thoughts. Seeking distractions at work, whether checking your mobile or chatting with a colleague, is an exercise in moderation.

Humans need regular breaks and opportunities to reset working minds, but the key to maximising these breaks and using them to enhance your productivity is being mindful of the activity you choose. When you feel the urge to reset, going for a walk, breathing deeply, reading a novel or a long-form article, or even shutting your eyes for 15 minutes, is time better spent than mindlessly scrolling though the newsfeeds on your mobile.

In 2017, mindfulness is one of HCI’s focus areas for our conferences, webcasts and research. We listened to our members and discovered they are struggling with how to maximise productivity in the distraction-filled workspaces of today.

We need a solution and techniques that were developed thousands of years ago may be the answer. Meditation practices and mindfulness – defined as a state of active, non-judgmental attention on the present moment – can be an effective antidote to the sensory overload of life in the 21st century.

Our research found that 80 per cent of organisations do not train or encourage employees to practice mindfulness, so individuals must lead the charge. When you are mindful of your thoughts and behaviours, you make better choices and, instead of reaching for your mobile out of habit, you can replace that trigger with a behaviour that further engages you with your work.