Stephanie Sparrow asks if brain training can help HR professionals to be more effective
It is customary to accept that volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity shape our working world. Alongside this is the premise that qualities such as emotional intelligence and empathy will help us to survive the Vuca maelstrom, while the ability to “show resilience”, is a prerequisite of most senior HR roles and frequently mentioned in job adverts.
But how can busy professionals develop these strengths? For many, the answer lies in practising mindfulness, a technique which helps the mind to focus on the present and to ignore distractions and anxieties such as those caused by stress and technology. Participants usually take ten minutes before or during the working day, to engage in a type of secular meditation in which they develop awareness and curiosity, with the aim of giving a measured response to situations, rather than giving a knee-jerk reaction.
Occupational psychologists such as Margaret Chapman-Clarke, author of Mindfulness in the Workplace,* believe that HR professionals can benefit from mindfulness. Clarke is running courses on the subject for the CIPD in early 2017.
“Because of the Vuca world [HR has] to have the strategies to identify what is important, and what we value. and then pursue a path which is in alignment with this”, she says , citing mindfulness as an antidote to the freneticism of “busyness”. She believes that it can lend clarity to decision-making and ultimately help HR professionals to be compassionate with themselves (and so avoid burn out) and others.
Any HR professional who is trying to build the business case for mindfulness training, either to secure it for themselves or to implement it across their organisation, will find a raft of research to back their arguments. In October 2016 the Mindfulness Initiative (a think tank backed by private sector companies which provides the secretariat to the Mindfulness All -Party Parliamentary Group) published Building the Case for Mindfulness in the Workplace. Among its positive findings are that : “ to date, 45 workplace mindfulness research studies have linked mindfulness to improved relationships at work, supporting collaboration and improving employees’ resilience in the face of changes.”
Director of the Mindfulness Initiative Jamie Bristow adds that: “our research found that business leaders who were trained in mindfulness were better able to manage, and agile in complex and paradoxical conditions.”
He believes that it can also help manage the pressures of technology. “Mindfulness helps us to see which habits are harmful….. and technology is one of these. We jump into email straightaway and respond to whoever is ‘shouting’ loudest”, he says, explaining that mindfulness can teach participants to be “more skillful and strategic” in planning their working day, and thus their email time.
Meanwhile, at Ashridge Executive Education, the international business school, associate professor of leadership and dialogue Megan Reitz has just unveiled The Mindful Leader, a study of the impact of mindfulness training on senior people.
“We found that if you practice mindfulness meditation over ten minutes it results in significant improvements in resilience, empathy, agility and perspective taking”, says Reitz. She points out that this chimes with the key requirements of leadership. “Most critical reports say that to have a successful career you have to be resilient, collaborate well and thrive in complexity”, she says.
Train the brain
Reitz who attended a formal eight-week programme two years’ ago and now practices 20 minutes of mindfulness training every morning before she starts work, says that it is important to get the amount of time required for daily mindfulness training into perspective.
“ Ten minutes is less than one per cent of a senior executive’s hours”, she says, adding she has heard of senior managers using their train commutes as an opportunity to practice.
Reitz says that regularly training the brain (in awareness, curiosity and acceptance) has the same effect as training in a gym – “the mind is like a muscle and you begin to notice it. You open up a space where you can choose how you respond rather than automatically reacting. That is the essence. As soon as you are capable of noticing automatic space you are more able to notice perspectives and calm yourself down”, she says.
“When things get hectic… it keeps me true to what’s important”, she says.
“You are more likely to follow a path you want to follow because you are thinking [clearly] and compassionately”, she says
There is however, one proviso. All the experts agree that it is important to engage in mindfulness training with providers who meet national good practice guidelines or who trained with the specialist centres at the universities of Oxford, Exeter, or Bangor. A helpful register of teachers is available on BeMindful.co.uk, part of the Mental Health Foundation.
Who is practising mindfulness?
The extent of the take up of mindfulness training is impressive. Public and private sector organisations across the UK are offering the training and at Westminster a group of 145 MPs are attending an eight- week course.
Further afield, at the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, HR professionals participate in the mindfulness courses developed by the Directorate General Human Resources and offered company-wide since 2014.
“The ECB offers an introductory compact course of two three-hour sessions”, says spokesman Rocio Gonzalez Lopez, “in addition there is an ongoing 45-minute session at lunchtime twice a week.”
He says that the benefits to all staff have become apparent. “Staff members who have attended the courses are now better able to handle stress, both physical and mental, to increase their powers of concentration and to improve their interpersonal relations. Furthermore, it has become acceptable to talk about stress or feeling drained without it being labelled negatively.”