The role mindfulness can play in Health & Safety
Mindfulness is a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. It is used as a therapeutic technique, but there is now more and more information around about the wider benefits of mindfulness in the workplace.
This post aims to give an example of where mindfulness can help improve health and safety in the workplace. As mindfulness is an attitude and skill developed through personal practice, the organisation cannot make it happen. Developing the skill relies on individuals being motivated to practice. However, training staff in mindfulness can benefit the organisation as a whole, as well as each individual member.
Jon Kabat-Zinn is widely credited with helping to popularise mindfulness in the West. He created an 8 week (gentle) yoga and mindfulness programme for chronically ill patients back in 1979 and is still very involved in the mindfulness movement today.
Mindfulness, Neuroplasticity and Habit
How does mindfulness impact on the brain? The exciting concept of neuroplasticity has given many of us inspiration to practise new habits, as it has now been proven scientifically that we can literally change our neural networks in ways that we previously thought was the domain of young brains.
Mindfulness practice could be described as self-directed neuroplasticity where we cultivate certain qualities and behaviours and prune others. We are using the mind to change the brain which then changes the mind for the better.
The research literature shows that people who meditate for just 15-20 minutes a day for 6-8 weeks experience significant benefits, including changes in the wiring of the brain, and improved health and wellbeing.
Our habits are basically specific routines that we have practised over and over again. They can be thoughts, emotions or behaviours. Once we’ve practised something consistently it transfers to areas of the brain that operate automatically – we do it without having to consciously think about doing it.
Habits are very important as their automatic nature means that they don’t take up as much brain power. If we had to consciously think through every action each day we would be paralyzed by the overwhelming nature of it all. So, in other words, habits help us to have daily energy left over to use for higher thinking.
Habitual thinking is how our emotional states become part of our character traits. For example, the more we practise anger the better we get at it and the same for negative thoughts!
Imagine a river flowing the same way for years and then one year, with exceptional rainfall, it bursts its banks and a new route is created. This is a bit like thought processes – we can create different ways of thinking but we have to practise them (keep the water going down the new route) so that the new way of thinking becomes a habit and gradually the old thoughts lose importance (the old river dries up).
Practising Mindfulness to improve focus and concentration
We all know what it feels like to be on automatic pilot- it’s like the mind has been hijacked by current concerns rather than what we are doing in the present moment.
It is thought that our minds have a limited working memory that allows us to keep only a few things in them at one time. Just like a computer slowing when we have too many tabs open?
In many jobs autopilot is something we try to avoid, even with repetitive tasks. We like to be confident that we carried out the appropriate checks before we commenced and completed tasks – being on autopilot is not conducive to this.
So, although in many situations creating a habit to reduce the amount of brain power used is a positive, going onto autopilot isn’t helpful when we are carrying out an activity which has to be recorded and carried out accurately, step-by-step.
For such tasks, we need to learn to close down thoughts which are running in the background of our minds and use the mindfulness skill of bringing an awareness to everyday activities, allowing life to unfold moment by moment, and thus helping us to increase our focus.
Mindfulness Delegate Feedback
Delegates who attend mindfulness courses have reported being able to notice when their attention has been pulled away, and re-direct it to the present. Being able to stay in the present moment helps people not to get caught up in drama and crisis, instead allowing them to stay present and deal calmly with whatever is happening. This is especially useful in a workplace with its many demanding deadlines.
Karen Barr, one of our Mindfulness Trainers, reflects, “Some of the feedback I hear most frequently is how mindfulness increases focus. The mindfulness practice helps people to notice when they become distracted and teaches techniques to bring them back to being present, thereby creating conditions to stay focused on the task at hand. However, the most prevalent feedback I get is how mindfulness greatly improves sleep. I took a ‘straw poll’ recently and, in a room of around 100 people, over 90% admitted that they frequently had some problems sleeping. While, as yet, there is no empirical evidence to support a link between a good night’s sleep and improved focus at work, it seems a likely correlation.”
The Mindful Nation UK Report
Mindful Nation UK Report by the mindfulness all-party parliamentary group Oct 2015 – this report makes interesting reading, here is an extract which highlights the impact mindfulness can have on workplace practices:
“Even brief periods of mindfulness practice can lead to objectively measured higher cognitive skills such as improved reaction times, comprehension scores, working memory functioning and decision making. Experienced mindfulness practitioners have shown higher-quality reaction times and fewer error responses in controlled studies using computer based reaction tests. In one study 545 individuals took a decision making test involving a ‘sunk cost scenario’ (an investment that he or she has already substantially committed to) participants who practised mindfulness for 15 mins before the test were significantly more likely to make a rational decision. Researchers tested creative problem solving skills and found that participants who had practised mindfulness for just 10 mins before these tests generated significantly more creative strategies.”
The report also contains a case study from an Operational Support Manager at Tata Steel:
“For our organisation, identifying hazards and reducing risk are critical. Many people are familiar with tools designed to help staff pause, reflect and identify before acting. Yet in major industrial disasters such as Bhopal, there were good processes and systems in place, but still the events happened. Following a mindfulness workshop I saw this approach might help combat the tendency to switch off.
We decided to incorporate mindfulness into our Leadership in Health and Safety modules. Some managers immediately saw the opportunity to bring mindfulness to front-line staff and have requested further practical sessions. Some trade union staff members believe that mindfulness can benefit the workforce, and their teams trust these views. That’s exciting because it’s not management led.
Mindfulness has given people new ways of approaching our risk assessment strategy and encouraged deeper, more logical thinking on ‘what if’. I believe mindfulness is the missing piece of the jigsaw and complements our current strategies.”
It seems logical that mindfulness training could help many industries where health and safety is paramount. Mindfulness skills could contribute towards generating high reliability organisations. This may seem like a grand statement but not if we consider the link between human error and accidents at work, and the fact that these accidents are often the result of a lack of focus. According to UC Irvine’s injury investigation metrics, nearly 70% of our top injuries involve a subject who is inattentive/distracted.
Mindfulness training to help improve focus and concentration may be an important part of the process because:
- Employees are more able to pay close attention to day-to-day operations
- Focus and calm is maintained even while undertaking difficult tasks or tight deadlines
- Interpersonal relationships – often the cause of distraction or heated emotion at work – are improved and a culture of openness and honesty is developed
- Mistakes can be discussed openly with an ‘approach mentality’ rather than one of avoidance
- A good night’s sleep equates to clarity and focus in the day
Questions we can ask about our own levels of awareness
- How often is our mind on other things rather than the task in hand?
- Think about what was going through your mind when you were preparing for a task earlier today – were you focused on the present moment or were your thoughts occupied by something in the past or future?
- Are there times when you carry out habitual tasks at work on autopilot and later wonder if you did them correctly?
- Do you think you would be safer at work if you were more able to concentrate on the present moment?
Going Forward …
In today’s climate we need mindful leaders who can adapt to changing circumstances and embrace opportunities for growth. These leaders also need to be clear on the message that improved safety through mindfulness practice is a goal of the organisation. In pressurised, competitive working environments mindfulness may not seem like a natural fit, but these organisations might prove to be the ones which need mindfulness the most.
Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world by Mark Williams and Danny Penman