The Power of Pause: Why Mindfulness Is the Key to Effective Leadership

CAREER ADVICE   |   4 minutes  |   October 30, 2019

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There’s a reason organisations have started to include mindfulness training in the workplace: it makes good business sense. Mindfulness has become a staple of wellness and mental health endeavours for many large organisations.1 Companies like Apple, Nike and Google include mindfulness training for their staff in their efforts to improve mental health and reduce anxiety and workplace depression.2 One of the reasons behind this is because mindfulness is shown to redirect brain activity from the limbic system, or the reactionary part of the brain, to the prefrontal cortex, or the rational part of the brain; effectively enabling leaders to move out of operating purely from within the realm of reactionary impulses, and on to executive functioning.3

Entrepreneurs in particular feel the brunt of mental health issues in the workplace. Out of 242 entrepreneurs interviewed, 30 per cent reported a lifetime of depression, 29 per cent stated the presence of attention hyperactivity deficit disorder, 12 per cent cited bipolar spectrum disorder, and 11 per cent reported substance abuse.4

How do you create a healthier emotional atmosphere in a busy company? First, it’s important to recognise the existing challenges within most workplaces.

The current state of the working world


The status of busyness

When enquiring how a colleague’s day is, the common response seems to be: “So busy!” There’s science in this observation: A 2017 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research shows how signalling busyness in the workplace impacts your status.5 The researchers found that, in the USA, leisure time is no longer considered prestigious. This status is earned only when people are perceived as being overworked and constantly busy.

There are consequences when companies nurture a corporate culture that’s obsessed with busyness; employees burn out, job satisfaction drops, while staff turnover and absenteeism rise.6 So, even though everyone looks busy, productivity and profitability end up suffering.

Busyness also adversely impacts on our levels of creativity. Being overtasked removes the time and space necessary for minds to imagine and daydream – the ingredients of creativity.7 As a result, our innovative ideas don’t have an opportunity to surface, or may even stop altogether.

Reactive leadership

Part of the key to time management is carving out time to think, as opposed to constantly reacting

Jeff Weiner, CEO and founder of LinkedIn8

Reactive leadership is where challenges or opportunities are responded to in a knee-jerk way, rather than allowing for sufficient planning or an appropriate response.9 This is often a result of the state of busyness in the workplace where constant interruption, overburdened task lists, and status stress produces off-the-cuff decision-making. When urgent issues are the only focus, it’s difficult to identify root causes of recurring problems, or to notice when strategic opportunities arise. This could be exacerbated by the added stress that comes from not having enough time to relax or regroup between intense periods of work.

More technology, less focus

A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention

Herbert Simon10

Technology’s contribution to the busyness ethos is considerable. A recent study showed that people spend, on average, 3.4 hours a day on their mobile phones, and check them 58 times a day, 30 of which occur during office hours.11 In an ‘always-on’ corporate culture, employees come to believe that they should be accessible all hours of the day to answer calls and emails on their phones, even taking their phones with them while in the restroom in order to work.12

Disruptions further impact people’s ability to think clearly and be productive. When an email, text, or colleague disrupts work, most people find it difficult to ignore the distraction.13 However, it can take an average of 23 minutes to recover from an interruption or distraction at work; more disruptive than the 15 minutes on social media that’s typically frowned upon by most organisations.14 This could be why Microsoft released an update to Windows 10 called ‘Focus Assist’ which allows employees to temporarily disable their social media notifications and email notices so that they can remain focused on a task at hand, and not get distracted.15

Increased stress and depression

The casualties of this busyness culture are piling up, with wellness near the top of the list. Nearly 60 per cent of employees fall in the high-stress category, with the biggest culprit being an overburdened workload, or being busy (46 per cent).16 The survey also revealed that 41 per cent of people lost 15–30 minutes per day in productivity due to high stress levels, and 36 per cent lost one hour or more each day. This impacts not only on the physical and emotional wellbeing of employees, but on the bottom line of employers, with the estimated cost of lowered productivity due to stress and depression reaching $1 trillion per year.17

Bob Chapman, the CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, understands the physical, financial, emotional and mental impact the workplace has on people: “The person you report to at work can be more important to your health than your family doctor. We want to send people home safe, healthy, and fulfilled – all three dimensions.”18 He goes on to emphasise that, no matter what tangible health and wellness programmes have been implemented in a business, if a member of staff doesn’t feel valued or appreciated, it will always translate into high stress. “Until organizations do a better job of letting their people know they are valued and cared for, we won’t even begin to move the needle on team member well-being,” says Chapman.19

Advantages of mindfulness in the workplace

Mindfulness is the antidote to the state of constant interruption leaders and managers find themselves in, and equips them to stay focused on the task at hand. Mindfulness allows you to maintain this focus for as long as necessary on a task or object.20 You also have a greater awareness of internal thoughts and feelings, as well as external experiences. This allows for clearer decision-making.

Here are a few ways that mindfulness can benefit businesses.

  1. Improved self-confidence and decision-making.21 Mindfulness focuses on quieting cluttered thoughts and feelings in order to make better, clearer decisions.22 It also results in a proactive decision-making stance, rather than reactive, and helps the leader become more intune with the needs of the organisation.23
  2. Greater creativity.24 Reducing distractions and anxiety allows for more creative thoughts to surface.
  3. Heightened productivity.25 People can be more productive when they’re less distracted by feelings of stress and anxiety. Mindfulness keeps your attention centered on the task at hand, making you more productive.

Tips to increase mindfulness

Many successful CEOs and business leaders, such as Bill Ford from the Ford Motor Company, Ray Dalio the billionaire founder of Bridgewater Associates, and Jeff Weiner of LinkedIn, practice mindfulness at a personal level, as well as within their organisations.26 Mark Hoplamazian, the chief executive of Hyatt Hotels, has included mindfulness and empathy into his business strategy: “In order to practice empathy, you have to be present, and one great vehicle to being present is to be mindful. Mindfulness became the central element of our wellness investment.”27

Practising mindfulness is almost like giving leaders a mental upgrade; it builds and improves the nervous system the same way that exercising builds muscles.28 Practising a few minutes of mindfulness each day, preferably in the morning, brings the best results.29 Here are some basic tips to increase mindfulness.

Breathe properly

Inhale and exhale to a slow count of four, and focus on being in the moment.30

Start the day right

Mornings are usually when our minds are at their most focused and creative. Use this time to do strategic, focused work, rather than reading emails, which may cause you to get sidetracked and become reactive. Try to wait 30 minutes to an hour after you’ve arrived at the office before you open your inbox.31

Stop multitasking

Multitasking keeps your mind busy, tired, and cluttered. It can decrease productivity by up to 40 per cent.32 Instead, focus on one core task at a time, and only move on to the next once the task at hand is completed. Organising your workload is critical to getting this right.

Disable notifications

The notifications on your devices contribute significantly to working in reactive mode. Schedule time slots during the day to answer emails, and don’t open your inbox until then. Put your phone on silent during focused work times so that message notifications don’t draw your attention away. This allows you to complete each task before you start the next.33

Take regular breaks

Step away from your desk to eat lunch, and go for short walks regularly. If your office has a garden, go outside and take in the fresh air and sunshine. This allows you to return to work focused and refreshed.34

Through ongoing practice, mindfulness allows you to view and experience your world, your feelings, and other people, without becoming reactive. This builds greater internal resilience to the stresses and the busyness culture of today’s workplace, empowering you to be present in everything that you do.

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