How to Be Mindful: Practical Tips from an Occupational Therapist
The current mental health climate is precarious following more than a year of national anxiety, fear, isolation, and uncertainty. Helping employees maintain and repair their health requires a thoughtful and practical approach that recognizes both the longevity of mental health issues and the barriers to mental health support. Mindfulness is a strategy that can serve both employees and workplaces well.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is considered a therapeutic technique where an individual focuses their awareness in the present moment. This awareness emerges when we pay attention on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgement (Jon Kabat-Zinn).
When people think of mindfulness, they often associate it with a calm, centered feeling and picture sitting in meditation. However, there are different forms of mindfulness that an individual can learn and practice, such as breathing exercises, yoga, body scans and progressive relaxation. The idea is to lose oneself in the moment and be rid of negative energy, relieving stress and anxiety symptoms.
The practice of mindfulness has multiple benefits – from personal health to professional practice. It is a tool that has proven to reduce stress, increase resilience, and improve efficacy in the workplace. Companies like Google who have increased mindfulness in the workplace have shown that it can also improve focus, thoughtfulness, and decision-making abilities (Forbes, 2020).
Based on a survey of over 140 organizations by Fidelity Investments and National Business Group on Health, 35% of businesses said that they offered mindfulness training programs. In total, over 60% were already in the process of implementing these training programs or had plans to do so in the near future.
Potential Benefits of Mindfulness
By paying attention to the present moment, you may improve mood, better manage stress and decrease anxiety.
Many of us live life on autopilot, going through the motions of our day without really knowing what we are doing. Have you ever walked out your door in the morning without the knowledge of how you got from your bed to the door, let alone when you brushed your teeth or drank your coffee?
Our focus is rarely on what is happening in the present moment. Much of our lives are spent thinking about the future or the past. When we think about the future, we are often worrying, planning, or imagining the worst-case scenarios. Future-thinking is often accompanied by emotions such as fear, insecurity, or apprehension. When we think about the past, we are often inaccurately interpreting our experiences or judging something that we’ve said or done. Past-thinking is often accompanied by emotions of sadness, regret, guilt, or grief.
When you bring awareness to the present moment, you can temporarily shift your focus away from the future and past. You can notice all that is involved in the now – the sounds, sights, smells, physical sensations, and possibly even joy. By redirecting your attention in this way, you can reduce anxiety about the past or future.
By paying attention on purpose, you may increase focus and concentration.
Life is busy and full of distractions. We are rarely ever doing just one thing at a time. We have hundreds of applications on our phones, and our list of to-dos can seem never ending. Our own thoughts and internal dialogue make it difficult to focus on the present moment.
When you practice intentionally bringing your attention into the present moment, you strengthen your ability to hold, release and shift attention. Think of your brain as a muscle that is strengthened each time you practice mindfulness. Every time you engage in a mindfulness practice, you increase your ability to choose what you are focusing on.
By paying attention with openness, curiosity and non-judgement, you may improve your relationship with yourself and others.
It is so easy to react quickly or to judge ourselves and others. We don’t normally choose to do this. Our minds have the automatic tendency to judge, compare, react, and label experiences as good or bad. When we are open and curious about our experiences (thoughts, emotions, body sensations), there is less opportunity for hasty reactions. By practicing being with your experiences without judgement, you can relate to yourself and others in a more positive way. Instead of reacting, you can respond with intention, which can strengthen your relationships. When you are intentional about your actions, you can act in ways that align with your core values. Ultimately, you can learn to build the capacity to be compassionate to yourself and others.
How to Practice Mindfulness
You can practice mindfulness formally through meditation. Using an anchor for attention, bring awareness to the following sensations:
- Body sensations or a specific part of the body
- Any of your senses in your current environment – sounds, sights, taste
You can bring mindfulness into your day informally by using some of the following techniques:
- Mindfulness cues – reminding yourself to bring awareness into the present moment every time you walk through a door frame or check a notification on our phone.
- Mindful activities – bring attention to all of the senses when completing a daily activity, such as brushing your teeth or washing the dishes. This can be especially helpful for activities that you don’t enjoy.
- Check in with yourself using the NOWW practice.
Quick Mindfulness Practice: NOWW
Try practicing the NOWW exercise three times per day. NOWW can be particularly helpful when experiencing a challenging emotion or thought.
Notice – Notice your thoughts, body sensations, and emotions in this moment. Are you feeling stressed? At ease? Calm? Energetic? Peaceful?
Observe – Bring your attention to observe the physical sensations of the breath at the level of the belly. Focus the attention on this area for one to two minutes. Feel the breath as it enters, fills, and leaves the body.
Widen – Expand the attention to include the entire body and your breath. Take note of the physical sensations that are present in the entire body and on the surface of the skin. Bring this increased sense of awareness into your next moments.
Wise Action – Now that you have taken time to tune into your internal environment and pause in the moment, what is the next best step for you to make?
How Can Employers Help?
- Encourage employees to take their breaks and eat lunch away from their desk.
- Provide guidance to help employees focus on one task at a time so they are not trying to divide attention amongst a variety of tasks.
- Engage meditation teachers to provide mindfulness meetups for your staff.
- Start or end meetings with three minutes of breathing.
- Have a personal mindfulness practice to strengthen your own self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and empathy.
What Can Employees Do?
- Take breaks.
- Don’t eat lunch while at your desk, reading emails, or scrolling social media.
- Try a mindful walk on your break.
- Listen to guided meditations to build a daily practice, such as Nicolette in the Now on YouTube or other applications such as Calm, Headspace, and Insight Timer.
- Try checking in with yourself three times a day to increase awareness of your inner environment – body, emotions, and thoughts.
How Can Gowan Consulting Help?
Occupational Therapists are the ideal mental health professionals for supporting your employees. Their knowledge of the workplace allows them to help modify jobs and environments and give employees to tools to develop personal strategies. They are not just talk therapists—they are activity and strategy-based and they empower employees to take ownership of their function and productivity. They use strategies of work-focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which is an evidence-based approach to ensuring that employees can have better self-care and resiliency.
Gowan Consulting is a national organization with more than 150 Occupational Therapists across Canada. We provide Occupational Therapy coaching virtually and onsite. Ease of access and proactive onsite or virtual support ensures that employees can stay at or return to work.
Mental Health Tools and Training
- Mindful May: FREE Mental Health Conversations Webinars – In May we are offering four free webinars on the topic of mental health. These 30-minute sessions will cover the topics of crisis fatigue, dealing with worry and uncertainty, mindfulness and self-care, and creating a psychologically healthy workplace. Sign up today to reserve your spot!
- Manager Mental Health Training is now running all year long! Our next session takes place on June 16, 2021. Get a full list of dates and more information on the sessions here.
- Watch Nicolette in the Now on YouTube for free guided meditations with Occupational Therapist Nicolette Gowan.
- Mental Health, Resilience and Stress Management Webinar: Learn the tools and strategies to manage stress and maintain your mental health!
- Manager’s Toolkit and Webinar – Our FREE Manager’s Toolkit now comes with a webinar to help provide strategies and resources for employees’ return to work post-quarantine.
Increasing Mindfulness in the Workplace, Yolanda Lau and the Forbes Human Resources Council, Forbes, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbeshumanresourcescouncil/2020/10/05/increasing-mindfulness-in-the-workplace/?sh=6e4eada76956
Minding What Matters: Incorporating Mindfulness Training At Work, Fisher Phillips, 2018, https://www.fisherphillips.com/news-insights/minding-what-matters-incorporating-mindfulness-training-at-work.html