From Fortune 1000 companies to professional athletics, mindfulness training has become mainstream. Here is what it can do for you.
Like many working women, Michelle Peterson felt torn. Newly promoted to business unit director of baking at General Mills, she had just returned from maternity leave and found that the conflicting demands of her job, her twin girls, and the other responsibilities in her life were keeping her constantly running—and feeling guilty. “I liked my job and wanted to work, yet my babies had been born prematurely and were struggling with health issues,” she says.
Then Peterson learned about a retreat on mindful leadership training to be held at her company. “I envisioned dreadful long days of meditation and things I wasn’t going to understand,” she admits, but because her supervisor was a great advocate for the training, she was persuaded to go.
“It was nothing less than life changing, and I don’t use that term lightly,” Peterson says of the intensive. She returned from the retreat able to deal with work and home in a completely new way that has afforded her greater peace, balance, and fulfillment in both domains.
What Is Mindfulness?
Peterson’s transformation began through several days of practice to cultivate “mindfulness”—what stress-reduction expert Jon Kabat-Zinn calls “nonjudgmental moment-to-moment awareness.” Put most simply, this means paying attention to the now with focus, acceptance, and compassion for oneself and others. The most common form of mindfulness training is meditation.
As Peterson learned, mindfulness is cultivated by activities aimed at quieting the mind and enhancing the capacity for insight. These include meditation, developing body awareness, and deliberately redirecting thoughts away from the past and the future and onto what’s happening in the moment.
General Mills is one of a number of companies embracing mindfulness as a way to ease workday stress for employees, improve leadership, and cultivate happier and more productive workplaces. Among the growing list of other major employers offering mindfulness training are Genentech and Aetna, as well as top tech firms such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and eBay.
“Most of us are 21st-century jugglers,” says Janice Marturano, the former general counsel and vice president for public responsibility at General Mills and creator of the mindfulness leadership training there. “Our day is cluttered and full, and we move from task to task. At 6:30 p.m. we look at the clock, wonder what exactly we’ve done, and feel exhausted. And every day, it seems we must juggle just a little faster. We’re simply not present for our lives—whether it’s at home or at work.”
Such challenges prompted Marturano to turn to mindfulness training. In 2000, her life became a perfect storm. She was a wife, mother, daughter of aging parents, president of a nonprofit, and vice president at General Mills. That year, she was asked to lead the team to secure government clearance for the company’s merger with Pillsbury. When told by a colleague that 10,000 Pillsbury workers would lose their jobs if the clearance did not go through, Marturano suddenly felt a crushing weight on her shoulders.
Fortunately, clearance was secured—though a protracted 18 months later—and Marturano had a little more wiggle room in her life. Looking back, she says, “I realized there was a part of me that was not bouncing back.” Urged by a colleague to relax at a spa, she reluctantly agreed, despite familial obligations, in part motivated by a mindfulness retreat for executives being offered there.
What Marturano learned became the cornerstone for the mindfulness leadership intensive and seven-week courses that she came to teach not only at General Mills but all around the world. Today she offers such resources and more as executive director of the Institute for Mindful Leadership, which she founded in 2011 after ending her tenure at the food giant.
How Mindfulness Works
Mindfulness works by harnessing the brain’s proven ability to change in response to life events. “By training us to pay attention moment by moment to where we are and what we’re doing, mindfulness can help us choose how we will behave, nudging (or jolting) us out of autopilot mode,” said Tara Healey, program director for Mindfulness-Based Learning at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, in a recent article in Mindful magazine. Indeed, research shows that mindfulness may shift the way our brain functions and help us improve attention, reduce stress hormones, and even bounce back faster from negative information.
In her mindful leadership trainings for individuals at every level of an organization, Marturano offers a plethora of exercises to help people cultivate focus, clarity, creativity, and compassion. For example, participants learn how to remedy the chronic distraction that most of us are subject to in an increasingly multi-task-oriented world. (See sidebar, Take a Purposeful Pause.)
“We’re constantly interrupted by dings from email and texts,” says Marturano. “When you come back to what you’re doing, you can’t just pick up where you left off—you need to take a few steps back. Those few steps can add up to reduced productivity over the course of a day.” When participants in her courses learn how to deflect distractions and complete tasks from start to finish without interruption, they find they have extra time in the workday.
Marturano also encourages people to take breaks periodically as a means of opening the space for creativity. “We sometimes have our best ideas in the shower because the mind gets a pause,” she says. “The creative brain needs downtime to stumble upon new associations or make connections.” Stretching, walking to the water cooler, spending 15 minutes outside, and doing a mindless physical activity are just some of the ways to shift into the right-brained headspace where new ideas may be born.
Meditation to Support Productivity and Diversity
Genentech finds that one mindfulness practice—meditation—has a particularly positive effect on employees’ ability to concentrate. Guided meditations are held every two weeks in various conference rooms at the biotech company’s campus in San Francisco. A typical group includes 8 to 40 employees who follow relaxation journeys offered by those both experienced in and new to meditation.
“After recharging for 30 minutes, everyone feels calmer, less stressed, and better able to handle the challenges of the day,” says Michelle Rohrer, vice president of U.S. regulatory affairs and a product development site head, who has sponsored the program.
The company has purchased the Headspace meditation app, which it offers to employees for listening any time. “I put mine on today for just 10 minutes when I was worried about what I was going to do for a slide presentation,” Rohrer says. “I calmed right down and said, ‘It’s okay, I don’t need to get anxious about it, it will all come to me.’ And it did!”
Meditation also helps foster another cornerstone of mindfulness: compassion for oneself and others. As University of San Francisco law professor Rhonda V. Magee noted in a 2008 article recently published on the website Mindful.org, this can be particularly useful for promoting a healthy atmosphere around diversity.
“Contemplative practice has helped me deal with the day-to-day challenges of working as a black woman in a world not always prepared to treat me, my reality, or my experiences as worthy of full recognition and respect,” she said. “The practices have assisted me in maintaining consciousness of our interconnectedness as human beings.”
Evidence It Works
Research is affirming what employees, managers, and executives are increasingly experiencing firsthand: mindfulness practices can make a real difference in the lives of individuals and organizations. In a 2014 study, for example, Dow Chemical Company employees who attended a mindfulness training class reported significant decreases in high-stress days and burnout—even during a large round of layoffs and a local plant closing. The study estimated a possible cost savings of up to $22,580 a year per employee due to decreased burnout.
Moreover, two studies published in the journal Mindfulness this year show that mindfulness can have ripple effects. The reports reveal that the more mindful the leader, the lower the employee’s emotional exhaustion, and the better the employee’s work-life balance, overall job performance ratings, and engagement in good citizenship—such as showing concern toward co-workers and expressing opinions honestly even when others may disagree.
None of this is news to General Mills’ Michelle Peterson. Thanks to the mindfulness leadership training she received, she is able to deftly deflect worries about home that don’t belong in meetings and banish anxieties about work that don’t need to be at her kitchen table. Moreover, she is celebrated as an excellent supervisor with deep listening skills—another by-product of her enhanced ability to pay attention. Her department is consequently a place where people want to work—and stay.
“Knowing how to be in the moment allows me to be fully present and respond effectively to what’s called for wherever I am,” she says. In the end, that mindful capability may well be the most important skill that any leader can hope to cultivate. DW
Marguerite Rigoglioso, PhD, is an author and freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Take a Purposeful Pause
If you’re concerned that practicing mindfulness might require gobs of time, worry no more. You can do it during everyday activities at home and work. Experts agree that engaging in mindfulness activities is like working out—the more you do them, the better you get and the bigger the impact they have on your life in every arena.
Janice Marturano, executive director of the Institute for Mindful Leadership, suggests starting with what she calls the “Purposeful Pause” exercise, an excellent way to train yourself to be in the present moment and focus. Here’s how.
• While you’re brushing your teeth, bring your attention to the sensations of your body and the five senses. Listen to the sound of the water; smell and taste the toothpaste; feel the bristles on your teeth and gums; see the residue go down the drain.
• Every time your mind goes to a thought (“I wonder if my son packed his lunch; I wonder if the 10 a.m. meeting will be tough”), draw your attention back to the sensations of brushing your teeth.
• While you’re at a meeting, notice if your mind is wandering. Again, draw your attention to your bodily sensations. Feel your feet on the floor, feel the weight of your body on the chair, notice if it’s warm or cool in the room, and observe the sounds of the person speaking. Every time your mind takes a hike, bring it back to your body.
• Progress to keeping your attention on your bodily sensations several times a day, or as much as you can, such as when you’re driving, standing in the elevator, walking down a corridor, speaking with an employee or boss, and so on.
• Start noticing how this practice begins to positively affect your ability to focus and be present with others in a more genuine way.
If you’d like to progress to meditation, download one of Janice Marturano’s free audios: findingthespacetolead.com/meditations-reflections/.