Mindfulness & ACT for Organisations
MANY ORGANISATIONS AROUND THE WORLD NOW FOCUS ON MINDFULNESS TRAINING AS PART OF THEIR APPROACH TO EMPLOYEE WELL-BEING
The evidence supporting the efficacy of such training is strong.
The Free Spirit Project works with a small number of organisations. Our approach is highly personalised as we co-create training programs with our corporate clients. Our aim is to help cultivate a sustainably mindful workplace over time, as well as be able to attend effectively to the most pressing needs of employees.
We offer introductory talks about using mindfulness and acceptance and commitment training for enhancing well-being in the workplace. Then workshops, group course trainings, meditation practice support sessions and individual training sessions onsite for employees can be designed following a thorough needs analysis and understanding of context.
How Does Mindfulness Appear to ‘Work’?
Mindfulness meditation is essentially a process of training attention. To be able to identify it, sustain it and direct it. William James, the father of modern psychology, said that where we place our attention dictates our reality. We can see this in the case of two people experiencing similar situations but paying attention in different ways and to vastly different aspects. Their experiences will be radically different.
Mindfulness in the Workplace
In our modern world, we are exposed daily to a multitude of ‘problems’ that, although usually not threatening to actual survival, stimulate cascades in the brain and body akin to being physically threatened. This ‘paper tiger paranoia’, as coined by the neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, lies at the root of many of our habitual thinking styles and contributes to the heightened allostatic load (wear and tear on the body due to stress) of modern times.
Meditation is an antidote to chronic stress. The Sanskrit word for meditation – bhavana – means ‘to cultivate’. Meditation is all too often mistakenly regarded as a calm state to be achieved, a peace to be maintained or a kind of ‘zen’ outlook that is supposed to remain undisturbed by everyday experience.
Meditation is actually a simple daily practice which helps us cultivate, a little at a time, and over a period of time, a strong attentional ‘muscle’. When we develop this muscle, we enhance our ability to withdraw attention from unhelpful cognitive processes. This is very different to the common, and more trained and rehearsed, habit of arguing with the mind in an attempt to ‘think positive’. Instead, through meditation practice we develop our skills for noticing, from the perspective of an observer self, when it is helpful to pay attention to thought and when it is appropriate to direct attention elsewhere.
When we have a meditation practice, we come to fully realise that we are not our minds. Nor do we need to do battle with the mind. Rather, we are consciousness, the observer, the witness. We are the thinker of thoughts, the feeler of feelings and the inhabitor of the body. We have a mind. And that mind is a wonderful tool. As the saying goes – a great servant, but a terrible master.
People who practice meditation regularly report that they gradually are able to sustain their attention and attend to and accept reality in an open minded, curious and non-judgmental way. They are able to develop the habit of using the breath and feelings in the body as ‘anchors’ for the wandering, chaotic and ruminative mind. Thoughts are thus experienced as mental events—not facts—which leaves a person more room to move when it comes to identifying and working with old, habitual, unhelpful thinking styles.
Mindlessness, automatically attending to whatever is going through the mind and losing contact with reality and the broader perspective, is lessened over time. Behaviours, like depressive rumination, worrying, reactivity and impulsiveness, also diminish over time. The myth of ‘make feel’ is let go as the ability to examine thoughts and feelings more realistically is enhanced. This creates more responsibility for one’s internal experiences, rather than a tendency to blame others or circumstances.
Meditation practice has also been shown to increase the occurrence of positive mental states like calmness, compassion and happiness but these are more the positive side effects of meditation rather than its targets (Weare, 2014; Segal, Williams, Teasdale, 2012). When we try to achieve particular feelings, they tend to remain elusive and we can become frustrated and disheartened as we grasp, ‘fail’ and give up.
Impact on Physical Health - Brain and Body Changes
In the emerging field of neuroscience (and especially through work that focuses on the neurological effects of contemplative practices) studies suggest that meditation can reliably and profoundly alter both the structure and functioning of the brain and improve the quality of thought and responses to feeling (Goleman & Richardson, 2017).
Subjective reports and objective observations discussed in the research literature mirror neuroscience studies on mindfulness. From numerous neural imaging studies, it is now broadly held that meditation can reshape neural pathways, increase density and complexity of connections in areas of the brain associated with cognitive ability (self-awareness, concentration, attention and introspection) and emotional qualities (kindness, compassion, rationality, prosocial behaviour).
Studies have found that meditation is effective for diminishing connections in areas involved in hostility, anxiety, impulsivity and ruminative worry. It has been found that such changes can occur in just eight weeks of consistent practice (Goleman & Richardson, 2017).
In studies looking at other physical effects, one trial showed an increase in blood antibodies (in response to a flu vaccine) as compared to control. Pre-post studies have shown that just five days of practice (20 minutes meditation per day) improves immune reactivity and lowers cortisol (one of the prime hormones which accumulates due to chronic stress). A high cortisol level has been referred to as ‘public health enemy number one’ and brings with it a raft of physical problems including memory deficits, depletion of the neuromodulator serotonin, sugar cravings, obesity and diminished libido.
Impact on Stress
There is growing evidence about the effects of mindfulness on stress.
Studies show regular practice improves physical and mental health, lowers stress and interrupts chronic stress, decreases absenteeism and presenteeism and increases leadership capacity, work satisfaction and overall performance (Teasdale & Chaskalson, 2011).
Mindfulness training leads to greater attentional power, resulting in enhanced mental flexibility, emotional regulation and perspective taking. Importantly, mindfulness also powerfully enhances self-compassion—an essential ingredient in overall stress management, self-care and the prevention of burn out (Germer, 2009; Neff, 2011).
In a meta-analysis (Virgili, 2013) assessing the effectiveness of mindfulness for professionals, it was found that large effect sizes showing decreases in stress, anxiety and depression were achieved for 1139 participants in 19 random controlled trials. These effects held at 5 weeks follow up.
Khoury et al (2013) conducted an even larger meta-analysis (12 145 adults) which looked at mindfulness training and mental health challenges. In 209 separate studies findings indicated moderate effect sizes in pre-post comparisons of groups who received mindfulness training versus controls. The rigor of this study is considerable as control groups engaged in other evidenced based therapeutic interventions.
Both these meta analyses concluded that mindfulness training is an effective treatment for a variety of psychological problems. For depression, the evidence supporting mindfulness training is particularly robust. Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is recommended in the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidelines (UK). NICE is a body which only responds to the most rigorous evidence.
There is a rapidly growing body of evidence pointing to the impacts of mindfulness on anxiety management and reduction. It is believed this is mainly achieved through increased emotional regulation ability, impulse control and an enhanced ability to relax. ‘Defusing’ from anxious cognitions and rumination habits seems to be a key way mindfulness training reduces anxiety and panic (Hayes, Strosahl & Wilson, 2012).
Impact on Positivity, Flourishing and Well-being
In mindfulness training we don’t just focus on decreasing the negatives. The strongest focus is actually on what positive places we are gradually moving toward through commitment to daily practice.
The cultivation of well-being, flourishing, strength, capacity, optimism, kindness, resilience, contentment, meaning, purpose and happiness are all central to the practice. The effects of mindfulness on these types of positive states are well supported by research (Goleman & Davidson, 2017; Hanson, 2009, Seigal, 2016).
The adoption of a eudemonic view and practice of happiness—a deep sense of well-being based on what we contribute to the world—replaces the more common ‘hedonistic treadmill’, where happiness rises and falls depending on what we are currently getting from life. Fostering such positive qualities and capacities is becoming solidly the aim for enlightened organisations (Weare, 2014).
"Sustainability isn't about the quick fix or the cheap solution. Generally, it means making a commitment and trying, as best we can, to honor it. In any worthwhile enterprise, from protecting the environment to preserving a relationship, we are going to encounter difficulties. The good life is not a problem-free life. In point of fact, the process of overcoming adversity often produces some of the most rewarding experiences we will ever have."
- Michael A. Schuler
ACT in the Workplace
Acceptance and Commitment Training is an evidence-based approach which aims to help people reduce stress and improve performance while committing to behaviours that reflect deeply held values. It does this through targeting the core processes of psychological flexibility.
The capacity to contact the present moment while aware of thoughts and emotions, without trying to change those private experiences or be adversely controlled by them and, depending on the situation, persisting in or changing behaviour in the pursuit of values and goals.
Research suggests that psychological flexibility, and the ACT training that enhances it, improves work performance, job satisfaction, mental health, training outcomes and propensity to innovate, while reducing work stress, absenteeism, burnout, and job-related errors (Moran, 2015).
Workshops, seminars and individual ACT training sessions all focus on enhancing the skills involved in six core processes:
Contact with the Present Moment
Training in the ability to 'be where you are'. The present moment is the only time a person can engage in any chosen behaviour, including productive action in the workplace. Commonly, people are thinking about something other than what they are doing—and this becomes a costly habit.
Willingness & Acceptance
Teaching people how to stay effective, even in the presence of emotions and body sensations that are often judged as stressful. Individuals learn that during a normal day many difficult feelings, urges, memories, and other private events can arise. These are natural, can be handled with skill and are not a 'problem' to be struggled with, repressed or solved. These feelings do not need to be eliminated or avoided. Willingly contacting internal experiences is healthy and ultimately allows us to stay focused and creative. Engaging in actions to avoid private experiences can actually lead to habitual, problematic behaviour (Moran, 2015).
Defusion from Thoughts
Meditation and other mindfulness activities help people develop the attentional muscle to be able to 'step back' from unhelpful thoughts and narratives. This is of great benefit during the working day when mental energy can be best spent on creative problem solving and planning rather than on automatic, often negative, rumination. When a person learns to withdraw attention from cognition they are back in the driving seat and can use their mind as the creative tool it is—rather than have their mind 'drive them'. ACT training helps foster a willingness to experience a range of psychological events so that they do not sidetrack the person’s performance. This is especially helpful to work through anxieties about presenting to groups, something many people struggle with and/or avoid, often to the detriment of their career.
Values clarification invites people to explore meaning and purpose in their lives and their choices. Values refer to verbally-constructed, chosen directions for action. They are the 'why' behind personally-relevant actions. ACT training posits that clarification of occupational and vocational values can strengthen psychological flexibility in the workplace (Moran 2015). ACT training creates the space for professionals to explore the purpose of their choices, and clearly state why they do what they do. Values clarification helps people develop their own personal mission statement, and the ACT training then focuses on helping them harmonize their personal mission statement with the organisation’s mission statement.
Once people have clarity about their deeply held values, ACT training encourages them to identify and engage in specific actions that will bring those values to life. As committed action in the service of values is taken, people begin to get a real sense of the vitality and sense of purpose this can bring to their daily work. When combined with the ability to notice and accept unhelpful thoughts and difficult feelings that arise, without struggling to eliminate or control them, people can gain a sense of how possible it is for them to exercise their personal power to move towards goals—regardless of an imperfect context.
Connection to the ‘Observer Self’
The ability to take the seat of the 'observer self', to maintain contact with the big picture and thus stay on track toward valued goals, is key to any kind of success. ACT trainees are taught, through discussion and experiential exercises, that they are not their job descriptions, their roles, their emotions, their physical sensations or their thoughts, but that these are simply the experiences they have. This perspective allows the person to behave in a flexible way in the presence of internal events that could otherwise impede productivity or increase stress.