Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Mindfulness: An Unexpected Antidote to Workplace Stress

Across settings and disciplines, there is increasing evidence of workplace stress. In her New York Times article reporting on the lack of civility in the workplace, Christine Porath opens with the line,“Mean bosses at work could have killed my father.”

  • According to her research, intermittent stressors like experiencing or witnessing uncivil incidents or even replaying one in your head elevates stress hormones and a host of health problems.
  • Porah reports that bosses often demoralize employees by blaming, rudeness, mocking and discrediting. When questioned more than half report being overloaded themselves-having no time to be nice. Some openly disclose fear they will be less leader-like or taken advantage if they are nice.
  • In her research on workplace bullying, Dr. Stacey Tye- Williams reports the upset underscoring the chaos stories she heard. Her impressions are consistent with the reality that 35% of employees in the U.S. report experiencing bullying in their careers. Bullying is actually more prevalent than harassment, which involves discrimination of a person for age, sex, race, religion or disability and is prohibited by law. Stacey Tye-Williams reports that there is bullying by men and women, bosses and employees.
  • Underscoring the toxic impact of such workplace behavior is a recent study that found that there is a contagion to the low-intensity negative behavior in a workplace. Experiencing rudeness increases rude behavior.

Of greatest concern is the reality that despite incivility, rudeness or bullying, most employees endure it and pay the emotional and physical toll. As Stacey Tye-Williams reports– People stay in the job because they have bills to pay.

How can Mindfulness Help?

According to Mindfulness expert Sharon Salzberg

 “ Feeing good about what we do for a living depends more on our moment to moment experiences than it does on prestige, status or pay.”

We may be unable to change our job or the workplace environment but we can change our response to it.

Mindfulness is particularly relevant because to be mindful is to be present in the moment. We can’t change yesterday’s rudeness from a manager and we can’t control the future by rumination and worry. Both take us away from our best self and our focus. We can, however, learn to harness the here and now and have moments of choice.

Using mindfulness strategies empowers us with options. If we choose, we can re-set our body state, change our mood, re-fine our focus, and own the leverage to respond vs. react. We may even influence those around us.

Mindfulness Strategies in the Workplace:

 Use Acts of Kindness

When asked how to apply mindfulness to the workplace, Sharon Salzberg suggests that the easiest first step is an act of kindness. Hold an elevator door, make a compliment, share a funny one-liner, wish someone who least expects it – a good day.

As incongruous or small as such an act may seem, in the workplace it is big and has potential.

  • There is evidence that generosity changes our mood and (like rudeness) is contagious. Research shows that those who experience generosity are more likely to act in a generous way.
  • In her research, Christine Porah found that despite people’s fears of being too friendly or helpful, being civil results in success. In a study in a biotechnology company, those seen as civil were twice as likely to be viewed as leaders.
  • Confirming this, Dr. Tom Clark having had corporate experience for many years, stresses that kindness and compassion are not incompatible with business realities. The boss who has to reduce staff but shows respect and concern for employees’ future options fosters a trusted environment that is sustainable.
  • It is noteworthy that in her research on bullying in the workplace, Dr. Tye-Williams found that the most viable antidote to the bullying of an employee was the demonstration of care and kindness, even in small ways, by other employees. People reported that knowing they were not alone made a big difference.
  • In her book, Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, Linda Tirado makes the point that the problem is not just being underpaid and undervalued, it is enduring behavior intended to make you feel useless. She suggests, “Next time you see someone in a basic job being ‘sullen’ or ‘rude,’ try being nice to them. It’s likely you’ll be the first person to do so in hours.”

Take a Breathing Break

Psychologist, Dr. Tom Clark says mindfulness always starts with the breath- that is where we all start. A few minutes of relaxed breathing centers you for moments of choice.

While the thought of meditative breathing in the midst of the multi-tasking, high paced demands of an office, hospital or boardroom may seem preposterous it is worth considering:

  • The few minutes you take to focus on breathing are negligible to the outside world but momentous to you.
  • There is nothing that brings you physically as quickly to a calmer body state than relaxed diaphragmatic breathing that fills your lungs with oxygen. (Diaphragmatic Breathing guide with Dr. Buse)
  • Training yourself to focus on breathing, even for a few minutes, is actually a discipline. It won’t take you off your game. It will send you in having had a physical and mental time-out.
  • I have often thought that we need to step out of offices to take “ breathing breaks” rather than smoking breaks.

 Take a Moment to Respond vs. React

 As bad an impact as bullying or workplace stress has on mind and body our reaction to it can compound the toxicity.

  • The goal of mindfulness is not to deny our rage, hurt or fear, or to tolerate anything that comes our way; but to recognize it for what it is and use a moment to choose how we want to respond.
  • Mindfulness encourages us to think of feelings like visiting guests – we may recognize them at the door, acknowledge them, investigate them – but we don’t have to identify with them.

 Continually criticized for taking too much time with each elderly patient, one stressed practical nurse re-defined the meaning of his job in his own head as offering something of comfort in the shortened time he had with each patient. The patients loved him – that is what mattered.

Regardless of the workplace situation, you can be all that you can be.

Listen in to Julie Potiker discuss “Mindful Tips To Support Mental Health in Adults and Kids” on Psych Up Live