Learning curve: Thinking about nothing

by Tracy Clayson

For most of us, when our vacations end, we return, recharged and ready, to the jobs and work that sustain us—financially anyway!

Typically, we find our sense of calm quickly evaporating when we tackle the work that piled up in our absence, not to mention new tasks and responsibilities. As we manage the harried daily pace, we begin to believe our tranquil yet energized selves were left behind forever on that beach, campsite or golf course.

Is it possible to find a way to, if not prolong the restful feeling, at least gain a better attitude and settle into a less stressful, more manageable work pace? “I doubt it,” is likely your answer. But even if that’s so, it can’t hurt to take a look at some unconventional approaches that might result in you rethinking your response.

The usual approaches to stress relief

Traditionally, people have been told to have a release outside of work. Exercise, hobbies, socializing and spending time outdoors help some people handle work stress. But these are difficult to fit into the framework of an eight- or 10-hour shift.

Some people distract themselves for a few minutes each day by tackling small errands. They check personal e-mail or voicemail, make appointments or speak to friends and family. Ultimately though, dealing with some of these responsibilities can be stressful too. If that’s the case, the feeling of calm these employees are craving is likely to remain elusive.

Mental time-outs

Another less common approach to staying more energetic and sharp is to relieve stress by taking short meditation time-outs at your desk. For management, mental time-outs might appear to represent nothing but productivity losses, but there is substantial research indicating these types of activities hold value. Proponents argue these periods allow us to filter out distractions, shift our thoughts elsewhere and find mental calm.

It’s important to note that meditation is not the absence of doing something. Rather, it is an active attempt to quiet the mind, re-evaluate events and learn about how we experience the demands of life.

Jon Kabat-Zinn founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic and professor emeritus of the Massachusetts Medical School, has written about ‘mindful meditation.

Mindful meditation, as outlined in Kabat-Zinn’s literature, is the practice of “bringing awareness to your existence internally, understanding the interplay between mind and body and learning how to better take care of oneself to reduce stress and promote healing.” This may sound like a medical approach to wellness, but the preventative benefits of self-care extend to all aspects of our lives, he says.

How does the corporate world benefit by encouraging the practice of mindful meditation? Through reduced employee stress, improved interpersonal skills and by a more respectful work culture. Employees who try it tend to learn about themselves and gain insights into how their experiences shape their decisions and actions. They will work better with others and become more adept at understanding what others require of them.

In learning how to clear your mind and tuning into your thoughts, there is an opportunity to improve your communication style and become aware of the thoughts that trigger unnecessary pressures at work.

One cannot find well-being from the outside or by using a pill, Kabat-Zinn says, and most illnesses, stresses and addictions come as a result of not recognizing where you are and who you are.

Kabat-Zinn argues that mindfulness brings each of us closer to our own reality. This happens because when we let our thoughts drift from place to place and learn to detect changes in physical experiences as basic as, for example, our own breathing, we become better able to process our thoughts and feelings.

Workplace benefits

Leadership success requires a high level of self-awareness, and meditation gives us time to be conscious of our deepest thoughts and emotions. It’s a good match. The act of meditation is the ultimate practice of taking time to be kind to ourselves, to tune into our experiences and to treat life like a journey of self-discovery.

Business leaders who practice mindful meditation often have a higher level of awareness of stressful conditions in their workplace, says Kabat-Zinn. They are able to create more positive work environments for themselves and a healthier workforce for all.

So, if we can’t take the time to connect to our breathing, there will be little chance to enjoy the parts of life that should take our breath away!

Being more tuned in to our own experiences, emotions and thoughts could lead to a more fulfilling work experience—and ultimately a more fulfilling life. Isn’t it worth a try?

Tracy Clayson is managing partner, business development at Mississauga, Ontario-based In-Transit Personnel.