A decade ago, if you had told your colleagues that you practiced mindfulness meditation they would probably have hastily extricated themselves from the conversation.
Fast-forward to 2020 and things have moved on. Mindfulness is now regularly endorsed by Fortune 500 leaders. Its benefits are touted in the pages of Forbes, HBR and The Economist. So why are the world’s business leaders turning to mindfulness practice?
Benefits Of Mindfulness
Over the past 40 years, hundreds of research studies have analysed the effects of mindfulness. Many of these studies focused on psychology patients who were learning to manage issues of trauma, chronic pain, anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, much of the research was not conducted in a scientifically rigorous manner. However, recent meta-reviews of the most rigorous studies have demonstrated a range of significant benefits (*links to on online reviews can be found at the end of this article).
The upshot is that mindfulness has been found to reduce anxiety, protect against depression, and promote self-insight and emotional stability. Of particular interest to the business world is the fact that mindfulness produces the following benefits even in high-functioning individuals:
Consider the impact that those factors have upon an organisation’s performance. Stress alone is estimated to cost American enterprises USD$300 billion per year**. And in today’s hectic business environment, a decision-maker’s ability to focus, think clearly and see the big picture has never been so vital, nor so at risk of being compromised.
Little wonder, then, that business heavyweights like Aetna have tapped into the benefits of mindfulness. Here’s what Forbes has reported about Aetna’s mindfulness programme:
“More than one-quarter of Aetna’s work force of 50,000 has participated in at least one mindfulness class, and those who have report, on average, a 28% reduction in their stress levels, a 20% improvement in sleep quality and a 19% reduction in pain. They also become more effective on the job, gaining an average of 62 minutes per week of productivity, each which Aetna estimates is worth $3,000 per employee per year.” ***
Mindfulness and The Brain
Brain imaging studies have found that both functional and structural changes occur in the brains of people who practice mindfulness. These studies show that areas of the brain associated with stress actually shrink with ongoing mindfulness practice. Conversely, there is growth in parts of the brain that are associated with self-awareness and attentional control.
For instance, one study found that mindfulness meditation strengthens activation in the anterior cingulate cortex, a structure that helps us to regulate our responses, hold our focus and think flexibly in light of new information. Other studies have found increased density in the hippocampus (which facilitates memory and learning) and temporo-parietal junction (which facilitates empathy and perspective-taking), as well as decreased reactivity of the amygdala (a brain structure that drives the stress response).
In short, these studies show that tangible brain changes underpin the subjective experiences that people have when they practice mindfulness. These brain changes help us to understand why mindfulness users feel less stressed and more focused. And the best news is that these changes emerge within as little as 90 minutes of mindfulness practice (although longer practice produces more robust changes).
The take home message for businesses? Mindfulness should no longer be considered a “nice-to-have”. It’s a must-have. It provides a safe, sustainable way to keep one’s brain healthy, maintain effective decision-making, and protect oneself from toxic stress.
For some simple, practical steps to starting mindfulness, check out Part Three of this article in our Mindset blog.