Irish Times Article March 24 2015
Picture the scene: more than 200 business people sitting in silence at round tables in a large conference room with their eyes closed at 8.30am on a weekday. They are not sleeping, but practising an exercise in mindfulness led by Rasmus Hougaard, the Danish managing director of the Potential Project, an international corporate-based mindfulness training organisation.
The Irish Management Institute (IMI) has invited Hougaard to Dublin to introduce the IMI’s first such training. The techniques are based on ancient Buddhist teachings that have been widely embraced by healthcare practitioners around the world and are finally reaching the business world. But don’t expect an orange-robed teacher, burning candles or incense sticks: this training is placed firmly in the slick corporate environment, with prices to match.
Simon Boucher, director of the IMI, says many of us now check our emails before we get out of bed. “People check their mobile devices up to 150 times a day; that’s every six to eight minutes. In this context, mindfulness has risen to the top of the pile as a skillset and mindset to adopt to the 24/7 working environment,” he says in his introduction to Hougaard’s presentation.
The clean-shaven smiling Danish man asks the audience how many people have already done some mindfulness training. Almost half of the audience put up their hands.
“Many of the Fortune 500 companies are now doing mindfulness training as a mainstream thing. You can use mindfulness as a way of working more effectively, to be more present in your work and as a kinder way of working,” he says. He cites companies such as Carlsberg and Accenture as examples of those that have brought the training to their employees. While he is in Dublin, Hougaard is to have meetings with Microsoft, Google and Enterprise Ireland.
One audience member expresses a concern that mindfulness training in the business world will be less authentic. “My concern is that the corporate world will embrace it and then throw it away as another toy,” he says. Hougaard counters that he has been practising mindfulness for 25 years and that it is not just another fad.
“People are under pressure. They are always on, dealing with information overload and constantly distracted,” he says. Quoting a 2014 workforce study by Deloitte, he adds, “The overwhelmed employee is the most significant human capital challenge for Irish organisations. Information overload and the 24/7 working environment are contributing to reduced productivity, reduced decision-making and lower levels of engagement.”
In this so-called “attention economy”, workers increasingly need the ability to pay attention. “The ability to pay attention has dropped radically, with 46.9 per cent of workers involuntarily wandering away from what we are trying to focus on,” says Hougaard. He refers briefly to neurological research on brain plasticity to explain that behavioural, attitudinal and indeed personality change is possible with mindfulness training.
“Mindfulness helps the brain to refresh and refocus when it goes off task. Breaks are also crucial, as letting the mind wander helps creativity and innovation but with an awareness of being focused or not,” he says. Therein follows the simple mindfulness exercise with everyone sitting comfortably with their eyes closed while they pay attention to their breathing, acknowledging and letting go of mental distractions as they do so.
“Getting a group of people to sit in silence for five minutes is an interesting exercise, with no Twitter, no emails and no other distractions. How would this work at the beginning of a meeting?” he asks. Meetings at Carlsberg became 35 per cent shorter when they introduced mindfulness at the start, according to Hougaard.
Brian McIvor, career coach and IMI member, says, “Tech startups and established companies have a set of behaviours that shape profitability and success. Unless mindfulness resonates with the deepest part of the company culture, it will shrivel up. People no longer do time-management courses. The measure of success of organisations is to be seen to be busy and to multitask. There is a huge distrust of the person who stands back and reflects. A tool like mindfulness would require an organisation to take the long-term view in shaping performance and culture.”
Hougaard acknowledges that other areas of the corporate work environment, such as realistic workloads and having a sense of purpose at work, would also need to be addressed.
“The workload is relentless in some organisations and companies need to look at smarter ways to work and change to the work/social culture of their organisations,” he says. “Multitasking reduces efficiency, decreases the quality of work, hampers creativity, drains energy and increases stress. There are two rules for mental effectiveness: focus on what you choose, and choose your distractions mindfully.”