Organisations are facing a productivity crisis as many leaders and employees face increased stress levels with loss of life quality and reduced performance, according to an expert in the area of mindfulness in the workplace.
The traditional response from employers to managing increasingly fast-paced work has been to offer time management courses and other tactical skill-building training.
However, these interventions are not a long-term, sustainable solution for helping people deal with increased stress in the workplace and more effective solutions need to be explored, said Gillian Coutts, Australian director of The Potential Project, which specialises in mindfulness in the workplace.
“Work life has changed drastically over the past three decades,” said Coutts.
“We have gone from working with single information objects such as typewriters to working in a reality that is bombarded with various sources of information; emails, text messages, social media and other online and office communication tools.
“We are working in a reality where we are under pressure, always on, information overloaded and distracted, often referred to as the PAID reality.
“In the PAID reality our attention comes under siege and that has detrimental consequences for our productivity,” she said.
In short, Coutts said the PAID reality forces people to multitask as a coping mechanism – and according to scientists, multitasking is the mother of underperformance.
“In the PAID reality our attention comes under siege and that has detrimental consequences for our productivity”
Humans are neurologically incapable of multitasking, aid Coutts, who pointed out that “multitasking” shouldn’t be called multitasking at all, but “shift-tasking”.
“Research from Harvard University shows that what we’re actually doing when multitasking is shifting between two tasks so fast we fall into the illusion we are performing well at both, when in reality, we’re underperforming,” said Coutts.
Research undertaken by The Potential Project has also found that shift-tasking results in poor critical decision making, low productivity, and hours of wasted time.
“Because of shift-tasking, 46.9 per cent of our time at work our minds are wandering – which means that only about half our working hours are focused, efficient and effective,” said Coutts.
Multitasking also leads to attention deficit trait, she said.
“In other words, due to the PAID reality, we are gradually losing our ability to manage our attention,” she said.
Coutts predicted that work environments will continue to become more complex, with global, technological, political and ethical decisions to be made.
“With this, attention is becoming an increasing scarce resource in a 24/7, distracted and information overloaded business reality,” she said.
“And attention is a key foundation for performance and productivity.
“Over time, we’ll see the need to look after and train the mind to deal with this become accepted as mainstream, much like the need to look after physical health through exercise and good nutrition today,” she said.
“Due to the PAID reality, we are gradually losing our ability to manage our attention”
In a business context, Coutts said mindfulness is still too often seen within the category of wellness initiatives, along with yoga and EAP.
“The focus is on helping the individual cope,” she said.
“It’s the first thing to be cut when times are bad, which is often when it’s needed the most.
“Mindfulness has more to offer as it can directly impact our ability to channel our attention more focused and purposeful manner.”
There is already a move towards customised programs that leverage mind training and mindfulness practices to fundamentally reshape how organisations use the time and attention of their employees for the better, Coutts added.
“Getting one second ahead is about collectively slowing down to speed up, and make those conscious choices,” she said.
“What’s interesting to observe is the contagion effect of the disruption a leader can cause in their team as they become more present.”
Coutts also said HR professionals should get informed about the variety of types of programs available, particularly within the business focused performance space.
“Demand a return on investment that benefits both the individual and the business processes they are engaged with, and enhances a culture of performance,” she said.
Five steps to mindfulness for HR
There are five mindful strategies HR professionals can start using right away to improve their own performance, according to Coutts:
- Identify choice points: Choice points are the countless moments during a day when you’re interrupted mid-task, confronted with a new priority, or have a thought that breaks your focus. Rather than automatically falling prey to these distractions, try making each choice point an opportunity to consciously decide what deserves your attention or what best aligns with your primary goals.
- Take awareness breaks: This is a 45-second break performed once an hour while at work. Think of this break as a reset button for your mind. 45 seconds may not seem like a lot of time, but it’s enough to break the busy action-addiction cycle and keep you focused on your most relevant tasks. If you have difficulty keeping track of awareness breaks, take a look at www.potentialproject.com for a smartphone app that can help.
- Decrease your multitasking: Allow yourself to focus on what you are doing. Keep as few applications and emails open on your computer as possible. Also, allocate time slots where you switch off all media and focus on important thinking or strategic tasks.
- Conquer your inbox: Before it conquers you. Switch off all notifications in your email system. Allocate time slots where you deal with emails, and aim to utilise your brains best hours in the best way. Work for 30-60 minutes on important tasks in the morning before you check your email.
- Start daily mindfulness training: The hard part about mindfulness is that you actually have to do it to get any benefits. You have to actually practice it. An effective training program requires just ten minutes a day of practice and enhances your ability to detect choice points or have meaningful awareness breaks. To begin daily training, search for business focused programs and apps that help you apply your practice to your professional as well as your personal life.
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