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From meditation retreats and relaxation rooms to yoga breaks between meetings, organizations are increasingly turning to mindfulness practices in a bid to offset stress in the workplace and help employees find inner happiness.
Now a new study from the University of Saskatchewan’s Edwards School of Business suggests mindfulness can also have powerful effects on stressed-out leaders.
Specifically, “mindfulness helps you to avoid negative or abusive behaviours while encouraging more transformational and positive behaviours, despite how emotionally exhausted you may feel,” says Megan Walsh, an assistant professor at the Saskatoon school and the study’s lead author.
Mindfulness is a centuries-old Buddhist philosophy. It is defined in the study as “a receptive attention to and awareness of present events and experience.”
“You are fully engaged in the present moment – like a sponge soaking everything up,” adds Dr. Walsh, who, since her early academic years as an undergraduate student, has sought to strengthen her own mindful awareness through meditation and yoga.
Dr. Walsh says her current research pairs her personal interest in the practice with an academic focus on leadership and its subsequent influence on employee well-being.
Stress at work is a critical business issue with existing research estimating it costs the Canadian economy up to $35-billion a year. Leadership burnout, anxiety and depression contribute to the problem. The pressure of managing diverse teams amid restrictive budgets and tight deadlines can result in leaders lashing out at work – from bullying and shouting at workers to isolating individuals by leaving them out of important meetings or conversations.
“Your thoughts and emotions become impaired in a significant way when you are emotionally exhausted, making you less likely to be positive and more likely to be abusive,” says Dr. Walsh.
The study’s findings were drawn from a survey of supervisors and senior leaders across industries – including information technology, education, health care, sales and manufacturing. Respondents were asked a series of questions designed to measure their mindful awareness, leadership style and ability to handle strain at work.
Among the key findings, the study found that leaders who cultivate mindful awareness can better regulate their emotional responses to job stressors. Specifically, they are better able to dampen negative reactions and instead display traits associated with a transformational leadership style, such as inspiration, motivation, supportive and encouraging others to be creative and think outside the box.
At the same time, the study found mindfulness had no impact on a leader’s ability to view a situation from someone else’s perspective.
“When you are feeling used up by your work and you’ve got no more left to give at the end of the work day, it is hard to put yourself in your employees’ shoes,” says Dr. Walsh. “That’s hard to do when you are emotionally exhausted.”
Dr. Walsh says the study supports a move by organizations to consider mindfulness training for leaders. Mindfulness tends to be built over time through meditative practices, she says. However, training doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming.
“There are cellphone apps that leaders can integrate into their daily lives that remind the user, for instance, to take 10 minutes and do a quick meditation and gain mindfulness in their day,” she says.
On the other hand, she adds, “more intensive options, perhaps a mindfulness-based stress reduction class once a week with homework, involve more of a commitment, but the benefits are pretty long lasting for leaders.”
The study is published in Frontiers of Psychology. It is co-authored by professor Kara Arnold at Memorial University in St. John’s.
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