Taryn Jessop has had a passion for health and wellness since high school, when she first started noticing signs of anxiety and depression in herself as well as in some of her friends.
In her fifth year at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business in Vancouver, she’s involved in promoting health and wellness for students through HeWe, a service funded by the Commerce Undergraduate Society, offering everything from tips on healthy eating to workshops on building DIY bath bombs to help students relax.
Last year, HeWe featured a mindfulness-meditation session at its convention as another tool that students can use to manage their stress. Meditating, whether individually or in groups, is gaining increasing interest from business students as well as corporations.
Early adopters such as Google, General Mills and UBC have offered mindfulness programs to employees over the past decade as a leadership strategy to improve mental focus, decision-making and stress reduction. Typically, mindfulness exercises help people manage their thoughts and feelings by focusing attention on the present moment, through meditation, breathing and yoga.
Ms. Jessop has participated in mindfulness meditation at school events, most recently as part of a session on energy management at “Sauder In Real Life,” a mandatory event for all students in the COMM 486M class, where Sauder alumni help students with career planning and personal development.
“Sauder is a fast-paced environment with people trying to reach very challenging goals, so mindfulness meditation is one method students can use to help combat any anxiety they may face,” Ms. Jessop says. “If your mind is clouded by stress, worry or anxiety, that can really distract you from whatever task you’re trying to accomplish. I personally find it really helps.”
Ms. Jessop found doing mindfulness meditation in a group especially helpful because it gives people a shared experience to talk about. She’s noticed that a lot more students are recommending meditation to each other as a go-to tool, not only for their future profession, but to help navigate the difficulties of life.
“One of the most important things about health and wellness is being able to connect with other people about similar feelings,” she says. “That leads to sharing and more productivity. One benefit is that it puts everyone in a better spirit. At the Sauder IRL session, we felt more relaxed and willing to chat in that particular moment after we had just done the exercise.”
That makes sense to Lingtao Yu, assistant professor at Sauder and the lead author on a study exploring how group mindfulness can benefit teams.
His field research with students in MBA programs in the United States and health-care employees in China suggests that doing meditation together and then sharing their experiences can help teams reduce interpersonal conflicts and increase focus on the task at hand.
“While conflict in a team is often focused on the task, sometimes people also have an emotional or relationship conflict, so task conflicts can become emotional, even leading to personal attacks or undermining team members,” explains Dr. Yu, who co-authored the study with Mary Zellmer-Bruhn of the University of Minnesota.
“What we found across the studies was that when the team had a task conflict, which is totally fine, the degree of interpersonal conflict decreased as long as the team was more mindful."
He also found that the student response to doing group meditation was positive, regardless of whether they had previous experience individually with meditation.
“The team is a very popular structure in today’s organizations, so when students go into the workplace, they’ll eventually work in a team,” Dr. Yu says. “This mindfulness will help them.”
Mary Crossan, a professor of general management and strategy at Ivey Business School in London, Ont., uses mindfulness meditation and yoga in the MBA course she teaches called Transformational Leadership.
But her approach isn’t focused on stress reduction as much as using different practices such as mindfulness meditation and yoga to help individuals develop character.
After the economic crisis and failures of leadership in 2008, a worldwide discussion emerged about the character of leaders and whether it could be developed.
So she and her colleagues at Western University’s Ivey have gone on a journey to understand the role of character and how they could elevate it alongside competence in business schools and organizations.
“What we discovered in the process is that character and its 11 dimensions [courage, drive, integrity, humility, justice, temperance, humanity, accountability, judgement, collaboration and transcendence] contribute to individual well-being,” explains Dr. Crossan, who is also the Paul MacPherson Chair in Strategic Leadership.
“The forefront we’re on right now is treating these dimensions of character as muscles that you develop, the same way you would an athlete. The notion is that if you’re able to develop these dimensions of character, you are better equipped to handle the stressors of your environment."
Dr. Crossan says they’ve developed three-hour workshops on each of the dimensions using a variety of practices, including improvisation and listening to music as well as mindfulness meditation and yoga.
“If you think about something like physiology and you want to develop temperance for example, you need to be able to handle and be self aware of the physiology of your body,” she says.
“That’s why things like mindfulness meditation and yoga become really important because they have this big connection to the physiology through breathing.
“Consider that there are a lot of people who don’t have self-awareness about how emotions, feelings and mood operate. They don’t know how to regulate them and don’t know what they’re about so they learn to suppress them. But you don’t want emotions like joy and passion removed from how you operate in the world. What you want to know how to manoeuver and get into a more positive state.”
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