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NB Power has used mindfulness training to help employees focus on the task at hand.

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Imagine you are in a room with soft music playing, lying on a yoga mat, and listening to a quiet, calm voice telling you to breathe in, and then breathe out. Pay attention to your breath in, your breath out.

Now imagine that same situation but with a group of electrical utility employees from New Brunswick Power. Employees sitting in a crew room or meeting room, dressed in special arc flash clothing, and work boots, with hard hats at their side, learning to breathe in and breathe out in a way that reduces stress, reduces anxiety, and helps focus attention on the upcoming work.

Not exactly the common image that comes to mind when thinking of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a topic that is receiving a lot of attention these days. From being used as a therapy to help manage Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms to providing students with Attention Deficit Disorders (ADD) a process for controlling their thoughts, mindfulness is a concept typically associated with the practice of meditation, or an exercise program such as yoga. An industrial work environment hardly invokes images of people breathing deliberately in a mindful way, or practicing quiet reflection.

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So, why mindfulness for this particular, unusual environment? Research has demonstrated that mindfulness works well to help individuals recognize when they are distracted, and how to control those distracting thoughts that can interfere with much needed attention to the job at hand.

Increased job awareness, a heightened sense of attentiveness, focus on the task at hand and control of distractions are the areas NB Power's corporate health and safety group will promote amongst all of the company's employees to reduce the numbers of procedural incidents.

An electrical utility, NB Power, has adopted the use of mindfulness as part of its corporate health and safety psychological health strategy. Recognizing that the increasing pressure of responding to a changing work environment as well as providing customer care often left employees in a less than clear mindset, the concept of mindfulness as part of the safety strategy was proposed – and eventually accepted.

A little different from the traditional concept of mindfulness, the NB Power style of mindfulness is about being discerningly aware and attentive to everything around you, particularly within your work environment. It is about allowing your attention to focus briefly on, for example, the weather, the noise, or the movement around you. That movement can be traffic, members of the public walking by, co-workers moving around you, or the weather. Whatever it is, being mindful helps enhance your level of attention on your environment. The key element is to learn, through mindfulness training, how not to fixate on aspects of it for too long, but to simply register that it exists. Having this level of understanding, creates a sense of awareness related to potential safety hazards. It becomes established from an almost 'back of mind' perspective, thus not allowing it to have one's total focus.

This sounds logical and easy – perhaps even too much so. And that is correct. From a corporate, or business viewpoint, approving the use of mindfulness is one thing, getting it implemented and accepted is something entirely different. That particular journey is not an easy one. From the NB Power experience, because mindfulness was often associated with a less physical environment than repairing or building power lines, a healthy dose of cynicism related to its adoption was encountered. We heard comments such as "what the heck are you smoking?" as well as "here comes the yoga guru." All were understandable responses to the proposal of a less than traditional safety management system.

But implementation did occur. Slowly, ever so slowly, it occurred – perhaps unknowingly mimicking the mindfulness paradigm of breathe in, then breathe out, and slowly repeat. Applying the concept to various work processes, continual communication to all areas of the corporation, and a full day mindfulness training seminar for the company's executives worked to move mindfulness from the 'funky, hippie' arena into the 'exercise your brain for safety' arena. Five years into the adoption of mindfulness, results are recognized but, like everything else, there is still a lot of work to do.

Over the past five years, NB Power employees have been using mindfulness as a way of increasing their attentiveness to the task at hand, reducing stress associated with the work, and being safer on the job. This strategy has resulted in NB Power having their best safety record in its history for three consecutive years. As well, medical aid events were reduced by 97 per cent, disabling events reduced by 99 per cent and Workers' Compensation Board rates reduced by more than 60 per cent.

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In 2016, NB Power was awarded the distinction of being Canada's Safest Employer with Gold Medal Awards for the Psychological Health Safety Strategy and the Safety Culture Award. Using modified mindfulness practices, NB Power continues to focus on mindfulness as a technique for improving employee attention to the work at hand and as a stress reduction technique.

Shelley Parker is an industrial psychologist with New Brunswick Power. She is also a PhD, an expert in mindfulness, and teaches in the University of New Brunswick's Psychology Department.

The University of New Brunswick is a leader in Occupational Health, Safety and Wellness online education offering a suite of courses designed to teach participants how to achieve optimal personal and workplace wellness. Click here to learn more.

UNB is a sponsor of The Globe's Solving Workplace Challenges summit, which is on March 20 in Toronto, where the Employee Recommended Workplace Awards will be handed out. Click here to find out more or to register for the event.

Companies can pre-register for the 2019 Employee Recommended Workplace Awards at www.employeerecommended.com.

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