Workforce Development

In These Chaotic, Stressful Times, People Sometimes Just Need to Reboot

The Power of Pause

As was made clear in the first three installments of BusinessWest’s ‘Future Tense’ series, handling the incredibly fast pace of change while also trying to look around the corner to see what the future might bring is not only difficult but extremely stressful. And the present is no bargain, either. In response, major corporations and small businesses across the country and around the world are increasingly looking at mindfulness as a way to help employees focus their attention and stay in the moment, as attendees learned in the most recent lecture

Moira Garvey says that when a computer isn’t behaving properly — probably because it’s doing too many things at once or can’t sort out everything it’s being asked to do — its operator will reset, or reboot, that piece of equipment.

And, usually, that works; the computer functions much better than it did before.

What many people are now realizing — and more need to realize — is that they, too, need to reboot on a regular basis, and for the same reason the computer usually does: We’re trying to do too much, we can’t sort it all out, and because of that, we’re not operating as efficiently as we can.

Just like a computer, we need to reset, we need to reboot,” said Garvey, senior consultant and facilitator for the Potential Project, a global leader in providing customized, organizational effectiveness programs based on mindfulness.

Moira Garvey

Moira Garvey

“Just like a computer, we need to reset, we need to reboot.”

Garvey was joined at the podium recently by Susan O’Connor, Esq. vice president and general counsel for Health New England, as they presented the final installment (for 2018, anyway) of BusinessWest’s Future Tense series.

In the first three programs, presented by Paragus Strategic IT, The Jamrog Group, and Meyers Brothers Kalicka, respectively, presenters talked about the quickening pace of change, the challenges of predicting what will come next, and the clear need to be proactive when it comes to anticipating what might lie around the next curve and being fully prepared for it.

In the final lecture, Garvey and O’Connor talked about what all this rapid change, unpredictability, and need to be prepared is doing to people — it’s stressing them out. And it’s not just the future that’s doing this, it’s the present as well. And it’s not just work. It’s also life — family, bills, difficult conversations, health concerns … the list goes on, and on, and on.

Add it all up, said Garvey, and people can really only focus about 53% of their mind on what they’re doing at a given moment, and in most all cases, that’s not enough (we’ll elaborate on this later).

The answer to improving that number, for a growing number of companies and the individuals they employ, is mindfulness, loosely defined as paying attention to the present moment in an accepting, non-judgmental way. It’s meditation designed to help a wandering mind — and all minds are wandering these days — come back, and stay focused on the present moment. It also gives people the tools needed to be less stressed and more calm.

The list of companies incorporating mindfulness programs continues to grow and now includes virtually every sector of the economy and the likes of Google, Microsoft, Accenture, Sony, Aetna, Airbus, Heineken, Marriott, Cisco, American Express, and countless others.

Why? Garvey sums it up quickly and effectively by citing the title of Thomas Davenport’s book — The Attention Economy — and the phrase that sums it all up: “Understanding and managing attention is now the single most important determinant of business success.”

Recognizing this, Health New England recently added its name to the list of companies involving employees in mindfulness programs, said O’Connor, adding that in the four years since HNE started down this road, it has seen real results when it comes to stress reduction and getting people to better focus on what’s right in front of them instead of everything else.

Jody Gross, HNE’s interim president and CEO, agreed.

“The health insurance industry is not unique in facing the challenges of constant change and uncertainty; our fast-paced lives at home and at work mean associates are continually pushing themselves to do more, to achieve more, and to do everything faster,” he said. “Technology and instant access results in a 24/7 schedule, and creates a fragmented, over-stressed, and hectic way of life. As Health New England looked for ways to reduce stress and build mental resiliency for our workforce, we understood it was critical to go beyond encouraging physical fitness. 

“We needed to invest in improving the health and well-being of the whole person,” he went on. “One way to stay centered and focused is to commit to the practice of mindfulness.”

For the issue its focus on professional development, BusnessWest talked with Garvey and O’Connor about the emergence of mindfulness and how companies are using it to help employees combat all the stress in their lives and stay in the moment.

An Attention Getter

As they addressed the audience gathered for the Future Tense lecture at Tech Foundry, Garvey and O’Connor set the tone for the discussion by putting up a PowerPoint slide with a map of the country. By clicking on a state, one could discern its ‘most googled healthcare problem in 2018.’

Clicking on Utah, for example, which owns the nation’s highest pregnancy rate, ‘morning sickness’ comes up.

Maneuvering over Massachusetts, O’Connor clicked her mouse, and the word ‘stress’ appeared in all capital letters in a red starburst, as if any additional emphasis was needed.

And while Bay State residents do indeed have a lot of stress, the condition knows no boundaries, said Garvey, adding that there are certainly lots of reasons for it. Advancing technology is part of it, as is the overall pace of change. But mostly, it’s about handling all that work and life are throwing at people, she noted.

Susan O’Connor

Susan O’Connor

“We turned to mindfulness to help employees remain resilient in the face the growing amounts of stress they face.”

And, like a computer, people on overload need to reset, or reboot, she said. “To speed things up, often you need to first slow down,” she said, referring to mindfulness or what she calls ‘the power of the pause.’

As we explain how it works, we need to go back to that number 53%. As Garvey explained, that’s how much of one’s mind is ‘on task,’ as she put it. The other 47% is off task, meaning it’s focused on everything but the task.

That means that, typically, people have a 47% ‘attention deficit trait,’ as it’s called. And to illustrate, Garvey offered an example everyone can relate to: “You pick up the phone to make an appointment … you get distracted, look at some e-mails or some texts … your mind starts to wander, and you wind up never making the appointment.”

To get more of the mind on task, people need to pause and reset, said Garvey, adding that this is mindfulness, or what she and others in this emerging field call “attention training.”

These are daily exercises — 10 minutes in length is the average — during which practitioners use meditation to keep their mind from wandering, she said, and bring it back to the present moment.

Because of its ability to help people focus, be less distracted by everything else around them, and, in the end, more productive, the business community has embraced mindfulness, said Garvey, noting that today, more than 450 major corporations and more than 100,000 employees are actively involved in mindfulness programs.

As for HNE, it started what O’Connor called a “mindfulness journey” roughly four years ago.

“We turned to mindfulness to help employees remain resilient in the face the growing amounts of stress they face,” she said, adding that mindfulness is now part of the business strategy for the company, the largest health plan based in Western Massachusetts.

Elaborating, she said that HNE introduced Potential Project’s Mindful Leadership program to its leadership team, a group of about 30 people. They took in part in a three-month pilot program involving 10-minute daily mindfulness sessions.

The results, studied by researchers from the National University of Singapore, are striking. They show a 31% increase in overall job performance, a 17% reduction in work/family conflict, a 37% reduction in “emotional exhaustion,” a dramatic, 52% drop in negative moods, and a 9% increase in attention, to 62% instead of the aforementioned 53%.

Summing it all up, she said the programs, now being used by a growing number of employees at the company, are helping these individuals “rewire” their brains to be less reactive to all that’s going around them and for them to respond more thoughtfully to the specific moment.

Gross agreed.

“Our mindfulness programs teach people to learn how to respond to the complexities and pressures of the workplace,” he told BusinessWest. “Our results have been excellent, and associates report improvements in how they approach uncertainty, have deeper concentration and an increased sense of satisfaction in and out of work.”

Mind Over Matters

Returning to that loose comparison between people and computers, Garvey said, “the expectation is that we’re always on. Well, machines can do that, but people cannot; we can’t always be on.”

But the truth is, we try to be, and that’s why the reset, the reboot, is needed.

Recognition of this has made mindfulness top of mind for a growing number of companies large and small, and most all of them are seeing real results in terms of stress reduction and improved productivity.

Practitioners with a lot on their mind are able to speed up by slowing down and dealing with the moment — just that moment.

This is the power of the pause.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]