As leaders, we are constantly seeking ways to help employees reduce stress and improve their overall mental health.
We know that mental health is essential to our overall health. And while there are many sources of stress in our world, we often encounter them at work simply because we spend so much of our lives there.
Mindfulness exercises can be a powerful tool for individuals to enhance their mind-body connection and take ownership of their thoughts and emotions.
Becoming more aware of our emotions allows us to choose how we want to respond. Ultimately, a heightened awareness of our emotions equips us to use our logical thinking abilities better, leading to improved overall performance.
If you’re seeking practical ways to support your employees’ mental health, implementing mindfulness exercises is a valuable step. By creating a healthier and more balanced work environment, you can foster happier and more engaged employees.
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What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a powerful tool that cultivates awareness and acceptance of thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. It involves directing your attention to the present moment with a non-judgemental and curious mindset.
Mindfulness exercises can be as brief as a few seconds or a few minutes. With regular practice, these short sessions can have a profound impact on the lives of employees. Consistency is key to reaping the benefits of mindfulness.
Practicing mindfulness is more important than ever
In our fast-paced world, it’s easy to experience stress and feel overwhelmed. A mindfulness practice can equip team members to become more empathetic, self-aware, clear-minded, and resilient to stress.
But the benefits of mindfulness extend beyond just mental well-being. Engaging in a consistent mindfulness practice also enhances emotional regulation and supports physical health, leading to fewer missed days at work.
When your employees experience stress, it can manifest as physical symptoms, such as increased heart rate, chronic pain, fatigue, breathing difficulties, and insomnia. Additionally, stress can lead to chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension (high blood pressure).
Mindfulness can help us recognize when stress or reactivity emerges, and bring our body and mind back to a state of calm and neutrality. This promotes improved concentration, sleep quality, and emotional regulation, benefiting personal well-being and professional performance.
How mindfulness supports the thinking mind
We need our thinking mind. We can’t go to work without it.
A mindfulness practice supports brain function by teaching our amygdala, the control center of our emotional response, to process thoughts calmly and think things through.
When employees are under stress, the amygdala can become over-activated. Messages don’t get through to the more logical part of the brain, and rational decision-making takes a hit.
Mindfulness is the practice of taking a pause so the body and brain can catch up with one another. This allows us to choose how we want to respond to our environment.
It also teaches us to recognize unhelpful thought patterns and choose not to engage with them—letting thoughts pass without being reinforced.
A mindfulness practice fosters a healthy workplace culture
Building self-awareness through mindfulness leads to improved interpersonal skills and more cohesion among all employees. Because a focus of senior leadership is to improve productivity and support employees, it’s easy to forget that leaders, too, reap the benefits of these exercises.
When we’ve taken steps to put our minds in a calm state, our emotions don’t get to take over. Team members can then pay closer attention to their thoughts and become more empathetic listeners, developing clarity, insight, and a stronger understanding of other people’s perspectives.
Communication skills are also improved as self-awareness increases, leading to healthier work relationships.
6 mindfulness exercises for you and your employees to try
The following exercises, provided by Spring Health clinicians, support improvements in mind-body connection, concentration, sleep, anxiety, and depression. They’re brief, both guided and self-guided, and can be done at home or work.
I encourage you to try these exercises yourself. Consider incorporating them into team meetings and sharing them with your employees, for self-guided practice.
This is one way leaders can foster a culture of well-being, and encourage finding moments of calm in the midst of daily challenges.
For relaxation and stress reduction
This self-guided exercise from Kristen Hernandez, M.A., LMFT increases awareness of your physical body to identify stress and develop ways to regulate it. It can help lower blood pressure, reduce chronic pain, improve sleep, and strengthen your immune system.
3x3 mindfulness exercise
This is an opportunity to do a small check-in with your body. Notice where you are holding tension and stress, and give your body and mind just a moment of decompression.
Find a comfortable position in your chair, or stand if you like. Take a moment to close your eyes, if you feel comfortable doing so. I encourage placing one hand on the belly and one hand on the chest.
Bring your attention to your body and notice if you can lower the shoulders away from the ears or relax the muscles in your face during this exercise:
- Take a nice deep inhale that lasts for 3 seconds
- Hold that breath for 3 seconds
- Exhale for 3 seconds
Repeat this process three times. Do your best to stay in the moment with the breath, blocking out anything that came before this moment and anything that is to come after.
In accompaniment of this self-guided exercise, here is a guided mindfulness exercise from Kristen to help you and your team members reduce stress.
To help reduce negative feelings and symptoms of depression
Mindfulness can help reduce negative feelings and the symptoms of depression and anxiety. While it’s always wise to consult with your doctor about treatment decisions, some research suggests that mindfulness exercises can be as effective as antidepressant medications for some people.
Try this self-guided exercise from Lucia Etchegaray consistently to support your mood and emotional regulation.
Mindfulness for happiness
Before getting started, please consider a few suggestions:
- Turn off your notifications (computer, phone, tablet and any other device)
- If you are not alone, please find a private spot
- Make yourself comfortable: sit on a cushion, get a blanket, whatever you may need to wind down
- Allow your spine to be straight but not stiff, and let your hands rest comfortably in your lap
Now we are ready to get started!
Begin by taking a few deep breaths. Observe your breath as if you were a very curious scientist. Notice the rhythm of your breath, the texture and temperature of the air as you inhale and exhale. Be aware of the relaxing sensation that comes with breathing.
If your attention shifts away, acknowledge this modification, allow those thoughts, feelings or impulses, let them come and go as they will, and focus back on your breathing.
Bring to your mind a joyful memory. It can be a situation, a moment in your life, a person, a place, a song… whatever makes you feel happy. Bring your attention to the landscape, remember the weather and how it felt to be there. Remember what your eyes were seeing, what your body was doing.
Connect with that feeling, with the sensation, shape, color, temperature of the joy you are feeling in this moment.
Continue breathing as you stay with your joy. Notice if it transforms in any way as you stay with your happiness.
Thank yourself for reconnecting with your happiness. Be grateful for these minutes of joy.
In accompaniment of this self-guided exercise, here is a guided mindfulness exercise from Lucia to help you and your team members reduce negative feelings, including depression and anxiety, and increase happiness.
To improve sleep
If you have trouble sleeping, you might find that mindfulness helps improve sleep quality by reducing stress, anxiety, and racing thoughts before you go to bed.
This exercise from BJ Constantine, LMHC, LPC, NCC teaches you to focus on your breathing so your mind is engaged with the present, rather than fixating on the past or the future.
As you’re lying in your bed, think about relaxation. It’s not about getting to sleep. Or getting back to sleep. It’s just about relaxing.
Begin by taking a few moments to connect to your breath.
Gentle breaths. Easy breaths.
For a moment or so, just allow yourself to focus on the physical sensations of your breath.
Notice the temperature of the air as you inhale.
Notice the air as it moves down your throat, and fills your lungs.
Notice the muscles in your belly and see if you can relax your abdomen.
Observe how your chest moves, collar bones gently rise and fall with each breath, and the temperature changes with the exhale.
Notice how each breath affects your entire body. Your shoulders. Your arms. Your legs. Your feet.
Gentle, easy movements as you inhale... and exhale, letting go of any concern. Any worries. Any cares. Leaving room for relaxation.
Imagine yourself feeling lighter. Lighter than air. So light that you might feel as if you’re floating. Relaxing. Calm. Peace.
When you are ready, allow your eyes to close gently. Enjoy a pleasant and relaxing night’s sleep.
To improve concentration
Practicing mindfulness strengthens your ability to stay focused for longer periods of time. This exercise from Christine Lopez, LCSW teaches your brain to break unhealthy thought patterns and keep your attention on the present.
Object stare exercise
Place any object directly in front of you (e.g. a pen, stapler, mug). Pick a specific spot on the object, and then in a relaxed manner, focus your attention on that spot.
Study it carefully.
As you keep your eyes on that spot, slowly repeat to yourself a word or phrase. That word or phrase will be your “concentration cue,” or reminder.
For example, you can use the words “sharp,” “now,” or “smooth.” Quickly bring your focus back to your spot each and every time that you find yourself drifting.
Next, close your eyes and try to get a visual image of the object and your spot. Continue to repeat your concentration cue to yourself as you do this.
Finally, pick the object up and study it with your hands. Feel the texture of the surfaces, the corners and points, its temperature, the feel of raised writing if any, etc. As you do this, continue to repeat that cue to yourself.
Repeat this sequence (looking, imagining, and feeling) for up to five minutes.
Set realistic expectations for your mindfulness practice
Mindfulness is a practice that needs practice. For team members who are new to mindfulness, setting realistic expectations about what it will be like at first is essential.
Mindfulness requires time to become ingrained, and it can be discouraging to discover how easily the mind becomes distracted during your initial attempts at practicing an exercise.
An unclear mind is natural and normal. Our brains don’t simply empty themselves. Endless thoughts run through our minds daily, and we naturally react to them—even during mindfulness exercises.
Recognizing that your brain has been conditioned to function this way can help you approach your thoughts without judgment, and be persistent in training it in this new manner of functioning.
Here are a few more strategies and resources to help you support the mental health of your employees.