Just like the modern lifestyle, the contemporary work environment presents us with unique challenges when it comes to working more mindfully. We may feel we require peace, calm and quiet, not too much stress, and no one around who annoys us, before we can even think about trying to practise mindfulness at work. That is like asking for the waves to stop before we go for a swim in the ocean – we might be waiting for a long time! As Jon Kabat Zinn puts it,
‘You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf’.
I find maintaining mindfulness at work more difficult than in other settings. It’s interesting to reflect on why this might be so. Many work environments are very busy, with constant demands coming from all directions. Each new demand pulls us further away from being able to focus on the task in front of us. Studies have shown multi-tasking is a myth, and we lose time and efficiency every time we switch tasks. Yet few workplaces are designed to allow us to focus on a job uninterrupted.
Work is also, by its nature, very task-orientated, so it’s natural to slip into ‘doing’ mode and away from ‘being’ mode. We may feel we look like a better employee if we appear busy and rushed – even though we’ve probably all worked with people who race around like a tornado all day and leave behind a string of mistakes for others to sort out.
We may also feel that, because we are being paid to be at work, the time at work is not really our own. To some extent, this is true, in that we can’t simply do whatever we want; but at another level it makes no sense. Yes, we have responsibilities at work, and often little choice about when to carry them out. But during the rest of our lives we also have responsibilities – towards our family, ourselves, neighbours and society. Does this mean the whole of our life is not our own? We may have limited choices about ‘what’ we do, but we always have a choice about ‘how’. The careful attention we bring to a task; the pleasant manner in which we interact with colleagues and clients; the way we look after ourselves by taking a lunch break, grounding ourselves using the breath from time to time; the sense of humour, joy and compassion we cultivate – these all belong to us, and make a significant difference to who we are as employers and employees, and also to our effectiveness at work.
Weekly practice idea:
Explore the ‘being’ mode at work or when doing tasks at home. How does it feel to be completing a task, and staying grounded and present throughout.