Mindfulness: Moving Beyond Trends Toward Performance

Leaders can help build a more mindful workforce.

Mindfulness in action is tangible and learnable. And critical when faced with situations where potential risks abound, not just for dealing with explosive or out-of the-blue situations. It also applies to everyday activities, such as manual material handling (where a small twist or slight balance loss can trigger a significant soft-tissue injury), walking across slippery/uneven/obstacle-strewn surfaces, working with machines (hand exposures), driving a motor vehicle in traffic or adverse conditions—and even in communicating (where a slip of the tongue in an incendiary situation can spike long-term destructive repercussions).

Ultimately, Safety is self-defense. Avoiding situations that might prove dangerous, transmuting these at the lowest possible levels, even protecting others from dangers that might be hidden from them? I've been practicing, practicing, teaching, and practicing internal martial arts for more than 40 years. These systems rely less on being the fastest or strongest or just having greatest physical leverage, but more on sensing changes in the magnitude and direction of unleashed forces, then smoothly and immediately redirecting these toward self-protection.

Because of these attack-defense experiences, I value the impact of mindfulness, of having my sensing antennae dialed up, being calmly ready to change course on the spot and seeing options where to safely move at any time. I've encountered numerous situations in full-speed sparring where I was able to guide away strikes—until I became self-congratulatory (telling myself, "I've got this down!") and then would immediately get hit. No coincidence.

Mindfulness means being aware of and operating in "the now," neither looking nor thinking back or ahead. But this ability, like all skillsets, has to be developed. It doesn't come from just wishing, wanting, or trying to forcing it to be so. However, mindful states and actions can relatively quickly be strengthened when effectively practiced; for the past 30 years we've been helping companies apply certain mindful practices with significant, lasting results in injury reduction and heightened engagement.

So I've not been surprised by the recent interest in "Mindfulness" in the Safety and Organizational world. Some leaders have been increasingly frustrated by what they see as the number of "stupid" or inattentional mistakes people make that either lead to injuries, product loss, or diminished customer relations. Other leaders realize that, no matter how many policies and procedures or workplace modifications they create, they have limited direct control, especially with a relatively less-supervised or remote workforce. Then there are many who believe that human error is the ultimate cause of incidents or an embarrassingly mediocre Safety culture; they see workers' internal awareness, thoughts, and reactions as the Final Frontier in moving beyond a stagnant Safety record. This is supported by latest neuro-research, according to psychiatrist Dr. Norman Doidge. In "The Brain That Changes Itself," he indicates brain neurons grow in response to thoughts, emotions, and environmental stimuli, strongly suggesting Mindfulness can be readily developed. Or, flip side, dimmed.

Then there are some managers who think, "We've tried everything else, we've got to do something new and different. Let's try 'Mindfulness (whatever that is).'" And there are any number of freshly sprung programs to choose from.

I get it. But as a long-term practitioner of "Mindfulness," I urge wise leaders to try to realize what Mindfulness is really about, and that attempting to inculcate these qualities in workers can backfire. It's like promulgating one thing while doing something that's opposite; you can't force people to relax or meditate or to become "more aware," but you can help them learn this, if receptive. Mindfulness requires engagement of the mind, emotions, and body. Here are some leadership strategies we've found critical to engendering greater Mindfulness:

1. Leaders have to start with themselves. Leaders who practice Mindfulness themselves can better understand what’s involved to help guide others toward doing the same and exemplify the positive results from these methods.

2. Draw others to practice Mindfulness, rather than attempting to push it on them. Offer the positive benefits to them: greater relaxation, reverse memory loss (according to Dr. Ellen Langer), improve performance in their favorite sports and hobbies, heighten relationships with those they most care about, lower stress and fatigue, and more.

No one I know has a Mindful button they can switch on, especially when this is most needed, in sudden-onset situations likely to generate a high degree of stress. To become most effective, Mindfulness has to become a way of living. This necessitates building a radar-extending default. One proven and efficient way to approach this is through including at-home applications that already motivate others and they are interested in applying at home, rather than just job-related ones.

3. Offer a range of ways that mindful actions can make things easier when performing in a wide range of tasks. While different forms of meditation (from counting breaths to repeating a phrase to "emptying," or more) can certainly promote mindful states, an eyes-closed, quietly removed practice will not ring for everyone. And even when some gravitate toward this, they still may need to learn ways to transfer this to the real world of distractions, time pressures, changing priorities, and swirling movement.

For example, mindfulness methods are essential for safest lifting and carrying—especially as part of a team or with loads that can shift or whose weight can be surprising—and Mindfulness is an essential foundation of strongest physical balance, which impacts surefooted walking, climbing, using tools, and so much more in personal Safety. Even further, self-monitoring (including developing what we term a "Mindfulness Map") can assist most people avoid too-common soft-tissue injuries. Then, of course, encourage continuance (people share benefits for them).

Leaders can help build a more mindful workforce. Planning is important, but the mindful element of strategy comes from leaders' calmly noticing changing reactions and adjusting their course accordingly.

This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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