The Changing Face of Work
At the height of his career my father occupied a senior position in a local government architectural department. He had a large team that he was responsible for and had to conduct delicate negotiations with councillors and politicians. In spite of his heavy workload my memories are of him coming home for an early dinner every evening. We had uninterrupted weekends and the regular round of holidays during which—because this was pre-technology—he was never pulled away by emails, texts, or reports to finish on his laptop. His work life balance was never in question.
Few of us would recognize such a working environment nowadays. For most of us technology has helped to break down the barriers between work and home. We can work on stuff from home and look for friends and partners at work. We don’t expect to keep one job for life—moving along a predictable career path does not feature as a realistic goal in today’s more fragile economy. Perhaps most important of all, we long for a sense of meaning and purpose at work—a feeling that with our work we can make a real contribution. Daniel Pink in his book, Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us reveals that the idea that we work primarily for money is a fallacy. Of course, most of us need to earn a living but we are also motivated by the need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things and to do better for ourselves and for the world. Belinda Parmar in her book, The Empathy Era backs this up with this statement,
69% of Millennials said they would work for less money at a company whose culture and values they admired.
Challenges to finding a good work life balance
However, this goal is not one that is always fulfilled for people. In his book, How to find fulfilling work, Roman Krnaric writes,
Most surveys in the West reveal that at least half the workforce are unhappy in their jobs. One cross-European study showed that 60% of workers would choose a different career if they could start again.
An article in the Irish Examiner last autumn stated that 82% of Irish workers are experiencing stress at work.
The thing is that the brain interprets the workplace primarily as a social system. This means that it responds to work events with corresponding threat and reward dynamics—a clash with your boss will feel as important to the brain as the need to find food and water. Social pain is processed in the brain in the same way as physical pain, so threats to our status, security and wellbeing at work trigger the same circuits in the brain as threats to our physical safety.
A carrot and stick work environment will enhance this threat response leading to high levels of stress, whereas being treated fairly, feeling that work is meaningful and that one’s contribution is valued will help reduce stress and lead to a more harmonious, productive work environment. A stressful working environment will close down creative possibilities in the mind and have corresponding effects on output.
What are the qualities of a workplace that values wellness?
A work environment that provides good standards of wellbeing is more likely to be made up of people who are more loyal, more productive and provide better customer satisfaction. It is an outdated view that holds that staff wellbeing is an optional extra.
A recent report published by the New Economics Forum, identified five elements that are fundamental to wellness in the workplace.
A healthy work life balance
People want to work hard but not excessively so. Those working more than 35-55 hours a week tend to experience higher levels of stress.
Staff feel their skills are used and acknowledged
People want to contribute according to their level of expertize and to feel they are developing in their jobs. Feeling under-used is a potential source of stress.
People experience some degree of control in their jobs
Few people welcome being micro-managed and want to establish relationships of trust with their managers in order to enjoy a degree of autonomy at work. When this is not present, then stress levels rise.
Healthy work relationships
Workers want to have relationships at work that are supportive, respectful and understand mistakes, while avoiding blame. The impact of positive working relationships can be more influential in job satisfaction that an increase in pay.
After a certain level of remuneration, the benefits to wellbeing decrease but if income falls below a basic level then levels of job satisfaction decrease accordingly.
When these factors are in place, the workplace is more productive, efficient and happy place to work. Employees are less stressed and more satisfied with their jobs. They experience more loyalty and engagement and staff turnover is lower.
How meditation and compassion help in establishing good work life balance
Research conducted at Harvard University in 2010 found that for 46.9% of our waking lives we are thinking about something different from what we are doing and that this mind wandering does not make us happy. This means that for more than half of our time at work we are operating on a kind of automatic pilot and we are not fully present to our own experience or to the people around us. Meditation has been practiced in the Buddhist tradition for more than two thousand years but within the last twenty years research from neuroscientists is providing a foundation for what practitioners of meditation already know—it helps us to develop our attention and to become more present.
When we are able to stay present rather than ruminating on what might or might not happen if we take this or that action, we free up a lot of our energy and attention that would otherwise be caught up in anxiety and stress. We have the capacity to listen to other people without running a commentary in our minds that overshadows what they are wanting to communicate to us. We can manage our own emotions and moods more effectively because we can see more clearly what we are doing. From there it is a natural development to manage relationships with others with more openness and tolerance and less criticism and judgement.
Psychology professor, Jonathan Haidt has coined the term ‘elevation’ to describe the ripple effects of acts of kindness. We do not need to be involved in the action ourselves but simply by witnessing a person perform a kindness for another we experience an uplifting feeling, which makes us feel good. Applied to the workplace actively developing kindness and compassion helps to spread an attitude of service and commitment among staff. As they learn to care for themselves with compassion they extend that heightened understanding to others.
As with meditation, a compassionate working environment is likely to encourage staff to stay in their post, to need less sick leave and experience a reduction in stress.
What can we do as individual employees?
The great news is that meditation and compassion are trainable skills. We can learn to work with our thoughts and emotions in order to achieve a higher degree of wellness at work. The big take-home message from neuroscience our that our brains change according to our experience. As we start to train ourselves in meditation and compassion our brains gradually change to support our new habits.
As we saw earlier, having a sense of being in control at work is a very important factor in wellness and yet for so many of us this seems out of our reach. So much of what we do at work is in response to directives we don’t always agree with, for people with whom we feel we have little in common. The answer here is to learn to take control of ourselves in a fresh and meaningful way. We can pay attention to how we draw on our own strengths, skills and experience. Through training in meditation and compassion we can take control of how we react to any situation—whether it is one we like, or one we have trouble with. We can learn to view our work colleagues in a new light and try giving them the benefit of the doubt rather than feeling frustrated and stressed.
At the heart of it all is learning to view ourselves with kindness and compassion. Instead of demanding an unreachable level of perfection from ourselves we can learn to work with our imperfections and vulnerabilities with mindfulness and kindness. This gives us a stable foundation from which to reach out to other people in the same way.
If you found this blog useful, you could try this online course
9 Ways to Work Better with your Work Frustration
You can find out more here
Very few of us are likely to set out for work with the intention of upsetting people. Mostly we want to do our job well, and get on with our day. How is then that so often we come home in the evening feeling annoyed by an interaction we have had and upset with a colleague? It got me thinking about whether anyone went home in the evening with bad feelings towards me!
Here’s some thoughts I had about ways in which it is possible that I might have got it wrong—without meaning to—and upset people at work.
Being too pre-occupied to listen well
Do you get impatient while people are talking to you? Are you tempted to jump in and make their point for them—because you see it already and more clearly than they seem to? Do you have to hold yourself back from interrupting?
The thing that I have come to notice is that people feel your impatience and it makes them uneasy. They don’t take it as a statement on your state of mind but on their performance and it makes them feel that they don’t have your full attention—which makes them less able to get their message across and increases your impatience.
These days I try to see listening as part of my meditation practice—part of being present, awake and curious. You miss so much by thinking you already know what someone wants to say, or by responding too quickly and cutting them off.
When we can allow someone the space to say what they want to say we are creating trust and communicating respect—so we are fostering harmonious relationships. We are creating opportunities to exchange useful information and to explore problems, which will help to boost creativity in our team.
Taking people for granted
It’s only human to want to feel appreciated at work. A recent survey found that 66% of employees said they would quit their jobs if they felt unappreciated. This figure jumped to 76% among millennials.
It’s all too easy, when you are busy, to push ahead in order to get the job done and to overlook how people feel they are being treated. Of course, this is intensified if you are in any kind of managerial role, with people reporting to you.
In his book. 365 Thanks Yous, John Kralik tells the story of how he turned his life around by writing a thank you note to a different person every day for a year. Finding himself at a critical point in his life, he wanted to try and focus on what was good in his life, rather than what was going wrong. One of the stories that always sticks in my mind is the day he wrote a thank you note to his server in his local Starbucks. At first the guy thought he was being handed a letter of complaint and then he was amazed at being so beautifully thanked for something he did over and over again all-day long.
A lot of my work is carried out at a distance—through SKYPE, email, and online courses. Yet I find the power of appreciation is not diminished by distance. It shows you have noticed the effort someone has made, and you are the better for it. You need to do it because it feels right, if you are hoping for something in return it can get messy.
Talking about people behind their back
It can be seductive and oddly flattering to be pulled into a session of bad-mouthing your boss, or a fellow worker. For a while you can feel that you are accepted, and one of the in-crowd. You are being trusted to hear and share in the discontent someone is feeling. We all do it from time to time but when it happens as a routine part of each working day it can become unhealthy and potentially hurtful.
This was brought home to me very strongly during the years that I worked as part of the Executive Board of an international non-profit. I was the only woman on the team of four and many of our staff and volunteers in the national teams were women. Unfortunately, for some people I was an object of some envy and resentment. I was too slow to understand this and took too long to take measures to address it. After some time in the job—which I loved—I was told about stories that were circulating about me. Most of them were just inaccurate and came from people’s projections. Others had some truth but were recounted without a shred of empathy or understanding of the challenges that I faced.
I was shocked and devastated for a time but when I calmed down, I saw this was a great learning opportunity for me. There is nothing like being on the receiving end of gossip and speculation to help rid you of any inclination to engage it in yourself. I would never want someone to feel as I did during that period.
When you gossip about someone behind their back you erode trust. It always seeps out somehow and people come to know you’ve been talking about them. It’s difficult to ask them to trust you after that. Much better to approach someone directly to talk something through that is bothering you.
Not giving someone the benefit of the doubt
Imagine a situation where one of your children wakes up in the night with an upset stomach. You spend hours caring for them, changing sheets, bringing glasses of water and finally drop off to sleep at around 04.30. Your alarm goes off at 07.00. You have a splitting headache but you get out of bed because you are due to present a new project to your team at work at 10.00 that morning. Your child is over the worst but won’t be well enough for school. It takes almost an hour to arrange childcare and now you are late leaving the house. The train is packed and you don’t find a seat. By the time you get to work you are feeling very sorry for yourself but you do your best to give an inspiring presentation. It goes OK but lacks your usual flair and the team is doubtful and critical about the new project.
Your boss asks for a word after the meeting. He/she could take a number of approaches to your disappointing performance. He/she could start off by pointing out how flat you were and how your answers led to more, rather than less confusion. Or he/she could sit you down and ask what was going on and what help you needed to sort this out.
Which approach would you prefer?
When people behave in ways we are disappointed in, or uncomfortable with instead of immediately reacting, we could ask ourselves questions like these:
- what might be going on for this person that I am not aware of?
- what do I know about their situation which might help me to understand what is going on?
- what can I do to support them?
These questions open a dialogue, which could lead to a solution of the difficulty, rather than an angry exchange.
Forgetting to include people
If we feel excluded from an event, we might say that our feelings were hurt. Neuroscience is showing that this might be more accurate than we thought. Research shows that the same area of the brain—the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex—is active when we process emotional/social pain, as when we feel physical pain, say from catching our finger in a door.
Our ancestors evolved to live in groups because they understood that the resulting protection was essential for survival. A sense of wanting to belong is hardwired in us and when we don’t feel we are included, then our threat response is triggered and we can become anxious, and uncooperative. The activation of the stress response uses resources that would normally go to the pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain we use for—among other things—problem-solving, and memory. When we are under stress, we are more likely to make inaccurate assumptions.
It’s this kind of reaction that can lead to someone trying to create their own sense of belonging. This is where potentially toxic behaviours such as gossiping, cynicism, and forming cliques can come in.
It makes good sense at every level to foster an environment of openness and inclusivity in your workplace. It helps to make sure information is easily accessible, and people feel encouraged to comment and feedback on work processes. Ensuring all views are heard in meetings, welcoming and supporting new and younger staff is important. Then there are the small everyday events that can have such a big impact on people. Things as ordinary as remembering to make coffee for all members of your team, including everyone in your morning greeting and spreading your invitation to lunch widely. All this helps to create a sense of inclusivity and belonging.
Being too anxious to trust a colleague
Few employees enjoy being micromanaged. It leads to people feeling not trusted, undervalued and over-controlled. It is also exhausting for the person trying to micromanage. If you are continuously looking over your shoulder to check on what each member of your team is doing, you never have enough time and energy to do your own work. It’s a self-defeating process. The more you micromanage someone, the further it saps their creativity, ending up with them increasingly dependent on you.
No-one wants to be an irritating manager. Micromanaging is often rooted in an anxiety about one’s own abilities, and an insecurity around your position. Perfectionism usually part of the mix—not having the confidence to let people have the space to experiment and even to fail. Instead you feel bound to monitor each step of the way, so you can check for anything unexpected along the way. You are afraid to fail yourself, and so you project it on to everyone working with you.
One way of lessening your own anxiety and allowing an employee to feel valued is to ease up you focus on doing. Micromanaging is worst around getting things done and achieving the right goals. Of course, we need to do that but not at the expense of being. If we are paying attention to how we are when we take on a task, rather than simply on getting the task done—then we might be open to starting a dialogue with the people we work with. We might consider asking them to give feedback on how we manage, or to share what they feel are their main skills. It can be possible to ask if, or where they feel blocked. Perhaps it would be possible to share some of your own concerns and to talk together about how to work together with more attention to the process of the work.
Opening up the one-way dynamic of micromanaging could hold surprisingly helpful answers for both mangers and staff.
Do you have any stories you would like to add? It is always good to hear from you.
If you find this post helpful, you might like to try this online course:
9 Ways to Cope Better with your Work Frustration
You can find out more here
Are you familiar with the growing popularity of online courses? If you know where to look it is now possible to find a tantalizing variety of learning offered in the form of online courses. Art classes, cookery sessions, language instruction, and all manner of lifestyle topics are now on offer online. It’s an amazing resource!
This year in Awareness in Action we have been delighted to offer our own series of online courses on the topics of self-compassion, working with stress and sustaining your meditation practice. We have several more exciting ideas in the pipeline.
My own exposure to online courses started a few years back when I was asked to facilitate a series of course programmes run by a meditation group in the States. I was immediately sold on the idea when I connected with the people taking the courses and the degree of passion and commitment they brought to their learning. It was this energy that we aim to bring to our own courses in Awareness in Action.
If you have never taken an online course you might have all kinds of assumptions about how they work and how much time they need. In this blog post I want to spell out six inspiring reasons why taking an online course could really work for you—while at the same time being upfront about when they won’t!
Reason 1: the high degree of personal attention each participant receives
We all know how it can be difficult to be heard in a large workshop, where the most confident and articulate people all too easily get the lion’s share of attention. This is not the case with an online course. Each person gets to send in their comments and postings and the facilitator answers each one individually and in depth. When the course facilitator is an expert in their field, this means that every posting becomes a 1-2-1 exchange in which the participant can benefit first-hand from the person who has the answers to their issues. With our courses, you can book SKYPE sessions as an extra if you want to go deeper.
Reason 2: online courses are so accessible
Taking part in an evening class can be a great experience but inevitably there comes an evening when it’s raining, you’ve had a rotten day at work and you just want to go home and have a hot, relaxing bath. Once you’ve missed one session it’s harder to turn up the next week and your participation starts to come unstuck.
This problem simply does not exist with online courses. If you have a good internet connection and a reliable device you can access your course anytime and anywhere. Even if you have to take a work trip, you can still work on your assignment.
Reason 3: online courses help to improve your resumé
Given the fluid nature of the current job market it’s more important than ever to show that you are interested in developing skills that will help you do your job well. The scope of online courses is widening every day and there are many topics to choose from. Even if a course does not include a certificate of completion you can request one at the end of the course and the facilitator will put one together for you that you can include on your cv. This applies equally to younger employees starting out on their career as well as experienced people who want to demonstrate that they wish to keep learning and up-to-date.
Reason 4: being part of a dedicated online community
At the beginning of this piece I mentioned how inspiring I had found it to work with groups of students on online courses. I know of people who have ‘met’ on an online course and arranged to go on to to others so they can stay together as a group. Even now, I am still in touch with people who I have never actually met but who have taken several courses with me.
When you join an online course you have the option to become part of a dedicated group of like-minded people who are interested in some of the things you are interested in. The possibilities for an exchange of views and experiences are endless.
In addition, an online community can act as a support to your individual learning. It’s reassuring to share struggles and insights with people going through the same programme as you are.
Reason 5: online courses are designed to fit into your life
We are all busy people, so we need our learning to come in short, practical modules in order to be able to fit it into our already over-packed schedules.
In Awareness in Action courses, each course is divided into topics and each topic becomes a lesson. However, we go further and break down each lesson into a series of activities, which give the details of each topic. We advise between one and a half and two hours for a lesson. If you find you don’t have that much time to sit with the course in one go, then you have the option to cover a number of activities depending on the time you have available. In that way, you can keep the thread of the course and progress at your own pace.
Reason 6: online courses are great value for money
Given all this, plus the fact that for many online courses you have access to the materials for as long as you wish, their cost is manageable for a wide range of potential participants. Most courses offer a basic fee, with bonuses for early bird sign up. If you want individual coaching you have the option to sign up for more elaborate packages that include these options.
….. and four things to avoid
Anyone wanting to create a vibrant, enthusiastic online course following is only interested in their participants being inspired, and satisfied by their online experience. Over the least year I have seen a few ways in which people can inadvertently undermine their online experience and end up feeling disappointed. Here are four of them.
Avoid signing up when you are about to be extra busy
It’s tempting when you see a course that feels just right for you and you just want to get started—you just want to jump right in and sign up. My advice is to take a moment to check your schedule and make sure this is the right time for you to start a course. If you are about to go on a major work trip, or have a baby, or support your kids through their GCSEs then it might be good to wait until the next time the course is offered. Most courses are offered two, or even three times a year. We might think that we can fit in a few minutes of course time in between—and in the general run of a busy life you can—but when it is something major, you will just be too absorbed in what you have to do. The course will fade to a vague feeling of guilt and fizzle out and that’s a pity.
Avoid signing up if you are in crisis
Another time to double check is if you are going through a challenging time. Perhaps you are under a lot of pressure at work and think that a course on mindfulness in the workplace is just what you need. Or you have been involved in a big run-in with your boss and you want to take a course on self-compassion to help you regain your equilibrium. If you are ready, then that is fine and the course could help you get through what you are dealing with in a constructive way. Just check that you are not still too involved in the challenge and having to give a lot of energy to managing it. The risk here is that course will come to seem like a possible lifeline that you are just too stressed and worried to access. Then you will have a wistful sense that you have lost out again and this will add to your sense of crisis.
Avoid riding on someone else’s inspiration
Last January one of my courses was advertised at a New Year’s Meditation retreat and I was delighted to see several people sign up. Just as the date for registration passed I received an urgent email from someone who had just got home from the retreat and wanted to sign up with her friends, ‘to keep the inspiration going’ she said. Wanting to help I made the necessary changes to the registration process and she signed up for one of the more expensive coaching options. She managed the first few lessons and one of her allocated Skype sessions but then it was time to go back to work. In spite of my best efforts to keep her connected and to allow her extra time to work with the materials her participation became more sporadic and soon fell away altogether.
I realized that she had been caught up in the enthusiasm of the retreat group for the online course and had not really made her own choice to commit to the material. It’s a shame, because she will be much less enthusiastic to sign up for another course after this experience.
Avoid signing up for more than one course at a time
Occasionally I come across what I call a ‘professional course-taker’—someone who signs up for everything you have on offer and then does not complete anything fully. This type of person might also have signed up for your courses and courses from other providers at the same time. It’s wonderful to have so much enthusiasm but generally it is hard to convert into quality learning on any of the chosen courses. As has already been said—most course programmes run tow or three times a year, so there is plenty of time to cover all the ground that you wish to cover.
Perhaps some of you reading this blog have already got experience of taking online courses. If so, it would be great to hear how you benefitted and if you have any more ‘things to avoid’ to add to my list. Do be in touch and share your experience.
If you are interested to try an online course, we have a meditation course for beginners running continuously—How To Start Meditation in a Way That Will Last.
You can sign up any time. The link is here
A few weeks ago, my partner and I were out with some friends for dinner. We had not seen them for a while and we had a lot to talk about. On top of that, one of the friends was going through a bit of a tough time and needed support—which we happy to give, except that the people at the table behind us were celebrating and extremely noisy. It was one of those weird situations where you found yourself raising your voice to talk about delicate things. I found myself beginning to experience what I can only describe as ‘restaurant rage’.
I was focused on our small group at our table and found myself glancing over my shoulder in increasing irritation at the thoughtlessness of the noisy crowd behind me. It seemed to be that they were inconsiderate and thoughtless, with no care for the enjoyment of the other diners.
Eventually, after a while, a sense of doubt set in. How was my behaviour any different? I wanted things quiet and peaceful so my friends and I could have the environment we wanted. The celebrators wanted to have a good time. I wanted things one way and they wanted them another. Why did I assume that my way was best? Why did I feel entitled to it?
It got me thinking about how our default position is so often to want others to change to fit in with how we want things to be. It is so much harder to change our own behaviour to be able to manage the challenging situation more effectively.
What follows are my ideas about how to manage a situation like this next time it comes up. I live in a city; noisy restaurants are common—so turning restaurant rage into kindness seems like a good investment.
Take care of your irritation
If you are going to change the way you are reacting you need to give yourself some time to realise you are irritated and then to calm down. I usually find a few long, slow breaths will do it. No-one needs to notice—you can just rest your attention on your breath for a few moments until you feel yourself coming back.
The next thing is to get a handle on what is actually happening, rather than what you imagine is happening. In my dinner example, the party at the nearby table were not nasty people on a mission to spoil my evening—there just wanted to enjoy themselves.
With this perspective, it’s easier to remember that it’s not all about you. You have the right to want things to go the way you wish but then so does everyone else. Sometimes things go your way, sometimes they go another person’s way. There’s not a lot we can do to change that and getting irritated about it just makes you miserable.
Pay attention to the sound without the storyline
It’s possible to use sound as a support for meditation. Of course, if you are in a restaurant you might not want to go off into a corner for a meditation session but you can still use the principle. Just notice the sounds around you, without judging and without building a storyline about them. You could call it a Teflon relation to sound—just notice it with your full attention but without commentary. Going back again to my restaurant example—I immediately made a story about my friend and I needing quiet and the people nearby ruining it with their noise. Thinking back, it’s quite likely they were not even particularly aware of us.
We relate to the world through our senses but we do have a choice as to how we are with the information they provide. We don’t always have to react.
If you find it hard to make meditation a regular part of your life, remember that yoga can also help you to find some inner peace. Yoga is a way to relax, unwind, and become one with everything around you. It can help you to develop resilience in the same way that meditation can.
Enjoy other people’s pleasure
When you get annoyed with the behaviour of other people your stress levels rise and you feel uncomfortable. In the restaurant, I could feel myself getting tight with trying to block out the noisy table.
A totally different approach is to notice joy when it is happening around you and to allow it to nourish you.
This might involve dropping your own agenda and simply opening to the enjoyment of others. It could mean that instead of protecting yourself, you allow yourself to open to the happiness of other people. It does not have to be your happiness but it can lift your heart just the same.
Always wish them well
The last of these remedies for restaurant rage is wishing people wellbeing and happiness. You may have heard of Loving Kindness Meditation. It’s a meditation focused on wishing happiness and wellbeing for yourself, for people close to you, for people you do not know so well and even for people you find challenging.
Even if you are not familiar with the whole meditation, you can still focus on a person, or group of people and in your mind, say something like, May you be happy, may you be well. I find it a great exercise to do when I am in crowded places and there are many people. It brings me a feeling of ease.
Do you have any tips for turning rage into kindness in city life? If you do please add them in the comments section.
The evidence for being kind at work
For some time scientific research has been making the case for being kind at work. Now, increasingly work-based studies are also encouraging making kindness a conscious part of any workplace culture.
The science shows that being kind can improve heart function, lower blood pressure, slow aging and strengthen our immune systems. The author and scientist, David R. Hamilton explains that through the production of the hormone, oxytocin and the neurotransmitter, serotonin our levels of wellbeing are raised. Anxiety, stress and depression can all be reduced through preforming genuine acts of kindness. In his ground-breaking book, The Healing Power of Doing Good, Allan Luks documented the good feeling that you get from helping others and which is now referred to as the Helpers’ High.
Being kind at work builds on all these health benefits but goes further. Because kindness nurtures our instinct to connect, it helps to build better relationships and produce more effective teamwork. Whereas negativity tends to limit our scope and bring us down, kindness inspires and elevates us. It is also a key to successful innovation because people feel heard and valued and less afraid to suggest new and interesting ideas.
So why is kindness not part of every training programme and top of every staff development initiative? The answer is that although all the evidence points to its effectiveness, we still feel that being actively kind at work will leave us over-exposed and vulnerable.
A personal story
Last week I had to go along for my quarterly check-up with the rheumatology consultant. Over the years, I have had a series of doctors helping me. This was my second appointment with this new doctor and the extraordinary thing was that I came away feeling better than when I went in. There had not been any break-through, or outstanding good news but I felt heard, respected, seen and understood. The doctor had been alert, well-informed, and fully aware—and she had been kind. Her kindness was empathic but not sticky; practical but warm and most of all, she saw me as another human being.
It got me thinking about why we are so cautious about being kind at work. I came up with five reasons.
We are not always present and aware
In my story with the doctor I mentioned that she was alert and fully aware. In my experience, when people are operating from a sense of awareness, they see themselves and other people, as well as the situation they find themselves with more clarity. This gives a sense of confidence which makes showing kindness easier.
The thing is that we are not always present and aware. Research carried out at Harvard University in 2010 shows that for almost 47% of our waking hours we are thinking about something different to what we are doing. Our tendency for our minds to wander away undermines our ability to be fully present and tends to muddy our view of what we are doing, and how we are doing it.
Meditation is one of the most effective ways of working with our minds and increasing our awareness.
Stress narrows our focus
Although our brains are hard-wired for kindness, these impulses can get blocked when we are over-focused on ourselves. The pressure of the daily round at work can increase our stress levels and make this tendency worse.
When we are stressed and overwhelmed at work, then we tend to operate on survival mode. This means that we focus on managing what we need to do to get through each day. Our focus narrows and we are not inspired to reach out to others, or to try and see things from a different perspective.
It is very hard to inspire a culture of kindness in a workplace where people are overwhelmed and burnt-out.
There is often insufficient leadership culture to support kindness
It would be hard to over-state the importance of a leadership in building a culture of kindness in a workplace. Jonathan Haidt has researched something he calls elevation, or a heightened sense of wellbeing. Elevation happens when we see someone being kind to someone else—we do not even need to be involved ourselves. When a leader is fair, supportive and interested in his/her team then his/her employees experienced an increase in wellbeing. Remember that the actions of a leader are magnified by all the people they are responsible for. Their every action takes on additional importance. An ethical and people-focused boss who takes time to get to know people and their concerns will instil a greater sense of loyalty and commitment in the people they manage. In addition, people will be more likely to be kind and supportive of others. The knock-on effect is powerful.
We think we don’t have time for kindness
We can think that being kind at work is going to take extra time and effort and that there is not enough space for it at work.
A study carried out at Princeton Theological Seminary tells an interesting story. A group of divinity students were told they were going to deliver a practice sermon. Half the students were given the topic of the Good Samaritan and the other were given random topics. One by one they were told to go and deliver their sermon—some were told to hurry, others were told they were late, a third group was allowed to go at their own pace. As they went from one building to another they passed a person (an actor) lying on the floor in distress and calling for help. More than 60% of the students failed to stop and help—whether they were going to speak on the parable of the Good Samaritan or not. The deciding factor in whether someone offered to help or not was how much of a hurry they thought they were in. Only 10% of those advised to rush stopped to help, whereas 63% of those who thought they had time stopped to help.
We are afraid that kindness will make us vulnerable
All too often we assume a more public persona when we go to work. We keep our ‘private self’ for when we are at home, and with people who care about us. Somehow we worry that kindness will undermine this shield we throw up around our deeper feelings and interests. If we appear vulnerable we are afraid that will leave us exposed. Author and researcher Brené Brown gave one of the most successful TED talks of all time on the Power of Vulnerability.
Judging from the millions of people who have viewed her talk, she touched on something very deep and vital for our wellbeing.
She believes that the ability to be vulnerable is the key to authenticity and to what she calls, wholehearted living. Certainly is a workplace setting, vulnerability is a key to fostering innovation because it helps to create an environment where people feel safe to challenge set ways of thinking and bring in new ideas. It can also improve motivation, teamwork and positive identification with leadership.
Some strategies we can try out straight away
Meditation helps us to calm down and settle, however busy we are. It brings us back in touch with ourselves and enables us to be more aware of ourselves and other people. From that place, kindness comes naturally.
Here’s a simple meditation that I often use in workshops:
Sit comfortably—relaxed and yet alert
Check in with your body and ease any tight spots
Check in with your mood—how are you feeling?
—Don’t judge, just notice
Become aware of your breathing
—stay with where the sensation is most vivid for you
—rest your mind on your breathing
—notice changes in the breath
—again, don’t judge – just notice
Notice when the mind is not on the breathing
—lightly notice where it has gone
—gently bring it back to the breath
—begin again as if for the first time
Continue for 5, or 10 minutes
2. Just Like Me exercise
This exercise is adapted from an exercise of the same name in the book, Search Inside Yourself. It is a reminder that whatever our differences, fundamentally we are all in the same boat.
- Sit comfortably
- Take a few gentle breaths and then just rest your attention on your breath for a few moments
- When you are settled, bring to mind someone that you work with and think about them in this way:
—this person has a body and mind, just like me
—this person has feelings, emotions and thoughts, just like me
—this person has, at some point in his/her life, been sad, disappointed, angry, hurt, or confused, just like me
—This person has in his/her life experienced physical and emotional pain and suffering, just like me
—this person wishes to be free from suffering and pain, just like me
—this person wishes to be healthy and loved, and to have fulfilling relationships, just like me
This person wishes to be happy, just like me
- So what would you wish for this person?
—I wish for this person to have the strength, the resources, and the emotional and social support to navigate the difficulties in life
—I wish for this person to be free from suffering and pain
—I wish for this person to be happy
—Because this person is a human being, just like me
3. The Kindness Formula
This is an adaptation of a Kindness Formula that we use often in Awareness in Action. It acts as a reminder to be kind.
Make it a habit to do at least three kinds things every day
- one for yourself
- one for someone at work
- one for your work environment
Here are a few suggestions for kind things for someone at work:
- Say good morning and smile
- Make someone a cup of coffee
- Praise someone for a job well done
- Make sure the boss knows when someone does well
- If you see someone about to make a mistake, try and help them out
Here are a few suggestions for kind things for your work environment:
- Avoid spreading rumours about people in your workplace
- Start the week well by bringing in a treat for the team on a Monday
- Start up a meditation group in the lunch hour
- Bring in flowers
- Make sure to wash your coffee cup
4. A suggestion for a team exercise
Have people sit together in pairs for 15 minutes and share with each other something about their life that their colleague would not have known otherwise.
If you have enjoyed this blog and are interested to start a meditation practice of your own, you might like to check out this online course that I offer. You can find out more here
Many people that I work with tell me that they have so much to do at work that they cannot manage. They feel overwhelmed, and that there is never enough time. They never get to finish something properly because the next thing has already started. I have one friend whose boss schedules her meetings to happen two at a time—how is she supposed to handle that?
The trouble is that when you work this much it is hard to feel a real satisfaction in what you are doing because everything is moving so fast. This undermines our sense of accomplishment at work, as well as our personal wellbeing. It is also not a sustainable way to work and could all too easily lead to burn-out. It simply does not produce the best results.
So, what can we do about feeling overwhelmed at work?
Let’s look first at what we can do about how we are with ourselves—our attitudes and assumptions.
Celebrate your capacity
When we are free to work in our own way, we have a tremendous capacity. The trouble comes when we are at work, following someone else’s schedule. If we feel we are being asked to do too much, or work in a way that feels too intense, then we more easily feel stretched and overwhelmed.
This sense that things are not in our control is a major factor in building up stress. It helps if we can find ways that we can take control and being able to freely access our own capacity is one way to do this. So, don’t react to work overload by trying to protect yourself and limiting your own capacity. It’s energizing to connect with your capacity and to celebrate it. If we drop our worries about achieving everything we need to achieve, ironically, we can do so much more.
When we can connect with our full capacity then it is a natural step to allow our inspiration to blossom. Can you remember what attracted you to the work you are doing now in the first place? Go back and recall why you wanted your present job. Take a few moments to savor the reasons and then look at how you are working now. Is there any of the previous inspiration that you can inject into your current situation? Has your job evolved from when you started with it? Identify what keeps you doing it and allow those insights to inspire you.
When we get up each morning to go to work, we need reasons that continue to make sense for us. Make sure that you know what your reasons are.
Give up trying to be perfect
Let’s face it—there is the work we are asked to do and then there is the way that we do it. Most of us have a lot invested in our working life. It’s where we get to do something that we hope will be of benefit in the world and we want to give of our best. Sadly, that can often mean that we ask way too much of ourselves. It’s one thing to have a demanding boss—at least we can moan about it later—but when it ourselves driving us, that is harder to deal with.
So, in looking at how to deal with overwhelm at work, we need to see that perfectionism is a frustratingly unattainable goal. In fact, we even need to allow ourselves to make mistakes sometimes.
I love this quote from Thomas Edison,
I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
A lot of the time we want to be perfect so that people will approve of us and accept us as being worthy of their attention. It tends to come from a place of insecurity. Edison’s approach turns all this on its head—making mistakes is an essential part of learning and growth. Adopting this approach releases a lot of the pressure we are putting on ourselves. We don’t need to add to our stress levels by trying to achieve something that doesn’t exist in the first place.
Come home to yourself
We each need to find a way that enables us to find a place of ease with ourselves. When we are too busy and feeling overwhelmed, we tend to be focusing our energy outwards, looking for ways to cope. Having a simple, accessible way connect with ourselves at anytime, anywhere will help us to puncture the feeling of being overwhelmed.
This is what I do—I call it a STOP MOMENT.
Take a few deep breaths
Pay attention to your body—do you have any tight places, are you tired?
Check in on your mood—how are you feeling?
At each stage, just pay attention. Don’t try to change anything. Don’t judge.
Rest your attention on your breath.
Try to keep it there for a few moments.
Continue with what you were doing.
Try doing several of these during the day—especially when you feel busy. It only needs to take a couple of moments but each Stop Moment will help to ease your tension.
With your boss
It will often be our boss that we feel is one the causing us to have such a heavy schedule. Here’s a few ideas of how we can tackle him/her. A lot will depend on what kind of a person our boss is—receptive or dogmatic; open or insecure? Whatever the case, it’s worth trying these simple steps to see if you can improve conditions for yourself.
You owe to yourself and your boss to communicate as clearly as possible. If we are nervous and afraid of offending then we will be unlikely to give a clear account of how we are experiencing our workload and the effect it is having on our productivity.
If you are already using the strategies listed above to do with working with ourselves, it is going to be easier to find a good place to talk to our boss. To do your job well, you need to be able to say what helps you to achieve at your highest capacity. Maybe your boss won’t listen. Maybe they will think they know better but you need to feel that you have done all you can. If it will help, document your concerns and keep them on file. Who knows when they might come in useful to put your case.
Stand your ground
Don’t wait for a crisis to put your position across. The danger is that you will be emotional and reactive and the exchange could easily get heated. If you prepare well and can give examples that support your case, you will have more chance of success
Any attempt to point out something to your boss that they might not want to hear is going to be a challenge. Remember that you are wanting to do your best at work and the suggestions you are making will help to contribute to that in your view. If you can stand your ground with a certain confidence it will make a more convincing case for your boss. Standing your ground does not need to be assertive, it can simply be reasonable and well-argued.
Put yourself in their shoes
This is very important. If you can enter the conversation—or series of conversations—with your boss having thought carefully about how things are for them, they will feel less defensive. You will be coming from a place of understanding and they will feel that. We all appear to be very different, with our own individual interests and goals. However, when we scratch the surface we don’t have to look too far to find common ground. We all want things to go well and we don’t want things to get messed up and cause problems. Just as you want to give of your beset at work, so does your boss. Perhaps you have different ways of showing it but deep down you want the same thing.
If you can spend some time reflecting on what your boss is facing and how they might be feeling it help you to broaden your attitude towards them. We all like to be understood and if you can demonstrate some knowledge of the challenges your boss is facing then they will feel more secure in listening to your concerns.
With your team
It’s pretty likely that the team you work with is also feeling overwhelmed at work and challenged by the amount of work that needs to be accomplished. Working together with your colleagues to find ways of easing your joint burden is a good investment. Remember, it’s not just about reducing your own feelings of stress and over-work but creating a more sustainable working environment.
All too often the way we listen is clouded by our own agenda. Recently I came across an article introducing the HEAR system of listening and found it relevant and easy to remember.
Halt whatever you are doing and offer your full attention.
Enjoy a breath as you choose to receive whatever is being communicated to you—wanted or unwanted.
Ask yourself if you really know what they mean and if you don’t, ask for clarification. Instead of making assumptions, bring openness and curiosity to the interaction. You might be surprised at what you discover.
Reflect back to them what you heard. This tells them that you were really listening.
If people feel properly heard it is already a way of cutting through feeling overwhelmed because something in us is reassured by knowing that someone else has really listened to us and understands how we are feeling.
It’s a funny thing about kindness—we may feel that it is all about reaching out to other people and enabling them to feel better but research shows that kindness benefits ourselves as well. When we show kindness to other we feel better about ourselves and our own wellbeing is enhanced. On top of that—kindness is contagious. If we see other people being kind to each other—even when we are not involved—we also feel better. All too often when we feel under pressure, our expression of kindness goes out of the window. We feel it is just one step too far. The science tells a different story, so however busy you feel, make time for small acts of kindness at work. It will help you as well as the people you are being kind to.
Avoid stress addiction
When everyone is very busy and things are tough, it is all too easy to become attached to our own stress as a kind of badge of honour—I must be doing a good job, look how stressed I am!
Some years ago, I worked in a tough inner London school where the challenges were certainly plentiful but the teachers made it all much worse by bonding together over how stressed they were. It became impossible to show happiness with your work because you were considered to be letting the side down, or not trying hard enough.
Stress closes things down and makes it harder to change the situation. Although it is inevitable that we will feel stressed from time to time we can try to maintain a sense of humour about it as well!
With your work environment
We have looked at how to cope with feeling overwhelmed with yourself, with your boss and with your team but let’s finish by taking a few moments by looking at your work environment. Each of us might relate to our work environment as ‘something out there’ that we can do little about—whereas the truth is that each one of us has a big impact on it.
Slow things down
It might sound counter-intuitive but when things are moving fast, it helps to slow down a little. It is all too easy to get caught up in the whirl of activity and lose our ground.
We already mentioned focusing on our breath as a way of settling ourselves when things intense. It is a skillful way of slowing ourselves down without becoming distracted. Simply take a few deep breaths when you feel overwhelmed and then carry on with your activity. It provides a brief moment to regroup.
Be in the present
When we are harried and overworked it is all too easy to worry about what we need to do and to keep going back over what we have already done and check that we got it right. Going a little slower, using our breath to enable us to focus both help us to stop ruminating and worrying and to be more in the present moment—which is the only moment we can do anything about.
Remember to smile. Pressure can make us grimace and look severe—whether we feel that way or not. When people see us smiling we appear accessible and they are reassured.
If you found this blog useful you might like to try this online course
How to Make Your Stress Benefit You: an online course that shows how to make the best of your stress.
You can find out all about it here