Why SA corporates are training employees to wake up to the present

Raizcorp CEO Allon Raiz.
Raizcorp CEO Allon Raiz.

Faced with at least two glowing screens and reams of unanswered messages at any given moment, today’s office workers are spinning. 

Despite the fact that technology and it's promise of mobility were sold as a force for productivity and efficiency, many accomplished professionals are finding themselves more overwhelmed than they have ever been.

Workplace gurus and management experts often put this down to an ever-quickening pace of life and work, and to the constant demands that our mobile devices place on us. 

Indeed, modern workers are armed with connectivity and smart devices, but they appear to lack the know-how to find a sustainable balance between their digital work lives and their everyday happiness.

In response to this conundrum, major corporates – predominantly in the US – have turned to the age-old practice of mindfulness. 

In essence, by teaching both leaders and employees the traditional techniques of meditation and staying in the present moment, organisations hope to tackle the epidemic of burnout and exhaustion that now affects workers worldwide.

In South Africa, local business leaders are looking more closely at the concept, with some already exploring ways to follow the examples set by the likes of Google and Apple Inc. Every year, thousands of Google employees take courses in mindfulness. 

The most popular course, "Search Inside Yourself", was first taught in 2007 and reportedly has a waiting list regularly exceeding six months.

A bottom-line issue

Far more than just a corporate perk or New Age experiment, leaders are turning to mindfulness as a way to tackle a trend that is already affecting performance and long-term business sustainability.

“The massively increased pace and complexity of work over the last five years – together with expectations of employees to be ‘always on’, means that people are more stressed, more anxious, and more overwhelmed than ever before,” explains Debbie Goodman-Bhyat, CEO of executive search firm Jack Hammer and the author of InTheFlow – Taking Mindfulness to Work.

According to Goodman-Bhyat, this is translating into decreased engagement and productivity, which ultimately impacts the corporate bottom line.

“That alone – the commercial impact – has given cause for some of the world’s top organisations to recognise the need to address these issues,” she says.

“Of course, companies who place care and investment in people and their well-being as their key imperative are also desperately looking for ways to support their employees. Mindfulness has emerged as ‘the answer’ to address these issues sustainably.”

Apart from the popularity of courses and programmes offered at Google and other corporate juggernauts such as Goldman Sachs and Salesforce, numerous studies have reported a link between mindfulness training and reduced stress, improved focus, better emotional control and enhanced emotional intelligence. All of which contribute to better performances and individual results in the workplace.

“Mindfulness is a respected and acknowledged global movement, pioneered by PhD Professor of Medicine Emeritus, Jon Kabat-Zinn,” adds Goodman-Bhyat. “It is increasingly becoming mainstream, and a growing number of top leaders are starting to incorporate mindfulness-based practices and principles in their personal and professional lives.”

She notes that in South Africa, several companies are pioneering pilot projects and testing the waters.

“I anticipate that we are going to see some momentum gathering in this regard in the next short while, based on the number of executives being exposed to mindfulness in executive MBA programmes both locally and abroad,” explains Goodman-Bhyat.  

Presence is more profitable

Allon Raiz, CEO of South African business incubator Raizcorp, told finweek that he has been incorporating the practice in his own life for many years, and has more recently introduced it within the Raizcorp ecosystem.

“As entrepreneurs, we are always dwelling on the past and dreaming about the future,” says Raiz. “In meetings, for example, if you are not able to be present, you will miss key opportunities because you are not deeply listening to what the person is saying and thus missing the nuances in the words that present the opportunities.”

According to Raiz, by learning to be more mindful or present in each moment, you will naturally approach every professional engagement with a higher level of empathy. You will be able to really hear and understand what the business problem or challenge is, instead of just working from your preconceived ideas.

“We grow small businesses, and part of ?their formal training with us involves learning how to be present and how to listen,” adds Raiz. “At the beginning of staff Raizcorp meetings, ?we have a formal process around being present and mindful.”

Although Raiz says that he is noticing take-up of some form of mindfulness training amongst local businesses, he cautions against the tendency to use it as a “solution for all things”.

“There are corporates picking up the practice, but many are using it as an ‘ointment’ on the top, as opposed to really weaving the concept into the culture of the organisation,” he says.

Goodman-Bhyat of Jack Hammer echoes this sentiment, noting that mindfulness training is not a “quick fix”.

“While the benefits of both formal (meditation-based) and informal applications of mindfulness principles can be experienced within weeks, this is the complete antithesis to the ‘instant gratification mode’ that we’ve come to expect from trying out new things,” she cautions.  

Tips to incorporate mindfulness in the workplace

Debbie Goodman-Bhyat, author of  InTheFlow – Taking Mindfulness to Work, makes the following recommendations:

- Find a mindfulness trainer to offer an 8-week programme to staff (preferably the leaders of the company). Contact the Institute for Mindfulness South Africa (Imisa).

- Consider introducing mindfulness-based programmes like “InTheFlow” (no meditation involved). Details can be found in InTheFlow – Taking Mindfulness to Work.

 - Introduce behaviours that help employees to be more present and focused (e.g.: discourage multi-tasking; disallow texting and emailing in meetings; encourage conversations with no interruptions – the list is endless).

- Promote and introduce mindfulness apps, such as Headspace.

This article originally appeared in the 15 June edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.

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