In our multitasking, constantly connected, digitally dependent, information overloaded, stressed-out lives, it is little wonder that executives often leave the office frazzled, disillusioned, depressed even.

A recent Harvard study found workers are mentally off-task for 47 percent of the time, while the World Health Organisation estimates that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy US$1 trillion each year.

Rasmus Hougaard, of New York-based Potential Project, a global provider of leadership and organisational effectiveness programmes, believes our ability to focus is under attack.

A plethora of mindfulness apps, practical guides, meditation workshops and counselling courses exist to help combat what Hougaard calls the ‘Attention Economy’.

Thanks to a growing body of neuroscience-based research, business leaders are beginning to embrace them too. Potential Project alone now trains 450 firms globally, compared to just 100 a few years ago.

Mindfulness training not only brings the peace and calm associated with the Eastern tradition of meditation but also makes shrewd business sense. By reducing stress, fewer work days are lost to ill health. Learning how to clear your head and focus boosts effectiveness and productivity. Learning to be a better listener and communicator is good for both client and staff relations. Improved creativity and strategic thinking come from having a better work/life balance.

“Corporations don’t implement it as a means of reducing stress or as part of their wellness programmes. They do it to give people more balance, more effectiveness, a sense of purpose and intrinsic motivation,” says Hougaard.

One of its biggest champions is global consultancy Accenture, which two years ago scrapped annual performance reviews for its 400,000 staff, recognising that two-thirds of its workers were millennials, largely uninterested in salary, or how well or badly they were performing. What they cared about was making a positive contribution and having a meaningful job.

Denmark-based Rob Stembridge, Accenture’s Technology & Application Services Lead for Financial Services in the Nordics, is about to launch the firm’s mindfulness programme across the entire company.

“I’ve been at Accenture for 20 years, and a company like Accenture doesn’t do things on this kind of scale unless there is a very strong business case. We’re a people business. Productivity, efficiency and wellbeing are paramount to us. Science tells us 47 percent of the time we are distracted. Even if we assume the brilliant Accenture staff are only 20 percent off task, multiply that by 400,000 and the number can get extremely large.

“Mindfulness is linked very strongly to the technological vision that we have. So, once you get over the embedded cynicism in organisations, it’s quite powerful. I see a lot of larger organisations now asking: ‘What’s the programme? How did you do this? How did you get over the difficulties of starting this? How do you get people to open up to take it on?’”

Stembridge cites three vital ingredients for success. Firstly, having the right terminology for the right organisation is paramount. Accenture offices in Denmark have brain training rooms, whereas in Finland they are meditation or mindfulness rooms. “It’s about being able to crash through that initial scepticism barrier,” he says.

Secondly, facts and figures are also vital to business leaders. Finally, you must have a strong business advocate. “People need to see others showing that this is more than something that has been made up to make them feel happy about going to work.”

At global law firm Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF), mindful meditation grew out of accretion as long as 15 years ago. To deal with the challenges of combining different corporate cultures, McKinsey consultant Michael Rennie advised the firm to embrace meditation if the enlarged group was to work in harmony.

Murray Paterson, Melbourne-based Head of Learning and Development at HSF, says the firm developed a proprietary model with meditation at its heart and has gone on to use mindfulness in leadership programmes for the past 10 years. It is now not uncommon to see partners meditating for 10 minutes every day, and he says the results have been amazing.

“What we learned is that it gives you an opportunity to understand yourself deeply, not just in an intellectual, reflective thinking, analytical way, which lawyers are very good at. If you don’t fundamentally know yourself, how can you know others, lead others, engage with the people and more importantly, your clients?”

After training, anecdotally, HSF partners reported a 45 percent increase in their capacity to focus, 35 percent increase in effectiveness and a 35 percent decrease in stress. “People feel more engaged at work, have a better work-life balance and are more fulfilled,” says Paterson.

Paterson, who is on the advisory team of the third annual Mindful Leadership Forum taking place in Sydney in November, agrees with Stembridge. “In the corporate world if you talk about meditation, many people say stop there, we’re not interested in that crazy hippie stuff, we’re serious business people.” But by calling it mindful leadership training, they engage.

“The whole concept of mindful leadership is relatively new, but is really gathering momentum,” Paterson says. Among this year’s attendees are executives from HSBC, KPMG, Westpac and Toyota. The forum, which has so far attracted more than 1,500 executives from 350 firms, says it is exploring a new era of mindfulness-based leadership.

While Hougaard says CEOs tend not to be interested in mental health issues per se, as more leaders ‘come out’ and share their stories, the momentum for incorporating mental fitness alongside physical fitness in companies’ wellness plans is gathering pace.

Virgin Money Chief Executive Jayne-Anne Gadhia, HSBC Global Management’s head of client strategy Brian Heyworth and former Unilever executive Geoff McDonald are just a few courageous executives who have spoken out about their own depressive periods.

For Geoff McDonald, it is those bosses who treat their employees with the level of care and compassion they normally save for their loved ones that will ultimately reap rewards. It makes sense. In the five years to 2014, there was a near 25 per cent rise to 70 million working days lost to mental illness in the UK, which equates to a £100 billion cost in lost productivity.

In a challenge to employers to address mental health at work, in March, the UK charity Mind held its inaugural Workplace Wellbeing Index Awards. Thirty companies – including Deloitte, HMRC, Jaguar Land Rover, RBC Wealth Management and PepsiCo – representing 15,000 employees were rated according to how well they were looking after their employees’ mental health.

Mind describes the index as the new benchmark of best policy. Head of Workplace Wellbeing, Emma Mamo, says: “Forward-thinking businesses are taking mental health more seriously, showing their staff that they are a responsible employer who values their contribution.” 

Positive initiatives included wellness webinars, the appointment of mental health champions, free meditation sessions, employee assistance programmes, counselling, informal buddying systems and the offer of more flexible working hours.

But there remains much to be done. Of the 15,000 employees surveyed by Mind, only one in four said they would be likely to seek support from their manager. So while there are signs of a tremble in the stiff-upper-lip approach to mental health at work, it seems many employers are still simply paying lip service to it. And as long as employees fear the stigma of speaking out, there will be little chance of breaking the taboo.



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