We had a whole-page article in the Western Mail health supplement today  – see copy below.

western-mail-dec-16Copy of Western Mail “Health Check Wales’ article 5 Dec 2016

According to the HSE in figures released in 2015, stress, depression and anxiety, along with musculoskeletal disorders, accounted for the majority of days lost to work-related ill-health – some 9.5 million days; a 25% rise on the previous year.

On average, 23 days are lost per person, when employees go off sick for stress, depression and anxiety, clocking in higher than musculoskeletal disorders at 17 days.

Mindfulness has been shown, in thousands of studies, to significantly reduce stress. Cardiff-based mindfulness teacher, Simon Michaels explains how mindfulness can help us manage work, and other pressures more effectively:

“Stress is our reaction to the world around us, but we can learn new ways to respond – we have to deal with stresses from the inside out ,” he says.  “Once new reaction patterns are established, we can manage, and indeed flourish, however tough life gets, rather than feel burnt out and helpless.”

“It’s important to say that mindfulness is really simple. If you can breathe, you can do it,’’  he adds.

As an example, here’s a simple two-minute stress-busting exercise:

Sitting upright, remain fully attentive, but relax.Put your hand on your upper belly.
Now notice how it rises and falls with the natural rhythum of breathing.
Just bring your full attention on the breathing and the movement, for a count of 9 cycles of in-breath and out-breath.
So now rest.
Now keeping your hand on the belly, take another 9 breaths, but this time make the out-breath deliberately longer.
Rest again for a few moments.
We’re finished. Reflect for a minute on how you’re feeling, and try to take this into whatever you do next.

‘’In essence, mindfulness training is about developing new habits. We can actually re-programme our brains to work differently – it just takes regular practice,” Simon explains.

Simon’s training programme is based on the problems he suffered in his own working life.

“I spent many years as a consultant being stressed at work – anxious about all kinds of things  such as workload pressure, getting on with those around me and feeling valued.  Although I made a living and was pretty competent, life was just not satisfying and it was spilling over into my social life. I blamed everything but myself.

“So about 18 years ago, I began to get into mindfulness. The more I practised, the more I realised that my stress at work was easing off. It’s not that the external stress factors were any less, it was my reaction and response that was changing. As a result, I felt easier, more confident and more resilient, and my work improved too.  I then started to teach mindfulness.”

Reducing workplace stress is a key element of Simon’s work, and he has worked with private businesses and local authorities’ HR departments to implement mindfulness training in the workplace.

“One of the common workplace stress triggers is email,” says Simon.  “It can be a really risky way to communicate, as you miss all the body language and voice tone cues that temper what’s actually being said. We’ve probably all felt shocked or insulted by emails, when the intention of the sender may have been quite different, but maybe they were in a hurry and used language that could be wrongly interpreted.  Mindfulness can be used in a really practical way for emailing, in meetings, and in coaching and staff management.

“With all communication, it’s good practice to pause before reacting. Just take a few breaths before you act,” advises Simon. “And always take a moment to step into the other person’s shoes, in your mind, so that you might understand why they’re acting they way they are. If someone is shouting, for example, our defences immediately go up. If we’re not careful, we may shout back or hide away, whatever our learned pattern is. But it’s much braver, and far more effective, if we can learn to feel our own defence mechanism kicking in, yet hold off on reacting. We need to face the discomfort with presence. This takes awareness, confidence and ultimately compassion, for ourselves and for the other person. Employ this approach, and the situation will probably resolve much better.”

Evidence is mounting to illustrate how mindfulness can help combat work stress and burnout.  According to work published in the USA by Aikens KA et al, 2014, mindfulness had a positive effect on workers:

’66 employees in Dow Chemical Company said it significantly improved their resilience, and physical, emotional and cognitive vigor, and decreased their perceived stress.  A cost benefit analysis estimated cost savings of up to $22,580 per year, per employee due to decreased employee burnout.’

And after a mindfulness programme for 600 staff at Transport for London in 2010, there was a 70 per cent drop in time off work for anxiety or stress, and a 50 per cent drop in absenteeism for any other reason, while a 2011 University of Warwick study discovered that happier workers were 12 per cent more productive, and unhappier workers 10 per cent less productive.

Sue Swan, learning and development manager at Pembrokeshire County Council has worked with Simon on mindfulness,

” In this challenging financial climate the authority has had to develop a more agile, flexible approach to working practices, and the pace of change  inevitably creates a climate of uncertainty for employees.
Employees are our most important asset and taking care of them by investing their wellbeing is crucial so we’re genuinely trying to help them to manage these difficult issues, increase their resilience and help them to deal better with stress.    One of the ways we’re doing this is with mindfulness training.  
Following successful workshops with Simon Michaels that helped our learning and development advisers appreciate to power of these simple yet powerful techniques we now have a dedicated officer to train staff .  We’re also looking at using Simon’s online training modules, as a cost effective way to make mindfulness more accessible to staff and help our training budgets to go further.”

 “For myself, mindfulness has been invaluable, “says Sue.  “As a manager, it’s important that I learn to cope well with change and uncertainty.  I’m  learning how to handle this challenging climate better,  even though the stresses are still there.  I’m also feeling that I’m living my life more fully. And another unexpected outcome is that I’m driving more slowly!” 

For public sector organisations, and anyone providing services to them, the new Well Being of Future Generations Act means that there needs to be a proactive approach to caring for and nurturing staff. Mindfulness can be a cost effective tool to do this. And at the same time, mindfulness has been shown to improve productivity – so everyone wins.”

*Simon has launched a set of online resources called Mindfulness Inside Out. There are videos, guided meditations, articles and exercises, all of which are mobile friendly. The hope is that this format will help people fit mindfulness into their life on a daily basis, and are specifically created to help individuals cope better with stressful situations at home and at work.

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