In this interview with Breathworks teacher and workplace policy lead for the UK Mindfulness Initiative, Andrew McNeill, we discuss the new book that Andrew has written: Organisational Mindfulness.

What led you to write this book?

When I first tried to bring mindfulness into the places I worked I just didn’t have a clue how to do it. There were loads of books on personal practice, but when I asked about what we should do to introduce mindfulness to the workplace, no-one seemed to know. So once I’d had the chance to introduce mindfulness into some of the teams I’d worked with I thought the experiences I’d had, including the many mistakes, might be helpful to other people who are trying to do the same.

Also, when I was trying this, I felt quite isolated. It’s hard to bring in something new and people can be very sceptical. So if nothing else, I hope the book can provide some reassurance to people who are trying to implement mindfulness in their workplace, as well as some practical advice.

You say in the preface to the book that your goal isn’t to convince anyone of the benefits of mindfulness or to describe how it works - having read at least a dozen books which begin by doing both, I have to admit that this was a relief. But it begs the question; what are you hoping this book will achieve?

The aim is to provide a practical guide to implementation. My background is in project leadership, so the book intended to be packed full of things that it would be helpful for a person to consider if they are implementing mindfulness in an organisation.

I’m sorry to let you down, because there are some examples of why I think mindfulness in the workplace is a good thing, but I’ve tried to keep that to a minimum. Hopefully it is a set of practical, pragmatic suggestions.

“Non-judgemental attention to the present moment” is the standard definition of mindfulness. The book mentions ways that organisations already invest in helping people to be dispassionate (or non-judgemental) and to focus their attention, with simple things like flipcharts and powerpoint slides. Given that these sorts of things exist, what’s to be gained by investing in mindfulness training? 

My observation is that organisations try to do this already, but can do it very badly. Project meetings are a great example. At their best, these events help people with responsibility for the project to get a clear dispassionate view of what is happening and then to make decisions based on the information in front of them. At worst most of the people aren’t even in the room, mentally. They are on their phones, or worrying about the emails they haven’t sent or the next meeting that they are going to.

My suggestion is that by bringing mindfulness into the way we run project meetings, we can significantly improve their effectiveness. Require people not to be on their phones, start the meeting with a short practice, design the papers in-front of the meeting to resonate more strongly, so people actually see the information they need to consider. I think we have already got numerous ways in almost every workplace setting that can help us to achieve a shared ‘non-judgemental’ view of information. So, this is nothing new to most workplaces. What could be transformational is to apply some mindfulness techniques to these processes.

Many people are either sceptical of the value of mindfulness, or have a negative stereotype in mind when they hear the word. How does one overcome this sort of burden when attempting to bring mindfulness into an organisation?

Using the evidence helps. There are over 4,000 studies into the impact of mindfulness. When people hear that this is a well-researched field, they can be surprised. They realise that the benefits of mindfulness are not just anecdotal. It can also be helpful to flag that companies like Leeds Building Society, HSBC, Jaguar Land Rover. SAP and Google have well established mindfulness programmes. This can help make mindfulness feel less esoteric and more like a normal part of the employment landscape.

Making mindfulness practical and pragmatic is also key. As well as ‘formal’ practice, explaining the value of mindful tea making and walking can make a mindfulness practice seem more achievable for people with crowded, busy lives. But the bottom line is, it takes courage. To try and bring something new into an organisation and overcome those stereotypes, can sometimes be tough.

What’s so important about organisational culture when attempting to bring mindfulness practice into the picture?

Many of us spend more of our waking hours at work, than we do anywhere else. So if we can introduce mindfulness to our work organisations, in my experience, it can transform how those places feel. It can help us to manage stress, improve our capacity to listen and to be heard and it can make our teams more collaborative and supportive. It also enables people who may not normally have the chance to experience mindfulness to taste it for themselves and experience the benefits. So this may encourage people to explore mindfulness further in their personal lives. One of the many great things about mindfulness is that it provides tools for all the parts of our life. Bringing it into the workplace and giving people these tools there, can help people outside the workplace as well. There is also a real crisis in the workplace—with stress levels and absenteeism increasing—mindfulness can be one tool to help reduce these pressures.

A lot of people see practising mindfulness in the same sort of category as getting a massage or having a nap; something that may be relaxing, but won’t have any interesting long-term effects. Is there any truth to this, and what does an organisation need to do to make changes that last?

It may be true that some people think this, but I don’t believe it to be true. To achieve long term change requires a sustained practice. Where organisational mindfulness can help is in supporting people in the workplace as they develop their practice.

When I started my practice, it was a deeply personal thing that pretty much stopped the moment I walked into the office. But if mindfulness is part of the fabric of our workplaces, then work can support our practice, rather than undermining it.

What do you think are some of the most exciting changes that an organisation could expect to see after bringing mindfulness into the picture?

Collaboration on a new level was perhaps the biggest change I have experienced. People who have their own agendas and pressures, starting to look out for each other in a much fuller way. Also the freedom for team members to talk about wellbeing, seeing that it is OK to ‘take a moment’ maybe sounds like a small thing, but it can be revolutionary. Add to that the benefits for staff engagement that can flow from this approach, the change can be transformational.

I also wonder if people get better tasting tea?

Get Andrew's excellent new book here

Or Find Out More About Breathworks Mindfulness in the Workplace Programme Here