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What's All the Fuss About Mindfulness?

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Next time you’re at work, find yourself a comfy chair, shut off your computer and your phone, and close your eyes for a moment.

Now take a deep breath, letting every muscle relax as the air slides softly back out. Inhale again, focusing entirely on the act of breathing, letting those nagging thoughts of deadlines and duties drift quietly away, like leaves floating on a stream.

As you follow the soothing rhythm of the breaths within you, begin to let your senses embrace everything around you—the chatter in the hall; the steady tick of the clock on the wall; the aroma of lunch drifting up the hall. Feel how the seat cushion presses against your body; how the sunlight touching your cheeks feels so warm.

You are now living in the present moment—for once in your long, hectic, hassle-filled working life.

In time—maybe even this first time—you will begin to feel a sense of calm as you breathe. Within weeks, and all through the day, you find that your peace of mind no longer seems to be held captive to thoughts of tomorrow’s stresses, and yesterday’s regrets. You discover a new way of approaching problems, handling challenges—accepting them for what they are, resolving them with greater assurance, and enduring their presence with less pain.

This is what mindfulness does. This is the simple-yet-powerful practice that for many people seems to offer a virtually cost-free prescription for our increasingly unmanageable lives, our unrelenting workplace stresses, and our vanishing capacity for appreciating the here and now.

And, more and more, big companies are catching on to its benefits.

From Google to Aetna and in workplaces around the state, mindfulness is an increasing part of employee wellness programs, and workers’ peace of mind is now a more critical element of management philosophy. Corporations have realized that happier employees are more productive and profitable employees—and, as a consequence, less likely to leave, or take sick days, or stumble into conflicts with coworkers.

“After six weeks, people report increases in personal achievement, decreases in stress, and decreases in elements of burnout that are outside their personal control,” says Michael Mackenzie, assistant professor of health behavior science and director of the Mind Body Behavior Laboratory at the University of Delaware, where mindfulness programs are spreading across campus following Mackenzie’s research on staff volunteers.

An employee at the University of Delaware practices mindfulness.//Photo by Eric Ruth

Google, which offers a corporate mindfulness training program called Search Inside Yourself, reports remarkable success in changing workers’ outlooks. Before taking the program, 58 percent of clients reported feeling emotionally drained by work. Afterward, it dropped to 24 percent. Performance, focus and effectiveness jumped 32 percentage points, and there was a nearly 40-percent increase in leaders’ ability to maintain their calm and poise during challenging moments.

Locally, those kinds of results—along with vocal employee demand—are inspiring a heightened concern for staffers’ peace of mind, especially in high-stress, high-burnout professions such as health care. At Christiana Care, meditation training—along with yoga and tai chi—is part of the resources available at its Center for Provider Wellbeing, a companywide effort aimed at preventing burnout among doctors and other caregivers faced with agonizing life-and-death matters.

“We’ve seen improvements in healthcare team collaboration, as well as improvements in difficulties that disproportionately impact healthcare professionals, such as compassion fatigue and burnout,” says Dr. Heather Farley, director of Provider Wellbeing at Christiana Care. “Additionally, we have observed other advantages that improve our organization’s ability to care for patients, such as a reduction in turnover and increased productivity.”

At Beebe Healthcare in Lewes, mindfulness workshops for employees are underway, with steady expansion planned.

“I think that the whole concept of mindfulness has become a lot more urgent” as provider burnout becomes more of an issue, says Rita Williams, health coach with Beebe Wellness. “There’s definitely a movement.”

That movement has inspired a young Wilmington entrepreneur to take mindfulness training on the road with his business startup. Called FLYOGI, Jason Infante’s on-demand mobile mindfulness service has held sessions for bankers and kids alike, though he acknowledges meeting more caution in the corporate world than in schools. “We’re not there yet—Delaware likes its conservative routines,” he says. “A lot of our work has been trying to spread the word to potential clients, show them the benefits—happier employees, and increase in morale, and especially an increase in patience and tolerance.”

FLYOGI is an on-demand mobile mindfulness service.//Photo by Eric Ruth

Educators also increasingly see mindfulness as an effective solution to the conflicts and stresses that face our youngest in the school setting, one that can resemble the workplace in terms of interpersonal challenges and deadline-oriented tasks.

“It gives them that opportunity to be aware in the moment, so they can choose what to do, rather than go right into reaction mode,” says Infante, whose company has held training at local YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs, and even exclusive St. Andrew’s School.

In the Brandywine School District, children as young as 5 are now getting a daily dose of mindfulness thanks to Mark Overly, principal of Carrcroft Elementary. Inspired by a friend who is pioneering mindfulness in Texas schools, Overly has implemented “mindful moments” into the daily routine—from the chaotic arrival of buses in the morning to those dreaded moments when a student is called to the principal’s office.

“The huge difference I’ve noticed is when kids come to my office really upset, they’ve now been taught some coping skills: What does it feel like to be calm? How do you make yourself calm? Now they have skills where they can get calm and I can talk to them about what happened,” says Overly, who is now helping introduce the practice to other elementary schools inside and outside of the district.

Since starting the effort, Carrcroft has seen discipline referrals drop sharply. Overly is convinced that today’s schools simply must reach beyond academics and teach young people the skills needed to cope with life as well.

“We’re finding a bigger need for social and emotional learning to also happen in school,” he says, especially in a system that seeks to be inclusive of at-risk children from unstable homes and neighborhoods.

And the lessons of mindfulness are being embraced by the teachers as well. “We find that teachers can get burned out. Every day, we just take in other people’s problems. We have to be aware of that, and the need to treat ourselves, self-regulate ourselves,” Overly says.

The stresses can be no less gripping on UD’s seemingly idyllic campus, where the mindfulness movement is getting a solid push from administration and staffers. The university’s “Be Well Udel” employee wellness program now incorporates mindfulness training, and even the youngsters who attend UD’s children’s programs are getting their meditative moments.

“Six, seven years ago, mindfulness was not even a word being spoken,” says Beth Finkle, UD’s director of employee health and wellbeing. “Today, employees are much better advocates for themselves and there is far more focus on a work-life balance.”

Already, the mindfulness movement is spreading from department to department. In the fall, that mindfulness training will be offered to the community as part of UD’s leadership offerings, and Finkle has hopes that the university’s outreach will eventually include parents, students and even victims of violence.

“I feel mindfulness is really opening these doors to prevention,” says Finkle, who has also worked with the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce to bring mindfulness training to small businesses. “Employees are also really buying into this because they see it can help reduce healthcare costs.”

CSC’s new headquarters//Photo by Eric Ruth

In other instances, the benefits of an improved mental outlook can be achieved without mindfulness necessarily being part of the equation, businesses believe. At CSC, a 118-year-old Delaware firm, its ultra-modern new headquarters near Greenville included elements designed to foster contentment, cooperation and calm among its staff of 700-plus—including a comfy “sunken living room” work area, “social cafes” on all three floors, a walking path through a meadow and naturally lit workspaces.

“It’s amazing how a change of scenery can improve one’s state of mind,” says Kristyn DiIenno, CSC’s human resources manager. “Every day I look forward to coming to work.”

Mindfulness programs allow workers to internalize that fresh outlook, giving them a resiliency and perspective they may have never known they had, experts say. “It’s a practice that lets you change the way you react to your thoughts,” says Lisa Rector, director of educational services at Minds Over Matter, a Rehoboth-based provider of mindfulness training in area schools.

“By nature, we tend to be negative thinkers—it’s part of our genetic makeup,” adds Karen Barwick, founder of Minds Over Matter. “But it doesn’t have to be that way—you learn that through mindfulness.”