We often think of work-life balance as something that we can give employees by offering more flexible work schedules, or a holistic benefits package. Instinctively, it seems like giving employees time to manage their lives should help them get this elusive balance—which so many experts tell us we need.
But is that enough?
Flexible work schedules and an eye to work-life balance are good for business. A study last June by the White House Council of economic advisors showed a “significant positive relationship between work-life balance practices and total factor productivity” and recommended that “wider adoption of such policies and practices may well benefit more firms and workers, and the U.S. economy as a whole.”
It turns out that helping employees balancing work and life isn’t as simple as offering flex time. And many of us lack the tools to be very good at that sort of balance. According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, 56% of working mothers said it was very or somewhat difficult to balance the responsibilities of their jobs and their families. And this is not only a problem for women. 50% of working fathers said the exact same thing.
This is because there is spillover. When things are rough at work, we take it home and snap at our spouses or children or roommates. When things are rough at home, we carry it into our working hours, where we are volatile, or on autopilot.
In fact, study after study has shown that in this world where so many of us are tethered 24/7 to our work email –working from home, taking our work home, or sleeping with our phones—a lot of us are epically failing at maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
And that isn’t good for companies. A recent OECD study showed that people spend one-tenth to one-fifth of their time on unpaid work. And while at first glance that might seem to be a windfall for the company, when you dig a little deeper it can reveal issues like disillusionment, burnout and disengagement.
What is the solution? According to researchers, it might be investing in a little mindfulness. Yep. Mindfulness.
I know. Many of us dismiss the notion of mindfulness as sort of a squishy, new-age idea—and one that perhaps doesn’t have an awful lot to do with building an effective work culture or any of the metrics that rule our HR lives, like retention or engagement.
But turns out that training some sort of mindfulness might be just the tool we need to help our employees effectively build emotional boundaries between work and life, even while all the edges are blurred by our 24/7 working lives.
Psychologists are finding that mindfulness, or the “state of a state of being attentive to and non-judgmentally aware of momentary experiences” is a great way to help us balance those two worlds.
A 2012 study from researchers at the University of South Florida found that that more mindful working parents reported better work–life balance, sleep quality, and vitality, and reduced family conflict.
Another 2012 study on mindfulness in the work environment showed that mindfulness reduces emotional exhaustion and improves job satisfaction at work.
And perhaps most significantly, in a recent article in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Behavior, researchers at the University of Heidelberg found that employees can “use mindfulness practice as a strategy for shaping the boundaries between life domains, for separating work from private life emotionally and cognitively, and for improving work–life balance.”
This is a huge win for companies, because the more we can incorporate a little mindfulness into our employees’ world view, the more we can protect employees from burnout and stress and keep them focused and engaged in their work.
In understanding how mindfulness helps with work/life balance, it helps to know a just a little about boundary theory, which organizational psychologists use to study the balance between our working roles and the demands of our personal lives.
The boundary is usually a continuum from full integration on one side, to full segmentation (or separation) of life and work. As a rule, the more completely we integrate the two domains, the more blurred the boundaries are, so that you may be in one domain but still be psychologically or behaviourally engaged in your role from the other domain.
In the Heidelberg study, researchers used an online self-training intervention to teach employees how to use mindfulness practices to help create more segmented boundaries. This mindfulness is made up of two things, according to the researchers:
Self-regulation of attention: awareness, focus, full presence, and full perception of immediate experiences. Mindfulness exercises typically anchor participants’ attention to the present by directing them to focus on objects such as pictures or somatic sensations such as breath.
Orientation to experience: the attitude the participant takes in approaching consciousness. Researchers chose four criteria: (1) not judging positivity or negativity in arising experiences; (2) not striving to change experiences to meet future goals or expectations; (3) accepting current conditions, not in resignation or unconditional approval, but rather avoiding the struggle against the unalterable; (4) letting go of cognitions, emotions, or sensations as they come.
One strong advocate of mindfulness at work is urban monk Gadadhara Pandit Dasa, lecturer and Hindu chaplain at Columbia and NYU. He has a great TEDx on mindfulness and humility in education. He has some terrific tips on building mindfulness.
In a recent article on Huffington Post, Pandit crystallized the problem with these blurred boundaries: “Just as eating too much healthy or unhealthy food can lead to indigestion, if we’re not doing something to keep the mind healthy, all of these impressions, thoughts, and experiences can act like indigestion for the mind. We can all agree that indigestion of any kind is not a pleasant experience. Controlling what we eat and exercising regularly can help. The problem with our mind is that we have little to no control over it. It runs freely all day and all nightlong. It’s trying to process the unlimited amounts of data it is receiving from its environment and all of this processing is causing us stress that we aren’t aware of.”
The solution, he says, may lie in just a few minutes of meditative thought, every day.
Have you thought about encouraging mindfulness among your employees?