May is mental health awareness month. One in five people will be affected by mental illness over the course of their lifetime. And some of you reading this piece have struggled with anxiety and/or depression in the workplace. Addressing the stigma of mental illness is important, and mental health awareness month is the perfect time to do it. The so-called Royal Fab Four (William, Kate, Harry and Meghan) took advantage of this month to launch a mental health service to those suffering, using texting as a modality to offer free help. Princes William and Harry have been open about their own mental struggles over the death of their mother, Princess Diana. I’m not a royal, and I don’t have the funds to offer a worldwide service, but in hopes of eliminating the stigma of mental illness, I would like to do my small part by sharing my own work struggles and how I overcame them.
After years of defining myself by my accomplishments and allowing my career to consume me, the flying buttress of work ceased to prop me up, and I fell apart. Mentally exhausted and spiritually dead, I slumped in my airplane seat. When the flight attendant asked if I needed anything, I waved her away. I had lost so much weight I looked like a refugee from Dachau. During liftoff, I didn’t care if the plane crashed. Nothing mattered. At the lowest point in my life, I had booked a sunny week in Jamaica to escape the pain of emotional stress and burnout. When you live mainly in the external world like I did—immersing yourself into your career, ignoring your inner Self—you’re bound to hit a bottom at some point. I call this “mindless working.” At my lowest point, I got help, stumbled into yoga and meditation and started my own mindful practices. I began the climb out of the work fog into a saner life. Today when I work, I’m constantly attuned to what’s going on inside me as I pace myself in the present moment throughout the workday. Without an internal compass, you rely on outer conditions to fix an internal feeling, and your spirits die. Could you be one of the spiritually dead in desperate search of an outside cure for your mental health work woes?
Mindless Working: The Real American Idol
In a society based on mindless working, my old unhealthy work habits had plenty of camouflage. Flextime, 24-hour Walmart’s, smartphones and Wi-Fi have vaporized the line that once kept the office from engulfing the sacred hours of Shabbat, Sunday and the family dinnertime. In a rapidly changing, turbulent world you, too, might be struggling to hold that line between calm and frantic work activity. The fast-paced, clever work gadgets infiltrate personal time, and a technologically driven work culture has spun our lives into a blur of constant doing and eclipsed our ability to be. According to Harvard researchers, if you’re like the average person, you’re lost in thought 47% of the time. And multitasking keeps you stuck there.
If you’re a mindless worker, you face the risk of losing touch with yourself, the present moment and the people around you. You see work as a haven in a dangerous, emotionally unpredictable world. You’re on automatic pilot and allow work tasks to engulf you, eclipsing other quarters of life. Commitments to self-care, spiritual life, family responsibilities, friends, partners and children are frequently made and broken to meet work pressures. Chances are, you seek an emotional and neurophysiological payoff from frantic working and get an adrenaline rush from meeting impossible deadlines. You’re preoccupied with work even when walking hand-in-hand at the seashore, playing catch with a child or fishing with a friend. Any kind of inner awareness is little more than a vague, if pleasant, backdrop. Work is the central connection of your life—the place where “life” really takes place, the secret repository of drama and emotion, as compelling as the one addicts experience with booze or cocaine.
Mindful Working And Your Mental Health
The practice of mindfulness brings about change from the inside out—not outside in—regardless of workplace circumstances or the nature of job problems. I call this simple solution to the mental health problems facing the American workforce mindful working—the intentional, moment-to-moment awareness of what’s happening inside you and immediately around you with self-attuned compassion as you move through daily work schedules and routines. It involves bringing your full non-judgmental attention to body sensations, thoughts and feelings that arise while working or thinking about your job. Instead of attacking yourself when things fall apart, a mindful, self-compassionate attunement eases you through work stress and burnout, business failures, job loss or worry and anxiety about career goals.
Mindful working is based on self-care during the best of times and the worst of times. When you worry, stress out, or get depressed about a downturn in the economy, loss of a promotion, a faltering relationship with a boss or colleague or fear of an upcoming job challenge, it compromises your mental health. When the mind ruminates, worry and stress eclipse the problematic situation. Your internal suffering hijacks you and magnifies the original situation. In these instances, your mind uses you. But when you practice mindful working, you use your mind to navigate workplace woes with clarity, self-compassion, courage and creativity. My research team at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte found that mindless workers had statistically higher burnout rates, were more disconnected from their inner selves and had less self-insight than mindful workers, who showed more present-moment awareness such as clarity, calmness, compassion and confidence.
If you’re a mindful worker, you’re more attuned to yourself and experience your job as a necessary and sometimes fulfilling obligation. You have present-moment awareness of your thoughts, emotions and what you’re feeling in your body as you navigate the workday. You know when to close the briefcase, mentally switch gears and be fully present in the moment—at your daughter’s soccer game or the celebration of your own wedding anniversary. Your inner attunement gives you a payoff of calm and confidence that brings a sense of satisfaction and joy to your career. You can turn off your work appetite, pay attention to your surroundings, and you’re as emotionally present in off-work times as you are during work hours.
And mindfulness practices have physical benefits, too. Scientists report that mindfulness meditation slows down heart rate and brain-wave patterns, boosts the immune system and cardiac functioning and that people who meditate have less stressful lives, fewer health problems, improved relationships and longer lives. Mindfulness allows you to appreciate the deep mystery of being alive without the need for work highs or numbing yourself with multitasking and busy pursuits.
Working in the Now
Staying in the present moment while working helps you rediscover your workplace and see the work-world with new insight and greater clarity. If you could view your life through the fresh eyes of a foreigner, what would you see? Unpaid bills and drudgery of another pressure-cooker day? Or the freshness and richness of being alive with exciting challenges that lay ahead? Would you push through the workday with your head stuck in a smartphone, laptop, or stacks of reports? Or would you look at coworkers with intrigue, engaging them in conversation with renewed appreciation in what they have to say? Would you snap at loved ones or try to be more tolerant of their human fallibility without trying to change them? Mindful working protects and maintains your mental health on a daily basis. Try this mindful exercise.
The next time you go to the office, put curiosity above judgment and imagine you’re entering your workplace for the first time. Notice the entrance-way, the architecture of the outside and inside of the building and the people at their workstations. Look at coworkers with renewed interest as if you have never seen them. Notice what hangs on the walls, the textures and colors of the ceiling and floor. Smell the flowers on someone’s desk. Be aware of how your colleagues are dressed and the colors of a blouse or jacket. Pay attention to who conforms and who marches to the beat of their own drum. What sounds do you hear and what smells permeate the air? Be aware of as many sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures as you can. Look into the eyes of a business associate, subordinate or boss. Then look deeper behind facial expressions and into hearts, where true humanity resides. Notice what you see imprinted there. Do people look happy or sad? Ready to brace the day or wishing they were home in bed? Are they smiling or frowning? Who has worry lines and whose face is stress free? With curiosity and without judgment, simply become aware of what you’re thinking and feeling and pay attention to your body sensations. Don’t be surprised if your heart rate and breathing are slower and your muscles have loosened.
When you live each day through mindful eyes as if it’s a first-time experience, something magical happens. You discover another world always available to you. Life automatically takes on a fresh glow. You gain a deeper appreciation for the people and things around you that have escaped your attention. You find a rekindled interest in coworkers, loved ones and others whom you might have taken for granted. You slow down and approach challenges with more calm, more ease. You can see beauty in the ordinary, elegance in the simple and excitement in the mundane. It’s possible for you to rediscover yourself and your workplace by looking at each new day in a new way. Just as you start to see your job differently through mindful eyes, change your perspective again, and you’ll continue to have good mental health and a renewed outlook on your career.
According to the Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh the mindfulness with which you walk that line between your job and personal life determines your happiness: “When we are able to take one step peacefully and happily, we are working for the cause of peace and happiness for the whole of humankind . . . We can do it only if we do not think of the future or the past, if we know that life can only be found in the present moment.”