COVID VaccinesReturn to WorkMental Health

Why mindfulness matters at work

May 11, 2022, 4:15 PM UTC

There’s a lot of talk about burnout these days, but for many people suffering from work-related exhaustion, questions remain as to what to do about it.

The first step is changing your behavior, and you have to start in your mind, advised Thrive Global chief medical officer Dr. Aaliya Yaqub.

“We all know that mental health is top of mind for us. There’s not a such a thing as mental health. Physical health is just one health. Right? We’re all on this spectrum,” said Yaqub, speaking at Fortune‘s Brainstorm Health conference in Marina Del Rey, Calif. on Wednesday. “We’re on this journey where we have these months that are really stressful. We have these weeks that are easier. And we’re constantly working on ourselves.”

Maria Dee, executive director of workforce well-being at Kaiser Permanente, advised leveraging mindfulness to help encourage families and parents to reset, particularly when much of the workforce is facing burnout.

“Of course, we’ll always focus on mind, body, spirit, but then we’ll incorporate career wellness, financial wellness, community involvement to really help us provide a holistic approach to supporting our workforce,” Dee said. “I think, as an organization, and for many organizations, wellness was actually an afterthought. It was a way to kind of dangle an incentive to make things fine. We are trying to reverse that mentality into well-being as a business strategy.”

Few people are more burned out right now than front line workers, from the grocery store to hospitals—people who had no option to work from home or remotely during the pandemic lockdown. When it comes to front line workers, Yaqub stressed the starting point is figuring out how to help them change their mindsets.

“Many of these folks on the front lines in retail, the folks who are stocking the Walmart store at night, the folks who are on the machinery line, you know producing machinery in the factories, the folks that are working in hospitality, the folks who are serving people in health care. Those folks are you know, the ones who are struggling the most because they are unable to bring their whole self to work often they are under a lot of stress,” Yaqub explained. “And so what we find is that we have to teach them to make really small tweaks micro steps. So habit changes you can do every single day that are too small to fail. We have to pair that with motivation, and we have to prompt them to remind them.”

Dee said over the last few years, Kaiser Permanente has moved from focusing just on wellness to a more holistic approach around well-being. The company launched a new workplace policy called Healthy Workplace Activites, which involved promoting healthy activities during the work day, advice on how to take advantage of breaks, and when you’re in conferences and meetings that go over four hours to incorporate “thrive” breaks. The big one, Dee noted, was starting each meeting with one moment dedicated to meditation.

Continuing to promote mindfulness as an organization, Dee said coverage is covered at no cost to all Kaiser Permanente employees. And for all members, including employees, the company rolled out a new emotional support coaching app, “Ginger,” for 24/7 counseling via text. “We have a really robust strategy,” Dee said. “It’s just about making multiple platforms.”

Yaqub acknowledged she still has to deal with a lot of skeptics, simply for using the term “mindfulness.”

“I’m talking to executives at various companies, and I’m leading them through a leadership journey to change their mindsets and their beliefs, and so many of them, they just turn their brains off when they hear that word,” Yaqub said. “If you’re running a company and you have multiple things going on, and you’re used to going 100 miles per hour, if I can get you to slow down for 60 seconds, you’re going to create so much change in your health.”

Instead, she focuses on the science, breaking down the effects on the sympathetic nervous system and how fight or flight responses play out when we’re fully stressed, from sweaty palms to experiencing your heart racing. Sometimes it’s just about the messaging, so describing mindfulness techniques as breathing exercises often resonates better with skeptics.

“I think that the delusion that society has taught us over time is you don’t have time to breathe, you have to hustle, you have to work hard, and success is about working hard nonstop and the harder you hustle, the more successful you will be,” Yaqub said. “If you want things to be sustainable for you, you have to take care of yourself.”

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