Richard Branson does it. Arianna Huffington swears by it. The likes of Google, Microsoft and Nike are talking about it. Mindfulness is a hot topic. It’s de rigeur for creative and tech start-ups to promote it as part of their company culture and even have a feng shui meditation space in their office. But can mindful observance actually make you a better business leader?
Well, the hard science provides evidence that mindfulness can change the brain in ways that help navigate the stresses of a high-pressure working environment. Various studies show that being mindful or meditating briefly can reduce cortisol levels - responsible for inducing stress - and thicken grey matter in the brain, improving the ability to process information. It can also trigger the release of serotonin and endorphins, two of the cocktail of hormones that help with focus and motivation.
The problem for many business owners is that they’re operating at their maximum level, says Dominica Roszko, who runs a consultancy for vets and pet care business owners and a company that promotes clean eating, Vegerasta. They can find themselves constantly juggling clients and switching between projects, running from one meeting to the next. On top of this, there’s the challenge of convincing them to see the value in mindfulness, both for themselves and possibly their employees.
A survey of 500 SME leaders, carried out by Bupa, found that 54 per cent weren’t convinced that health and wellbeing benefits would be key and beneficial part of future growth strategy. Roszko adds that there’s often a misguided perception that investing in mindfulness is a complex task that involves time, money and training.
"Most people think that it also requires a specific knowledge, but this isn’t the case. The simplest way is to control your breathing. Business owners can really benefit from allocating just two to five minutes in the morning to sitting down and practising this," she says. "Taking time out to exhale can give you a greater sense of clarity and focus, and help to avoid explosive situations and manage your working day in a stress-free way."
Roszko started meditating in 2011 as part of a lifestyle change after she and her business partner and now-husband realised their business was a success but the hectic work schedule they had was leaving them feeling lethargic and internally in pain. Neuroscience research has shown that mindfulness and meditation can provide relief without using opioids – the natural production of which is the body’s main pain-blocking mechanism.
Mornings are often recommended as the ideal time to meditate as cortisol is naturally at its highest for about an hour after waking up. Hayley Smith, owner of a boutique PR firm with clients in the hospitality and fashion industry, tries to set aside up to 30 minutes a day to focus on her breath and thoughts. She says that silence helps her recharge - research shows exposure to noise can disrupt productivity and increase stress levels - and has even led to her coming up with business ideas.
Smith minimises distractions by switching off all devices. She admits that this can be overwhelming, especially for business owners who are trading overseas or dealing with clients in different timezones, but says that checking email, for instance, can cause you to overthink, increasing cortisol levels. And getting stressed simply by looking at the to-do list in your inbox isn’t the best way to start the day, she adds.
Practising mindfulness before getting to the office means that once you’re at your desk you’re able to concentrate on the task in hand with increased effectiveness. It’s also likely to lead to a decrease in mistakes and could even improve creativity and help you communicate ideas more clearly. These are all sought-after qualities in a strong, modern business leader.
Roszko and Smith agree that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to mindfulness. What works for some might not work for others. But business owners who practise it and encourage employees to do so - as long as they are made aware of how it’s having a positive impact on the body - are likely to see not just an improvement in the chemical balance in the brain, but their work-life balance as well.