Working with Mindfulness
Building a More Compassionate Workplace – From the Inside Out
Recently, I have been thinking a lot about work stress and burn-out. I am a social worker. People in my profession are not usually drawn to the work we do by the promise of a big paycheck, but by the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others – to help struggling people find inner strength, external resources, and a greater voice in the community. Ironically, many of the workplaces in which we find ourselves seem full of people depleted of inner strength, cut off from external resources, and too overwhelmed to voice their need for the changes needed the bring about a healthier place to work.
I believe that many of the same noble ideals that led me to social work have led others to their own professions. I have met many like-minded people who are motivated by their passion to serve others and bring about justice in the community. At the flipside of this passion, however, is a serious vulnerability to overwork and burn-out, and a feeling of powerlessness to even the possibility of finding a sense of well-being at work. I believe that a return to a healthier work environment is only possible when we make an effort to look more closely at the signs of stress we experience and pay attention to what we need to feel healthy.
All of us experience stress at work. The sources of that stress are varied, and plentiful. Sometimes we recognize, and even welcome, the stressors we face in our jobs as part and parcel of the fast-paced, stimulating, and challenging career we have chosen. Other times, we experience stress as a destructive invader in our carefully planned out lives. Before we know it, we grow accustomed to an “out of control” feeling that is the furthest thing from what we had imagined for ourselves when we started our career. Those of us who work with people in crisis often encounter a phenomenon known as “vicarious trauma,” a stress reaction experienced by those who are exposed to the traumatic stories of others on a routine basis. Over time, these stressors can lead even the most driven, passionate, and productive among us to experience burn-out within a workplace that once motivated us.
Chronic work stress and burn-out has a cumulative effect on mind and body over time. In an effort to adapt to increased demands at work, many ignore early signs and symptoms of chronic stress. More dangerously, sufferers of chronic stress may recognize changes in their mood and physical health, but dismiss these changes as just “part of the job.” Our bodies give us many helpful “red flags” to signal our need to pay attention to potentially dangerous levels of stress and make changes in our lives:
- Sleep disturbance – Difficulty feeling relaxed enough to fall asleep, inability to stay asleep, waking in early morning hours without being able to get back to sleep, dependence on alcohol or other substances to aid sleep.
- Appetite changes – Including diminished appetite and overeating
- Increased irritability – Hypersensitivity to comments from others, increased reaction to things that did not used to bother you.
- Fatigue – Chronic low energy, reduced motivation, dependence on substances to perform expected tasks.
- Other physical problems – Susceptibility to physical ailments and chronic pain can also be signs that we need to pay attention to the stress in our lives.
No one should have to sacrifice their health as the cost of job advancement. The fact is, none of us can sustain living with chronic stress for long without suffering damage to our health and our relationships.
It is possible to start living a different way – a way that builds resilience and flexibility, a way that ultimately can help us reconnect to the passion that led us to our work in the first place. Not only is it possible, but it is imperative – for our own well-being and that of our colleagues and our loved ones – that we become as responsive to our need for self-care as we are for our desire for recognition in our career.
My research on the topic of “Self-Care” has led me to the work of Dr. Kristin Neff – a University of Texas researcher who has defined “Self-Compassion” and developed techniques to bring more of it into our lives. Contrasting with psychological movements of the past that emphasize “Self-Esteem,” which depends on an understanding of ourselves as valued at all times, self-compassion helps us understand ourselves as fully human and deserving of compassion whether we succeed or fail at our endeavors. Techniques of self-compassion are so effective precisely because they cause us to see our stresses and failings with the open, curious perspective of a comforting friend.
There are three elements to self-compassion, as Dr. Neff explains:
- Self-Kindness. This means treating ourselves with the same kindness with which we would treat a good friend. While the criticism of a drill sergeant may be effective motivation in the short-term, this kind of self-censure fails us in the long-run and often causes us to shut down when we encounter repeated setbacks. When we acknowledge difficulties with a gentle understanding that we are not perfect instead of aggressively demanding an impossible ideal, we are more open to the possibility of growth and change.
- Common Humanity. When we are aware of our connection with all human beings, and acknowledge that all people experience difficulties and setbacks, we open to the understanding that we are not alone in our struggles. Instead of feeling isolated and defensive, we feel an acceptance that allows us to deal with our failings in a constructive way.
- Mindfulness. Instead of becoming overwhelmed by regrets of past failings or worries about the future, mindfulness cultivates an ability to be attentive to the present moment in a non-judgmental way. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts which has earned respect across disciplines for its efficacy in treatment of depression, anxiety, and other illnesses associated with stress, has worked over the past 30 years to demystify mindfulness as a way of being in the world that is not dependent on belief or practice of any particular religion or spirituality. He wants people to understand it simply as a matter of deliberately paying attention to what is happening in the present moment. The problem is, “paying attention” is not a skill that is easy to cultivate within the pace of our busy lives. Living on “autopilot,” as many of us have to do to cope with our busy lives, usually causes us to avoid any opportunity to sit in silence, to stop and breathe and really pay attention to how we are feeling, physically and emotionally.
By choosing to be more compassionate with ourselves, we become open to new ways of incorporating healthy practices into our lives. As we engage in these practices, the positive changes we experience in our own lives have an effect on our colleagues and our loved ones. The stressors may continue to be present in our workplace, but they do not affect us in the same way they used to, and we have the capacity to speak up and connect with others to make our workplaces places of well-being.
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