mindful pain management

Corporate & Individual Wellbeing: One And The Same?

Tue Nov. 8th 2016


We live in what has been described as a VUCA world, Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. Living in this VUCA world leads to a problem that exists inside organisations and everywhere else, stress. In fact the World Health Organisation has estimated that by as early as 2030 anxiety and depression will be the leading cause of absenteeism and place more strain on business and healthcare than cancer, cardio-vascular disease and diabetes combined, and stress plays a central and significant role. This is not helped by our being largely hard-wired towards a negative bias, the mind constantly looking for what is wrong, lacking or threatening. No wonder there is so much negative chatter about organisations around coffee machines!

Stress is the effect of our system estimating that it does not have the resources to cope with the demands being placed on them, be they mental or physical. Challenges are interpreted as threats, and threat leads to our stone-age on board operating system activating 'survival mode' fight, flight or freeze. Once in this mode our system is totally orientated to survival and identification of yet more threats, not exactly conducive to a productive day, forward planning or creative thinking!

This is one of the many reasons why forward thinking organisations are turning towards mindfulness as an evidence-based approach to combat workplace stress and improve the well-being of their employees. The technique is also used by senior management as a cornerstone to vertical development and integration, the recently identified approach to leadership development likely to dominate the next decade. According to the Institute for Mindful Leadership 93% of leaders surveyed credited mindfulness with helping them develop space for innovation, 89% reported enhanced ability to listen to themselves and others, and 70% reported an increased ability to think strategically.

Deloitte's 2014 Global Human Capital Trends survey of 2,500 business and HR leaders in 94 countries demonstrated that the 'overwhelmed employee phenomenon' is a global business concern. Employees interrupting their own focus and attention to 'check in and remain in the loop' as much as 5 times per hour, and given that studies from Harvard University also show that our attention wanders almost 50% of the time this adds up to a lot of fractured thinking and disruption to the day's work.

Workplace stress impacts on a wide range of commercial outcomes, from absenteeism and presenteeism to poor employee engagement, low job satisfaction, poor retention and an array of social and behavioural issues, impacting negatively on the performance of the individual and the organisation as a whole. So corporate well-being is inexorably linked to the individual well-being of their employees.

Four Areas of Impact

There are four main areas of impact that connect the human benefits of mindfulness (on body, emotions, mind and community) with the business world. They are as follows:

a. Financial impact (operations, absenteeism, presenteeism, profitability)

b. Human impact (well-being, stress, happiness of staff)

c. Mental capital impact (cognitive agility, creativity, inspiration)

d. Social impact (relationships, collaboration, connectivity, responsibility)

The Benefits of Mindfulness:


Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) has been recognised by the UK's National Institute of Clinical Excellence as a front line approach for the management of anxiety and depression. A systematic review and meta-analysis published by Gotnik et al in 2015 concluded that 'the science supports the use of standardised 8 week mindfulness programs in the symptomatic treatment of cancer, cardiovascular disease, chronic pain, depression, anxiety and in prevention in healthy adults and children.

Individuals who practice mindfulness consult their GP almost 50% less than the standard population, enjoy healthier relationships and are better able to identify and manage their emotions. This is an important aspect as our emotions impact significantly on our thinking which in turn impacts on our behaviour and actions.

In his most recent book Daniel Goleman describes Focus as "the hidden driver of performance." Learning how to train our attention and understanding that we have a choice about what we pay attention to and the meaning we place on it, helps to direct focus to the task at hand, and make us aware of when we are being distracted.


In a landmark study by Transport for London, days off work for stress, anxiety and depression fell by an impressive 71% over the subsequent 3 years for the 600 employees who undertook the training. Absences for all other conditions dropping by 50%. Qualitative improvements were also reported including improvements in their relationships by 80% of the group and a similar number in their ability to relax. 64% reported an improvement in sleep and more than half reported in being happier at work.

Aetna insurance in the USA was first introduced to mindfulness by CEO Mark Bertolini who started by training his senior leadership team and then offered training to their employees. 13,000 employees have now been through the mindfulness program and the company has reported an $11 to $1.0 return although now have stopped reviewing ROI to focus on well-being, functionality and the value of their investment (VOI). Aetna have also published on the effect of their mindfulness program on stress levels with the company, reporting a 28% decrease. Dow similarly reported a 30% decrease in stress levels and a 15% improvement in employee self-rated engagement at work, combined with a $22,000 increase in annual productivity per employee, who attended mindfulness training.

Other surveys report that up to 75% of employees say that dealing with their manager is the most stressful part of their job with 65% suggesting that they would prefer a have a new manager over a pay rise.

Other statistics show that 84% of senior executives rank employee disengagement as one of the top 3 biggest threats facing their organisations, with reports suggesting that 69% of employees are disengaged whilst 17% are described as 'actively disengaged.' On the other side of the coin 82% of employees surveyed suggested that their company had an engagement problem! Either way this represents a significant threat to productivity and healthy work place relationships.

Employee engagement occurs when an employee feels an emotional connection to an organisation and its goals, particularly when those goals are aligned with the personal values of the individual. As a result employees are more likely to:

· Collaborate

· Feel empowered to suggest solutions to problems

· Be charged with positive energy

Teleos Leadership reporting that they found employees to be engaged when there are 3 things in place;

1. That there exists a meaningful vision for the future

2. They have a sense of purpose

3. There are positive interpersonal relationships

These figures and others suggest that mindful initiatives need to start at the top and work down through an organisation so as not exacerbate any disconnect between employees and management. Mindful leaders are more able to manage their own internal (emotional) environment, impacting on their ability to read the internal environment of their subordinates, and the external environment in which they are operating, so driving higher productivity and profitability. High performing leaders being recognised as adding significant value to the improved performance of their organisation. This is, in part, how mindfulness contributes to Vertical leadership development.

Vertical development of leadership teams is described by Dr Alan Watkins of Complete Coherence Ltd as "a process of transforming consciousness, an upgrade of our on-board operating system rather than the simple addition of more Apps." This leads to increases in emotional intelligence, focus, clarity of thought and effective decision making. Vertical development and integration impacts positively on wisdom, and the ability to be more inclusive in leveraging the diversity needed to flourish in the VUCA world.

In most large organisations a 'one size fits all' approach is unlikely to address the needs of the constituent parts of the organisation. Programs can, and need to be tailored to the specific groups. Understanding the role of mindfulness in vertical development with senior management will impact on decision making and governance issues. Addressing absenteeism and productivity likely to be issues else-where in the company where a lack of autonomous control and the 'social gradient of health and disease' have greater impact.

Well-being as a learnt skill

Well-being is a product of balance in our systems, the term for which is allostasis 'The body's ability to create stability through change'. If we have the resources to meet the challenges we are said to be in allostasis, if not or when we are under chronic load or stress, we drop into what is called allostatic load and become dys-regulated. The similarity between individual and corporate well-being can also be conceptualised within this model. Well-being can be developed with an organisation as a learn skill that evidentially decreases absenteeism whilst improving employee engagement and productivity.

There is abundant research on the neuroscience of well-being much of which has been the work of Professor Richie Davidson in the USA. The neuroscience focuses on areas of the brain that exhibit 'plasticity' the remarkable capacity for the brain to rewire itself. We can literally use our mind, to change our brain, to change our mind. The four key aspects that Professor Davidson emphasises can be impacted on with mindfulness are:

1. Resilience

2. Outlook

3. Attention

4. Generosity

Resilience develops gradually as the left pre frontal cortex area of the brain is activated and signals to the limbic area of the brain that contributes much of our negative emotions and stress response that it can remain 'quiet'.

A positive outlook can again be developed despite our 'automatic' tendency towards the negative. Optimistic people tend not only to be more productive, they also live longer.

Attention and focus develop quite quickly, and generosity to ourselves in terms of self-compassion, and to others is a learnt skill that has significant impact on well-being. Women who learn and practice self-compassion for instance, have been shown to lower their own inflammatory response. Chronic inflammation being implicated in a wide range of chronic diseases.

A Well-being Program

Employees at any level, and corporations in general rarely understand the relationship between well-being and productivity, preferring to see health and well-being as either being unrelated to business performance or as the sole responsibility of the individual. Neither holds to be true. When individuals feel to be stressed (for whatever reason) their physiology shifts into fight, flight or freeze mode. The cortisol and adrenaline flooding the system orientate their entire being towards survival and nothing else. The area of the brain (the hippo-campus) that is charged with storing memories is shut down, and when the stress remains ongoing the cortisol is actually neuro-toxic so impacting long term on memory creation and retrieval. The pre-frontal cortex area is shut down in survival mode and this area helps us make good decisions and wise choices, many of us may have had instances of making poor decisions when under stress, later to reflect on the poor choice as 'what was I thinking?' Well, at that point we are reacting, often automatically, not thinking or formulating a wise response to the current situation. Our brain and physiology were working against our being able to focus at that moment, and this is something mindfulness training helps us recognise and control.


A well designed well-being program offers a comprehensive and evidence-based approach to address the specific issues identified by the organisation which will have a positive impact on some of the other areas identified from the literature and outlined above. Such programs offer an opportunity to impact significantly on the overall performance of the company with immediate and sustained long term benefits by investing jointly in the well-being of the employees and the performance of the business.

Dr Nick Penney offers mindfulness based well-being programs to individuals, organisations and schools, through his coaching company Mindful Management Pty Ltd. His clinical practice, Integrative Pain Care's focus is on integrating mindfulness based interventions in the management of pain, mood disturbance and medically unexplained symptoms. He is based in Auckland New Zealand