Mindfulness in the workplace – taking a grassroots approach

One of the workplace wellbeing success stories of recent years has been the rise to prominence of mindfulness. A form of meditation that has moved well beyond its Buddhist origins, mindfulness is widely practised all over the world. Much more than a celebrity lifestyle fad, it has been embraced by bastions of the UK establishment. Oxford and Bangor Universities have been researching the impact of mindfulness since 2008 – adding to a substantial evidence base confirming its effectiveness.

In political circles, a Mindfulness All Party Parliamentary Group has explored how mindfulness can contribute to society more broadly, resulting in it being introduced into schools and prisons. For good measure the MPs created a policy institute; The Mindfulness Initiative.

This has produced an influential business case for mindfulness in UK workplaces, to encourage and support companies interested in making it available to employees.  A great many have done so.

Google, IKEA, General Motors and the insurance giant Aetna are some of the major corporations that have embraced mindfulness. It has gained traction in the financial sector too, with Lloyds, Goldman Sachs, RBS, Bank of England, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, and HSBC among the banks that have offered it to their staff.

With so many large corporations on board, it’s fair to say that mindfulness has gone mainstream.

But there is no right way to bring mindfulness into the workplace.

What is important is that it is introduced in a way that aligns with the culture and values of the organisation. Some businesses offer it to all employees on a voluntary basis.

In others the focus is on senior leaders through the introduction of a “Mindful Leadership” programme. Mindfulness can also be rolled out through apps that are offered for free or as part of an employee benefits package.

An employee-led approach is much less common.

This typically involves the business supporting mindfulness initiatives that develop naturally from the enthusiasm of employee-led groups.

These spread gradually through the organisation as awareness and commitment widens. In some cases the extent of company support amounts to little more than providing room space for practice but it can extend to more sophisticated approaches.

One particularly innovative example of this has taken place at HSBC. There are useful lessons for other businesses in how they have gone about it, so I’m going to look at it in some detail.

From small beginnings

Mindfulness at HSBC was initiated through the efforts of Mari Lewis – a senior IT Architect for the bank in Sheffield, who practised mindfulness regularly.

She enjoyed the benefits herself and wanted to establish whether there was appetite among her colleagues to form a regular group. In 2012, she solicited interest in her workplace, through an onsite lunchtime stall, signing up 15-20 staff. Mari, an experienced mindfulness practitioner, led the sessions and the interest grew.

Five years on, 350 employees have been through her Sheffield programme.

In 2014 Mari, along with a colleague Jane Daniels, oversaw the development of an employee-led mindfulness network, and the creation of a mindfulness intranet site. A launch event for the network was held at the bank’s Canary Wharf HQ, introduced by one of the bank’s global heads, with a special interest in mental health.

With 500 employees participating, many dialling in from HSBC sites round the world- at the time, this may have been one of the largest ever-corporate mindfulness events,

Soon mindfulness sessions were being set up at other HSBC sites across the UK where experienced volunteers were available. Support for the developing network was gained from the UK bank’s Head of HR. Since then there have been many mindfulness events, often involving external speakers. The network membership has now grown to over 1000 employees.

But more was needed if mindfulness was going to succeed long-term. An internal leadership project group raised the profile of mindfulness further, gaining support and funding from the UK Head of Benefits and Reward, who holds responsibility for the HSBC UK’s new wellbeing strategy.

This financed a multi-stranded mindfulness programme that will be rolled out across the bank through the remainder of 2017. This includes access to a mindfulness app and the training of 25 mindfulness champions. The use of a ‘train the trainer’ approach will ensure the supply of future champions is sustainable.

The programme also includes, at HSBC’s request, research into its impact.

To embed it further, mindfulness has also been introduced, as an option, into the Banks’s “mental health pathways”, which is the process by which mental health cases are managed at HSBC.

This also includes occupational health and the private health insurance provider.

Following an impressive re-launch event in July 2017, the process of recruiting the champions is underway, to take mindfulness at the bank to the next level.  In September 2017 HSBC received a Parliamentary award in recognition of the achievements of the mindfulness network

Mindfulness from the bottom up 

What impresses me most about this approach is that it has evolved organically through the commitment of dedicated enthusiasts, fired by a wish to communicate the benefits of mindfulness to others.

Spread in this way, the introduction will only succeed if it elicits enough interest from colleagues.

And because it is initiated by employees, it is hard to argue that mindfulness is being introduced for faddish reasons, or that it is being hijacked to suit corporate ends – a frequent criticism of corporate programmes.

Finally, whilst large organisations, might baulk at commissioning mindfulness training for a workforce of many thousands, employee-led rollouts are easily scalable and relatively inexpensive, once a cohort of internal trainers is in place.

Mindfulness in UK businesses is on an upward curve.

There are many different ways it can be offered in the workplace. What HSBC has done seems both innovative and cost effective and demonstrates that sometimes wellbeing programmes succeed best when they originate with the staff themselves.

Read more about how mindfulness has taken off among UK businesses and the different approaches they are taking to make it available to employees, in Bank Workers Charity’s whitepaper Mindfulness at Work: On an Upward Curve.

 Paul Barret