Mindful Mental Health

This week, the National Federation of Self Employed and Small Businesses (FSB) launched a new mental health campaign to draw attention to the importance of being able to talk about mental health issues in the workplace. Recent FSB research shows that one in five small businesses say that they have recruited an individual with a mental health condition in the last three years. The need to destigmatise and discuss mental health issues is of critical importance, particularly given recent statistics that over 300,000 people with a long-term mental health problem lose their jobs each year.(1)

In my own workplace as a self-employed barrister, colleagues have slowly started to address more openly the need to look after their mental health. This recognition and ability to discuss mental health issues is long overdue, particularly given the alarming results that emerged from research conducted by the Bar Council in October 2014. The survey showed that 1 in 3 barristers found it difficult to control or stop worrying; 2 in 3 felt that showing signs of stress equals weakness; 1 in 6 expressed feeling in low spirits most of the time and 59 % demonstrated unhealthy levels of perfectionism; and felt that psychological wellbeing within the legal profession is rarely spoken about.(2)

Unfortunately, these findings echo the reality of many modern workplaces. We now know that long bouts of stress can start to weaken our immune system, cause high blood pressure, fatigue, depression, anxiety and even heart disease. It can be extremely wearing on our physical bodies and mental state. So alongside the dialogue, we need to find practical ways of addressing the stress we encounter in our daily lives - both at work and at home.

The good news is that we can learn to move out of ‘stress mode’ (fight, flight, freeze) by learning new practices such as yoga, Tai Chi and mindfulness. In my case, some years ago now, I started to practice mindfulness. I joined a class, read lots of books on the subject and practiced even when I didn’t want to. I slowly began to reap the benefits and noticed that in my work as a barrister, I was more able to cope with stressful situations in a less reactive manner. I interpreted the outcomes of difficult conversations less personally and found rejection or failure easier to handle. I became a better listener and was less insistent on being heard or being right. I started to distinguish more clearly the battles worth fighting and those that deserved no response at all. It was hard to describe these differences to others, but for me, the benefits were real.

It didn’t mean that I never lost my temper or suddenly became visibly calmer, but the practice of mindfulness did enable me to recognise strong emotions when they arose, and to understand that these too will pass, if I let them. I became less vulnerable to being hijacked by my own emotions.

After several years of practice, I decided to qualify to teach mindfulness and subsequently held sessions for colleagues at the bar and other professionals. This coincided with a significant shift in perception of the importance of wellbeing in the workplace.

So what is mindfulness? In essence, it’s very simple. It’s about coming to our everyday experience with curiosity and openness. We become aware of what we’re doing while we’re doing it and the practice gives us a chance to notice life as it happens. We step out of automatic pilot mode.

We can practice mindfulness by learning to meditate or by introducing mindful pauses into our daily lives. When we practice, we start to engage our ‘rest and digest’ nervous system which helps to drain off excessive amounts of chemicals in our bodies, such as cortisol and adrenaline. Engaging this soothing system is a reliable way of helping ourselves to activate our natural capacity to be well.

Using mindfulness in the workplace to tackle stress and enhance wellbeing is becoming more common as the benefits of practicing regularly become more widely known. Scientific research shows that regular practice of mindfulness can help to alleviate anxiety, reduce stress and depression, lower cholesterol, reduce insomnia and enhance our sense of wellbeing - to name but a few significant benefits.

Described as ‘simple, secular and scientifically provable’, for many the practice of mindfulness can provide a welcome moment to pause and a practical way of checking in with your own sense of wellbeing in the workplace. This can only be a positive step in the right direction.

By Gillian Higgins

Gillian Higgins is an international criminal barrister, commercial mediator and meditation teacher. She is Head of the International Practice Group at The Chambers of 9 Bedford Row and runs the Practical Meditation website (www.practicalmeditation.co.uk). She is also a teacher on the leading meditation App, Insight Timer.

(1) Thriving at Work: A Review of Mental Health and Employers, 2017, by Lord Dennis Stevenson and Paul Farmer

(2) Wellbeing at the Bar, April 2015: www.barcouncil.org.uk/media-centre/publications/2015/may/wellbeing-at-the-bar-report/