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COVID-19 risks to staff wellbeing are real - but mindfulness can help us to step up to the plate with new ways of coping

14 Aug 2020

We're in this together

Mindfulness practice has helped nurture feelings of connectedness and reduce the risks of isolation for Futuregrowth employees during this time.

We’re in this together.
Extraordinary times require an extraordinary response. Our people and partners have responded by dedicating time and resources to various initiatives. This is how a weekly mindfulness practice has helped Futuregrowth employees during the COVID-19 crisis.

When Futuregrowth offered its staff an opportunity to attend an educational eight-week course on mindfulness during the final quarter of 2019, we had no way of knowing or predicting what lay ahead for the world in 2020. Nor could we have guessed how pertinent this training would turn out to be, a few short months later. 

How it all began  

Futuregrowth had already implemented a work from home strategy before the lockdown measures were announced, and ensured that operations were able to continue as seamlessly as possible under these new conditions. Then, as the reality and extent of the lockdown started setting in, the company began to look at other ways in which it could support its employees.

One suggestion was to find a way for those who had attended the mindfulness course to keep in touch and refreshed while in isolation, and a “Mindfulness Matters” group was set up. At that stage, Dr Nicola Graham, who had conducted the training at Futuregrowth, was running short online sessions with frontline COVID-19 clinicians, which were proving helpful to them in dealing with the ‘new normal’.

It was agreed that Nicola would run a 30-minute weekly drop-in session, for anyone in the mindfulness group at Futuregrowth who was interested, whether they had a regular personal practice or were simply looking for ways to stay grounded through this destabilising period.

Consensus was reached on a suitable time, and the sessions kicked off at the beginning of June. Each one offers a short guided practice, an opportunity for reflection, and a chance to mentally prepare for the week ahead.

Mindfulness in COVID-19 and lockdown 

On the course last year, we learnt that mindfulness is “moment-to-moment awareness, cultivated by paying attention, intentionally, to what is occurring in the present moment with an attitude of non-judgement, curiosity and kindness”.

In linking this to the pandemic, Nicola added further:  

“Throughout life, our minds and bodies are in a dynamic balance between:

  1. our sympathetic stress response physiology that helps us to deal with threat, and
  2. our parasympathetic ‘care and repair/ rest and digest’ physiology that allows us to relax, digest, repair damaged tissues and build immunity.

"When these systems are in balance, we feel able to cope, able to respond, and have a sense of wellbeing.”

Nervous system

‘Fight or flight’ vs ‘care and repair’

Quite often, however, our stress response physiology becomes over-activated by real or imagined threat, and we find ourselves bracing for danger throughout much of the day, wearing out our body’s resources and leaving us feeling exhausted and overwhelmed.

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Even a thought can trigger a stress response, and in these turbulent times of COVID-19 and lockdown, without realising it, we can find ourselves caught in ruminative thought loops that keep our stress response stuck at ‘ON’. This can cause us to become emotionally reactive and even experience physical symptoms, such as chest pain, headaches, poor sleep or altered appetite. 

Restoring balance

Mindfulness can support us to modulate our stress response and allow our minds and bodies to find a balance again. In mindfulness practice, we shift attention from the past or the future into the actuality of the present moment. By interrupting thought loops that trigger a stress response, and allowing attention to rest with a present moment anchor, such as the breath or the body, we allow the parasympathetic system time to do its work and rebuild and replenish our resources.

Building mindfulness muscle

Building ‘mindfulness muscle’ is a practice - just like building muscle in a gym.

In mindfulness practice, using a present moment anchor, we may notice our mind disappearing off into thoughts about the future or the past, and we gently and firmly redirect our attention back to the present moment - again and again.

We can use formal practices, such as following the movement of the breath, or scanning the body from head to foot. Or we can use informal practices, such as stopping and really tasting our mug of tea or coffee, feeling the sense of water and soap on our hands while we wash them, or tuning into the sounds that are around us.

Read, COVID-19 risks to subsistence are real

There are many apps available, offering different lengths and types of practice. Often though, it's a commitment or a community that closes the gap between meaning to do a practice session on our own and actually doing one.

Responding rather than reacting

As we deal with uncertainty without the usual levels of social support, mindfulness practice can be a great ally as we learn new ways of coping. Building our capacity to be mindful, we start to find a space between our triggers and our actions, allowing us to respond rather than react. We notice a greater sense of choice about where we place our attention, and reveal an untapped capacity for resilience.

Feedback on the experience

Several participants have shared what the weekly practice has meant to them personally, as summarized in the block on this page. This account evokes the richness of the experience:

“What I have found is that when you are 'too busy' is exactly when you NEED the [mindfulness] session. It is in slowing down and stopping to breathe, that you actually find your calm and centre again, allowing you to come out with much more clarity and purpose. It brings into focus what is really important and highlights what is just a distraction.

“Nicola's gentle, accessible, experienced and relatable approach is really lovely. Her ability to guide a session by bringing in inspiration through stories and quotes and some gentle guided meditation meets you where you are and allows you to follow your own path and process. She also gives each person space to check in and out, and to reflect on and share what comes up for them.

“Despite the virtual gathering we end up feeling connected with whoever else is attending - and full of oxytocin and serotonin - by the end of the session. It is such a lovely way to balance the stress, anxiety, adrenalin-rush and busy-ness of this time in the financial sector, with some real humanity and care. I have left every session feeling both more fulfilled and more motivated.”

Does mindfulness matter?

A recent session ended with the following quote:

“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humour, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized.” - Haim G. Ginott

Given the proportion of our day spent at work, employers are uniquely placed to support their staff’s mental wellbeing during this time. With social distancing and quarantine measures creating a yearning for contact, mindfulness practice can help to nurture feelings of connectedness and reduce the risks of loneliness and isolation.

There is no doubt that the pandemic has forced many changes to the workplace, the economy, healthcare, education and government – and to our previously unexamined assumptions and habits. People can use mindfulness as a tool, in addition to lifestyle habits such as sleep, exercise and good nutrition, to enhance both individual and collective wellbeing.

Mindfulness can bring awareness and caring into everything we do. Just a little can make our lives better. It can surely help us to shape a healthier present and a better future.

SOME BENEFITS OF MINDFULNESS SHARED

The response from Futuregrowth staff to the mindfulness sessions was positive from the outset. Here is a sample of what they have had to say:

  • Doing the practice with colleagues will be good to keep the sense of community going.
  • I’d like to share the enormous value I experienced in coming to the realisation that we are all facing the same challenges and anxieties, regardless of our walk of life. This understanding alone has made coping vastly easier. This was crystallised by the mindfulness exercises and the probing questions regarding the state we found ourselves in before and after the exercises.
  • Our weekly sessions have given me a greater sense of awareness of being intentional and present, a life lesson and tools that will benefit me post lockdown. The sessions also offer me a safe space where I can connect, find peacefulness and reflection amidst the busy-ness and chaos around me.
  • I have been doing a very short mindfulness practice with my team in our check-ins since the start of lockdown. They have found this useful.
  • Mindfulness has helped me to focus on what I need to complete in the day ahead. It has helped me to start my day with a good energy and to relax while doing so. It has helped me lower my stress levels as well.
  • These mindfulness sessions are very powerful to me. I also practice during the day when needed as this assists me to focus, get rid of any anxiety and gain a better perspective on certain things.
  • Mindfulness has made me more aware of my coping/avoiding mechanisms and helped me deal more productively with uncertainty. I’ve also realised that I cannot rely on external circumstances or other people for my inner happiness.
  • In the training last year we learned that human beings have a negativity bias and that we can get very fixated on threats and often overlook the good in life and nature. So it needs an intentional practice to find and celebrate these moments. This seems to be amplified during COVID-19 and the weekly reminders have helped me do this.
  • It’s amazing what a difference half an hour can make. But, like gym, regularity and consistency is the key: the more I practice the better the results. (Unlike gym though, anyone can do it, no matter what shape or size!)

Some useful websites

  1. Oxford Centre for Mindfulness
  2. Institute for Mindfulness South Africa, IMISA
  3. Centre for Mindfulness, University of Massachusetts Medical School

Some useful books

  1. Full Catastrophe Living – Jon Kabat-Zin
  2. Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World – Mark Williams and Danny Penman
  3. Radical Acceptance – Tara Brach

Some useful apps

  1. The Mindfulness App
  2. Insight Timer

PDF version: COVID-19 risks to staff wellbeing are real