Voices

Accountants under pressure: Creating a more mindful workplace

Google began tracking search trends in 2004. Since that time, the frequency of searches for “mindfulness” has more than quadrupled, which goes to show you just how much the concept has gained traction in recent years. While Google doesn’t provide data on who’s making those searches, I’d venture a guess that many come from workers seeking a little respite from the day-to-day grind -- something accountants understand all too well.

Workplaces all over the country are beginning to develop and implement in-house mindfulness programs for their team members because of the benefits these programs produce — not only for the business, but each person’s fulfillment in their job.

According to the University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good magazine, “Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.” When businesses were first starting to be aware of mindfulness and its benefits in the workplace — which include improving everything from productivity to interpersonal relationships — they gave employees tools and resources to pursue mindful practices on their own. Today, many of the world’s leading companies are taking things one step further and creating company-wide programs to encourage mindfulness across the board.

Meditation in park
An attendee takes part in an outdoor yoga class at a park during the Yogafest Yokohama 2014 event in Yokohama, Japan, on Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014. The yoga event, Asia's largest, takes place through Sept. 15. Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

Lessons from leaders

Over the past few months, I’ve had the privilege of sitting down with people leading such programs at many admired companies. Their insights prove invaluable when it comes to understanding how to put mindfulness into action at your workplace.

“We’re on the first steps of a thousand-mile journey,” said Scott Shute, director of mindfulness and compassion at LinkedIn. Scott has been in charge of creating programs and protocols that allow employees the time to recenter themselves during the course of work. “I’m an ops guy,” Shute added, “so my job is to operationalize compassion, meaning, what does it mean to run a company compassionately?”

To answer that question, Scott has begun to test programs that benefit the employees at LinkedIn. One of his first initiatives was to create dedicated spaces for people to practice mindfulness in whatever form they find most useful. These spaces can be used for meditation, prayer, and other mindful activities. Simply by carving out a dedicated area for mindfulness, the employees know the company takes it seriously.

Peter Bostelmann, director of SAP’s Global Mindfulness Practice department, has observed the change in reactions firsthand. “When I began incorporating mindfulness practices in my life, I was hiding it like many others, as I would come to find out later,” he said. “Now, of course, it’s becoming more mainstream.” After benefiting from mindfulness in his own life, Bostelmann was tasked with making it work at SAP.

Starting with pilot programs in Palo Alto, SAP now uses mindfulness training at all of its offices. They began by offering a two-day course called Search Inside Yourself. It’s grown so popular that it now has a waitlist of over 8,000 SAP team members. “It’s a little bit of a difficult problem,” Bostelmann said with a laugh.

Tools for mindfulness

You may not have the near-unlimited resources of a LinkedIn or SAP, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find ways to introduce mindfulness in your workplace. One of the best ways to do that is through adopting software for mindful practices. Two leaders in this field are the apps Calm and Headspace. Both apps give people the tools to disconnect, if only for a few moments, and engage with their inner selves and return to work more aware of what’s going on around them.

“When we practice mindfulness, we’re more likely to recognize when we’re being swept away — by social media or any other means of distraction — and bring ourselves back," said Tamara Levitt, head of mindfulness at Calm. "This really improves our focus and productivity.” Levitt recommends beginning the work day with a mindfulness session. In just a few minutes, it puts employees in a state of mind that fosters open communication and limits rash decision making.

Headspace even offers a Headspace at Work program designed specifically to increase the use of mindfulness tools in the workplace. Headspace co-founders Rich Pierson and Andy Puddicombe note that creating the program has helped make mindfulness, in their words, “an easier sell.” Businesses want to invest in resources that provide measurable and demonstrable benefits; Headspace at Work does just that.

Bringing mindfulness to your workplace

At this point, there are most likely many people in your office who already practice mindfulness on their own. Finding and talking to these people about what they do is a great starting point for figuring out what may be most helpful in your firm. If it’s not your natural strong suit, you may consider appointing someone to help foster a mindful environment. Additionally, you should try out some practices for yourself. It’s much easier to see the advantages when you’ve experienced them in your own work.

When it comes to hard-and-fast tactics, one of the easiest is simply carving out 10-minute blocks, a couple of times a day, for everyone to turn away from their devices and focus on their breathing. You’ll be shocked at how quickly these breaks lead to a happier, more fulfilled work environment. After all, many times as we are rushing through our day, we forget to breathe. A scheduled reminder a few minutes at a time can go a long way.

Mindfulness and accounting

There are so many reasons why accounting professionals can benefit from mindfulness training. For one, many of us do very focus-intensive work. When you’re crunching numbers for hours on end, it can be easy to get frazzled and frustrated and even distracted. Building in time to get away from the screen allows people the chance to step away from the minutia. When they return, they are much more likely to be at the top of their game. Have you ever struggled with a crossword clue for what feels like hours, only to put down the puzzle for a bit and return to find the solution comes easy? If so, you know that taking a break can make you sharper.

Since accounting work can often be high-pressure to meet deadlines and get through a great deal of work, you may often need to be alert and focused at all times, but we know that can be bad for morale, employee retention, and a host of other indicators quality workplace indicators. Promoting mindfulness strategies lets your team know that you care about them as people, not just because they can do a job.

Now is the perfect time to begin implementing a mindfulness program at your firm. It may not seem like a big deal, but it just may be the best business decision you make all year.