If you find yourself emotionally spent at the end of your work week, you may want to consider practicing an old Buddhist tradition called mindfulness.
A new study shows that being mindful at work can reduce your level of emotional exhaustion, help keep your emotions on an even keel, and increase your job satisfaction. The good news: You can reap the benefits in just a week or two of practice.
What exactly is mindfulness? According to Dr. Ute Hülsheger and co-authors of the study from the Netherlands, it is “a state of nonjudgmental attentiveness to and awareness of moment to moment experiences.”
It requires an awareness of inner emotions and thoughts, without evaluating, analyzing or reacting to them. By simply observing emotions, you’re actually helping to moderate them.
A growing body of evidence has found that mindfulness training reduces the symptoms of a number of emotional and behavioral disorders like depression and anxiety. In recent years, several studies on mindfulness in the workplace have shown up in the organizational psychology literature.
The current report, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, included two studies. The first was an observational study, which asked 219 workers to write in a diary twice a day for five days. The participants worked in service jobs, such as hospitals, schools, nursing homes, retail stores and public offices—jobs that often have emotionally charged encounters.
The subjects made diary entries after work and before bed, and had to respond to specific prompts or statements such as “Today I found it difficult to stay focused on what’s happening in the present,” and, “Today I pretended to have emotions that I did not really have.”
They also rated their levels of job satisfaction and emotional exhaustion.
The diaries revealed those who naturally were more mindful had lower levels of emotional exhaustion and higher levels of job satisfaction.
The second part of the study was an experiment. Participants completed a mindfulness self-training program. They were given written material and were told to follow the program over 10 working days. The training could easily be adapted by employees. It taught them how to observe and become aware of thoughts and emotions without getting caught up in reactions to them. The intervention also included informal daily exercises that bring awareness to patterns of thinking, reacting and feeling. These exercises come from mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction programs. A control group also filled in the diary but received no mindfulness training.
The researchers found that those who went through the mindfulness intervention had significantly higher levels of mindfulness than controls. The trained group also had higher levels of job satisfaction and felt less emotional exhaustion.
Emotional exhaustion occurs when people try to suppress or control their emotions.
“The more we try to suppress these emotions or the thoughts that accompany them ('I can't make it, I will fail, I am going to explode'), the more energy it requires,” said Hugo Alberts, a co-author of the study. “Instead of attempting to avoid or reduce a negative emotion, mindfulness requires willingness to stay in contact with the emotion and allow it to be."
Most people experience mindfulness, but to varying degrees. Increasing your mindfulness takes practice, but the study participants saw improvements in just 10 days.
Alberts recommended you stop for a few minutes during your day and direct attention inward as follows:
1. Become Aware
* Sit in an erect position and if possible, close your eyes.
* Bring awareness to your inner experience and acknowledge it, by asking: "What thoughts are going through my mind?" As best you can, acknowledge thoughts as passing mental events.
What feelings are here? Turn toward any unpleasant feelings, acknowledging them without trying to make them different. What body sensations are here right now? Quickly scan the body to pick up any sensations of tightness or bracing, acknowledging the sensations, but not trying to change them.
2. Gather and Focus Attention
* Redirect the attention to the physical sensations of the breath, focusing on your abdomen, expanding as the breath comes in, and falling back as the breath goes out. Use each breath as an opportunity to anchor yourself into the present. And if the mind wanders, gently escort the attention back to the breath.
* The breath helps you to connect to the present moment. If you are directing attention to the breathing, you are not thinking. If you are thinking, you are not in the moment.
Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist whose work appears in the New York Times, among other national magazines and websites. She blogs about the Affordable Care Act for the WellBeeFile. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.