If you live in the Western Hemisphere and study mindfulness, meditation and its connection to health, you have likely come across Sharon Salzberg.  A long-time Buddhist meditation teacher and writer, and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society, Sharon was one of the first people to travel to India and learn about Buddhism in the 1970s, and bring Buddhist thinking to America.  I first heard her speak at a Wisdom 2.0 for Business conference a couple of years ago in New York where she talked about her own troubles early in life and spoke about  the importance of taking care of our spiritual and mental health.  In her words, “It’s hard to give from a source of depletion.”

Sharon Salzberg recently came out with her latest book, Real Happiness at Work, a sequel to her book, Real Happiness.  In it, she discusses mental skills we all could use a little more of at work like balance, concentration, compassion, resilience, communication and connection, integrity and meaning.  She also shares several exercises to try at work – it’s all very practical and approachable.  If you don’t have time to read her book (maybe because you are too stressed out with work?) check out an hour long talk she gives about it.  It’s great.

In the podcast, Sharon Salzberg discusses one of the programs she did with the Garrison Institute working with front line workers in shelters for domestic violence.  Talk about a stressful job!  She asked these workers to make a list of the stressors of their work, and also what they did for upliftment.  Interestingly, she said just about everyone stated that an important factor for dealing with stress was “creating some sort of a physical area of tranquility.”  Many of the workers felt that they did not get a break all day and the demands of their job were incessant.  They said a physical space that would give them some peace or a short escape, like as an office where they could close the door or a rooftop garden, would really help them to release stress and “recenter” during the day.

It got me thinking about how so many workplaces today are designed to draw us in and keep us awake and stimulated, but not nearly as many are designed to keep us mentally restored. Yes, we can manage in a workplace without physical triggers to help us relieve stress.  But we are so much more likely to be able to escape from our stressful situation and “respond not react” at work if there are prompts around to remind us to take a deep breath and relax on a regular basis.  Prompts like meditation rooms, water features, fish tanks, soft music, plants or landscapes make it significantly more likely that we will be more refreshed at the end of the day.  If you want proof of this, just walk into the lobby of a day spa and see how you feel after hanging out there for a few minutes.

So what if we more regularly designed our workplaces for mental health and psychological restoration? How would that impact our productivity and well-being?

I recently collected data from a global company who had surveyed its population on a number of issues including physical and mental health. One of the questions on the survey was, “How many days did your physical or mental health keep you from doing your usual activities over the last 30 days?” The company calculated a loss of 3,513 days over that month due to presenteeism and absenteeism — equivalent to 5 percent of their workforce. Interestingly, employees believed they lost productivity due to mental health issues twice as often as from physical health problems.  The scary part for this organization was that they didn’t even have mental health issues on their radar.  They quickly enhanced their mental health and stress reduction programs in response to these findings.

I think a lot of companies are like the one I spoke to. They just don’t realize how much stress is negatively impacting their employees and so don’t think to treat it as a priority.  But even if companies don’t measure it, they see the impact of poor mental health affecting their bottom line every day, when their employees make mistakes, lose their drive or walk out the door because they “just can’t take it” anymore.

I think meditation and yoga, deep breathing, all of these exercises are really, really important work skills to have. But most employees don’t walk in the door with these skills already in hand.  They have to be taught, and having physical reminders around the workplace (along with a good stress reduction program) can help us all to be better at managing our work and keeping our performance high.

So maybe you don’t have the ability to install a Zen garden or water feature in your workplace to get some tranquility? Here are some simpler strategies that work like a charm:

  1. Bring in photos of beautiful, peaceful landscapes for your desk
  2. Listen to guided meditations (Buddhify2 app is great)
  3. Listen to calming music or nature sounds (I love Calm, which you can also use for meditating)
  4. Bring in a plant or water feature (even fake plants work)
  5. Take breaks during the day (schedule it in the calendar if you have to)
  6. Take a lunch break
  7. Get outside or go to an area in your workplace with windows for a period of the day and take in the scenery
  8. If you have an office, close your door and turn the light off for a few minutes

Featured image:  Westchester Buddhist Meditation Center, located at Eileen Fisher’s headquarters in New York