Why employers should apply mindfulness principles to fight our work stress crisis

With sick leave costs rapidly spiralling out of control due to work-related stress and burnout, mindfulness expert and former ad agency-owner Marisa Garau is bewildered to see how little Kiwi employers do to reduce stress on the work floor.

When I was a young copywriter and worked in the testosterone-driven universe of Amsterdam ad agencies, I often found myself in the toilet crying. Unable to cope with the stress that came with killing deadlines, workweeks which always included the weekends, unforgiving review sessions slashing my creative proposals (and my self-confidence), and the toxic dynamics among the creative teams who were mostly busy finding new, surprising ways of stabbing each other in the back, I locked myself in the toilet to sob silently, desperately trying to calm down my overburdened nerves.

I offered my talent to three different agencies in less than two years, but could not find the creativity-nurturing work environment I had expected within an industry that claimed to be hip and progressive. And that’s how I, at the tender age of 27 — a disillusioned, frustrated but thankfully also very angry young woman — straightened my spine, gave the smug fossils at JWT’s board of directors the middle finger, and boldly started my own agency, turning it into both a financial and emotionally fulfilling enterprise.

This is 25 years ago, and wouldn’t we expect things to have turned for the better by now? Not really, as far as I can see from what my clients tell me. Despite all the expert advice and the countless high-end training courses available to improve on management style, that ever-swelling army of highly-paid managers only seem to manage to make a mess of their people’s emotional state, consequently losing their best workers to chronic stress, burnout, and their company’s very own competitors… ouch.

So what can employers do to keep their workers inspired, engaged and content?

1. Give trust

Trust is a fundamental mindfulness principle and changes lives for the better, at home with your partner and children, as well as at work with your employees and co-workers. However, we live in times of deep distrust. Since ego cleverly dresses this trendy lack of trust in the more impressive ‘I’m just being sceptic’ (meaning: I’m so much cleverer than all the rest of you fools), it is embraced as the ultimate attitude to make it big. And so, the army of micro-minded people with more power than they can handle breathes down their employees’ necks every second of the day, dictates how to do their work, scoffs at their suggestions, and tells them off if they have the nerve to move an inch away from any of the preconceptions that live in a micromanager’s mind.

When applying mindfulness though, employers would realise that they have hired employees based on their qualifications and work experience, and that they can safely assume that their workers know how to do their job. Trusting means withdrawing to the background and allowing people space to come up with creative solutions on their own, while being available when help and guidance is asked for. This nurtures autonomy and resilience: the exact employee characteristics employers dream of if we are to believe their fancy recruitment ads.

2. Let go

Letting go is closely interwoven with trust since you can’t let go if you have no trust. While letting go is a powerful principle, the corporate world seems to do exactly the opposite. Strict rules are imposed on employees on how, where and when they are supposed to perform. Especially for the creative industry, this 19th-century practice is mind-bogglingly out-of-date. When working on an advertising brief, your creative mind doesn’t switch off at 5pm, now does it? It works always, even more so when you’re not particularly thinking about the communication problem you have to solve. So why do employers still force the valuable creativity of their people into that worn-out production unit mould, confining their precious creative business assets to a mind-numbing office space for eight hours a day and expecting the magic to take place right there and then?

Remember that incredibly sharp cartoon where a bully orders his subordinate to get back to his goddamn cubicle and think outside the box? However funny, it’s the sad reality for many modern-day office workers.

With mindfulness, employers let go of their controlling and stress-inducing behaviour and start trusting their people’s conscientiousness and work ethics. Most workers want results as much as their boss wants it and naturally, stick to deadlines without having to be reminded. Practice letting go and allow people to work according to their personal biological rhythm, during the day, evening, or night; in the office, at home, or in a busy café. The more they are free to work according to their own personal preferences, the more responsibility they feel for their assignment, and the better their solutions will be. Being able to work autonomously is a natural human desire and, when respected and encouraged, lowers stress levels significantly.

3. Stop judging

After teaching mindfulness for nearly 10 years now, I’m still surprised to see that many of us don’t know that stress is being caused by our own judgemental thoughts — nothing else. Of course, we blame our work, our boss, or our co-workers when we stress out. But these circumstances and people are simply the reality. Our stress is caused by negatively judging this reality. If we wouldn’t judge, we wouldn’t experience stress, anxiety, anger or sadness.

Where mindfulness aims to reduce stress, rooted in the Buddhist desire to end all human suffering, non-judging is a typical mindfulness principle. But what we see in the corporate world, and particularly in advertising, is quite the opposite: judging. Naturally, strategies and campaign concepts are being judged, first by the creative directors, then by the clients, then by consumer panels. This is an effective form of judging since we only do it to improve the quality of our work. We must have feedback and see how others respond to our ideas in order to come up with the best work possible.

But what works for professional output, does not quite work for the professionals themselves. The March edition of Harvard Business Review featured an article called ‘The Feedback Fallacy’ on the ineffectiveness of constructive feedback. The monster of ‘constructive’ feedback, so passionately embraced by micromanagers, doesn’t construct at all, but instead destroys people’s confidence, makes them less productive, and entices them to take their talents somewhere better. In short, sugar-coated criticism (because that’s what constructive feedback really is) doesn’t make for better employees. Instead, it burns people down and, surprise-surprise, that’s not very good for their work results.

But how to apply mindfulness when it comes to the corporate judging habit that you were told was a really effective tool during that expensive, five-day-all-in management training course? It’s simple: replace those ineffective judgments with positive encouragement. Understand that on an emotional level we are all children, only in adult bodies. Children thrive when they are being encouraged, and they’ll try even harder. And so, do we. We like to please and make others proud of us. For the sceptics among you: yes, it is scientifically proven that employees would rather get appreciation and applause than a pay rise.

So, if you’re an employer, forget the constructive feedback failure and instead start spreading the abundant goodness of compliments and encouragement. You’ll find that your people feel a lot better about themselves, and this will naturally be reflected in their results.

Final thoughts

To business owners, CEO’s, executives and supervisors, the management of people must seem very complex. And that’s easy to understand since it is made to look complex by the management mafia who earns big bucks with all their fancy workshops and training courses. But we can’t deny that none of these clever management techniques have so far delivered upon their promise. In today’s world, low self-esteem, work-related stress, and burnout are not merely a worry but have turned into a true epidemic. And not just on this side of the globe.

It’s high time that Kiwi business leaders start looking into a more holistic approach when it comes to dealing with workers. And that’s not complex at all. In fact, it’s fairly simple and I hope I’ve shown that in this article. It’s all about critical rather than cynical thinking, questioning the effectiveness of existing dogmas, allowing for honest introspection, and having the guts to work from the eternal wisdom of the heart rather than dully obeying the limiting beliefs of ego-driven thinking.

  • For 10 years Marisa Garau (51) ran her ad agency in Amsterdam, working as both a copywriter and a journalist. With her husband, she moved to Mangawhai where she authors internationally published bestsellers on mindfulness and does the odd freelance ad gig. Together the couple started their own olive oil brand, and run Growing Mindfulness online platform and MindSpa, an in-office mindfulness solution to help employers reduce work stress, boost creativity and nurture holistic leadership. You’ll find more down-to-earth tips by business professionals in Marisa’s in-depth article about reducing work stress with mindfulness.

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