How to break the shackles of work stress with easy mindfulness

Work-related stress is quickly becoming a serious health threat. New Zealand is the 4th most notorious country in the world for unmanageable stress, with an alarming 2,375,000 Kiwis reporting to suffer from stress on the work floor. Mindfulness expert and former ad agency-owner Marisa Garau shares her story of turning around her stressful life — with three unorthodox mindfulness tips that will help you ease your work stress right away.

November 2005. I woke up in my upscale Amsterdam townhouse… and suddenly decided I had enough. Enough of the anxiety attacks, the sleepless nights, and reoccurring depressions. I was only 38 and totally burned out.

Until then my life had revolved exclusively about work and making it big.

I had studied copywriting, slaved away in major ad agencies, and at the tender age of 27 – tired of being underpaid – I started my own advertising agency. And so, blissfully unburdened by business experience, I loaded a whole new universe of responsibilities upon my frail shoulders.

During those ten years that followed I was making a handsome income… but my fortune came at a formidable price. Stress quickly turned chronic and my wellbeing withered.

I suffered from thyroid imbalance, eye disease, lumbago and bouts of depression. Not that I cared, mind you. My solution to all this inconvenient health kerfuffle was: Toughen up, sister! Just work a bit harder and everything will be fine.

But on that cloudy November morning I didn’t just wake up. I awoke to a crystal clear, life-changing insight — that my time on earth was too precious to waste away in the sickening tube light of yet another hospital room.

And so I quit my agency, sincerely believing that this step would end all my emotional suffering for once and for all.

Well… it did not. On the contrary. In my new role as a stay-at-home-cat-mum, I found myself freaking out about how my now hopelessly derailed, career-starved life would surely never come right again. 

Fortunately, I then came across the mindfulness training and I signed up. Somehow I understood what really stressed me out: my very own, stress-addicted, out-of-control mind… ouch!

Right from day one mindfulness captured my heart. My physical disorders disappeared, and depression quietly packed its suitcase and left me.

I migrated to beautiful Mangawhai with husband and cats, wrote two bestsellers on mindfulness, and now help audiences worldwide to unlearn stress, and grow resilience, inner balance and confidence through my online platform GrowingMindfulness.com.

What changed my life is the insight that the primitive part of our brain likes to worry, and that we should not allow for that. When unlimited worrying turns into a habit, you see, it creates neural pathways in our brain which keeps us firmly down in the worry-ditch.

While work stress and burnout are quickly turning into a full-scale health epidemic, it’s important to know how to unlearn this unhealthy worry habit.

So what mindfulness exercises can you do today to decrease work stress and prevent yourself from falling into the burnout trap?

Create be-breaks

After every task you have completed, such as writing copy for an ad, brainstorming with your team, or getting briefed on a new campaign, you consciously take a be-break. A be-break is a short break, from 30 seconds to 3 minutes, in which you allow yourself some time to simply be, rather than do

In your be-break, you walk from your desk to the office kitchen, garden or balcony. Leave your phone on your desk (be brave, you can do it!) and walk in full awareness. Pay attention to the walking process: feel your feet on the floor, how your muscles work to lift your one leg, how your body holds itself upright, how your head balances on your neck. Feel the expression on your face and soften it. 

When you have arrived, take a few deep breaths. Then say to yourself:

  • “I’m grateful that I am alive now.”
  • “I respect my body that is always at my service without complaining.” 
  • “This is a precious moment that deserves my appreciation.”

Only after having enjoyed your be-break, you take on your next task.

Have attention for colleagues

One of the main causes of work stress is the energy of colleagues. If they are stressed, frustrated or cross, their mood infects everyone on the work floor. Responding negatively to such energy only adds oxygen to a smouldering fire, and you run the risk of getting burned. 

Today, try a different approach. Resolve to be calm and patient. Accept that one of your art-directors is going through a bit of a tough time, whether you understand why or not. Realise that her impossible behaviour has nothing to do with you, but with some issue in her life. So pay some sincere attention to this colleague. Not only for her, but also for yourself. 

Resolving to be compassionate is a very powerful emotion that makes you feel good about yourself and reduces stress. Ask her if you can help her with any of her tasks, and then do it without discussion. Get her a cup of coffee or her favourite doughnut. Sit down and let her talk freely about the things that are troubling her. 

Reach out from the goodness of your heart and give her a helping hand. Sincere attention is a magical remedy and you’ll see that she will feel a lot better, clearing up the atmosphere in the office not just for you, but for your other colleagues too.

Honour your energy 

If, after a hard day’s work, you still feel unfulfilled because yet again you weren’t able to work on that all-important ad campaign which might win you an award, try a mindful approach. The next working day, promise yourself that everything that will come your way, will receive your full dedication. This day, you won’t judge and divide tasks into ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Today, every task will be worth your energy. 

So you start working on your campaign, but then your account manager comes into your office with a question. Instead of hitting him with your deadly glare, you consciously listen to his problem and help him find a solution. Take all the time you need, because you’ve resolved that all tasks, even those that you would normally label as ‘disruptions’, are now worth your full attention. 

After that, you have a be-break, and then you work on the ideas for your ads again. When the phone rings, talk to that demanding client with a sense of calm since you know you have allowed yourself to see this as a ‘good’ task, not as a ‘bad’ one. Once the phone call is done, you work on your project again. 

This way you embrace all those distractions because today they are equally important to you. At the end of the day, appreciate this different way of working in which you have completed so many different tasks with full respect for your own human energy. You have consciously added a level of quality to all those different, seemingly unimportant tasks, which will leave you feeling content and fulfilled.

Final thoughts

When you have a busy life, practising mindfulness-in-everything-you-do will help you fall less often in the stress trap while consistently working on a better focus, emotional resilience and spiritual growth. As you can see, to be mindful you don’t need to meditate. By simply approaching your tasks with a different mindset, you can start creating a more balanced and fulfilling work life right away.

About the author

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 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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