Mindfulness & Organisational Change

April 5, 2017

Organisational change, especially if it means downsizing, can be a stressful time. Practising mindfulness and compassion can help employees adjust to change with realistic expectations and the tools to cope.

The author of this article, Olivia Downing,  is a registered psychologist who focuses on the benefits of mindfulness. In her words, she is “incredibly passionate about facilitating change in individuals, groups and organisations,” and she has discovered that “mindfulness is a tool applicable across all disciplines, all cultures and all environments.”

Olivia, or Liv, has recently been working with Smiling Mind  to help the not-for-profit mindfulness organisation develop its offering to workplace clients.

Here, Liv discusses how mindfulness can help employees, leaders and organisations navigate the turbulent waters of organisational change.

“Leaders all over the planet are beginning to understand the benefits of purposefully learning to be more attentive and focused, non-reactive, and clear.”

Saki Santorelli, executive director, Center for Mindfulness, University of Massachusetts Medical School

It is the leaders of our organisations who define and drive organisational change; it is their responsibility, during such uncertain times, to do so with clarity, calm and a connection to their own values and emotions and an awareness of the values and emotions of their employees. That is to say they have the opportunity to implement organisational change with a more mindful approach, from which the whole organisation benefits.

What is mindfulness?

The simplest definition of mindfulness is “attending non-judgmentally to what is actually going on, not what we think is going on”. Often at work we can become carried away by our ideas about an event or a relationship. We spend a lot of time thinking about situations that are not actually happening and, may in fact never happen. We tend to ruminate obsessively about the past and worry incessantly about the future.

“Change is stressful for employees, and chronic stress can be expensive for organisations.”

All of this mental activity takes up a lot of time and energy (and is rarely fruitful) and can leave us exhausted, unable to think clearly, stressed out and feeling isolated and alone. Mindfulness is a simple tool that can allow us to connect to the here and now, it is a tool that can help us to wake up, show up and live all of our moments with greater clarity, calm and connection. It is a tool that can support us to be more effective leaders and more resilient and engaged employees.

Mindfulness has a long history and it is said to have originated in the Buddhist tradition. It then moved into philosophy and medicine and is now receiving a lot of attention (and funding) in the fields of psychology, neuroscience and education. Some of the world’s biggest companies (Apple, Google, Target and General Mills) have woven mindfulness into their culture and many other local organisations are currently doing so too.

To build our mindfulness skills we simply need to refine our ability to attend to the here and now, to build our mental presence, to learn to anchor our mind in one place. This enables us to quiet the constant internal chatter and can lead to us having greater mental clarity, working more productively, feeling less stressed and having more successful relationships. We can build this skill through formal mindful meditation practice (focus your attention on the breath) as well as informal practices such as noticing you are making yourself a coffee while you are doing it (instead of thinking about something else). The key is simply, matching our thought to our action in a non-judgmental way. Mindfulness can teach us to be more accepting, to demonstrate compassion for ourselves and others, to approach situations with an open curiosity and to let go of the past.

Relevance of mindfulness during organisational change

A 2010 study found that numbers of employees receiving medical treatment for stress-related disorders were greater in organisations faced with significant change. This tells us change is stressful for employees. Chronic stress can be expensive for organisations, in terms of an increase in workplace health and safety claims, absenteeism and employee turnover and a reduction in staff productivity.

Organisations have typically focused their stress management dollars on altering the stressor (external focus) such as time management training, redesigning of jobs or improved organisational communication.  While these are useful initiatives, during times of organisational change, it may be more beneficial to equip employees with the skills of altering one’s perception of the stressful situation (internal focus) as the change process itself is already underway.

Mindfulness has been scientifically proven to significantly reduce stress across both clinical and non-clinical populations.  While introducing mindfulness-based programs for leaders and employees before the change implementation would be most useful, giving your team some simple mindfulness tools to help them to manage the change is also likely to be effective.

Case Study: In 2006, AOL Time Warner Inc. reduced their sales and marketing group from 850 to 500 people. Mindfulness classes were incorporated to help employees deal with the working arrangements. As well as helping staff function better at work, the classes were regarded by many as a gesture of thanks for a job well done.


Mindfulness skills are relevant for both leaders and employees during times of organisational change as both groups can profit from the stress reduction benefits offered.

“Through practicing compassion for themselves and others, employees are more likely to feel more supported and less isolated.”

Through mindfulness, leaders can experience greater clarity of thought and therefore make more accurate and timely decisions and communicate these decisions with greater precision and compassion. Employees can benefit from staying in the ‘here and now’ and avoiding the stress associated with worries of the future. Through practicing compassion for themselves and others they are more likely to feel more supported and less isolated during the change process and through practicing acceptance they are more likely to be working with the facts (rather than the fantasy) of a situation, allowing them to plan a more realistic path for their future.

In conclusion, any organisation facing a large or small change initiative would be wise to consider including mindfulness skills training into their project plan. Through the implementation of this practice you can expect a greater degree of clarity, calm and connection in your leaders and employees and a smoother and more sustainable transition.


Originally published at Liv Mindfully. 


Article by Olivia Downing for The Plato Project 

Olivia Downing is a registered psychologist, based in Melbourne, Australia. During her professional life, she has worked across a vast range of industries from psychosocial rehabilitation to the corporate world in such guises as a mental health worker, saleswoman and keynote speaker. Recently, Liv has been working with Smiling Mind as part of the team to develop content for new programs and provide training to schools and business organisations.

Liv is an accredited professional coach, Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) therapist and the mother of two sons. Mindful parenting is another of her passions and, with a friend and colleague, she is working on a soon to be launched website, Mumalade.com, “the sticky and delicious home of motherhood.” In the meantime, you can follow Olivia at Liv Mindfully.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email