Leadership

Bringing Mindfulness Into the Workplace

Mindfulness, empathy, compassion, and love are words that we frequently hear in relation to human connection and self-care. They’re not words we’ve historically associated with the business world. It’s time we included them.

We’re in an unprecedented time. We’re emerging from a global pandemic and travel restrictions and mask mandates are easing. We’ve seen enormous shifts in our workplaces with moving to remote work and now shifting to hybrid work or going back to the office altogether. By July of last year, 4 million people left the workforce. Women left the workplace in record numbers during the pandemic due to job cuts in the hospitality and services industries, and pressures at home with being primary caregivers as kids had to adapt to remote learning.  

How can we create sustainable businesses and thriving teams amid so much change?


Even prior to the pandemic, business leaders have understood that long term success doesn’t happen by only focusing on profit margins – it comes from supporting an enthusiastic and engaged team that is self-motivated. That can only happen if team members are physically, mentally, and emotionally well, and they understand their value to a broader vision of what they are helping to create. Of course, there are plenty of people who are primarily motivated by their paychecks – but most of the time, people need something more to feel motivated and passionate about their day-to-day work. And now, this is more important than ever.

We talked with Elizabeth Ross Holmstrom, founder and CEO of Mindful Employer, about the work she’s doing to help teams and company leaders find a more meaningful and successful experience at work.  

Uprise: Why do you think Mindful Employer is particularly important with everything happening in the world right now?  

Elizabeth: Having an organization like Mindful Employer, which is dedicated to bridging the gap between business strategy and human empathy, is particularly poignant right now. The Great Resignation we’re going through right now is the result of millions of Americans who have left and continue to leave their jobs every month.  

Younger workers and professionals are not interested in serving as a resource or “capital” for any organization. They, like me and like all people, want to work for companies with a soul. They want to know that their employers care about their well-being and care about contributing to a greater purpose. This was already an emerging trend prior to the pandemic.  

Uprise: You founded Mindful Employer in 2016, before the pandemic. What were some earlier indicators that you saw that people are ready to do business differently?  

Elizabeth: The Business Roundtable, which is comprised of CEOs from some of the world’s biggest corporations, changed their Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation in August 2019. Instead of its original focus on shareholder primacy, the updated statement endorses the promotion of “an economy that serves all Americans.” All stakeholders should be valued, not just the upper management.  

The thinking behind the Business Roundtable’s original statement was that, as long as you serve your shareholders, all that value will trickle down. But we know that doesn’t necessarily always work because people get greedy or simply fail to create that inclusive workplace environment. It’s telling that the top CEOs have come to formally recognize the importance of all employees.  

Uprise: Do you think COVID accelerated this thinking?

Elizabeth: The main effect COVID had on shifting employee values was in the way it forced us to be present and take stock. There was more time to think about what we want our lives to look like.  

Uprise: What’s your background? How did you get started with this type of work?  

Elizabeth: I’ve been working in well-being and human engagement for most of my career. Over the last 20 years or so I’ve witnessed companies move further and further away from human connection. Technology is enabling us to do some pretty amazing things (video calls, AI software, automation, etc.). Companies have understandably increased their reliance on the beautiful things that technology allows us to do. But the tradeoff has been less time to connect with other people as human beings. That lack of connection wears a person down.  

Elizabeth Ross Holmstrom, founder and CEO of Mindful Employer, enjoying time in Yosemite National Park. Photo courtesy Elizabeth Ross Holstrom

Uprise: I think we all have heard about mindfulness but it’s usually in the context of our personal lives or in our yoga classes. How did this start to intersect with business for you?

Elizabeth: I was first introduced to the term “mindfulness” as it relates to work through research around why people were feeling so stressed at their office workplace. Stress was the big “it” word in those days, but what we learned was that there’s actually a mindset around stress, and that’s what needs to be addressed. Research on the last 100 years of work history in the United States uncovered the reality that stress is a natural part of working and existing as a human being. But continual stress is not. Longer shifts and fewer breaks have consistently led to reduced productivity among employees.  

Uprise: That continual stress is what we all know of as burnout, and it’s certainly tough to recover from - it’s much better to work sustainably. What did you do when you saw this trend?  

Elizabeth: I started my first company, Break Together, as a way of getting managers to make time for human connections and regularly check in with themselves and their employees. Unfortunately, managers treated our services as a kind of “employee outing.” They viewed it as a once-in-a-while break instead of an ongoing process. It helped boost company morale, but it was clear to me that what we were doing was not addressing the root cause of employee burn-out and dissatisfaction.  

Uprise: What do you typically see with teams that have this type of sporadic “fun,” but they don’t include wellness in how the company operates day-to-day?

Elizabeth: We start new jobs with optimism. There’s a sense of purpose. After a while, however, employees may become disillusioned or disappointed with their work. It’s a bit like the end of the honeymoon. Five or ten years into the relationship, it’s going to take more than a few happy memories to keep employees engaged with their work and eager to offer creative solutions.  

It’s going to take mindfulness.  

Uprise: How does Mindful Employer help companies make mindfulness a higher priority?

Elizabeth: With Mindful Employer, I’ve built on our previous knowledge with the addition of what’s known as “conscious capitalism.” Raj Sisodia and his students did decades of research on corporate culture that culminated in a book titled “Firms of Endearment.” They found that the companies we like to interact with the most as consumers and clients are also the ones that provide the best work experiences for their employees. By being mindful employers, managers are able to retain top talent and employees are able to act as brand ambassadors, pitching the company ethos and purpose to potential customers in an organic way.  

Uprise: We have a framework we use with our customers called “Compassionate Commerce” and talk a lot as a team and with clients about acting with empathy and compassion. I’ve been in the workplace for more than 20 years – this isn’t typical. What are you seeing today?  

Elizabeth: I wasn’t allowed to say “love” about a workplace context as little as two years ago. The idea that empathy, compassion, and mindfulness towards one’s employees is incompatible with business ethos has quickly been dismantled. Employers don’t need to choose between equity and efficiency.  

Young people are extremely conscious of the negative impact traditional working culture has had on previous generations. “Love” is no longer a taboo word, along with “self-care,” “mental health,” and “employee well-being.”  

It’s clear that the businesses that succeed in the future will be the ones listening to their employees now.  

 

Elizabeth Ross Holmstrom is re-imagining the workplace ecosystem through employer training and workshops. In addition to Mindful Employer, Elizabeth is the co-founder of the Conscious Capitalism Chapter in Portland, Maine. She also holds the license for DisruptHR Portland, Maine, which produces an annual event bringing forth voices at all levels to improve the way we work together.

Malinda Gagnon

Malinda has more than 20 years of experience in business strategy and technology at companies including Google and WPP, and has advised clients such as Procter & Gamble, General Electric, VW, BlackRock, and Walmart.

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