According to “Mental Wellbeing of Employees in Poland”, a recent report published by Mindy, nearly half of us (48%) have problems concentrating, difficulty coping with stress (42%) and suffer from significant mood swings (39%). Since the beginning of the pandemic, over 30 companies have approached me because mindfulness practice addresses these issues – it builds focus, reduces stress and helps regulate emotions. In some cases, implemented mindfulness programs have yielded great results, in others marginal. Why the difference? What’s the best way to bring mindfulness into a company?
Over the past year, I developed the following best practices in cooperation with Scandit and Bank Pekao SA, which have successfully engaged employees in learning and practicing mindfulness. The lessons from these two cases go against some current beliefs about delivering quality development and wellbeing processes online. I share them below with the hope that they prove useful to those of you who are tasked with supporting the mental health of employees in your organizations.
ABOUT THE COMPANIES AND THEIR MINDFULNESS PROGRAMS
Bank Pekao S.A. is currently the second largest bank in Poland. The bank organizes online programs available to the entire population – regardless of the position, place of work or role in the organization. At the start of the pandemic, a lot of interest in the introductory webinar on mindfulness-based stress reduction kicked off a one-year initiative. The “12 Steps to Stress Reduction” program is offered from early 2021 and scheduled until the end of December. To date, almost 800 participants have attended online stress reduction webinars. Their commitment to understanding the biological and psychological mechanisms that occur in times of crises and learning how to stay balanced, is still very high.
Scandit is an international technology company of over 300 employees with offices in Europe, Asia and America. They are growing quickly and operating in a very competitive industry rich with young talent. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Scandit identified stress as a significant factor in the quality of team performance. They commissioned me to conduct an online mindfulness stress management workshop for an initial group of 25 employees. The positive response to this trail resulted in a program that reached over 115 employees and involved 25 in an in-depth process which provided lasting benefits for their mental health.
EFFECTS OF ONLINE MINDFULNESS PROGRAMS IN PEKAO AND SCANDIT
Two months after closing a deep dive mindfulness program at Scandit, the employees engaged reported the following:
· I have a new, more mindful reaction to conflict,
· I react better to stress and use breathing to calm myself,
· I see my automatic reactions more clearly,
· I sleep much better,
· I no longer have strong reactions to things I cannot change,
· I find myself being more compassionate,
· I meditate everyday which allows me to turn my attention away from upsetting things,
· I take time for myself when I am busy and I don’t feel guilty about it,
· Silence has become important to me.
Since the beginning of the year, Pekao has offered 18 webinars on various aspects of mindfulness based stress reduction as part of a custom made program. Despite the uncommon duration of the series, and a single lead teacher, 80 to 150 employees continue to actively participate engage in each webinar.
BEST PRACTICE: INVOLVE MANAGERS AND COORDINATORS
At Pekao, each webinar starts and ends with a few words from the human resources coordinator. The “12 Steps to Stress Reduction” program is available to all employees, regardless of their position or organizational assignment. At Scandit, managers participate actively both in the introductory mindfulness workshops and in the 8-week Mindfulness Deep Dive program. This is by no means the norm. In many companies, programs for employees and managers are kept separate and management is not involved in employee workshops. Sometimes, even the HR coordinator stops showing up, leaving employees entirely in the hands of a trusted coach or trainer. Does this matter?
One might assume that not having bosses present would encourage employees to be more frank and open with the trainer. And while occasionally this might be true, it isn’t usually the case. In practice, people who are afraid of sharing their difficulties at work do not share regardless of who is in the meeting – the presence of colleagues has a similar impact as the presence of managers.
Conversely, when the management team does participate in workshops, it does a lot of good. Employee’s approach becomes very conscientious, their attention more focused. There is higher commitment and willingness to speak. Additionally, groups like this provide an opportunity for people to see and get to know eachother outside the scope of usual workflow. In times of remote work this is a big additional value. At the first Mindfulness Deep Dive course at Scandit, many new hires admitted that they joined the program to get to know other people from the company.
When managers are not present at workshops, the opposite happens – commitment and conviction wilt because the employer unconsciously models disengagement, unconsciously sending the message that important people in the organization don’t need such things. And if bosses aren’t in the business of building focus, resilience and self awareness, why should people lower down in the organization get involved? The conspicuous absence of bosses in mental health or self development programs implies that these programs are designed for people who need special help. It may also fuel a sense of anxiety and fear that signs of stress or need for support might be misconstrued as weakness or low competence. The resulting sense of shame or desire to hide struggles can become a fast lane to employees burn out.
BEST PRACTICE: FLEXIBILITY vs FIXED DATES
With a long cycle for a large or dispersed population, scheduling a fixed time for workshops or webinars seems like a good idea because it makes it easier for employees to plan participation. However, this rule does not always apply. First, because seasonality matters. Second, because teams divided into branches and departments have varying work rhythms.
In summer you work differently than when you close budgets and plan strategies for the next fiscal cycle. In lockdown, people do not function like they do when restrictions are lifted. The beginning of the school year, the middle of a covid winter, the holiday season and periods of implementing large projects all have their own dynamics.
Therefore, in planning a 12 month process at Pekao, we made it a point to remain flexible. At the beginning of the year we offered one webinar per month during working hours, and a second in the evening. This enabled tellers from branches with customer service who could not attend during working hours, to join from home. The division worked well in winter and spring, but in the summer attendance at evening webinars went down. This holds true for many development programs in Poland – people prioritize family, travel and time in the sun. In recognition of this, Pekao changed the webinars to online workshops by adjusting the functionality on their technology platform to allow participants greater interaction with me and each other. As a result, the employees who made the extra effort to attend evening sessions got greater individual attention and engaged more. The smaller workshops were less formal, there was a freer exchange and deeper work on specific cases reported by employees. In the fall, in response to participants’ requests, the evening workshops were moved to mornings and attendance rose, returning the small group workshops to their original webinar format.
At Scandit, the different time zones and the dynamics of teams scattered all over the world were a challenge – it was impossible to set a single time for workshops. Therefore, Scandit offered my introductory workshop on mindfulness and stress at different times, on different days. I repeated the workshop six times so that everyone who was interested had more than one opportunity to participate, get to know the trainer and try meditation.
BEST PRACTICE: RECRUITMENT vs OPEN INVITATIONS
In many companies, information about open online webinars is widely circulated and available to everyone. This makes perfect sense: webinar platforms can accommodate almost any number of participants, while setting up barriers in the form of registration could discourage employees from participation. It’s worth taking into account, however, what end result you are hoping to achieve. Depending on the kind of group you need, it can make just as much sense to require registration and proof of commitment.
If you want small, engaged groups for a development process, by all means set deadlines and requirements. The human mechanism of valuing and paying attention to things that are scarce and difficult to obtain can have a big impact on participation in demanding programs. Some companies even ask employees for monetary contributions to increase their sense of ownership in the process.
Scandit required registration for each introductory workshop, and from those participants they later recruited a group for the full Mindfulness Deep Dive program. The process included briefing applicants on the full scope of work and course requirements before closing the cohort. As a result, the people comprising the class were from varies levels of the organization, from different countries, but with an equal awareness of expectations and readiness to engage.
When delivering webinars to a large population issue frequent reminders through multiple channels. One-off information about a program on the company intranet is not enough. Pekao reminds its employees of upcoming webinars in their weekly HR newsletter with the option to save the date in their calendars. Their system also sends several notifications before the start of a program. Despite this, not all interested employees can always attend, so Pekao records mindfulness sessions and sends out links to event subscribers.
BEST PRACTICE: CHECKING EFFECTS
After finishing the 8-week Mindfulness Deep Dive program at Scandit, we took a two-month break before the closing workshop to see what changes and benefits persisted over time. This allowed us to refresh the knowledge and practice for participants and let Scandit assess whether deep mindfulness work makes sense for their organization in the long term. The participants’ quotes are at the beginning of this article and they are what prompted me to share these reflections publicly. The refresher meeting, in the form of a mini retreat, was successful in an unplanned way as well. Participants found it valuable enough to request that it be offered quarterly, as a day of silence, mindfulness practice and reflection.
BEST PRACTICE: PARTNER WITH TRAINERS
We are in a period of rapid change. Adjusting course and learning from each other’s successes and failures will help the entire market embrace new standards and establish healthy practices that really work, not just look good on paper. To expedite this process, we need real partnerships between trainers and HR. Contact with employees and knowledge of the company’s culture combined with coaches know-how about what is interesting, what works and translates well to online, adds up to real value for employees. Custom tailoring of programs can only work if there is a real trust and connection between the needle and the fabric. Let’s keep talking and sharing our findings!
** Big thank you to Bank Pekao and Scandit for their permission to publish these learnings.