Proctor : October 2017
50 PROCTOR | October 2017 Mind over matters Combatting stress and promoting high performance through mindful meditation It has been reported that lawyers working in law firms have lower psychological health and wellbeing than other professionals.1 This statistic is no surprise given the pressures of high workloads, the urgency and complexity of matters, and the challenge of meeting our clients’ expectations. As leaders in the legal profession, we must openly acknowledge the stress of legal practice and take a proactive approach to improve employees’ psychological health and wellbeing. The psychological health of employees, its impact on the workplace, and the practice of mindful meditation as an intervention strategy, are discussed in this article. Workplace stress and its effects In its simplest form, stress can arise from anything that disrupts an employee’s physical or mental wellbeing. In a workplace, it often occurs when an employee performs activities outside their perceived capability or when they face extraordinary demands. According to the American Institute of Stress, up to 90% of all health problems are stress related.2 These problems range from depression and anxiety disorders to susceptibility to infection and cancer caused by a decline in the immune system.3 From a workplace perspective, stress- related illnesses can result in or contribute to absenteeism, presenteeism, 4 workers’ compensation claims, low morale, and employee turnover.5 Stress also decreases an employee’s ability to solve complex problems and undermines attempts to resolve conflicts constructively.6 Mindfulness and meditation Mindfulness generally means to pay careful attention to the present moment, not thinking about the past or the future. It is described as a “non-elaborative, non-judgmental, present centred awareness in which each thought, feeling or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as is”. 7 There are many forms of mindful meditation. However, the most straightforward method, without the need for extensive tuition, is the practice of using the breath as the focus to stay in the present moment. In this context, the instruction is to sit comfortably with eyes closed and direct attention to the sensations of breathing, simply noticing it, paying attention to it, and being aware of it. When thoughts, emotions, feelings or sounds occur, accept them and allow the recognition of them to come and go without judging or getting involved. If attention wanders, becoming caught up in thoughts or feelings, gently bring one’s self back to the sensation of breathing.8 It is this practice that is said to increase employees’ ability to be fully present in the moment and to see things as they are, free from judgment.9 From a scientific perspective, mindful meditation is thought to reduce stress by reducing the physical symptoms of stress, thereby reducing the employee’s reaction to environmental stressors and therefore altering, in a positive way, the employee’s belief about their ability to manage stressors,10 even at the beginner level of practising mindful meditation.11 How mindful meditation benefits the workplace Reducing employees’ stress will have a positive impact on those workplace factors that are directly linked to stress.12 A mindful meditation intervention to reduce employees’ stress is also low in cost, because it does not require extensive expert tuition. As mindful meditation focuses on improving employees’ ability to manage stress from an internal viewpoint, irrespective of the external environment, it also reduces or eliminates the need to change existing human resource systems or practices. 13 Further, while it originated from Buddhist and Hindu religions,14 it is a secular practice, therefore acceptable to all employees, irrespective of religion or background. 15 Mindful meditation develops employees’ skills in focused attention and seeing things as they are, without preconceptions or judgment. These skills are readily applied to the practice of law. Further, enhancing employees’ capacity to relax and deal with stress effectively will arguably improve their ability to solve complex legal problems and resolve conflict effectively.16 Learnings from other jurisdictions The benefits of mindful meditation have been recognised within legal communities in other jurisdictions, particularly in Europe and in the United States. The skill of mindful meditation is being taught all at levels, from law students to senior members of the judiciary.17 If Australia is to maintain the quality of its legal profession and promote it as a satisfying career path, then it needs to seriously consider implementing a similar coordinated approach. In the meantime, there is an opportunity for law firms to set themselves apart from their competitors by incorporating mindful meditation into their current management of their most valuable assets, their employees. This article appears courtesy of the Queensland Law Society Wellbeing Working Group. Belinda Winter is a partner at Cooper Grace Ward Lawyers and a member of the group. Disclaimer: The author is currently enrolled in an online postgraduate wellness course at RMIT, rmit.edu.au/wellness.