In a competitive corporate landscape, where it is necessary to be focused on several outcomes at once, it seems frivolous to suggest you still your mind. And yet this is precisely what some of today’s most celebrated entrepreneurs, from Sir Richard Branson to Arianna Huffington, credit with their enhanced performance, decreased stress and, yes, joy.

In fact, Branson has said that “integrating mindfulness into our everyday lives is just as important as eating well and exercising regularly”. His Instagram feed is populated with the kind of bright, shiny happiness we should all aspire to, while Huffington’s Thrive Global posts celebrate resilience, gratitude and giving.

In her bestselling book, Thrive, Huffington argues that our pursuit of money and power, as well as 24/7 connectivity, has led to an epidemic of stress and burnout.

She says meditation – a way of practising mindfulness – could revolutionise our culture, workplaces and lives.

These entrepreneurs are not alone in their belief in the power of the mind to boost business; leading companies including Optus, Fitness First, IBM, Seek, Swisse, BP, Google and Virgin Australia offer employees the chance to develop mindfulness. Kathleen McCudden, group human resources director at Seek, says having a happy, healthy workforce, where staff are engaged and feel valued, has a direct impact on the company’s performance.

Dr Addie Wootten, CEO of digital platform Smiling Mind, believes mindfulness helps employees improve relationships and develop their communication and leadership skills. The flow-on effect is better engagement, performance and productivity.

In a survey of IBM employees who use the platform, 68 per cent reported a greater sense of calm, while 42 per cent reported feeling more focused.

There are benefits for CEOs, too. LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, who uses the Headspace app for guided meditations, says that pausing during the day gives him time to strategise rather than simply reacting to challenges.

Cue the mindful movement, including: “mindful fitness”, where workouts include meditation sessions; mindful spa experiences; more apps like Calm, Headspace and Smiling Mind; and drop-in meditation studios. We can also expect an explosion of technologies like Muse, an EEG headband that tracks brainwaves, heart rate and breathing, and the Versus Headset, which uses biofeedback technology and gaming apps to train your brain.

The price of stress

Life strategists Shannah Kennedy and Lyndall Mitchell run practical wellness classes at businesses around Australia, including Macquarie, Deloitte and Commonwealth Bank, and have taught mindfulness techniques to CEOs, directors and partners.

“In a world of constant stimulation, our brains are frying themselves,” says Kennedy. “We used to take a break by going outside for a walk. Now we’re checking social media platforms while we’re walking. We’re in a constant state of judgement and our brains haven’t evolved to keep up with what we’ve created.”

She says there’s a difference between meditation and mindfulness: meditation is about letting go and allowing everything to flow through you; mindfulness is about focusing on one thing and allowing all other thoughts to have a rest. Both boost focus, self-control and efficiency while instilling a calm confidence, reducing anxiety and improving relationships, she says.

For businesses, they can also reduce the profit-sapping cost of stress at work, which lost Australian employers $2.6 billion in absenteeism and $9.9 billion in presenteeism in 2018, according to an estimate by KPMG and Mental Health Australia. In contrast, the organisations found that investing in mental health initiatives, such as resilience training and stress management, can deliver returns ranging from $1.30 to $4.70 for every $1 invested.

The Productivity Commission is conducting an inquiry into the role mental health plays in workplace participation, productivity and economic growth. It’s led by economist Dr Stephen King, who says that mental illness is an increasing problem throughout the developed world, though it’s uncertain whether this reflects a greater willingness to talk about it or a greater incidence.

One in five people have a diagnosable mental health disorder, he says, but “it is still pretty brave to say, ‘I have clinical depression’ in most workplaces because the reaction may be, ‘We’re not sure we can rely on you anymore.’ Yet depression can be absolutely curable if treated early.”

Even so, the stigma of mental ill-health isn’t what it once was. King says that’s partly due to high-profile individuals sharing their stories. He hopes that one day we’ll have a mental health system that mirrors the one we provide for physical health. “The culture is changing; we are moving to a better place.”

Towards health, happiness and joy

Researchers are increasingly aware of the ways in which the mind controls the body. Neuroscientists such as the late Dr Candace Pert have shown that emotions produce chemicals that influence our health. For example, acute chronic stress stimulates pro-inflammatory cytokines, increasing the risk of disease.  

Even in the healthy, stress can disrupt synapse regulation, making a person less social and killing brain cells. According to a Yale University study, it can even reduce the size of the brain as stress has a shrinking effect on the medial prefrontal cortex, which controls memory and learning.

The good news is that the brain and body can recover through activities that combat wear and tear, including exercising regularly, finding purpose and practising calming techniques. Numerous studies have found that mindfulness lowers cortisol and affects other positive changes.

Clinical psychologist Gemma Cribb says that one of those changes is a thickening of the “grey matter” in your brain – the areas responsible for, among other things, regulating emotions and perspective. “Meditation also reduces the amygdala, which is responsible for your fear response,” she says. “This thickening of some areas and shrinking of others increases your ability to cope with uncomfortable emotions and difficult situations, and it gives you more space to experience joy and pleasure.”

A bonus: these practices also boost levels of the feel-good chemical, dopamine, in the brain. Experiencing moments of bliss on a regular basis has been connected to longevity in some studies. And for corporate bean counters, research on happiness and productivity published in the Journal of Labor Economics found that joy can make people up to 12 per cent more effective. There’s even research that shows negotiators are more likely to score a win when they are feeling joy.

Mindfulness increases joy because it trains us to recognise a perfect moment in time. In a TEDx talk on the habits of happiness, Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard told the audience that mind training “is not a supplementary vitamin for the soul. This is something that’s going to determine the quality of every instant of our lives. We love to go jogging. We do all kinds of things to remain beautiful. Yet we spend surprisingly little time taking care of what matters most – the way our mind functions.”

Just 20 minutes of mindfulness practice, done twice a day, may be the secret not only to survival, but also to success. 

Helen Hawkes

Helen Hawkes is a journalist who writes compelling print and digital content across business and finance, health and lifestyle, real estate and interiors. Her content clients have ranged from American Express and the University of NSW to Maserati and 9Honey. She is fluent in cross-platform storytelling, brand tone of voice, content strategy and stakeholder management.