Mindfulness to Manage Stress and Uncertainty in the Workplace

Duncan Smith


What role can mindfulness play for leaders and employees in transitioning back to being in the workplace? How can people use mindfulness at work as a tool to manage stress and uncertainty? 

A good place to start would be to consider “what is mindfulness?” Mindfulness has become kind of a buzzword, so it’s useful to explore what it is, and what it isn’t.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, who founded Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction in the 1970s describes mindfulness as: “awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California describes mindfulness as “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environments.”

So we could say that mindfulness is a nonjudgmental, caring attention, here and now. Traditionally mindfulness has two parts, a receptive part and an active part. The first part, is the spacious, kind, non judging awareness of the present as described above.

Secondly, mindfulness includes an appropriate response to the present situation. This is important to remember, because people sometimes take mindfulness to be passive, and it’s not. Practising mindfulness orients us —  it brings us clearly into the present, from which we can then respond mindfully. To practise mindfulness enables us to shift from reactivity, from a place of being caught and being identified with our thoughts, feelings and reactions, to a place of clarity and perspective, of ease and care.

Can mindfulness help with transitioning back to being in the workplace? 

So if we consider applying mindfulness to the questions of transitioning back to being in the workplace, we first begin to notice our thought process itself – rather than being caught in our thoughts we can notice and examine our perspective with curiosity and interest, and without judgement. In the same way, we can notice our feelings about transitioning back to the workplace, again without judgement, rather than being caught or identified with the feelings. The ability to take a step back, to become the witness of our own thoughts and feelings, and of our responses to others’ thoughts and feelings, increases our capacity to respond to situations more skilfully and more flexibly. Whether we are a leader or an employee, developing this capacity helps us navigate not only this transition, but all of our interactions with others both within and outside the workplace.


Is mindfulness a means to manage stress and uncertainty? 

Our modern Western cultures, so full of ambition and striving, with so much orientation towards grasping for a better future, a focus on doing rather than being, and with so much self-judgement and judgement of others, are fertile grounds for increased anxiety and stress. Many of us feel uncomfortable with uncertainty – and yet we know at some level that the future is always uncertain, that everything, including ourselves, is impermanent.

Mindfulness gives us the opportunity to be present for things as they are, in the present time and place. Jack Kornfield tells the story of a sign in Las Vegas that says “you must be present to win.” So, it is with our minds and hearts. Practising mindfulness is a way of inviting ourselves to be present in the here and now more fully, and to accept the reality of what is, letting go of both attachment and aversion. In this way we calm our minds and open our hearts, and in so doing we increase our capacity to accept uncertainty as a fundamental reality. A common issue is not uncertainty itself, but how we relate to that uncertainty.

Whether we’re dealing with transitioning back to the workplace, our own stress or the stress of others, or the inevitable reality of uncertainty, mindfulness helps us to steady ourselves in the midst of turbulent times, to respond to our lives – including our working lives –with more clarity and skill, and with greater kindness towards ourselves and those around us.

What are your insights and takeaways?

Share your thoughts in the comments!

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Duncan Smith, Impact Business School’s first Expert-in-Residence, holds a BA in Comparative Religion from Trinity College and an M.Ed. from Harvard with a focus on Organizational Behavior and Adult Learning. With a background as an advisor, mentor, and author, Duncan is dedicated to fostering inclusive workplaces globally, drawing on his extensive experience in organizational culture change across 24 countries on 4 continents.


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