In a time of increasing workplace fatalities, imagine if you were told that in five short years you could reduce your company’s medical aid events by 97%, disabling events by 99%, and Workers’ Compensation Board rates by more than 60%? Sounds like a safer, more cost-effective workplace – and undoubtedly a big promotion for you.
If you think those safety achievements are pure fantasy, you’ll be surprised to learn they were actually accomplished by an electrical utility company, NB Power, using only the power of the mind.
The secret to NB Power’s success was not hypnosis or some type of mind-altering treatment, the company simply gave employees the tools, resources, and encouragement to practice mindfulness training for safety.
WHAT IS MINDFULNESS TRAINING FOR SAFETY
If you’re wondering what mindfulness training for safety is, you can learn it yourself by following this quick and easy exercise:
To begin, find a quiet spot and clear your mind of all thoughts – positive and negative – and focus solely on your breathing (closing your eyes helps!).
Listen to and concentrate on your breathing until that is the only thing your mind is focused on.
Do you feel calmer? More relaxed? Most people do; heightening their environmental and situational awareness at the same time.
How Better Situational Awareness Leads to Safer Workplaces
So how does a heightened awareness of your environment lead to safer workplaces?
You take your eyes off the saw for a moment, and suddenly you lose a finger.
Your mind wanders to your plans for the weekend, and you spill a harsh chemical on your leg.
You zone out while repeating the same task for the hundredth time, and your hand gets caught in the machine.
All it takes for disaster to strike is a moment of inattention.
Utilities companies have found that 90% of accidents happen on beautiful, sunny days. It’s not when there’s a storm because that’s exactly when the mind is alert and workers are more focused on the ways they can get hurt.– Joe Burton, founder and CEO of Whil, a digital wellbeing, mindfulness and sleep training company
What Does It Mean to Be ‘Mindful’
Nothing is more important to safety than paying attention, but nothing is more difficult to train for or control. We are constantly bombarded by internal and external distractions, from the sensory (loud radios, the bright new hunting cap a co-worker decided to wear, a strong smell) to the emotional (the fight we had with a spouse, worries about job security, anger about a reprimand).
Research has demonstrated that mindfulness works well to help individuals recognize when they are distracted, and how to control those distracting thoughts that can interfere with much needed attention to the job at hand.– Shelley Parker, industrial psychologist with NB Power
All of us have experienced a moment of mindlessness at one point or another.
Have you ever arrived at work, a drive you’ve no doubt made for years, and can’t remember a thing about how you got there? This is a great example of your mind going on ‘autopilot’ or handing over control to your ‘lizard brain’ as some psychologists call it.
The ‘lizard brain’ is your unconscious. Through evolutionary necessity, it developed the power to ‘take over’ from the conscious mind, even when we’re awake.
If you look back at our early ancestors, it makes perfect sense. Imagine yourself as a pre-historic caveman running from a hungry saber-toothed tiger – you’ve definitely got more things to think about than where you’re going! In this scenario, the lizard brain takes over, guiding your body back to the safety of your cave while your conscious mind focuses on assessing the threat at hand.
Times have certainly evolved, but brain functions haven’t. Instead of leading you back to your cave, your lizard brain is driving you home from work; and instead of a saber-toothed tiger, your mind is racing with thoughts of how you’ll complete your status report in time, what you’ll make for dinner, how you’re going to pay for your kid’s education… and so on.
Mindfulness can help by refocusing your mind, leading to more situational awareness and less autopilot. Simply being more aware of your surroundings can have a tremendous impact on workplace safety.
TRAINING FOR MINDFULNESS: “THAT ‘HIPPIE’ STUFF ISN’T FOR US”
Mindfulness is nothing more than the practice of learning to pay attention, but given its New Age roots it is often associated with Zen yoga instructors or ‘funky hippies’ (as per the initial reactions of the employees at NB Power) and can be a hard sell to roughneck oilrig workers or macho construction workers. But hey, if electrical utility workers can move to a culture of mindfulness – so can your company!
Kris Corbett is the national director of on-site occupational health and safety for Wellness Coaches and has plenty of experience introducing mindfulness safety training to cultures that were unreceptive.
“I am mindful not to use words like ‘meditation’ or ‘Zen’ because I do not want people to view mindfulness in that way.– Kris Corbett, national director of on-site occupational health and safety for Wellness Coaches USA
Corbett recommends approaching the subject as an exploration into how it feels to behave mindlessly. After performing a repetitive task over and over, or making the same drive to work for ten years, the mind can sometimes go on ‘autopilot’ and this can lead to risky behavior simply because workers aren’t fully aware of their current surroundings. Mindfulness is the practice of learning to live in the present moment.
Employees who practice mindfulness are more productive, safe, and resilient and have a more positive outlook on life than those who do not practice.– Occupational Health & Safety Magazine
Cultural change for NB Power didn’t happen overnight, but through diligence and, most importantly, support from the top level of the organization, employees began to see the incredible difference mindfulness made on work, attitude, and general wellbeing. This lead not only to the incredible safety achievements cited at the beginning of this article but also to NB Power being awarded the distinction of being Canada’s Safest Employer with Gold Medal Awards for the Psychological Health Safety Strategy and the Safety Culture Award.
FROM MINDLESS TO MINDFUL: 5 TIPS FOR WORKING MINDFULLY
While mindfulness is a state of being, it is not something that comes naturally; in fact, it is a skill that must be learned, practiced, and honed.
Like exercise, you have to keep it up to reap the benefits! But those benefits can be significant, and they can extend well beyond the workplace.
In an article for Occupational Health & Safety Magazine, Kris Corbett outlines the differences between mindless and mindful living (see chart above) and offers five exercises for unlocking the key to mindful living.
Exercise #1: Slow Down
Take time. Rushing through things, especially when you’re late or stressed, can lead you to miss things you normally wouldn’t and can put your entire team at risk.
Exercise #2: Focus
In our society, the multi-tasker is held in esteem. The dad who can cook dinner while helping his daughter with her algebra, the mom who can prepare for tomorrow’s meeting while cheering on her son’s homerun – these are our heroes. But multi-tasking may not be the holy grail it’s held up to be and learning to focus on one task at a time can substantially improve your ability to stay in the present moment, and stay safe.
Exercise #3: Engage the Senses
After learning the basics of mindfulness concentration, it is helpful to expand your mindfulness skill set by learning to pay attention to what you hear, see, feel, taste, and smell. Corbett advises that when practiced, this type of exercise has a direct impact on an individual’s ability to be safe and work injury-free.
Exercise #4: Body Mindfulness
This involves being aware of the signals your body is sending you. It is about listening to and focusing on pain points, not simply accepting pain as “part of the job”.
Exercise #5: Meditation
Many people associate meditation with Buddhist monks suffering in silence to reach a higher level of consciousness, but Corbett explains that it is simply practicing the skill of allowing thoughts to enter and exit the mind without attaching judgment or reactions. Honing this skill will allow you to react to events with more wisdom and less unbridled emotion.
MAKE MINDFULNESS WORK FOR YOU
Marissa Afton, an industrial safety consultant with the Potential Project, sometimes does mindfulness training, but she doesn’t necessarily like to use the word “mindfulness.” Instead, she talks about “situational awareness” or uses other words that resonate with workers.
“People who work in corporate environments take well to the idea of sitting and breathing as a mind-training practice. It fits into the natural workday. But for people always on the move, just sitting still can be really uncomfortable—physically uncomfortable. I ask them, ‘What does it mean to move with sharp focus and also a sense of relaxation? How are we continually sharpening our focus and opening our awareness to both seen and unseen risks? How do we go to the mental gym?’”– Marissa Afton, industrial safety consultant with the Potential Project
Mindfulness can be one of the greatest deterrents to workplace accidents. Yet, just as is the case with gloves, helmets, or steel-toed boots, mindfulness only works if people actually use it. Frame mindfulness in a way that makes sense to your workers, and reap the rewards of better attention.
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