Mindfulness Isn't Just A "Nice To Have" Offering, It Makes Good Business Sense - Richard Fernandez

“The World Health Organization reports that work-related stress is a major epidemic worldwide with 40- 60 per cent of workers in industrialised economies experiencing moderate to high stress at work”

A long-time mindfulness practitioner and teacher, Rich Fernandez is the CEO of Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI), a non-profit tasked with sharing Google’s Search Inside Yourself programme, which is an evidence-based curriculum developed to promote mindfulness, resilience and well-being in organisations. A former director of Executive Education at Google, Fernandez is also the co-founder of Wisdom Labs, an outfit that promotes the sci­ence of mindfulness, resilience and thriving in organisations. Prior to Google, he served at eBay as Head, Learning and Organisation Development, and as a learning and leader­ship development executive at JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America. In a conversation with BW Wellbeingworld’s Nina Kler, he talks about his mindfulness journey, leadership, his vision for SIYLI and its impact, among other things. Excerpts from the interaction:

What started your mindfulness journey? Are there any particular kind of practices that you follow? How has it impacted your effectiveness and leadership abilities?

I came to mindfulness early in my university studies when I took up martial arts and yoga, and through both disciplines I also learned how to meditate. I have maintained some form of these practices throughout my adult life. Currently, I practice mindfulness mediation daily (vipasana style) as well as hatha yoga on a semi-regular basis. These mindfulness practices have been absolutely foundational to me in terms of helping me cultivate mental focus and clarity as well as emotional bal­ance throughout my career and personal life. 

As a leader I am faced daily with the ever-increasing demands and complexity of running a global organisa­tion with a widely distributed set of stakeholders. There is no question that I rely on the skills that I cultivate in my daily mindfulness practices to help me navigate the challenges of organisation leadership. In fact, now more than ever I have been working to deepen my practices. For instance, I usually go on two to three mindfulness and/or meditation retreats every year (usually ranging from 2.5 to 5 days in length). 

What are the effects of mindfulness/SIYLI pro­grammes?

We have been delivering our SIY curriculum for over 10 years now in over 30 countries around the world. We measure the effects of SIYLI pre- and post-programme, and some of our client organisations have measured the sustained effects as far as six months after training. We have found some statistically significant changes in participant’s reported levels of performance ef­fectiveness, leadership and wellness as a result of the programme. Some outcomes include:

• SIY Participants reported a greater ability to focus and optimise their mental state. In terms of prioritisi­ation, for example, 49 per cent of pre-programme par­ticipants report that they take time to prioritise versus 71 per cent post-programme. 

• SIY participants reported greater resilience and mental readiness to meet daily challenges. For example, 34 per cent reported being able to bounce back after a challenging situation pre-programme, versus 60 per cent post-programme.

• SIY participants reported increased ability to maintain calm and poise in challenging situations, from 34 per cent pre-programme to 60 per cent post-programme.

We also have some very compelling case study and return-on-investment data. One of our major client is SAP, the German enterprise software company. Every year we put thousands of their employees through the SIY curriculum, and the outcomes are quite compelling. 

We know, for instance, that SIY participants report 6.5 per cent greater employee engagement, 9.2 per cent better well-being, 13.8 per cent better ability to focus, 7.6 per cent less stress, 6.9 per cent better com­munication and 5.2 per cent better collaboration pre versus post SIY. 

SAP has also published results indicating that every 1 per cent increase in employee wellbeing equates to 85-95 million euro per year in operating profit, and every 1 per cent increase in employee engagement equates to 50-60 million euro in operating, and that SIY increases both of those aspects of employee experience by 9.2 per cent and 6.5 per cent, respectively. You can see there is a direct benefit for running SIY in an organisa­tions such as SAP. In fact, SAP has indicated there is a 200 per cent return on investment on SIY and mindful­ness programming. And SAP was recently voted one of best places to work in the world. 

So mindfulness isn’t just a “nice to have” offering, it makes good business sense.

Talk about SIYLI and your vision for it. How it has come about and where you see it going? 

We aspire at SIYLI to make science-based mindfulness and emotional intelligence skills practical and acces­sible for everyone in the world. That means by definition we operate across sectors, cultures and traditions. SIYLI’s success comes about in large part because it draws on neuroscience as a foundation for the development of the useful mental habits and skills such as mindfulness and emotional intelligence that can be accessed during everyday work and life. Grounding SIY in science and the application of mindful­ness in everyday work and life situations (for example, in handling difficult conversations or negotiations) gives it a universal and practical language. Eventually, we hope to see SIY deliv­ered by certified teachers and train-the-trainer employees within most major organisations and communities around the world. 

What are the fundamental skills of high-performing teams and effective leaders?

We now know that the most important charac­teristics of an effective team are trust and psy­chological safety. Recently Google conducted an internal study of their most effective and highest impact teams, and they found that while dependability and structure were important, the most important characteristic was psychologi­cal safety. That means there was a level of trust in each other and from the leader that permitted the team to take risks, sometimes fail but, more importantly, be enabled to go after big goals and execute. 

We also know that emotional intelligence is one of the most important characteristics for effective leadership. In a Harvard Business Review article, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman report on a dataset of over 300,000 leaders, managers, and employees what skills have the greatest impact on their success. Six of the top eight were EQ-related (inspiring and motivating others, displaying integrity and honesty, drives for results, communicating powerfully and prolifically, collaborat­ing and promoting teamwork, building relationships) and two were IQ-related (solves problems and analyzes issues, displays technical or professional expertise). 

In many ways, emotional intelligence operation­alises trust, and trust and psychological safety result in organisational and leadership excellence. One great example is the leadership of Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn, who is routinely rated as one of the top 10 CEOs in the world by Glass Door (in 2018 he was rated #3). He speaks prolifically of the fact that compassion is the single most important characteristic of leadership, which led to trust and organisation effectiveness.  

Certainly, organisations and leaders can and do function without these characteristics, but there are hidden costs. The core question becomes what kind of leader does one wish to be, and what kind of team and culture does one wishes to create?

In your varied experience as a leader and teacher, what is missing in leadership today? 

I think leaders often overlook and underestimate their role in shaping an organisation’s culture and values, and that specifically paying attention to creating a culture of mindfulness, wellness and compassion is needed now more than ever. 

Previously, at Google, we had a philosophy in which we actively aspired to create the “healthiest, happiest and most productive workforce on the planet”, and that worked out very well for us. We knew that you couldn’t get to the third outcome — most productive workforce — without investing in the first and second areas — a healthy and happy workforce. 

Recently, Deloitte published their Human Capital Trends Survey 2018 and found that increasingly teams are operating as networks, such that internal collabora­tion and agility are top competencies within organisa­tions. But what are leaders really doing to promote agility and collaboration? 

I believe creating more mindful and compassion­ate work cultures promotes psychological safety and well-being and as a result people are able to be their best, remain agile and feel good about collaborating. The question is how many leaders are really investing in building mindfulness, compassion and wellness into their cultures? We need more leaders to do so. Because we know the highest performing and best places to work are those that have these quali­ties of engagement, wellness and mindfulness. 

What are the biggest deter­rents to a healthy workplace?

The way we are working in con­temporary organisations is not working because employees are more stressed, anxious, burned out and disengaged now more than ever before. Employees feel ever-increasing pressure in a hyper-connected, global, high-stress, high-velocity work environment. The World Health Organization reports that work-related stress is a major epidemic worldwide with 40-60 per cent of workers in industri­alised economies experiencing moderate to high stress at work.  

We also know that only 15 per cent of the global workforce reports being engaged in their work, according to Gallup re­search (measured as the degree to which they feel rationally and emotionally committed to their work and/or organisation). 

When workforce well-being and engagement drops as signif­icantly as we have been seeing these past years, we be­come less productive, innovative and industry leading organisations. We know that employees that prioritise sustainable engagement outperform organisations with low engagement by a factor of 3x, according to global HR consultancy Towers Watson; companies on the FTSE 100 that prioritise employee well-being and engage­ment outperform their peers by 10 per cent, according to the Workwell study conducted by the FTSE; and that companies such as SAP gain hundreds of millions in operating profit by investing in employee well-being and engagement. So it makes good business sense to directly address and invest against the deterrents of a healthy workplace. 

What are the effects of devices and social media on people’s overall well-being and what would you advise people?

Technology has had a major impact in our work and life, and that is not changing, so we need new ways to manage its impact. Because, “Always on, multi-tasking work environments are killing productivity, dampening creativity and making us unhappy,” according to a McK­insey quarterly report. According to a report published by Microsoft, people’s attention spans are down to 8 seconds from 12 seconds just 10 years ago, and much has to do with the distractions of technology. 

At the same time, technology is a reality and we need it to use it regularly to work effectively. 

So here are a couple of suggestions on how to man­age your technology, which comes from a Harvard Busi­ness Review article I wrote recently:

Compartmentalise your cognitive load

Though we can’t decrease the amount of information we receive (in our inboxes, for example), we can compartmentalise our cognitive tasks to optimise the way we process that information. Be deliberate about compartmentalis­ing different types of work activities such as emailing, strategy or brainstorming sessions, and business-as-usual meetings by scheduling specific blocks for them in the day. Compartmentalising work is useful when you consider that switching from one type of task to another makes it difficult to tune out distractions and reduces productivity by as much as 40 per cent, according to recent research published by the American Psychologi­cal Association. 

Take detachment breaks: Throughout the workday, it’s important to pay attention to the peaks and val­leys of energy and productivity, what is known as our ultradian (hourly) as opposed to our circadian (daily) rhythms. Mental focus, clarity and energy cycles are typically 90-120 minutes long, so it is useful to step away from our work for even a few minutes to reset en­ergy and attention. I would suggest as much as possible creating some “white space” in the day without screen time, in which connecting directly with colleagues, friends and/or loved ones is a priority.

Move your body: The Cornell Institute of Ergonom­ics did a study which found that the most productive employees managed their time sitting each hour by mixing it with standing and walking. They recommend sitting for no more than 40 minutes, standing for 10 and walking for 10. Whatever you choose to do, be conscious of getting up and moving your body every hour. 

Five things people can do to when dealing with stressful situations...

At SIYLI, we have a simple and practical five-part exercise that is proven to be helpful when faced with stressful people and/or situations. The steps are: Stop. Breathe. Notice. Reflect. Respond. We call it SBNRR (an easy way to remember this funny acronym is ‘Somebody Needs Some Rest and Relaxation’). So when you are dealing with stress the idea would be to:

Stop: Take a purposeful pause. Do not take any action, just stop. 

Breathe: Take a deep breath. This literally quiets your brains' alarm system (the limbic system) and activates the calming response (vagus nerve and parasympa­thetic nervous system). 

Notice: Become aware of your thoughts and emotions. 

Reflect: Ask yourself, “How might I most skillfully re­spond here, rather than just react?” Fight the negativity bias — don’t over-generalise or catastrophise about the situation and take notice if you do.

Respond: Responding to stress rather than reacting is almost always the best approach. Look for possibilities or new ways of thinking. Reframe. Problem solve. There are almost always other possibilities in any situation, we just often do not take the opportunity to explore them in the moment. 

All of this takes practice, and that is why we work so closely with organisations, teams and leaders to make the skills of mindfulness and emotional intelligence a set of healthy habit that people in organisations at ev­ery level practice regularly. Our ultimate aim is to make mindfulness, health and wellness a feature, a norm and not an exception in any organisation’s culture. 

Now imagine a world like that!  

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