By Stuart R. Levine
Published In, The Credit Union Times

What is mindfulness and can its practice improve the quality of your decision-making? Can it increase your productivity, health, intuition and make you more in tune with your colleagues and your business?

Some of the most successful companies are training their employees and customers in mindfulness to increase the effectiveness of their organizations.

Mindfulness is getting more attention in business, health care and the science of neurology. When we are mindful, we have an intention to observe our thoughts, emotions and sensations in real time. We consciously take note of our surroundings, increasing awareness of the moment, actively noticing what’s new and being more sensitive to context and perspective. It’s the essence of engagement. Being in the now provides openness, energy and clarity of thinking.

A Harvard Business Review article, “Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain,” shares compelling evidence that practicing nonjudgmental and present awareness changes the brain. Upon completing a structured eight-week mindfulness program, participants actually increased the gray matter density of their brains. Cerebral areas governing perception, emotion regulation, introspection, complex thinking and sense of self were all affected positively – qualities that impact success in business and life.

Research from the University of Wisconsin showed that mindfulness creates changes at the neural level, improving how we think and feel. Only 10 minutes a day of sitting quietly, observing breath or meditation, or walking with intention and acute awareness can improve the brain. Mindfulness practices keep the brain healthy and protects us from the significant stress of our complex, challenging world.

Mindfulness is a must-have for effective leadership. Published research from graduate business school INSEAD reported better communication skills, more appropriate reactions to stress and improved innovative thinking through mindfulness practice. Effective leaders are keenly aware of how their mindsets, emotional states and actions affect team members. They are able to control their behaviors and suppress automatic responses. Mindful decision makers take time to observe, not falling prey to assumptions which can be misleading and are able to consider various options. The cognitive benefits of being present supports a more effective decision-making process.

Aetna, Google, Intel, General Mills and many other leading companies have instituted programs in mindfulness. Data showed improved employee and client relationships and increased job satisfaction. General Mills has trained well over 500 employees and 100 leaders. Their program was showcased at Davos in 2013. The investment paid off with the vast majority of the participants consciously trying to improve personal productivity with 83% versus 23% before training. Eighty-two percent took time to eliminate unproductive tasks versus 23% before, and 80% of leaders reported experiencing a positive change in decision-making. Eighty-nine percent said they became better listeners.

At Aetna, five to 15 minutes of mindfulness meditation exercises for both employees and customers, are designed to target work-related stress and work-life balance. In surveying employees before the training, Aetna found that employees reporting the highest stress levels had on average $2,000 of higher medical costs than those with the lowest stress levels. Mindfulness has been shown to reduce employee absenteeism and turnover.

Google’s program of 19 sessions or an intensive two-and-a-half day retreat is designed to help participants learn to better understand themselves and relate to others. Attention training develops the ability to calm and clear the mind regardless of circumstances. Self-knowledge development promotes increasing awareness over time. Repeated conscious thought cultivates virtuous habits. Taking note of your accomplishments and those of your colleagues, as well as developing a mental habit of kindness towards your colleagues, improves both collaboration and teamwork.

In a mindful culture, employees are more fulfilled and satisfied. Discipline in mindfulness practice can help to replace constant multi-tasking and unnecessary mindless patterns of behaviors with intelligent actions.