What mindfulness has to offer health and social care

I can’t quite remember when I first heard about mindfulness – I think it was four or five years ago through my clinical work as a psychotherapist. Then a colleague ran a mindfulness exercise using sultanas at a leadership development programme – the purpose of the exercise was to enhance participants’ awareness of focusing and noticing. This became a defining exercise as participants began reporting their ‘sultana moments’ back in the workplace – times when they had given a patient or colleague their undivided attention for sometimes only two or three minutes, how powerful those minutes were and what a lot they learned in that short time.

Now mindfulness is everywhere – searching on Google produces more than 5 million results and Amazon has more than 6,000 titles. And Goldie Hawn spoke to the world’s political and economic leaders about mindfulness in Davos last week. So what is all the excitement about? Actually I think there is quite a lot to get excited about. In the same way that I was blown away when I first experienced proper supervision nearly 30 years ago – which was hugely motivating, gave me a sense of purpose, helped me through difficult times and improved the quality of my work enormously – I now find myself having a similar response to mindfulness. What a huge difference it could make.

Mindfulness is about paying attention in the present moment without evaluation or judgement. It is about noticing what is going on in the here and now – both inside ourselves and with others. Mindfulness asks us to pay attention, not only to what we are thinking, but also to what is going on in our bodies and what we are feeling. It invites us to get out of our heads, where we can spend oodles of time worrying about events already past and anxiously fretting about events yet to come – leaving little space to notice what is actually happening in the present moment. The ‘in our heads’ approach is likely to lead to the same old patterns repeating –  continuing to believe that when something goes wrong it is either ‘all my fault’ or ‘all their fault’ – and so the blame culture lives on.

Mindfulness provides more possibilities; an open-hearted curiosity can help us approach rather than avoid new, difficult or painful situations. By noticing what is going on for us we can access more data. The knot in our stomach can tell us that we are feeling threatened; if we notice that, we can consider the reality of the threat and make better decisions about what to do. If the stomach knot appears when we need to have a difficult conversation it might prompt us to rehearse the conversation beforehand, or wonder whether the other person also feels threatened, or make sure we have someone to talk to afterwards.

One of the things I love about mindfulness is its counter-intuitive nature. People often say they don’t have time for mindfulness; however, mindfulness practice can speed things up, or perhaps more accurately it can help us to use time more wisely. An operations manager told me how he used mindfulness to transform their team meetings. He now begins each meeting reminding colleagues of the purpose of the meeting, inviting people to do short breathing exercises and to focus fully on the purpose of the meeting and the people present. The meetings now run on time, people attend, decisions are made and there is a sense of satisfaction within the team.

For those that like the hard stuff, neuroscientists are developing a compelling and fascinating evidence base for the effectiveness of mindfulness practice. It has been shown to develop emotional intelligence, increase resilience, improve decision-making, enhance creativity and innovation and reduce stress. But mindfulness does require practice – like many things, the more you do it the better you get, and it is the repeated practice that makes changes in our neural pathways.

And for those drawn to ancient wisdom, mindfulness is not new. Mindfulness practices have been applied for thousands of years, in all the major religions and in secular life across all continents.

So there is a lot to get excited about. I believe mindfulness practice offers a positive and practical contribution to building the compassionate, candid and creative cultures we need in our health and social care services. If you are interested in learning more, join our open programme on developing compassionate leadership through mindfulness.

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#41633 Duncan Williams
GP and Population Health Group Leader
Hywel Dda University Health Board

As good a summary as I have seen, adaptable to 121 consultations about health/care, internal conversations about life and transformative in the motivational and behavioural drivers for improvement in systems. Thanks!

#41634 The Mindful Man

Sounds a lot more like mindlessness. And I have seen plenty of that about already.

#41636 André Tomlin
Chief Blogger
The Mental Elf

You'll find more 'hard stuff' on our Mental Elf blog, which summarises the latest reliable research for health and social care professionals. We've blogged about mindfulness a few times over recent months. The evidence-base is indeed growing: thementalelf.net/tag/mindfulness/

Cheers, André

#41637 Joe Godden
Professional Officer

Good to see comments about Mindfulness. If any one interested BASW are putting on a non profit session on Mindfulness for social work practitioners basw.co.uk/event/?id=230

#41638 john kapp
Social enterprise complementary Therapy Company (SECTCo)

Well done. Good account. Mindfulness courses are NICE recommended, so patients have the statutory right to them if their doctor says it is clinically appropriate, as it is NICE recommended since 2004. Commissioners who don't buy enough are breaking the law, as chairman of NICE Sir Michael Rawlin said in Aug 2012, yet the waiting time in Sussex is 20 years, so you can have a course in 2034. I have proposed a voucher scheme so that GPs can prescribe it as easily as Prozac, and patients can access courses free with existing providers within 4 weeks, see sectco.org.uk.

#41639 experto crede

Mindfulness in it's true sense has been around for thousands of years and many people diagnosed with MH challenges have been practising this in real meaningful ways that don't fit in to the NHS models. The idea that you should score feelings out of 10 before meditation and then again after to show some sort of measurable outcome shows scant understanding for what mindfulness is.

It is not possible without spirituality and I do not mean in a religious sense. But spirituality is unmeasurable ( and indeed often assessed as pathological ) in MH services.

So can I suggest that instead of trying to impose models of mindfulness 'therapy' on patients/ service users that this model is instead imposed on ALL health and social care professionals.

When they then have some insight in to their own feelings and have practised how to be compassionate and mindful towards others they can be allowed to discuss mindfulness with those diagnosed. And then pay attention to what we and the rest of the world can teach them. Because the idea of MH professionals being the experts in mindfulness is quite frankly obscene to many

#41653 Steve Turberfield
Healthcare Engineer
Philips Healthcare

I'm rather surprised that mindfulness and compassion needs to be taught to people working in the "Caring" professions.
To be mindful is an excellent way to live life but this sounds more like a consultation company finding a new way to extract large amounts of money from the NHS by reminding them of the blindingly obvious.
Your local Budhist centre can teach you genuine mindfulness for free.

#41663 Sarah Corlett
consultant in public health
Southwark Council

Steve Turberfield and experto crede make important points (as do all commenters). As Anne Benson says mindfulness is and has been out there for far longer than the NHS! Also it is not a management technique but for certain there is the potential for it to be commodified as such. Nevertheless if the health and social care sector is now trying to make it understandable and do-able in their terms and language it's a good thing in my view. Practising mindfulness is an opportunity for health and social care staff to get off their 'expert' pedestal and take more of a values based perspective and understand and respond better to patients, the public and one another. And I do not think care professionals are necessarily more compassionate than the rest of the human race; we need support, encouragement and an appropriate environment to exhibit such behaviour consistently and well. Thanks for a good piece

#42151 Anna Betz
health & socialcare professional, commoner
School of Commoning, Social Services & NHS

I am delighted to see how mindfulness is gaining more visibility and becomes a talking point in the public domain. I am also very mindful of the dangers of commodifying it which Madeleine Bunting points out :http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/06/mindfulness-hospita...

My own evolutionary edge which I am passionate to explore is how we can use mindfulness not just for individual benefit but for supporting our transition to a more integrated, kinder and more more compassionate culture. to this end I am organising a workshop on the 10th June. It would be great to meet others who share this passion for a world that our hearts tell us is possible and start working towards it together.

Mindfully your

#42152 Anna Betz
health & socialcare professional, commoner
School of Commoning

Here's one of the passages I found useful:
"mindfulness is a distinct quality of attention that is dependent upon and influenced by many other factors: the nature of our thoughts, speech and actions; our way of making a living; and our efforts to avoid unwholesome and unskillful behaviors, while developing those that are conducive to wise action, social harmony, and compassion."

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