How to Stay Focused and Mentally Healthy at Work

Published: May 24, 2021

Rasmus Hougaard is on a mission to humanize the workplace. Hougaard is the founder and CEO of the Potential Project, which helps leaders at Accenture, Cisco, Lego, and other top companies manage their minds to stay focused, reduce stress, boost productivity, and improve well-being. Hougaard is also the co-author of One Second Ahead: Enhance Your Performance at Work with Mindfulness and The Mind of the Leader: How to Lead Yourself, Your People, and Your Organization for Extraordinary Results. His third book, Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way, will be published by Harvard Business Review Press this December.

Recently, we spoke with Hougaard, via Zoom from his home office in Copenhagen, about his new study on mind-wandering, his recommendations for improving focus and well-being, and his new book. Below is an edited excerpt of that conversation. 

Vault: First of all, how have you been dealing with all the stress and anxiety of the past year? And what are you seeing at the companies that come to you for help?

Hougaard: We at the Potential Project have been fortunate, because we’re trained to deal with this. We go through a lot of internal training. But we’ve seen significant effects at the companies we work with. Stress is up, depression is up, burnout is up, and well-being is down. And all of this is coming from two things. One, stress leading to lack of focus, leading to less productivity, leading to more stress. And two, a sense of despair, or pessimism, with people wondering, ‘Is this ever going to change?’ All the companies we work with are suffering from these same two things.

The Potential Project just completed a new study on mind-wandering. Before we get into the study’s results, how do you define mind-wandering?

Mind-wandering is involuntarily not being present with what you’re doing, whether it’s a conversation, an email, or a meeting—so, every time you’re trying to do something but your mind is somewhere else.

According to the study, stress makes people two to three times more likely to experience mind-wandering, and on average people spend one-third of their workdays mind-wandering. Does that mean employees aren’t really working one-third of their days?

It’s a little more than a third. People’s minds are somewhere else 37 percent of their workdays. But yes, that’s correct.

Is all this mind-wandering a new phenomenon, or have our minds always been wandering and we’re only now realizing it?

To some degree we’ve always been operating that way. Our minds, our brains, are wired for distraction. We’re very easily distracted. Having said that, there is no doubt that the state of the world has made it much worse, and there’s absolutely no doubt that the pandemic has exacerbated it tremendously.

What can we do to stop our minds from wandering?

Three things are clearly helpful. The first is a daily mindfulness practice. We see that people who practice mindfulness experience 24 percent less mind-wandering than people who don’t. That’s a significant difference. The second thing is get enough sleep. There’s no doubt that sleep quality and mind-wandering and therefore focus and well-being are directly correlated. According to our study, people who sleep seven hours or more a night experience 6 percent less mind-wandering than people who sleep less than six hours a night. The last thing is to connect with others. Those who connect with others during the day, even just for a little bit, experience 18 percent less mind-wandering than those who don’t. So, at breaks, have a conversation with a friend, colleague, or family member. That reduces mind-wandering significantly.

Regarding mindfulness, what do you recommend to someone who’s trying to start a practice for the first time?

First of all, there are a lot of great apps out there. I recommend picking whichever one is to your liking. Having said that, our clients are all working people. So, having something closely connected with the specific problems of work is helpful. Just a few weeks ago, we launched a new app that helps people focus at work. It’s not just mindfulness training but also mindfulness training correlated with how you write emails, how you conduct meetings, how you set priorities, how you stay focused on your goals, and so on. So, that would be my first recommendation. Find some kind of app.

The second thing is don’t beat yourself up. It’s difficult to implement a new practice or habit, and mindfulness is no different. Plus, you’re sitting with yourself, and it can be boring. So, it’s easy to not want to do it. Personally, I’ve practiced for about 30 years now, and for the first 10 years, I was on and off, and on and off, and on and off. Don’t beat yourself up is very important advice. Just remember that if you fall off the horse one day, don’t make the same mistake a second day. Make that your mantra: You can drop it one day, just don’t drop it two days.

As for sleep, do you have any specific recommendations for ways to get seven hours a night—other than not clicking ‘Watch Next Episode’ after midnight?

Yes, and we teach this as well because it’s a major problem for most people. Of course, there is the basic stuff like make sure you don't watch screens before sleep because it suppresses your melatonin. Also, make sure you have some downtime in the hour or two before you go to sleep because pre-sleep is important. And then, from a mindfulness perspective, there are a few things you can do when you actually go to sleep. The first is as you come into your bedroom, before you lie down on your bed and try to fall asleep, sit and do two minutes of mindfulness. It helps to settle the mind and settle the body a little bit, so you don’t bring that into trying to fall asleep. Two minutes is enough. And then, when you lie down, try to observe your breath for a few moments while you’re lying down. Be with your breath for a few minutes, then let go and let yourself doze off. Falling asleep is a very deliberate action. It’s not something that just happens randomly. It’s something we can cultivate. It’s a habit.

How exactly do you train companies in mindfulness?

One thing we do is hold a lot of 10-minute group mindfulness sessions. We guide the sessions, or internal people who are trained guide them. This sense of creating a community is very helpful. The social element is very important. That’s what we specialize in—creating these communities of practice, to help people get more focused, and thereby less stressed, more effective, more creative. We recommend companies create three to five slots during the day where people can dial in and practice together. People can also create communities themselves. They can arrange with a few colleagues to practice together every day. Or practice with their mothers, sons, aunts, and so on.

Can you give an example of the effects of these group sessions?

We did a study early on in the pandemic when people were suffering from a lot of anxiety. We had around 7,000 people from one big tech company go through these 10-minute drop-in mindfulness sessions. We asked them to describe their states of mind before the 10 minutes and after the 10 minutes. The difference was crazy. Before the sessions, 90 percent reported negative states of mind. Afterward, 90 percent reported positive states of mind. So, just 10 minutes, it makes a world of difference.

You recently completed another big study, the results of which will be covered in your next book, Compassionate Leadership, out this December. Can you tell us a little about that?

We did a major study with Harvard and found that it’s hard to be a compassionate leader if you’re not mindful. Mindfulness is a step that helps you become a compassionate leader. Whether you’re an employee, manager, or leader, being able to monitor and manage your thoughts, words, behavior, and habits is essential. If leaders aren’t mindful, they can go to all kinds of wonderful leadership trainings, they can know the right things to do, but because their minds aren’t with them, or they’re not with their minds, they’ll miss the boat. They’ll show up inauthentic, out of integrity, not aligned with their own values, and so on. And they won't be effective because their minds are wandering.

Having said that, it’s important to understand that compassionate and empathetic leadership are two very different things. And actually, leaders should not be empathetic. What research has found is that empathy leads to distress. Empathy is literally feeling the suffering of someone else. Imagine you’re leading a team of 10 people all going through a pandemic. All these people are anxious and stressed. And as a leader, if you’re showing up with empathy, you’re taking on a lot of suffering, which will hurt you. And empathy is very short-lived. You can have empathy for people’s emotions. But when you turn around, you forget about that.

Also, in the wiring of the brain, we tend to empathize with those who are like us, who look like us, who are in family with us. So, that means the more empathy we have—and this is just pure science—the more we’re prone for racism, for lack of diversity, for divisiveness. I’m not saying that empathy is a bad thing, because empathy is important. But, as a leader, empathy is not good. So, here comes the mantra. As a leader, you need to connect with empathy but lead with compassion. That means you need to have that spark of emotion when you see someone suffering, then move from that into action. Compassion is empathy plus action. And when a leader shows up with compassion—and this was what we found in the study we just finished—they create 36 percent better engagement for their team, 32 percent higher productivity, 36 percent less chance of their people leaving, and significantly lower the risk of burnout. They’re also getting a lot of benefits themselves.

Can you give an example of how a leader might lead with compassion in the workplace?

Take the example of a leader coming into a room, or a virtual room, with an employee. You see that the person is suffering. Something is wrong. The empathetic response is to sit down and feel what they feel, and then you’re feeling it together. And while that can be somewhat nice for the employee, it’s not really helping them.

A compassionate approach is to have that moment of, ‘I feel what you're feeling, and I feel really sorry for you, but listen, I’m going to take a step back, I’m going to bring a bit of perspective to the situation. What do you need?’ Either you ask that question, or you ask that question to yourself, and when you come to an answer, then you go into acting on that. It could be coaching the person to find a solution. It could be alleviating some of the work burden. Or it could be doing nothing and helping them figure it out themselves. It’s a very important leadership skill to not try to solve all your employees’ issues but simply bear witness to their challenges—to hold the space for them, so they have the room to figure it out for themselves.

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