It was one of those frantic mornings when I was trying to do a dozen things, prepping the kids for school and getting myself ready for work. As I was coring an apple for my kids’ lunchboxes, I accidentally sliced my thumb.
I was fully aware that I was not coring the apple the right way. Despite that awareness, I decided to save a millisecond by coring it with one smooth cut — towards my hand. It was a fairly deep cut, and it took me about an hour of pressing on the wound before the bleeding stopped. Talk about making it to work on time.
That evening, the minor mishap came back to me during the calm of my weekly meditation session. As the editor of an occupational-safety magazine, I could easily see that I injure myself for the same reasons many workers get hurt on the job: time pressure, distraction, taking shortcuts, complacency and taking chances. Personal safety and mindfulness often go hand-in-hand. Obviously, I was not practising what I am trying to learn during these meditation sessions — that is, to be mindful.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not dismissing the importance of legislation and enforcement, nor am I letting employers off the hook for their responsibilities to create safe workplaces. Rather, job safety is most effective when it is built on a tripartite relationship: the legislative framework; employers’ obligation to safety; and workers’ understanding that safety is also a personal responsibility.
How is mindfulness relevant to workplace safety? A lot, actually. Mindfulness at work means focusing on the task at hand. Following safety procedures, donning appropriate personal protection properly and staying vigilant at all times are all part and parcel of mindfulness. For those who hold safety-sensitive positions or work in a hazardous environment, being mindful on the job lowers the chances of causing or getting involved in an accident as a result of inattention, negligence, human error or flouting safety protocols.
And there are also psychological benefits. By focusing on the breath and regarding every passing thought and emotion as fleeting clouds, meditation brings about better emotional self-control by highlighting the transience of these thoughts and emotions, which rise and ebb like waves. In a professional context, this means bringing about a more objective perception of experiences and minimizing the chances of conflict at work.
Mindfulness also regulates stress levels by altering the neuroplasticity of the brain. The amygdala — an almond-shaped mass of gray matter inside each cerebral hemisphere — processes emotions and stress responses. Magnetic resonance imaging scans of the brain from various studies have shown that the amygdale shrinks in size following mindfulness practice. Meditation also increases grey-matter density in the prefrontal lobe, which is responsible for problem solving and emotion regulation. This puts one in a better position to manage job stress and organizational changes that may occur from time to time.
In a society where multitasking and constant distraction are the norm, sitting and focusing on the breath can feel counterintuitive — even regressive. Research has shown that 99 per cent of all accidents are preventable. If the state of my thumb is any indication, safety — both at work and in our personal lives — is very much a state of mind.
Jean Lian is the editor of OHS Canada.