Given the current climate, there has been an increased focus on the importance of looking after our mental health, not only for the obvious benefit of our wellbeing in our personal lives, but also to support career satisfaction and development, both now and in the future.
So in this podcast, we are joined by Dr. Megan Jones Bell, Chief Strategy and Science Officer at mindfulness and meditation app; Headspace, who is here to share her expert insights on how meditation and mindfulness can both improve your overall mental health and wellbeing, but also benefit your career.
Dr. Megan also features in our latest edition of the Hays Journal, providing global insights for experts on the world of work. You can read the full article by downloading your own copy of the Hays Journal here.
(01:21) I am a clinical psychologist by training, and I’ve spent my career designing and researching evidence-based digital health offerings across the mental health continuum. A lot of my work is focused on prevention of mental health problems, as well as ensuring access to effective care.
And at Headspace, we have built the world’s most popular mindfulness solution. Our app addresses guided meditation, we also offer an expansive library of different sleep offerings, so music stories that help you fall asleep and we’ve also more recently added focused music as well as mindful movement. So, while it started with meditation only content, we’ve expanded it to help our audience understand how to apply mindfulness to multiple aspects of their lives.
(02:40) Well personally, I grew up with a Mum who experienced very chronic and severe mental health problems and really experienced first-hand, the consequences of a culture that doesn’t allow us to talk about what’s really going on with mental health. And for me, being unable as an adolescent and teenager to get support for the effects that her mental health problems had on me, I ended up developing my own.
And it was after I got effective care for my own mental health issues when I was 18 to 19 years old that I decided, this really could have been prevented in my case because I responded really quickly to therapy as soon as I got access to it. And I was determined to turn this negative experience that I just wanted to move away from, into something that could be beneficial to others and really use that experience towards growth for me personally.
And so, I was really interested in learning, how do I prevent this from happening to other people? How do I make sure that they get the care they need quickly? And so that has really been the motivation behind my career so far.
(04:20) Well, it’s changed a lot and I think if you look at the workplace approach to mental health, employers over the last five to seven years have been really contemplating what their role is in addressing the mental health of their employees. And I think we’ve seen a trend towards more of what I might consider early adopters, more progressive companies electing to offer benefits like Headspace to their employees.
COVID-19 and the multiple associated additional crises have accelerated the change that was already happening. And so, I think that the main point I want to emphasise here is this change was already in progress, particularly in the UK where we’ve seen culturally much more public conversation about mental health and a lot of efforts to reduce stigma, which does really create the space for us to empower people to address their mental health.
And so, employers have certainly been a key part of that. What we’ve seen in our own data associated with Headspaces work offering, which we call Headspace for work, we’ve seen a dramatic acceleration. So, companies that were thinking about offering Headspace in the next three to six months, were on the phone with us in March and April saying, “Can we launch this week?” And so, there was a new sense of urgency and conviction among employers that they really did need to make specific tools available to their employees.
(06:24) I really hope it will continue in the future and I believe it will because this change has been building for a while. It’s not an artifact of COVID-19, this pandemic just shined a light on this need that has always been there. So, I think it accelerated the pace of change. And now that we are more aware of mental health, I think employees really do expect and want their employers to look after their mental health.
I don’t think you’re going to put that genie back in the bottle now that we’ve brought that to life. It’s hard to give employees support like mental health resources and then turn around and take them away later. I don’t think that would be a popular move, especially given the research that shows that when employers look after the mental health of their employees, that benefits everyone. It benefits the company, it benefits individuals and I think this will increasingly be the expectation of employees.
(07:53) I think that the most progressive companies are thinking about addressing mental health in a comprehensive way. And what I mean by that is they are trying to create a culture within the organisation that allows people to take the time to address their mental health, meaning that they create opportunities within the course of the work day to support healthy routines around taking restorative breaks. That’s one of the ways we see companies use Headspace as they actually integrate a short meditation into the beginning of a meeting, or they create a Slack channel if it’s a digitally focused employee base, to allow people to get support from each other around learning and applying mindfulness.
We’ve seen a great success when leaders are personally engaging in routines like Headspace or other things to actually create the permission that this is important, we want you to get restorative sleep, it’s important to take real breaks, contain your working hours and not let this new Zoom culture bleed into your personal time too. Leaders really have a big role to play in ensuring that when they do offer mental health resources, that employees are empowered to adopt and use them.
So, those are creating the conditions for a mental health offering to really be meaningfully used. But you want to address mental health in an upstream way, meaning offering health promotion and resources to help reduce stigma. They empower employees to improve their resilience and psychological wellbeing wherever they are across the mental health continuum, as well as offering interventions that are preventative in nature, meaning that if somebody is at risk for an anxiety disorder or depression, or has early symptoms of a condition, that they’re able to intervene and get support for reducing that risk or reducing those symptoms, ideally to prevent the onset and progression to a diagnosable condition. And so, there are multiple levels within prevention, but overall, it’s really about reduction in risk.
And so that’s where Headspace plays in the health promotion and prevention side. Employers also want to connect those resources to other specialised resources. So, that’s making sure that employees who do need therapy are able to access that in a timely manner.
(11:09) Absolutely, I think we’re talking a lot about meditation and mindfulness in our culture today. Our specific version of mindfulness that we offer at Headspace is mindfulness meditation, which is really about this combination of attention and training, so learning how to be fully present in the moment, accept where you are right now in a non-judgmental way and practice compassion for yourself and others.
And so, what meditation in a mindfulness meditation capacity helps you learn to do is, use your breath or another attentional anchor. So, what I mean by that is you might be guided to focus on a beam of light or visualise a place that you’ve been, or simply focus on your breath. Your breath is one of the most powerful tools that you have really to change your physiology in the moment.
When we are focused on our breath and we breathe in a more regular pattern, we activate our body’s natural relaxation response. And so that’s an added benefit, that’s the in-the-moment benefit. What you’re training though is – in this practice of focusing on your breath, maybe doing a body scan to relax your body, but really learning how to observe when your mind is wandering and bring it back to the present moment – that muscle that you’re building over time helps you enhance your ability to focus and be present, to have equanimity, meaning you’re not as reactive to negative emotions.
This is what changes in your brain over time when you practice mindfulness meditation, is that when a stressor happens, of course stress will continue to happen, it’s really your reaction to that stress that is changing. And so it can seem like a very simple practice sitting quietly with your feet on the ground, focusing on your breath, scanning your body, but actually what you’re building when you do that practice is this ability to face the challenges and demands of life, but with a greater sense of ease and calm.
I think one of the misconceptions about this is we’re asking you to accept where you are right now, and that acceptance is really liberating because it’s not in conflict with change. Let’s say you’re meditating because you’re so stressed that you’re having trouble sleeping at night. We want you to still work on improving your sleep quality, but the way to do that is to drop the rope and drop some of those reactions. And so that’s where learning how to be more present in your mind, accept where you are non-judgmentally is really a paradigm shift for a lot of people that gives them a new perspective on the things that are happening in their lives.
(14:25) There are a lot of positive influences and what we’ve seen in our research on Headspace, which is very consistent with research on meditation and mindfulness interventions in general. There is a stress reduction impact if somebody has elevated stress that practicing meditation for as few as 10 days can result in 12% reduction, 30 days is close to 33% reduction in stress, as well as improving your resilience to stress in the future.
We see improvements in psychological wellbeing, happiness, and positivity overall, we see improvements in focus as well as increases in compassionate behaviour. We’ve done a study showing that people who meditate with Headspace are more likely to help someone else in need, as well as that they are less reactive to negative emotions, both in terms of being less irritable, as well as less aggressive to provocation. We did an interesting study on this, that people who were provoked reacted less to that provocation after they had meditated for three weeks with Headspace.
We’ve also seen workplace impacts like reduced presenteeism, improvements in self-reported productivity at work, and the list goes on. It can start to seem like it’s a panacea because it has such cross-cutting benefits but actually what’s happening is meditation’s core mechanism of action is really changing your relationship to stress, enhancing your ability to focus and get that mental clarity. And those changes have a dramatic impact on your mental health, as well as on your physical health.
(16:35) I certainly think so, because if you think about what meditation enhances, it is creating the right conditions for you to be more psychologically flexible. There is a form of psychological intervention called acceptance and commitment therapy that’s really designed to enhance psychological flexibility, meaning, you might’ve had a ‘plan A’, but you need to quickly pivot to ‘plan B’. What helps us learn how to do this acceptance and commitment therapy, is a mindfulness-based intervention.
And so a lot of these benefits that I’m describing around less reactivity, better present moment awareness, it does really help you step back, learn how to take your ego out of those decisions and pivot in a way where you’re not reacting to something, but you’re more intentionally choosing the way that you want to respond to a situation. And so, it can feel like instead of being on this hamster wheel or caught up in the chaos of a complicated situation, that you’re able to step alongside it.
Andy Puddicombe, our resident monk at Headspace and Co-founder likes to talk about a traffic metaphor where it can feel like instead of being in your car, stressed about the traffic, that meditation actually helps you step onto the sidewalk and observe what’s going on rather than getting caught up in that moment. And so, as we move towards a work life where we’re knowledge workers, we need to adapt, we may have trained for ‘job A’ but after 10 years of doing ‘job A’, we find that doesn’t exist anymore and we need to retrain. That ability to constantly learn, innovate and be creative, certainly can be enhanced with a mindfulness practice.
(18:47) I certainly think we’re seeing great evidence of that. We know that many very accomplished leaders integrate mindfulness into their routines. And we see that in our works, we’ve done studies with thousands of employees across a range of different types of companies and consistently see positive impacts.
(19:24) Well, as a behavioural scientist, I think it’s hard for us when we think about fitting in something new to a schedule that already feels quite packed. And so, my recommendation is to add the quality of mindfulness onto something that you already have an existing routine around to scaffold your way towards learning a new practice or skill.
And so, it might be that if you like to take an evening walk that you listen to Headspace which has walking meditations. And so maybe that’s the best place for you to start, or when you’re lying in bed, preparing for sleep at night, that you practice one of our wind down meditations. And so rather than trying to find additional time in the day, you layer on mindfulness and meditation to something that you’re already doing. Alternatively, and really what we hope people build up to is creating at least a ten minute routine, ideally daily, but as many times as you can per week of guided meditation, because that’s really where you get the most benefits associated to this practice, if you carve out at least ten minutes at a time. It doesn’t need to be ten minutes when you start, but you do want to build up to at least that duration of practice over time.
Headspace, as well as other leading mindfulness researchers have shown that a ten-minute period of practice is quite powerful when you add that up over time. And so, it might be that just simply starting with a two- or three-minute meditation is all that you can manage, and our app allows you to choose the duration of practice. But I think from a habit formation point of view, setting yourself up to do this with someone else so you get that supportive accountability around your new routine. Layer it on, start small, but set yourself up for success because we’re most motivated to change our behaviour when we feel like we’re succeeding at doing so. And so it’s really important that whatever behaviour you’re trying to establish or change, that you do set goals that are achievable for you in the beginning, but do get harder and build you up over time.
It’s fantastic to hear that Headspace, has taken considerations into account of how different people might be able to access it and made it accessible to so many people. So, that’s great to hear.
(22:28) We did a really cutting edge study with the college of policing in the UK, where a group of researchers and the college of policing took over a thousand employees, both of the police force, as well as office workers and support staff and randomised them. So, this was a large randomised controlled study, so we have high-quality data about the effects of Headspace in that population.
What we found was that Headspace and this meditation practice improved mental wellbeing, life satisfaction, resilience, and work performance at both ten weeks, and as well as this, this was maintained at twenty-four weeks follow up. We also saw that there was a reduction in presenteeism that was seen at twenty-four weeks, improved core mindfulness skills and that this was a beneficial practice to people who had a low job control. The research on stress shows that people who have a low locus of control, meaning they feel like they can’t change the factors that are causing them to experience stress, they’re actually much more vulnerable to the negative consequences of stress.
And so being able to help a group like that feel more resilient to stress is really an incredible outcome. We did an implementation and research study at Google and Roche with their employees and we saw dramatic changes in anxiety and depression. We saw about a 46% decrease in depressive symptoms and 31% reduction in anxiety symptoms. We’ve done multiple case studies with a number of different companies, as well as some very large randomised controlled trials, and really see these consistent benefits associated with reduction in risk factors for mental health conditions, as well as benefits around helping people find resilience, even when the conditions of their employment aren’t amenable to that.
(25:06) Well, I think if meditation itself feels unapproachable for someone, there are a lot of other ways that you can learn this quality of mindfulness, of being present in the moment without meditating. That’s the motivation behind why we’ve expanded into other types of experiences that support our Headspace members, such as mindful movement. If you are taking a walk or a run or want to do a stretching exercise, you can be guided to learn how to be where you are right now.
We also have focus music and sleep music. Music is increasingly shown to have great mental health benefits. That’s another way that people can start this practice as well as simply focusing on your breath, that’s something that we can all do. It’s a great tool, you can do it in the middle of a meeting, in traffic or while you’re waiting for a bus. It’s always with you and learning how to tune into your body, to focus on your breath, really can create an immediate sense of calm that is powerful for all of us to learn how to do.
(26:44) Right now is such a challenging time for many people that I think it can be hard in a moment of uncertainty to just step outside of it and find the bigger picture. And so, I think that while that might be a goal of learning how to zoom out and get a sense that this is one chapter in a long journey of your career, and this might be a really challenging moment, but it’s not defining of your entire journey.
I would say, try to find moments of joy and where you are able to connect to something that feels lighter. So for me, I try to be really present when I’m with my three-year old son, because wherever my head has travelled in terms of what’s coming up for me that day or bigger questions, or just processing what I’ve read in the news, being able to come back to the moment and find a sense of lightness, happiness or laughter. It just feels like a reset button for your body and mind. And so, whatever that is for you, I try to make sure that when you are able to grab on to those moments of playfulness or happiness, that you try to be fully present in those moments. And that’s where applying mindfulness can help. That means put down other devices, show up, focus on what’s going on in the moment, be aware if your mind is wandering, but try to bring yourself back to those moments so that you can weather the storm and get through what probably feels like a pretty tough chapter for many people.
About this author
Dr. Megan Jones Bell is chief strategy and science officer at Headspace, a leader in the field of digital health and a visionary in making mental health care more effective, affordable, and accessible globally. Megan leads the company’s global corporate strategy, technology strategy, and new ventures including Headspace’s digital therapeutics subsidiary, Headspace Health. She also oversees medical and clinical affairs, behavioral science, and design research including implementation of a human-centered design process in product and content development.
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