Nearly one in three workers in the Asia Pacific region experienced feelings of burnout in 2020, and over half are feeling emotionally exhausted. But when we’re working harder than ever, there’s one thing we can do to take back control: develop mindfulness.

COVID-19 has proved to be a defining moment in our era. On top of life’s everyday pressures, leaders have faced the unchartered territory of managing remote teams and increased anxiety levels among their people.

This has created a significant mental and emotional load over the last two years. With the cognitive overload of processing a staggering amount of information as well as managing increasing demands, it’s no wonder so many leaders are feeling exhausted.

What’s more, research shows that when we’re in this state of overdrive, we become frustrated, make poor decisions, experience memory loss and run the real risk of burnout.

But there is a way to take back control – by developing and practising mindfulness every day.

Mindfulness at work

When we’re operating in overdrive, our brains use shortcuts to manage the load. That might include automatically sorting information into categories, recognising patterns or making predictions. But it can also make us miss useful information, or lead us to jump to the wrong conclusion. Humans have developed around 150 cognitive biases that affect our decisions and how we treat people – potentially leading to costly mistakes at work.

The answer? Slow down. This might seem counter-intuitive in a fast-paced world, but it might just be what you need to cut through the overwhelm.

Mindfulness can help you pay attention to the present moment, and listen, observe and respond to information more deliberately, every day.

Countless research studies into mindfulness have revealed the benefits for leaders – from helping reduce errors or stress, to making more economically rational decisions and feeling more in control of thoughts and actions.  Mindfulness practices can also help you build empathy, improve memory and become a better leader.

By becoming more intentional and deliberate in your decisions you can be more effective in supporting the needs of your teams.

For example, LinkedIn’s Executive Chair Jeff Weiner talks openly about the importance of leading with compassion and has built a culture of engagement, mindfulness and compassion at the company. Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, says his practice of maintaining a beginner’s mind informs his leadership style. It allows him to be open and curious, to listen deeply and act without judgement. Salesforce employees also have access to ‘mindfulness zones’ that allow them to cultivate a beginner’s mind and build a culture of innovation throughout the company.

Recently, one leader told me how she had made time to embrace new wellbeing habits during the pandemic, including making time for exercise and meditating. She said she was less stressed and more effective and productive in her role as CEO.


Five ways to become a more mindful leader

Like high-performance athletes, leaders need to be present, switched on and responsive. You have to take care of your physical and mental health to be able to turn up day after day – and mindfulness is part of this.

When we spoke to CEOs around the world in 2020 about how leaders hold it together during stressful times, self-care was certainly at the top of the list.

For Tim Schmid, Group Chairman at Johnson & Johnson Medical Asia Pacific, exercising and spending more time with family and friends got him through the professional and personal pressures brought on by the pandemic. Talking openly about mental health and wellbeing with his leadership team also helped build trust and engagement throughout the company.

Nike Inc CEO John Donahoe said he learned the importance of taking care of himself early in his career. Being present, calm, and nourished as a leader allows the rest of the team to be more effective. For him, this means exercising, meditating and getting eight hours of sleep every night.

So, if you’ve been feeling overwhelmed by the demands of the past year, here are five ways you can reset and take back control.

1. Get organised

Working from home forced many people to be more organised and deliberate about their days – such as planning work priorities around personal commitments. This clarity can help you be more organised as well. And getting organised will help reduce stress levels because it puts you back in control.

Make sure you also build in time for things that are important to you personally, whether it’s physical activity or spending quality time with your family or friends. These are the things that help you recharge, and are just as important as work priorities.

2. Hit pause

When you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed, take a break. Go for a walk, do breathing practice, meditate or have a cup of tea – whatever helps you clear your mind, re-set, and consider solutions to the problem at hand calmly and rationally.

Taking regular holidays can also help you recalibrate, and you will come back feeling energised and refreshed, full of new ideas.

3. Try the Five Senses exercise

Paying attention to each of your senses can calm a racing mind. Start by noticing five things you can see, followed by four things you can feel. Then listen out for three sounds and notice two things you can smell. Finally, pay attention to something you can taste.

By moving your attention away from your thoughts and focusing on your environment, you can reduce anxiety and ready your mind for the tasks of the day. This inward reflection can also make you more empathetic and open to the needs of the people in your team.

4. Listen and let go

Mindfulness isn’t about ignoring your thoughts – instead, it is about observing them without judgement. Listen to them, and then let them go if they’re not useful. Don’t feel the need to judge yourself for your thoughts or spin in cycles of inner dialogue.

5. Stay present

Combating automatic responses can be challenging. Instead, try to stay in the moment and focus only on the present. This will help you stay in control of your thoughts and actions and be more effective and productive throughout your day.

Mindfulness has never been more important for leaders still dealing with the fatigue and overwhelm stemming from the pandemic’s challenges, and it can also help you develop more empathy, patience and compassion. As we emerge from this period and continue to embed new ways of working, it’s an opportunity for leaders to re-set daily habits.

By looking after your own physical and mental wellbeing, you can become a more effective leader – and you will also set a good example for your team to do the same.

Read more about how to use mindfulness in leadership in our whitepaper, Brains in Overdrive.

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About the contributor

Esther Colwill leads Korn Ferry’s business in the Asia Pacific region, as well as the firm’s global Technology Practice. She works with clients to find and develop a diverse set of leaders for the current and future world, as well as designing the right talent architecture to support outstanding performance at the individual, team and organisation levels.

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