By Paula Haddock.

Development and humanitarian work can be highly stressful. Funding is tight, workloads are high, the environment is constantly changing, and living and working conditions can be difficult. Working in this sector requires high levels of emotional intelligence, situational judgment, creativity and compassion.

It’s no wonder development and humanitarian organisations are exploring mindfulness. Several large international non-governmental organisations, including Oxfam GB and Save the Children International, are considering how mindfulness could help deal with stress and burnout or as part of management and leadership programmes.

The private and public sectors are also catching on. Companies such as Apple, Google, eBay, Toyota now have programmes running, as does the UK government. Mindfulness was even practiced at the last World Economic Forum in Davos. Numerous studies report that it helps reduce stress, improve well-being, sharpen attention and promote creativity.

What is mindfulness?

Globe inside silhouette of child's head

Mindfulness is about purposefully paying attention to whatever we are experiencing in the present moment, in a non-judgemental way. It’s about gaining a better understanding of how our thoughts, sensations, judgements and reactions affect our behaviour and the quality of our lives. It’s also about building our capacity to pay attention to others and our environment.

Mindfulness can be explored in a variety of ways but an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course is particularly popular. It helps individuals to understand what triggers are causing stress, how to identify the initial signs of stress and how to use techniques to work through the stress.

What are the links between mindfulness and international development?

Mindfulness, organisational integrity and values

International development organisations usually have values around openness and transparency, accountability to donors and beneficiaries, and equality regardless of race, religion, gender and creed. Mindfulness helps individuals cultivate non-judgement and compassion. It also helps people gain more of a sense of common humanity and be more aware of their impact on others. It helps cultivate an attitude of approach rather than avoidance of difficulties.

Mindfulness encourages us to be aware of our intentions. The question ‘What is driving us?’ is key for organisations when forming an organisational vision and mission, as well as when planning programmes. Principles central to mindfulness, such as letting go of expectations and connecting and exploring people’s deeper motivations, attitudes and fears, are embedded in some organisational development tools such as Theory U, developed by Otto Scharmer and others.

Mindfulness and capacity building

Learning requires us to pay attention. Mindfulness has been shown to improve one’s ability to place and hold our attention where we want it to be and increase our awareness of what is happening within us and around us. Mindfulness can help individuals recognise the judgements, expectations, vices and virtues we have that may colour our understanding of how things are and impede our learning and growth. It helps people work more consciously and less on auto-pilot.

In a previous INTRAC blog post, Rick James explored why organisations don’t always implement good practice principles in relation to capacity development. He argued: ‘To implement good practice capacity development requires organisations to acknowledge and restrain their vices.’ They must also develop virtues such as patience, compassion, self-control and honesty. Mindfulness can support this process.

Mindfulness, performance management and leadership

Mindfulness helps cultivate self-awareness, which is an important part of being able to effectively manage one’s own performance. It is critical for identifying and accepting development areas and maximising one’s strengths. Mindfulness can help us be aware of some of the thought patterns that can prevent us from seeing things clearly, such as over-generalising, judging, expecting perfection, eternalising (thinking ‘I’ll never be able to do this’), mind reading, and assigning blame to self or others in an unbalanced way.

By improving our self-awareness and awareness of others, we improve communication skills such as actively listening and understanding non-verbal cues. High performers and leaders in organisations tend to have high levels of interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence. Good leaders build trust by being authentic and aligning their behaviours and decisions to their values and beliefs. They’re also generally highly creative. Having a mindfulness practice can support efforts to strengthen these qualities and skills.

The next blog and finding out more:

In coming blog posts, I will explore these areas and others in more depth, including how mindfulness-based stress reduction has been taught at one South African NGO for community care workers who are helping people living with HIV/AIDS.

In my personal blog, Mind Matters Most, there is a resource hub with a wealth of books, articles and videos.