I’m sitting in a large circle with 30 Liverpudlian social care managers. On a table in the middle is a bowl of water and four piles of flowers, each one a different colour; purple, yellow, white and orange. A silver-haired woman hits a metallic bowl, making it ring softly. “It’s a Tibetan singing bowl,” she explains, laughing at the expression on the faces of people in the circle who – like me – haven’t seen one before. A sneaky glance at Wikipedia on my phone tells me that, in Tibetan Buddhist practice, singing bowls are used as a signal to begin and end periods of silent meditation.
The woman tells us to ready ourselves for a visualisation. Everyone around me uncrosses their legs, places their hands on their knees and closes their eyes. I follow suit, but for the first few minutes I keep opening one eye, just to check everyone else still has theirs closed.
She begins the visualisation. Her soothing voice instructs us to focus on our feet first. It is surprisingly easy with my eyes closed, to become aware of sensations in my feet. We are told to visualise letting go of any tension, feel it rushing out through our toes. Then it’s onto the calves and on, up the body, to the face. At this point, she tells us to concentrate on the feeling of our breath on our top lips. I can feel myself getting sleepy as my body relaxes – the 5:30am start to get to Liverpool taking its toll. “Don’t follow any of the noises in the room, just let them wash over you.” I hear the waves of the Mersey outside, but I try to let it drift away into the background.
I’m on the verge of falling asleep and toppling off my seat when the bowl rings out again. I open my eyes with embarrassing difficulty, given I’m in a room full of strangers. But I am reassured to see others stretch and yawn.
I am here to learn how mindfulness can reduce stress in social care managers. My host, PSS, is a charity providing a range of community based social and health care services to people in North West England, Staffordshire, North Wales and Scotland. These managers have already done an eight-week course and two-day residential, I learn, which explains how comfortable they all seem with the meditation. If there are any sceptics in the room, they have become very good at hiding it. This session at the Museum of Liverpool is a chance for them to review the meditative techniques and share with each other how they have used them in the workplace.
The silver-haired woman, Ondy Wilson, is founder of the Wellseeing Consultancy. She trains individuals and organisations in how to use the principles of mindfulness to reduce stress, help cope with pressure, improve relationships and communication skills, increase concentration and help manage emotions – all clearly beneficial skills for social care managers.
According to her website: “Mindfulness is about being aware of our mental and emotional processes and managing them to become more fully present, unhindered by habits and attitudes from the past and anxieties about the future.” In practice, this means teaching managers to use meditation and visualisation to avoid becoming stressed, but also to encourage positive thinking about the organisation as a whole. As well as focusing on personal wellbeing, for example, Ondy at one stage asks the PSS managers to visualise how they want the company to be in the future.
Listen to Ondy explain the concept of mindfulness:
The flowers, it turns out, are not actually part of the training, so much as a way of dividing the room up into four groups according to which colour an individual picks. It is to Ondy’s credit that she manages to tread the fine line between those potentially more airy fairy elements (as one Scouse bloke described them) and serious management training.
The aim is not necessarily to have managers sitting around the office listening to whale song or visualising themselves on a cloud or, as we did earlier, going through a virtual cat scan of your body. Instead, PSS wants to equip its managers with the tools for dealing with rising stress levels. This could be as simple as going out for a walk and practising calming breathing techniques, but the point is that the managers learn to recognise the impact of stress on their practice and relationships and deal with it before it becomes a problem. “I do [visualisations] when I get home, because that’s usually when I realise I’m stressed,” one manager tells me.
PSS decided to roll out mindfulness training for its managers as part of a wider attempt to improve management within the organisation. The initial programme was offered to 42 managers in four cohorts between January and May. PSS will now provide monthly ongoing support for meditation practice and one-to-one sessions, as well as looking to develop a one day course for all staff to introduce the concept of mindfulness. Another full mindfulness training programme will be offered to all new managers in September.
The day in pictures:
The programme has so far cost £15,000, excluding trainer expenses and accommodation costs for the residential (which amounted to £2,000 per residential). Only one person out of the initial 42 withdrew from the programme, but they have agreed to try again in September. “For some people, it can be difficult to look inwards,” says Ondy. However, she says most people found it fairly intuitive, used as they are to working reflectively.
Those managers I chat to in between meditation sessions seem convinced of the benefits. “I’m better at moving on from a problem, letting things go,” says one woman and others nod. Another chips in: “I think the atmosphere has changed in the office. It’s much friendlier. You say hi to people in the corridors.” The other advantage is that the training has brought together managers from across the organisation, she adds. “Everyone’s cutting each other a bit more slack, because you know how busy they are.”
Some have already begun filtering the techniques down to the frontline. “I wasted no time in sharing mindfulness with my team and have bought books and other materials to help them get to grips with its ideas,” says service manager Seamus Walsh. “While I was on the course I ask Ondy to do a relaxation session with the team and since it ended I have identified one of my specialist practitioners, who is also a qualified Yoga teacher, to develop mindfulness in the whole team.”
There was some resistance, however. “It wasn’t easy at first,” admits Debbie Woodgate, director of people and culture at PSS. “The first two cohorts had the most scepticism. But after that, they said it was fantastic and that got other people on board.” Woodgate is a trained executive coach and mentor and a clear advocate of mindfulness. She points out that it requires support from the top levels of the organisation; the chief executive of PSS took part in the training alongside the managers.
The other key element, it seems to me, is Ondy herself. She has a sense of humour and is completely unfazed when the disembodied voice of a museum staff member booms out over the tannoy system in the middle of a silent meditation. To get a room full of northerners on board with flowers and Tibetan singing bowls is no mean feat.
Listen to Ondy explain how she uses meditation: