Just published: A New Approach to Mindfulness: Mindful Stories – MiSt

This book provides a new and innovative approach to mindfulness using short stories. Written for individuals and for groups, the book encourages readers to examine their lives, past, present and future. The 100 stories, written in 25 quartets, ascend from the ‘Base Camp’ of self-awareness, through the various levels of the ‘Slope’, and the ‘Crest’, to the ‘Summit’ of a new personal and collective understandings.

Simon Bell. A New Approach to Mindfulness: Mindful Stories – MiSt. Cambridge Scholars, 2020. 

Mindfulness Through Fiction: A Parable is something of an introduction to MiSt. It is available to download as an e-book on Amazon. It contains 20 of the 100 stories in one single story. If you want to explore Mindful Stories, it might be a good idea to take a look at Parable first. 

We need to separate the research from the policy making

The Government process for dealing with the Covid-19 crisis has revealed many of the issues at the heart of creating an effective action research strategy. The Government is responsible for policy making and they have SAGE (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) to provide scientific and technical advice.  SAGE assesses the data on the progress of the virus, models the impact of possible actions and collates all the relevant information. The Government says it ‘follows the science’ but that is not the same as ‘we do what the scientists say’. Scientists advise but ministers decide: weighing up the trade-offs between the health risks and the economic consequences of different ways of coming out of lockdown is a burden politicians must bear.

The structure we have at Government level mirrors the separation between the research phase and the action phase in action research. This is a necessary separation so we get evidence that is as objective as possible.

Any organisation seeking to use an action research strategy to find their way out of lockdown will need to separate the responsibilities for planning and action (the policy making) from the responsibilities for research (the gathering and processing of the evidence). In a large organisation this separation of function may be relatively straightforward: the senior management may determine the action steps and staff from functions such as information analysis, business analysis, Human Resources and Health and Safety may undertake the research. It is also possible that a separate organisation, such as ourselves, takes responsibility for the research and evaluation functions in the action research cycle.

But in a small organisation there may be no pre-existing separations of role to make use of. If this is the case it can be useful to give somebody a specific responsibility for gathering the evidence to underpin the debate about the next action steps.

How well this separation will work in practice will depend upon the level of trust between members of the organisation and the degree of openness that people display to the evidence that is gathered. This is a topic we will attend to in the next post.

Professor Ken Eason

Covid-19: How will we know how well we are doing?

The Government mantra is ‘our actions follow the science’. The scientists collect evidence of how the virus is spreading in order to give the politicians the advice they seek. But what evidence to collect?  And how long is the lag before you know whether actions taken are being effective? 

Problems about gathering the evidence have bedeviled our national response to Covid-19, so much so that our strategy has been likened to ‘driving blind’. These same issues will confront every organisation that is trying to find its way out of lockdown, albeit on a more local scale. If careful steps are being taken to get going again, how can we avoid ‘ driving blind’? If the aim is to scale up business activity without endangering staff and customers, what evidence can be collected to show the plans are working?  The obvious hard data includes the number of staff, customers etc who test positive and the number of customers prepared to come through the doors. The Government test and trace system is gradually providing more local data but there have been lags in getting information that is sufficiently detailed to be useful.  

There are, however, lots of other indicators that may provide more immediate and useful feedback. In action research every new action phase has specific aims and we need ways of measuring whether these aims are being achieved. If the aim is to create safe workplaces for staff, regular surveys are needed to assess how staff are feeling. Ideally there should also be opportunities to discuss specific problems and these can be addressed in the next action phase. Similarly, as shops, pubs and restaurants re-open there will be a crude measure of how many customers arrive but, if the response in slow, more effort needs to be put into discovering why and what can be done to give people more confidence that they will be safe. As schools re-open ways are needed to assess whether children and their parents feel confident about the measures taken and opportunities need to be created to discuss any concerns they may have.  

The basic message is that if you are going to take ‘baby steps’ into the unknown you have to have measures in place to warn you if you are about to fall down the stairs.

Professor Ken Eason

Top-down or bottom-up: who makes the decisions in a pandemic?

We live in a blizzard of regulations, requirements, guidance and advice that changes regularly as the Government tries to find ways of guiding us out of lockdown. People crave clarity so they know exactly what to do but in reality there are so many different circumstances that we must all to some extent find our own way forward. For companies, how we solve the riddle of getting back to viable business activity whilst at the same time protecting staff, customers and everybody else, is going to be largely a matter of making local decisions.  We will all have to take our own ‘baby steps’, review the implications and gradually in an iterative way find our own ‘new normal’. Government may be treating getting us out of lockdown as a top-down decision making process but there will be a lot of bottom-up decisions to be taken as well.

So how can we prepare for the bottom-up process?  Here are four action research suggestions:

Set up a task force to ‘design’ the new way of working and monitor how well it is achieving its purpose

Work out what is a regulation that is enforceable by law and what is advice or guidance. This will define the discretion the task force has to create ways of working that meet local needs. Schools may have to abide by the social distancing regulations, for example, but they may be able to decide for themselves whether children come back full time or part-time, what spaces they can press into service for teaching, how to manage lunchtimes and playtimes and so on.

Be clear what the new system is expected to achieve and measure whether it is being achieved. Are people able to work following the social-distancing rules and face-mask wearing or do further adjustments need to be made? Above all are customers confident they are safe and are they willing to follow the procedures that have been set up?

Make regular reviews and be ready to change. The results of internal ‘research’ may suggest changes but there may also be outside changes. Government may change the regulations and create new restrictions or opportunities. Mandatory face-masks today: who knows what tomorrow.

Agility and invention will be needed.  There are plenty of examples of how organisations are adapting that can be our inspiration.

Professor Ken Eason

Coming out of lockdown we are all action researchers now

Across the world nations are struggling to find their way back to some kind of ‘new normal’. But they cannot do it by announcing a grand plan and then implementing it. They are dealing with an unpredictable opponent: they don’t know how we the public or the virus will respond as they lift restrictions. So from the UK Government we hear that the ‘road map’ is to take ‘baby steps’, review what happens and move forward when we can without causing a new ‘spike’. 

We are told we are in uncharted territory and we are not used to planning this way. And yet we have had a well-developed methodology for managing change in this way for nearly 100 years. Action Research was developed by Kurt Lewin in the 1920s as a way of dealing with change in circumstances where the complex system being changed is unpredictable. Over the past century many forms of action research have been developed but at their heart is a four-stage action research cycle: plan, act, research (observe, study the results) and reflect. 

First you create a plan to achieve a goal and then you take the first actions to implement the plan. Then, before taking the next step, you undertake research to see what the results of your actions have been. You then reflect on what has been achieved and plan the next actions accordingly. This becomes an iterative process, moving through a series of action research cycles so that over time a flexible plan is implemented that deals with the complexities of the real world as they become apparent. 

For the past 30 years the Bayswater Institute has been helping clients of all kinds manage change processes by using action research. This is particularly pertinent now because as the UK government adopts its own version of action research, knowingly or not, so organisations of all kinds are going to have to adopt some form of action research as they try to come out of lockdown and resume a form of normal activity. 

Our aim it to use our experience of action research to help organisations adopt this approach to planning. The next posts will be on different aspects of following an action research approach. If you want help with any aspect of the approach please let us know and we will build it into future posts.

Professor Ken Eason

The final edition of this seasons Mindful Stories on Zoom will be at 2pm next Monday 27th July.

The spring /summer MiSt zooms are coming to a close. There are two more sessions. A final meditation on Monday 27th,  and a final conversation session on Wednesday the 29th at the same time. 

Sessions about 20 minutes and all you have to do is log in and close your eyes and listen. 

We hope to continue as a Podcast in the Autumn.

Application to attend is free and open to all, simply reserve your space and we will send you a link to be used on the day. 

The mindfulness session will make use of a Quartet of the Mindful stories,

The quartet will allow you time and space to consider your relations with yourself, your world, our shared world and your community. 

I look forward to seeing you on Monday if you can make it. Just click the button below to reserve your space and I’ll see you there.

How do we sustain mental health when working from home?

The literature on health and safety at work makes very clear that for many people work is a major source of stress and working from home, particularly now during the lockdown period, is producing new forms of stress. There are reports that mental health problems are becoming very common. There can be many reasons for this. One is the depression and anxiety that comes with a sense of isolation: being cut-off from day-to-day contact with the work community. The loss of the normal structure to the day can also induce anxiety: people have to find the self-discipline to create and sustain their own daily structure. And there is the stress of managing home/work relationships, looking after children or sharing workspaces with family members. There are many examples of people, Roald Dahl and David Cameron amongst them, who have resorted to sheds in their gardens in order to keep work and home life separate.

How can an employer help employees sustain good mental health and well being if they are working from home? It is not so easy to monitor how people are feeling if you don’t see them and not the same opportunities to offer help. Fortunately the internet is a medium capable of supporting many kinds of activity apart from work and social media in particular is showing ways in which people can support one another. There are a variety of ways employers can harness these capabilities to help their staff:

  • Creating informal on-line ‘get togethers’ that are about sharing experiences rather than doing work
  • Creating opportunities for shared activities like fitness classes
  • Building opportunities around on-line work meetings for side conversations
  • Developing a counselling or ‘buddying’ scheme; someone who regularly reviews with staff how they are coping. Care needs to be taken that this is not seen as a performance review.

Above all people need an opportunity for a ‘reflective space’, perhaps with people they trust, in which they can put the daily hassle behind them for a time. My colleague Simon Bell has developed a novel way of doing this in which people come together in Zoom meetings to reflect on Mindfulness Stories that Simon has written.

As always each organisation will have to find the best way to support its staff and an iterative, exploring and
learning process will be necessary.

Professor Ken Eason

‘Mindfulness through Fiction’ stories are now available as an e-book

Mindfulness through Fiction: A Parable – e-book now Available on Amazon

Featuring the stories used in our Mindfulness Zoom classes.

Using fiction to explore mindful reflection. A best friend never met, a mysterious journey half begun, a solution unseen in the brightest light, a shadowy creation creating itself, these are some of the fictions used in Parable.
This novella is about the braiding of reality and fiction. It makes use of short stories containing subliminal prompts, arranged in quartets.
‘Mindfulness through Fiction: A Parable’ takes the reader on a journey of five contexts: Me, my world, my shared world, my group and finally; beyond me.
The prompts contained in the fictions are intended to act as means to nudge individuals and groups, lay readers and practitioners to consider their role, experience and ideas in the contexts of the five quartets.
The book helps us to find reflective space in our lives by means of fictions.

What happens to the culture of the company when we work from home?

In companies where people work closely together a culture unique to them will emerge. In successful work cultures people show ‘esprit de corps’; they have great loyalty to one another, share common values and support one another through difficult times.  Nowhere has this been more evident recently than in the way NHS staff have worked under intense pressure and at great personal risk to keep the death toll from Covid-19 as low as possible. We have clapped to show our appreciation but they have been sustained by the help and support they have got from one another.

All organisations would love to have a dedicated workforce of this kind but how does it develop and how is it fostered? Some important ingredients are that people work together in tight teams with common goals and that they are able to develop empathy and understanding for one another. This can be accomplished most easily when people work in face-to-face settings involving close interaction and have plenty of opportunities for informal gatherings.

How is this to be replicated when people are working at home? There is a danger that they will lose the sense of being part of a team because there is little to sustain it. If they have come from a strong face-to-face team culture, they may be able to sustain the culture for some time but what of new people joining? How do they get to know their colleagues?

There are two ways to promote company culture. First, ensure the organisation is not completely virtual: that some of the time people do meet in face-to-face settings and that, when they do, there are opportunities to share experiences and sort out problems. Second, use on-line meeting capabilities not just for getting through normal work but also to replicate all the other ways people interact with one another at work. During lockdown there have been many examples of people ‘getting together remotely’: to share family stories, to do physical exercises together, to sing together. How many of these kinds of activities could become a normal part of remote working organisational life in the future?

We don’t know very much about sustaining organisational culture when people work from home and organisations will need ways of monitoring the state of their working culture as time goes by to test whether the actions they are taking are effective.

Professor Ken Eason

How do you manage people working from home?

If you have ben used to managing people through regular face-to-face contact with them what do you do when they are working from home and you never see them? How will you know they are putting the hours in, following all the proper procedures, hitting deadlines and achieving good quality standards?

One way is to install monitoring apps on employee’s equipment. There are apps that will allow you to ‘look over their shoulder’ and see what is on the screen and that will count every keystroke. The apps will give all kinds of histograms and charts to summarise time spent on screen, productivity, errors, websites visited and so on. There are reports that more and more companies are installing these apps.

But this route to employee management is beset with dangers. It can be very invasive of privacy, in this case the privacy of other people’s homes. You might be capturing an employee’s computer use when they are not actually working. You might also, inadvertently be capturing information about other members of the family.  You might be storing information that would put you in breach of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR). At the very least, the monitoring procedures that are in place must be transparent to everybody being monitored. Another problem is that procedures that attempt tight control invite people to ‘game’ the system, to look for ways of keeping the scores high by artificial means and find workarounds to fool the system. And there is no end to the ingenuity people display when they want to preserve some level of control over their existence.

Before rushing to computer solutions to manage remote workers it is important to consider other approaches. There may be an opportunity to work towards a culture of trust: one in which, for example, each employee has targets to meet and they are entrusted to find their own ways of achieving those targets. Management of this kind is known to help employees feel more a trusted member of the team and less like a dispensable cog in a machine.

Whatever new system of management emerges, it will be best created by consulting with staff and working iteratively towards procedures that enable effective management and engender good employee well being.

Professor Ken Eason