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HR management: Skeptical farmers like to scoff at talk about mindfulness. So how do you account for the success of this U.K. farm project?

Over the past decade, a growing number of CEOs in North America have embraced mindfulness and meditation to cope with stress and increase their productivity. Now, science proves they’re onto a good thing. Research shows these ancient techniques actually do boost concentration, memory and creativity while reducing the negative effects of stress.

So, why isn’t there a mindfulness program for farmers? When U.K. farmer Holly Beckett, left, couldn’t find a program geared specifically to farmers, she got together with psychologist and executive coach Willie Horton (with funding from The Frank Parkinson Agricultural Trust) to create one, launching the Mindfulness Pilot Study in 2017.

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In all, 29 farmers volunteered to participate in the project. It saw them pair meditation with coaching, and the results were impressive. At the end of eight weeks of meditating just 10 minutes a day, these farmers reported a 20 per cent decrease in stress levels, a 20 per cent increase in positive state of mind and an 18 per cent increase in purposeful focus.

Getting more done was another benefit cited by the farmer participants, says Beckett. Aaron Hughes, a Welsh beef and sheep farmer reported, “This programme will make you so focused you will find yourself doing double the work in half the time and still wonder how you have so much energy left. Purposeful mindfulness is cutting out the crap and rewiring your mind with a super-effective spam filter.”

While it may sound too good to be true, Beckett’s findings parallel almost 50 years of scientific research into the benefits of mindfulness.

Beckett first got interested in mindfulness and meditation as a 2015 Nuffield farming scholar looking for practical tools to help her better manage her family’s business south of Birmingham in the West Midlands, which encompasses 1,200 acres of arable land, plus a farm shop, restaurant, and cookery school and conference centre. Altogether they employ about 120 people.

Holly Beckett.
photo: Supplied

“Leadership and management were by far the most challenging and time-consuming aspect of running the business,” says Beckett, who often found herself putting out fires “to keep on top of issues rather than spending time strategically planning where we wanted the business to go.”

Beckett travelled the U.S., South Africa, Australia and Europe in search of practical applications of leadership development, especially through increasing emotional intelligence. She concluded that “the basis of a great leader was more about how to change yourself rather than changing others.”

Along the way she discovered the benefits of mindfulness and meditation for achieving goals and managing stress.

Why would you want to opt in?

While attending the Nuffield Ireland annual conference in 2015, Beckett and other Nuffield scholars were intrigued by guest speaker Willie Horton who had 20 years’ experience coaching executives in the “psychology of success” using mindfulness and goal-setting techniques.

Horton dispelled the myth that meditation is a flaky new-age spiritual practice and that it has ties to religion. You don’t have to chant cross-legged on the floor, says Beckett. “This is something you can do in your truck.”

The point of mindfulness is to make you more alert, more aware of your thoughts and more focused on the present moment in a non-judgmental way.

And the reason we need it is because our brains are not well equipped for today’s complex environment. “The human brain is wired to NOT pay attention,” says Beckett. In fact, she calls it a “caveman brain.”

For survival purposes, our brain evolved to be on auto-pilot, not paying much attention to what’s going on around us most of the time, explains Horton in a video. Then, when suddenly faced with a danger like a man-eating tiger, it would jump into action making a quick decision as to whether to stay and fight the tiger or run away. Our stress response would be triggered — our heart rate would go up and our immune system and digestive systems would stop working to save energy for the “fight or flight” response.

This physiological reaction to stress worked well for us back in those Stone Age days, but in the 21st century, we are underutilizing our brains and “unless we manage our minds, our minds will often mismanage us, and this can cause the stress response to be triggered a lot,” says Beckett.

The World Health Organization says that the number one killer in the Western world in the 21st century will be low-level, underlying, everyday stress, says Beckett, i.e. the kind of stress a farmer experiences when an animal is sick, something breaks down or market prices drop.

On average, we have 70,000 thoughts every day, many of them worries that we can do nothing about, often triggering an unconscious stress response. “This low-level stress response is related to coronary disease and mental ill-health,” says Beckett.

“Stress is created in the mind from our thoughts and if we don’t take control of our thoughts, we are effectively choosing stress,” says Beckett. “We can take control of our thoughts by becoming more mindful and more aware. Mindfulness is built through meditation — literally by training your brain.”

Research shows that meditation builds the muscles of awareness and focus by literally rewiring our brains, Beckett explains. “Your mind is your most valuable asset. Why wouldn’t you do something to enhance that?”

Even more benefits

Farmers can achieve even more benefit by coupling mindful meditation with goal-setting exercises, adds Beckett. “You need to know where you are going.”

Practising mindful meditation can help you get into the right frame of mind for goal-setting, she points out. Of those 70,000 thoughts in our heads every day, “most are junk, and we need to decide which ones we should pay attention to and engage with, and which ones we shouldn’t,” she says. Your frame of mind will determine what you believe you can achieve. As a result, meditation improves intuition and decision-making.

Mindfulness also helps with boundary-setting. “When you are at home, you can be truly present with family, not at work in your mind,” says Beckett.

According to Horton, research at Harvard shows that one way to achieve our goals is to write down what you want as if you already have it. Put aside 30 minutes to try and think about and actually write down what it would be like if you had achieved your goals — “if you had ‘arrived’ in that moment where all you wanted and needed was with you,” he says.

Write down what you would see and hear, what you would feel, exactly what it would be like. (This exercise is most effective if handwritten as opposed to typed, adds Beckett.)

For overall success, Beckett encourages a holistic approach to goal-setting that includes not just the farm business but also personal goals for family, health, hobbies and finances.

One of the challenges of adopting a meditation practice is to have the discipline to meditate regularly. To help participants stay on track, Beckett and Horton have developed a 12-week program, available to farmers everywhere, through Focussed Farmers, a registered business. Beckett says she eventually hopes to turn Focussed Farmers into a non-profit organization or social enterprise.

Although farmers will protest that they don’t have time to meditate, Beckett says, with positive results from just 10 minutes a day, they’ll get that time back and then some.

Resources

  • Read Holly Beckett’s Nuffield Scholarship report at nuffieldinternational.org
  • A 12-part video series, narrated by psychologist Willie Horton, explaining how our brains are wired and how to train our brains to achieve success, is available free of charge through the Focussed Farmers website.
    The U.K.-based Focussed Farmers, a registered business, also offers a 12-week brain training and coaching program, available at a cost of 500 pounds sterling (about C$850). Statistical data is measured for each farmer participant but is kept confidential and anonymous.

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Helen Lammers-Helps

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