Guest blog by Karen Janes

In July 2021, Karen Janes kindly facilitated a workshop for AVM members, where she shared some mindfulness techniques for volunteer managers to implement into their working day. In this blog, Karen talks about why and how she moved into the mindfulness space, and shares a quick mindfulness micro-practice.

I have been a volunteer for many years q, and for the last 20 years of my career, I worked in volunteering management. I have represented volunteering in networking groups, at conferences, and on your very own Board of AVM Directors.

I am passionate about volunteering and loved working in the field. But, after a period of burnout that left me feeling exhausted, flat, disengaged and quite frankly just pretty fed up, I gave up all my volunteering roles and left my career in the volunteering sector too.

It seems that burnout is becoming all too common in our stressful and busy workplaces – so much so that the World Health Organisation (WHO) now includes it in its International Classification of Diseases. Defining burnout as a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. The WHO identifies three characteristics of burnout:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion of exhaustion (yes, I had this!)
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job (yep – I had that too)
  3. Reduced professional efficacy (and I even had this!!)

When I think back over my career, many volunteer managers I’ve known had some, or all, of the following concerns, and it’s easy to see how these could lead to a state of unmanaged stress and burnout:

  • It’s just so busy, there’s never enough time for everything I have to do
  • I’m struggling to juggle competing demands from my manager, volunteers and our beneficiaries
  • I’m trying to coordinate ever expanding work through thinly stretched and overworked volunteers and volunteer managers
  • Relationships between volunteers and paid teams are sometimes really challenging
  • We’re going through so much change and uncertainty – it’s hard to keep supporting our volunteers through it and helping them to adapt to new ways of working
  • Everyone’s so busy and stressed, and the mental health and wellbeing of my volunteers is a real concern.

With my new business, The KJ way, I’m sharing some of the powerful mindfulness tools and techniques I have used to recover from a state of burnout to one of joy, resilience, balance and optimism. Workplace mindfulness can help you, your volunteers and colleagues to avoid burnout, manage stress, build resilience and improve their wellbeing too.

  • Some of the benefits of mindfulness in today’s busy workplaces include:
  • reduced stress and anxiety
  • increased resilience in changing and challenging times
  • improved focus and personal effectiveness
  • improved well-being and mental health
  • increased creativity
  • increased connection and empathy

Mindfulness comes in many forms. There are formal meditation practices, such as awareness of breath and the body scan. These require regular practice and commitment to strengthen the mindfulness muscles over time. Just like if you want to improve your physical fitness – you’ll probably need to work out at the gym more than once!

If meditation is a step too far for you, there are many ways of integrating mindful approaches into your everyday life to bring in more awareness and joy. Such as walking mindfully, eating mindfully and brushing your teeth mindfully! In fact, pretty much anything you do, you can do mindfully – by focussing all your mental energy on one thing at a time and being fully there while you do. Checking in with your body’s five senses, with an attitude of openness and curiosity and without judgement, to see what the experience is actually like – as you live it.

And there are mindfulness micro-practices – short techniques that can just take a few moments – that you can easily incorporate into your working life and organisational culture. The more you practice these small activities, the more they are readily available to you when stress or challenging times arise and you really need them.

Box breathing

My all-time favourite micro-practice is box breathing. This breathing practice triggers the “parasympathetic” or “rest and digest” part of your autonomic nervous system – helping to calm your body and mind down. It’s the opposite of the “fight or flight” stress response you’ve probably heard about. The beauty of this practice for me, is that you only need to practice it for a few minutes to feel real results.

You can use this practice when-ever you need a moment of mindfulness – for example, when you’re feeling stressed, anxious or nervous. Before delivering a big presentation, or having a difficult conversation with a colleague, or when you’re about to say something you think may later regret! You might also find it useful as a reset during moments of transition – in between meetings, or just before you walk back into home life after a stressful day at work. It’s one of the many tools I’ve been sharing with organisations as their people struggle with anxiety and worry about returning to work after a long break due to the pandemic.

It’s a simple tool that you can share with family and friends too – maybe children worried about returning to school, adolescents nervous ahead of exams or driving tests, or partners worrying about a trip to the dentist!

It’s here for you to use whenever you need to take a moment, to reset and to calm down. Give it a go – following along with the infographic below and let me know how you get on!

Box breathing practice

In this practice we bring awareness to the four parts of the breath. The inbreath, the pause that follows it, the outbreath, and the pause that follows the outbreath. We consciously lengthen each part of the breath, holding it for the same number of counts – 4four in the example below.

Most people don’t naturally breathe this deeply, so holding for a count of four may seem difficult at first. In this case, try holding each part for a count of three or even two. The important thing is to hold each part of the breath for the same count.

The technique

  • Consciously lengthen the in-breath, out-breath and the pauses in between for the same number of counts (4 in the example below).
  • Breathe in 2, 3, 4
  • Pause 2, 3, 4
  • Breathe out 2, 3, 4
  • Pause 2, 3, 4

Practice tip:

Get used to box breathing during calm times, so you’re ready to use it when stressful moments arrive.

Infographic of the box breathing technique. For those who are visually impaired, this image is described in the text to the right of this image.
Infographic of the box breathing technique. For those who are visually impaired, this image is described in the text to the right of this image.

About Karen

Karen Janes headshot.

Karen Janes is a certified workplace mindfulness facilitator, working with organisations, teams and individuals to develop bespoke mindfulness sessions and programmes that both support business outcomes and improve personal wellbeing.

Karen is a volunteering professional with over 20 years experience of leading volunteering development programmes at national charities. She has previously been on the Board of AVM and is committed to supporting volunteering managers to build resilience and improve their working lives.

For more mindfulness tips and practices, or to find out more about Karen’s autumn return to work offer on her Introduction to Mindfulness session, connect with Karen on LinkedIn, or get in touch on [email protected] to discuss how mindfulness can help you and your organisation’s people to avoid burnout, bring their real selves to work and shine every day.

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