How This Company's 'Reflective Pause' Program Is Encouraging Mindfulness

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Employees Meditating

WavebreakMediaMicro / AdobeStock

AnnaMarie Houlis
AnnaMarie Houlis

Practicing mindfulness can help boost employees' morale and, as a result, help company's retain talent. And evermore companies are therefore starting mindfulness programs to encourage it.

Dignity Health caregivers, for example, have been practicing mindfulness for several years through the company’s "Reflective Pause" program, which encourages employees to set aside a few minutes each day to reflect and renew. Employees at Dignity Health take the time to pay attention to their breath, to re-center and to refocus, which helps them not only boost their own well-being, but also helps reduce the company's risk of staff turnover and increases patient experience scores.

We caught up with Rev. Tom Harshman, vice president of Mission Integration at Dignity Health, to talk more about the program and why other companies should focus more on mindfulness, too.

1. Can you tell me more about Dignity Health, and what makes mindfulness so important to the company?

"Dignity Health is one of the nation’s largest health care systems, we employ more than 9,000 physicians, 60,000 employees, and 400 care centers, including hospitals, urgent and occupational care, imaging and surgery centers, home health, and primary care clinics across a 22-state network. In 2015, we developed what we call a 'recipe' for the culture, or spirit, of Dignity Health that is comprised of three main elements: life-giving relationships, meaningful work, and reflective pause. Our mindfulness work is part of this third pillar, reflective pause, and is an extension of the legacy of our foundresses who always brought pause and reflection to their work."

2. Can you tell me about the Reflective Pause program — what is it, when did it start, who started it and why?

"As a founding principal of Dignity Health’s culture and history, we wanted to explore more ways to make mindfulness part of our employees’ daily lives. The Spirit Care Services and Mission Integration departments in each facility were encouraged to develop and champion reflective pause and mindfulness in a way that works best for their facility, and they’ve all embodied it in different ways. However, across the board, we encourage time for mindfulness and reflective pause, even if it’s just two minutes."

3. What do employees do as part of the program?

"We are teaching our employees and share with them ways to incorporate small moments of mindfulness into their daily actions — enjoying a cup of coffee, giving intent and focus to small tasks like washing your hands, or just taking a deep breath to gather one’s thoughts before walking into a patient’s room. Just taking a few minutes to reflect and renew can have great benefits. It’s engrained in our culture and supported at every level of the organization, so people are able to take that important time to care for themselves so they can better care for others. When our employees practice more mindfulness, they’re actually able to better connect with patients, friends, and family, so this program impacts everyone around them. People think of mindfulness as an inward-facing practice focused on self-care and reducing stress. While it is definitely that, the practice also helps us to better connect to others, to heal the whole person, and to spread more humankindness."

4. What are some of the major mindfulness lessons you've learned through the program? 

"Most of us are familiar with the 'focus on the present moment' dimension of mindfulness. We are learning that attention to the tone we bring to that present awareness is also critical. At Dignity Health, we encourage a tone of kindness, compassion, and warmth. One of the most challenging parts of mindfulness for me is to slow down my almost constant internal conversation. To help calm my mind and be able to focus on the present moment, I often imagine each of the many thoughts that enter my mind as if they were sitting on the top of a sycamore leaf, floating down a slow-moving canyon stream. As I watch the leaf float away, the thought tends to pass from my awareness and a feeling of restful pleasure enters my spirit. Classic mindfulness practices incorporate these two aspects. First, the observation of our thoughts in the present moment and second, the welcome of a curious calm to that observation. As I’ve continued to practice, that second part — the tonality — has also come as kindness, delight, and many other emotions. I seek to welcome the tonality each time I practice the focus."

5. In what ways does the Reflective Pause program help to lower the risk of staff turnover and increase patient experience scores? 

"Reflective pause is one dimension of our Mission Integration work. We know from the analytics of our Employee Engagement surveys that our Mission is a key driver in lowering the risk of staff turnover. We’ve also found that in hospitals practicing more reflective pause, there’s not only less turnover, but there are also higher patient satisfaction scores as well. With one particular initiative, Take Two Minutes, staff were invited to post their experience as they take two minutes in their day for pause and reflection. Their comments were overwhelmingly positive; they reported improvements in their work life and in some cases, in the quality of their relationships outside of work."

6. What other benefits has the program, perhaps unexpectedly, provided the company? 

"Reflective Pause is the dimension that is most directly connected with the religious women who founded and ran the majority of our acute care hospitals over the past century and a half. As they discerned the needs around them and how to respond, they collaborated and they prayed — both forms of reflection. Now Reflective Pause is one dimension of our 'recipe' for the spirit we desire in our workplaces and this work has allowed a deeper sense of connection with our roots and the unique stories of how our health care work began. It supports a richer sense of meaning in our care, as well as a more humane pacing to our caregiving.

"We’ve discovered that finding meaning in work is a significant asset for our organization, and one of the consistently high scoring items on our employee engagement survey. We believe our employees can find meaning in at least two ways — knowing how they contribute to the care of another or to the common good, and/or in doing work that aligns with their personal values. Some of our reflections invite staff to draw the links between their daily activities and helping another person. If a team seems discouraged, a pause to make this overt can help. We’ll read a patient story, or talk about the specific 'chain' from their work to the care of a patient - say, cleaning a surgical instrument and how that reduces infection, which supports a patient’s healing process. If an individual is struggling, our leaders can reflect with them on how the tasks of their work align with their personal values – say, if I value precision, how does my work in billing fulfill my desire for precision? While these are not classic mindfulness activities, they are mindful reflections that help support well-being in our workforce."

7. What sort of feedback has Dignity Health gotten from its employees on the Reflective Pause program?

"While the pace of our work can make it difficult to build pause into our days, at the same time, the aspiration of creating opportunities for reflection motivates us to find creative ways to be more present with those we serve and those with whom we serve. It is not always about time taken to reflect — the intention matters as well. For example, reflections at the beginnings of significant meetings help ground us and help us focus on the 'why' underneath the 'what' of a meeting."

8. How do you think mindfulness plays a role in helping us to focus and excel at work, and better pivot between tasks?

"Mindfulness reduces our internal 'chatter' so that we are more able to listen and connect with others, it allows us to pay attention to subtle shifts in the emotional tone, the needs, and the concerns they express. This can be incredibly useful for employees of all levels, and especially for managers, to help them make more meaningful connections with their staff. Using mindfulness to focus the mind can also be incredibly powerful in directing your attention to the task at hand.

"We all go so quickly between checking emails and managing multiple tasks, no matter your career, and mindfulness can give you the tools to better pivot between tasks. It encourages people to dedicate their attention solely to the task at hand, and to find the moments between each task. Taking a short break, and perhaps a few deep breaths, in between each project, will help you to collect your thoughts, come into the moment, and better focus on the task at hand. We can experience gentle fences in the midst of our days, and with mindfulness, we can find a tiny bit of renewal and resilience to better the rhythm of our work."

9. What are your best tips for practicing mindfulness?

"Start small and build your appetite for mindfulness. Find ways to notice small activities you are doing and pay attention to the feeling or the tone you generally bring to that awareness. Notice your breath, and practice taking a deep breath or two between tasks or conversations — attention to what’s going on in our body grounds us in the here and now. Don’t get overwhelmed, even just taking a few deep breaths between tasks, or setting aside two minutes a day to re-center and renew can have tremendous benefits. Find what works for you. For some, mediation and deep breathing exercises can help them find more mental space, and for others, going for a brief walk or focusing on their thoughts and feelings is best."

10. What are some other ways you encourage your employees to take time for themselves, outside of the program?

"Reflective Pause is truly part of our culture and something our employees are actively participating in to help take care of themselves. We like to celebrate together, we observe special holidays and significant events with facility-wide events, we distribute reflective readings for staff to use as they are interested, and we teach about healthy emotional boundaries and resilience."

11. Why and how do you think other companies should be bringing more mindfulness into the workplace?

"Mindfulness — bringing awareness to the present moment — is one way to support a culture where employees find their work life fulfilling and enriching. We believe that the more intentional we are about building these kinds of work cultures and the more humankindness we bring into work, the more that spirit can spill into the larger culture. Having other companies involved in this movement expands its possibilities and can help us create more kindness and a better connected world."

AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at by night.