Why you should take a minute to breathe
A view from Sue Unerman

Why you should take a minute to breathe

Take your lead from actors and athletes, and tap into the power of the breath to help us all transform the industry's culture into one of inclusion and zero tolerance for inappropriate behaviour.

It’s all about breath. 

Athletes and actors know this 

Participants in the superb Rada Business: Executive Presence for Women course are taught four breaths to change your state, reputedly recommended for statesmen and presidents before they speak to their nation. (Techniques learned, of course, by Rada alumni such as Tom Hiddleston, Sir Kenneth Branagh, Ben Whishaw and Nazanin Boniadi.) 

Breathing is also crucial for allyship at work. 

It’s almost impossible to bring your best effort into the workplace when you feel that you are not included for whatever reason. It might be because of your skin colour, race, sexuality, age or any of the protected characteristics. It might be because of your personality. If you like a public debate, for instance, when the consensus is, well just that, consensus.   

If you’re anxious that you may be left feeling stupid when you need to ask a question for clarification, then it’s hard to get on with the task in hand (if you don’t understand it, how are you going to achieve it well?).   

And if you want to be a good ally for a colleague who is on the receiving end of classic media land banter, then each interaction could be loaded with tension. 

The excellent Advertising Association cross-industry All In Action Plan, which launched in January of this year lays out a programme of initiatives to tackle improvements in the experiences of women, Asian and older talent. The initiatives came about as a result of the latest data, which showed a disparity in gender experiences, especially for working mothers, a shocking statistic that 27% of Asian respondents stated they were likely to leave the industry because of lack of inclusion or discrimination and an entirely missing generation – only 4% of respondents were between the ages of 55 and 64 (versus 17% of the population). How many businesses in our sector can claim their age profile matches that of the city in which they are based? 

Latest research for my book Belonging, the Key to Diversity, Equality and Inclusion at Work, written with Kathryn Jacob and Mark Edwards, gives a bleak view of many people’s experiences at work in our sector. In an update for the paperback, which is out in May, we’ve seen experiences of bias, harassment and inappropriate behaviour increase in the broad sector of marketing, advertising and PR.   

We’re returning to real offices and in-person encounters, and we know from the TimeTo survey that there are many who fear a “pent-up demand” in terms of physical sexual harassment. 

Our industry prides itself on a culture of fun, hard work and hard playtime. We must transform this culture into one of zero tolerance for inappropriate behaviour and where inclusion is paramount. 

Every one of us must take personal responsibility for this, and this is where breathing like an actor or an athlete comes in. 

Breathing can change your state and give you the equanimity to speak up for a colleague even if the person who you’re challenging is your boss or about to fill in your peer review. 

As we write in Belonging: “The simplest way to stop yourself from being triggered or to pull yourself back after you’ve been triggered is via the breath. It sounds too simple to be true, but it does work. 

"We’ve all either told someone or been told ourselves to take a deep breath. It’s great advice, but you have to know how to take a deep breath effectively. If you simply gasp a deep lung-full of air, you’re making things worse for yourself. A rapid in-breath maintains or exacerbates your fight or flight mode. What you need to do is focus on your out-breath. A slow, prolonged out-breath is a powerful biological signal to your body that the threat is over and that it’s OK to relax.” 

The impact of breathing is even more relevant after a bout of Covid.  But whatever challenges you face in the workplace a few breaths can change your ability to navigate stormy waters and face your fears. 

Sue Unerman is chief transformation officer at MediaCom