Mindfulness in the workplace: have we had a gutful?

The news from the home of mindfulness – that’s California, not the exotic east – is grim.

Both erstwhile true believers and long-time sceptics have begun questioning whether corporate mindfulness programs are unarguably A Good Thing.

In the US, think pieces about the mindfulness backlash are now appearing in the same publications that five minutes ago were breathlessly reporting on widespread calm, concentration, co-operation and lunchtime positive visualisation classes springing up at multi-nationals.

Mindfulness guru and molecular biologist Jon Kabat-Zinn.Mindfulness guru and molecular biologist Jon Kabat-Zinn. Photo: Twitter

In the hope of saving HR departments any further expense, and long-suffering wage slaves from being forced to engage in Sufi dancing, please allow me to pile on.

Here are just some of the issues with ripping mindfulness away from its religious underpinnings and attempting to refashion it as a stress-reducing, productivity-increasing tool.

All in the mind

Mindfulness is hard work. All those scientific studies about meditation reducing anxiety, depression and stress and bolstering your focus, self-esteem and immune system are, on paper, accurate enough.

But there’s a catch. Just like going to the gym or learning the piano, you’ve got to keep investing significant amounts of time and energy to see significant results. To enjoy any noticeable, ongoing benefit from meditation you’ll probably need to commit at least 30 minutes a day, pretty much every day, for the rest of your life.

If you really want to dial up the serenity, you’re going to have to attend long meditation retreats. There, you can look forward to getting up before dawn and spending the next 16-odd hours sitting cross-legged facing a wall.

And there will be no sex, social interaction, alcohol or even television or to distract you from your throbbing knees. Or mental states ranging from epic boredom, to distressing flashbacks, to long-suppressed anger.

The other side

Once you process it all and come out the other side, you may achieve a profound tranquillity; maybe even enlightenment. But even in cultures suffused with Buddhism or Hinduism, there just aren’t that many people interested in doing the introspective grunt work required for the imperturbability pay-off.

On the above point, it’s worth noting the dearth of Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Singaporean, South Korean or Thai companies that have jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon. Could it be people in those countries see bringing mindfulness practices into the workplace as being as incongruous as westerners would find holding office prayer sessions to petition God for a good performance review and rising share price?

Mindfulness is bastardised Buddhism. Yes, I know that bouncy young woman from the People and Change department assured you mindfulness can be practised by people of all faiths and none. But here is its origin story.

Prototype for peace

In the 1970s, an American molecular biologist called Jon Kabat-Zinn developed the prototypical mindfulness program and called it called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Though he downplayed its provenance, it was based on the meditation techniques he’d learned while studying at the feet of Buddhist teachers such as Thich Nhat Hahn.

To be fair to Kabat-Zinn, his program was originally developed with the entirely noble aim of easing the suffering of hospital patients in chronic pain.

Nonetheless, his admirable innovation opened the door to watered-down forms of Buddhist meditation – sorry, mindfulness – being embraced by, well, just about everyone.

It has now been taken up by demographics ranging from dieters seeking to be more conscious of emotional eating, to prisoners with anger management issues, to thrusting middle management types hoping to remain unflappable in the face of long hours, overflowing inboxes, impossible deadlines and office politics.

Mind the risks

Earlier this year David Brendel, a high-profile executive coach and long-time mindfulness advocate, penned an article for the Harvard Business Review warning mindfulness wasn’t all upside for corporations.

He reported that, “One of my clients spent so much time meditating and ‘mindfully’ accepting her life ‘on its own terms’ that she failed to confront underperforming workers … she required significant reminders and reassurance from me that embracing Buddhist meditation does not entail tolerating sub-standard performance from her employees.”

In that statement lies the inevitable collision between warm and fuzzy mindfulness and cold, sharp corporate realities. There’s now a burgeoning Mindfulness-Industrial complex made up of business school academics, psychologists, life coaches and self-help gurus.

Its members make lots of money promising corporations they can help wring some extra productivity out of workforces by introducing the right mindfulness programs. Granted, the members of those workforces may enjoy some sort of improvement in their physical or mental health.

But underneath the feel-good, vaguely spiritual packaging, corporate mindfulness programs are all about minimising absenteeism, distractions and worker’s comp stress claims.

Which is a realisation that can really upset your mental equilibrium if you contemplate it for too long.