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Can Mindfulness Fill Corporate America With Better, Happier Workers?

As corporate mindfulness initiatives continue their fashionable ascent among CEOs and consultants, it’s worth asking: Can a 2,500-year-old practice in selflessness really help us be more productive capitalists? Or are promises of getting more done with less stress a little too good to be true?

By Livia Gershon


(Photo: Sebastien Wiertz/Flickr)

In 2012, when the New York Timesreported that Google was offering its employees a chance to try out mindfulness techniques, the paper of record adopted a tone of befuddlement. “Sharing feelings?” the story asked; “Sitting quietly for long, unproductive minutes? At Google?”

Four years later, workplace mindfulness initiatives are everywhere. When cloud computing giant Salesforce opened a new San Francisco tower this spring, it set aside a room on each floor as a device-free “mindfulness zone” at the suggestion of a group of Zen Buddhist monks. Health insurance firm Aetna reports that mindfulness courses have helped its employees reduce their blood pressure and lose weight. Traders at Goldman Sachs say that mindfulness exercises have given them an edge against the competition. Meditation is now a billion-dollar industry, with 22 percent of mid-size to large American companies offering some kind of mindfulness training, according to one survey.

Often, employers offer mindfulness as a wellness perk — kind of a hipper version of a discounted gym membership — based on promising, though not conclusive, research on its effects on stress, depression, and other mental ailments. But some companies — and many, many consultants and coaches who advise companies — see it as a way to achieve much more profound effects.

“We’re seeing results in the workplace of employees feeling more positive well-being, [increasing] their ability to manage stress, their willingness to learn, to listen to others, resulting in perhaps the most ultimate thing that organizations care about, which is higher performance,” one researcher enthused, describing a simple intervention that encourages people to take occasional five-minute mindfulness breaks.

Try Googling “workplace mindfulness” — amid an array of stock photographs showing people in full business suits sitting cross-legged, you’ll run into claims that start to sound like pop-psychology from The Secret. Re-program your mind to remove toxic emotions! Unleash your innate creativity and compassion! Get more productivity from your employees at next to no cost while making them happier too!

While a worker who’s absorbed in a task is focused on a single activity in the present moment, a mindful worker is broadly aware of many more stimuli — a slight tension in her shoulders, a co-worker blowing his nose, an inexplicable sense of sadness, the hum of the air conditioner.

I figured all this might sound more reasonable when explained by an actual human being. So I called up Strategy of Mind, a Boston consulting firm that touts something called “The Human Quotient” — a cocktail of mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and strategic thinking. The firm’s co-founder, psychiatrist David Brendel, told me he sees mindfulness as a solution to a particularly modern problem of economic globalization and rapid technological change.

“The level of stress in the workplace has exceeded and outstripped many people’s coping abilities,” he said. “We’re not wired very well for many of the fast-paced things that are being demanded.”

Brendel said the argument for mindfulness practice is pretty simple: It’s safer than anti-anxiety drugs, and it helps people get into a mindset where they’re calm enough to think straight and pay attention to the people around them. To see how this works in real life, he offered to let me sit and observe during a training session that a mindfulness trainer would be holding with one of the executives who come to the firm for help.

As it turns out, though, start-up partners and corporate managers aren’t particularly receptive to talking about their anxieties in front of some random reporter, and none of Strategy of Mind’s clients were willing to be part of the story. So the firm brought in a ringer — a former corporate consultant and current international development expert named Michael Keating who was already practicing Zen meditation and was willing to act as a pretend client for the sake of my story.

A couple of weeks later, I ended up sitting in a cheerful room with Keating and Strategy of Mind mindfulness trainer Emmie Stamell, who had agreed to waive her fee for the session. Stamell, who’s studied both Buddhist meditation and yoga for years, had two tiny silver rings on her bare toes and an air of thoughtful competence. She began by asking Keating to take a few deep breaths and notice the feeling of his body against his chair, relax his forehead and jaw and neck, and feel breath subtly moving through his torso.

This simple breathing exercise — you’ve probably tried some version of it at the start of an exercise class or workshop — is at the core of many mindfulness programs. Looking at what various advocates mean by mindfulness, Erik Dane, a Rice University researcher who studies cognition in the workplace, writes that it boils down to a psychological state involving full attention to whatever is happening, both inside and outside a person, right now. While a worker who’s absorbed in a task is focused on a single activity in the present moment, a mindful worker is broadly aware of many more stimuli — a slight tension in her shoulders, a co-worker blowing his nose, an inexplicable sense of sadness, the hum of the air conditioner.

Dane argues that, for some workers, “mindfulness” isn’t a particularly productive state. If you’re assembling data on a spreadsheet, you probably want to be more target-focused and less open to the universe. But for people in other, more nimble positions, like managers who leap from crisis to crisis all day, Dane writes, a broader field of attention can make it easier to make a lot of fast decisions. In one study, Dane and a colleague found that servers at a chain restaurant who are more mindful tend to do a better job.

But research like this is rare, and it’s still less than clear how well mindfulness training actually achieves the goals companies want it to. Alice F. Stuhlmacher, an industrial-organizational psychiatrist at DePaul University, said it’s easy to see the theoretical value of mindfulness, but worries that consultants and companies are pushing programs that just haven’t been tested.

“The practice is not being led by the research,” Stuhlmacher said. “It’s really hard research to do in the first place, to measure these things. There’s not that many studies.”

Talking with Keating about how mindfulness works in the office, Stamell explained it like this: If a lazy co-worker is driving you crazy, you can get so furious that you lash out or make a point of avoiding him. But if you stop and breathe for a minute, you might start to notice what, exactly, is driving you nuts.

“In Buddhist psychology and mindfulness meditation, that’s our opportunity,” she said. “So, self-reflection: ‘Hmm, it seems like I have an aversion to laziness. Interesting. Is it because my dad used to hit me because I didn’t do the housework? Am I jealous that he’s able to relax a little on the job?’”

It’s still unclear whether mindfulness training actually achieves the goals companies want it to.

“It’s not like this practice frees you from ever feeling angry or resentful,” she added. “You feel those things. You feel them fully, actually. Fully alive in resenting this guy right now, pissed. ‘Wow, what’s the experience of being pissed off? How does that feel? Feels like heat. Feels like maybe tension. Feels like immobilization of some sort.’”

If you actually stop and notice all this, Stamell said, you can make a choice not to react out of anger. And then, you can make a more rational choice about how to respond. If you’re the lazy guy’s boss, you may still ultimately have to fire him, but you can approach whatever conversation you have with him in a more open, compassionate way.

To Keating, as Stamell explained the benefits, it all seemed to make sense. He’s been practicing meditation daily for more than a year. It helped him get through the tail end of an assignment in Afghanistan followed by a cancer diagnosis and treatment. His wife tells him he’s a much calmer person than he used to be. But even after his session with Stamell, he said he’s still skeptical about its role in the workplace.

“What I would not like to see is for it to become a management fad,” he told Stamell. “I mean, I tend to be cynical about the motivations of upper management in terms of wanting to control the workforce in a way that will maximize their efficiency toward creating profit.”

And that’s the issue that animates a debate happening among Buddhist teachers and mindfulness trainers right now: Can mindfulness reconcile personal spirituality and increased capitalist productivity? Or is it a watered-down co-option of an ancient spiritual tradition, repurposed in a corporate context against its own original nature?

Among those sharing Keating’s skepticism is Christopher Titmuss. A former Buddhist monk, Titmuss teaches Insight Meditation — Buddhist doctrine imported from Burma to the West and adapted for a mostly white, liberal, countercultural audience; the practice is highly influential in the more secularized world of corporate mindfulness, and it’s a tradition that helped provide Stamell, and many other mindfulness instructors, with some of their training.

Writing on his website a few years ago, Titmuss wrote that mindfulness exercises could help workers alleviate stress and manage their anger. But, he wrote, as long as mindfulness was divorced from the ethical teachings of Buddhism, corporate mindfulness initiatives could easily provide public relations cover for managers to push their underlings to work harder.

“There is no available evidence to show that the mindfulness courses challenge the obsessive demands on management, staff, the competitive drive or the very products of a company,” Titmuss wrote. “We should not think for a moment that mindfulness courses will change the underlying ideology of people in power who seek to maximize gain and control.”

Others are more optimistic. During a talk in May, Gil Fronsdal, another influential Insight Meditation leader, said his own meditation center in California sometimes provides training to technology workers, including a group of employees from Netflix, who had sought the center out. He thinks it helps them achieve their goals.

“We should not think for a moment that mindfulness courses will change the underlying ideology of people in power who seek to maximize gain and control.”

“But it’s also a little bit subversive,” Fronsdal said. “We’re not completely in harmony with what’s going on with capitalism and industry and productivity.”

Fronsdal said he doesn’t make a big deal of Buddhist ethics in these settings, but notes that simply practicing mindfulness seems to change some people’s focus.

“Some people who come into the Buddhist field, their values change,” he said. “They can’t do the same work anymore. They become downwardly mobile. In our quiet, non-obvious way we’re a healthy, subversive movement for our society.”

This idea doesn’t just show up among Buddhist teachers. Dan Nixon, an economist at the Bank of England, recently wrote that mindfulness practice has the potential to profoundly change economics by reducing people’s urge to consume.

Of course, work is about much more than making money. Some people live a rich emotional life at their jobs, complete with deep friendships and a sense of usefulness and fulfillment. But, for many of us, the rewards we get from work — the brief hit of satisfaction from hitting “send” on a complicated email, the pleasant exchange of a few words about Game of Thrones, the promotion to a nicer office — may start to seem less salient when we begin to widen our mental field.

This line of thinking raises questions about whether mindfulness is actually useful to companies, where the ultimate goal is generally doing more and making more money faster. U.S. meditation instructor Kenneth Folk told me he finds the use of meditation to improve the bottom line almost laughable. Though Wired magazine once called Folk “a power player in the mindfulness movement,” he said he doesn’t actually think mindfulness is particularly conducive to creativity or getting things done.

“The idea that mindfulness would improve productivity is kind of an odd notion on the face of it,” he said.

After all, he said, for most of its 2,500-year history, Buddhist meditation was for monks who renounced worldly things, not for regular people who had to make a living.

Folk said mindfulness can be used to hone concentration, but its real point is almost the opposite — to get into a nearly pre-verbal frame of mind.

“It’s the simplest thing in the world,” he said. “I think dogs have access to it by default. At any moment when I re-claim my doghood, I’m just sitting here dumb and happy. I’m not motivated, for better or for worse.”