Did your MBA teach you about Mindfulness? Probably not. In this article we will discuss how some corporations have taken the lead in integrating mindfulness into their business practice. It is not just a good idea, but makes economic sense. This will be Part I of a multi-part series on Mindfulness and Corporate America.
Twenty-one years ago, a software engineer at Google wanted to change the world. Chade-Meng Tan, a practicing Buddhist, decided that if there were to be world peace, it had to start with helping others to find inner peace. He also noticed that many of his colleagues, who enjoyed working at Google, were working so hard that he feared they would soon burn out. They needed to learn to slow down instead of analyzing the past or worrying about the future. In his experience, mindfulness – a meditation practice used by Buddhists – seemed to be the answer. However, he knew that the people he worked with, especially other engineers, would not be too enthusiastic about anything they regarded as “hippie” or New Age. He decided to strip most of the Eastern philosophy away and introduce mindfulness as a scientifically proven way to “hack the brain” into feeling better.
To do this, he teamed up with experts in neuroscience, meditation, and emotional intelligence1, and they created a practical program designed to appeal to even the most skeptical. This program was named “Search Inside Yourself” and proved to be far more popular than he ever could have dreamed. It quickly became the most requested employee development program at Google, with a waiting list of six months.
Focusing on attention training and compassion for others, “Search Inside Yourself” has had very positive feedback from participants. They showed less stress, more kindness toward colleagues, and a calmer reaction when faced with challenges. Since its inception, the “Jolly Good Fellow” (Meng’s official Google title, usually coupled with the soubriquet “which nobody can deny!”) has given talks, written two books on the subject, and set up an institute to teach the technique to other companies.
Google’s progressive approach to employee wellbeing is not unique, as I will demonstrate later in this article. Even the US military offers mindfulness classes to help soldiers recover from stress and become more effective leaders. In the UK, the British government is funding trials in schools to see whether mindfulness can help children to control stress. The practice is also recommended by NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) as a method for treating depression.2
What Is Mindfulness?
Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the pioneers making mindfulness more “acceptable” to the Western world, defined mindfulness as “… awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.” It means being in the moment and noticing how you are feeling and the sounds, smells, and sensations around you. You will also become more aware of your mind’s activities, as it will produce thoughts to try and distract you. When this happens, the thoughts are observed without analysis or judgment and released. This allows the focus to turn to the present once again.
The focus is most often upon the breath; following its path and even counting each inhale and exhale for 10 seconds each is a great way to calm the mind and give it a rest from its normal chattering. When beginning to learn mindfulness, the sessions are short (between five and 10 minutes), but they can easily stretch from 40 minutes to an hour when the practitioner feels comfortable enough. If this sounds like more time than you can easily spare in your day, rest assured that even 10 minutes has proven long enough to reap benefits. However, to achieve lower stress and all the other benefits of meditation, it is important that it become a daily act, like brushing your teeth or taking a shower.
Scientific studies using MRI scans on mindfulness practitioners have shown amazing results. During one, scans were done on people following an eight-week mindfulness course. They showed that the practice tended to shrink the amygdala – the organ of the brain responsible for the fight-or-flight response – and thicken the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain associated with higher functioning, such as reasoning, focus, and heightened awareness. In other words, these people changed their brains so that they could manage the instinctive reactions of the amygdala and respond more thoughtfully and calmly to stressors.
The practice of mindfulness meditation also appears to heighten the immune system while reducing the number of biomarkers that signal stress and inflammation in the body.3 Other research has shown that the practice alters the connectivity between areas of the brain responsible for sensations of pain, so experienced meditators can lessen painful experiences. All in all, it appears to be the perfect panacea for how we live today and all the problems we encounter due to modern-day stressors.
The Effects of Modern Stress
We are not designed either physically or mentally to cope with the constant stress in our lives today. The increase in available technology means that we are never really off-duty; a study showed that, on average, Americans check their phones every 12 minutes, or around 80 times per day. 31% reported feelings of anxiety when separated from their phone for any reason.4 Meanwhile, distractions at work have reached epidemic proportions, with causes ranging from gossiping coworkers to constant emails. Add to that unnecessary meetings, a noisy office, and a heavy workload, and it is no wonder people are not only getting stressed but, as a consequence, losing three hours of productivity each day – that’s up to 759 hours per person per year.5
The way that we cope with stress has not evolved at all since the time of early man. When our ancestors perceived a threat, such as a stalking saber-tooth tiger or an enemy wielding a club, he experienced an immediate stress response. One of the physiological reactions induced by stress is the release of the hormone adrenaline, which makes the heart beat faster (pushing blood to the necessary muscles) and releases more sugar into the blood, giving the body extra energy to facilitate fight-or-flight. Oxygen intake is also optimized and helps to heighten the senses. We were thus prepared to tackle whatever the Paleolithic period could throw at us. If the threat continued, cortisol would also be released; this sustained the effect of the adrenaline. Once the danger was over, the parasympathetic nervous system stepped in to halt the flood of stress chemicals and return the body to normal.
While that worked very effectively prehistorically, the same stress-handling system does not cope so well in the modern day. The problem is that we tend to be exposed to low-level (and high-level) stress throughout most of our working days. As the amygdala cannot distinguish between a saber-tooth tiger and a work deadline, it switches on the same bodily response as it did in the Paleolithic period, and our body reacts accordingly. Because our lives are consistently filled with elements that raise our stress levels, the adrenaline/cortisol response is switched on almost permanently. This is not good for our bodies, as having a prolonged and substantial amount of these hormones can cause all sorts of physiological changes, including:
High blood pressure
Obesity (a leading factor in type 2 diabetes)
Low immune response
Depression and anxiety
Nausea and vomiting6
These conditions are not only harmful to the individual, but also to the company for which he/she works. According to a Health and Safety Executive in 2017, 25.7 million working days were lost to work-related illnesses, with stress, depression, and anxiety making up 12.5 million of them.7 Poor mental health alone has been estimated to cost businesses $14 billion due to absenteeism and $28.1 billion in reduced productivity every year, and that is in addition to other illnesses caused by overstress. Although this is patently unsustainable, studies have shown that many companies still abstain from safeguarding the well-being of their staff.8 In the last decade, however, there have been some forward-thinking corporate giants prepared to do something about the situation, even if their solutions might look a bit odd to the majority of the business world. Their ideas, especially the concept of mindfulness programs, have been catching on in the most unlikely places.
What Mindfulness Does for the Brain
Many larger companies recognize the problem of staff burnout due to stress and the adverse effect it has, not only on its personnel, but also the company’s bottom line. After hearing of the effectiveness of mindfulness, some have chosen to employ it in the form of a program to teach their managers and workers to better deal with stress, as well as increase compassion toward each other. I have already mentioned Google, the corporate pioneer of mindfulness programs for employees, but here are a few more companies that have been forward-thinking enough to adopt such a beneficial approach:
Keurig Green Mountain (previously Green Mountain Coffee)
Bob Stiller, the founder of Keurig Green Mountain, strongly believes in looking after the planet and the people who work for him. In addition to offering them a range of benefits, including onsite gyms, he also introduced a mindfulness program. It was introduced at management-level but was then made available to the whole workforce. Warehouse and factory staff were taught mindful stretching to make them more aware of their surroundings and behavior and to avoid unnecessary injuries and accidents. Although a large number of staff were skeptical at first, many have adopted the program, and the company has seen a significant reduction in job-related pain and absence.9
The CEO of Aetna, Mark Bertolini, was already practicing yoga and meditation to help relieve a chronic pain condition resulting from a skiing accident. He figured that if it helped him, it could also benefit those who worked for him. In 2011, with help from the American Viniyoga Institute and eMindful (a company that develops online mindfulness programs), he ran a pilot 12-week program with just 239 employees. They could choose either a yoga or Mindfulness at Work course. These first participants reported feeling less stressed and more productive by the end of the 12 weeks. With such a significant success rate, it was expanded across the whole workforce, and over 15,000 of the company’s 50,000 employees took up the classes.
Subsequent surveys found that those who participated in the mindfulness program registered 28% less stress, a 20% improvement in the quality of sleep, reduced pain levels, and extra productivity during the day, which Aetna has calculated to be worth around $3,000 per month.10
Another company that has profited from introducing a mindfulness element is Intel. In 2012, it introduced its Awake@Intel program, consisting of 10 weekly sessions of 90 minutes each, and made it available to its 100,000 employees worldwide. Participants reported feeling less stressed, happier, and more inclined to innovative thinking and mental clarity. The quality of relationships and cooperation between members of staff on all levels also improved.11
So, Is There a Downside?
There has been little criticism as to the effectiveness of mindfulness, although there have been some questions surrounding the amount of benefit it generates. This is partially because many of the companies that encourage it also offer other programs and benefits (like yoga, gyms, and massage therapy) that could make employees happier and less stressed. Progressive companies tend to work to make their employees more content; in turn, their employees feel more cared for. All of these practices lessen stress and reduce absenteeism. In a way, this isn’t a criticism at all, merely a signpost to a future where all workplaces offer such services.
There have been some cases where mindfulness has had the opposite effect of what was intended. Some people have reported adverse reactions to mindfulness or any kind of meditation, ranging from panic attacks to reliving past traumas.12 Although these cases are atypical, they do occur, and the proponents of corporate programs should be aware and able to respond appropriately to any mental health issues that might arise.
The most common criticism of mindfulness in a corporate setting, however, is that instead of tackling what causes the stress in the first place, such as workloads or inadequate management, companies encourage their employees to be content through meditation. By offering such a program, the employer appears to care while they merely place a band-aid over a much more pervasive (and expensive) problem. While this could be the case, no amount of mindfulness practice could turn workers into compliant zombies unaware that nothing else around them is changing. On the contrary, being mindful means that they notice it more and have the clarity of mind to improve it. Moreover, if the managers themselves undertake the program, they tend to feel more compassion for their staff and wish to ameliorate their working conditions. This is undoubtedly the case for the large companies mentioned above who have instituted many employee-friendly schemes to make the working day a little easier.
More scientific research on mindfulness needs to be done to conclusively quantify the benefits of mindfulness on businesses and in society in general. There is a great need to slow down our hectic lives and take some space for ourselves so that we can calm our stress-response and improve our mental and physical health. Mindfulness may well be the best way to achieve this.
- Emotional intelligence is the “’awareness of one’s own emotions and moods and those of others, esp. in managing people”’ (Collins Dictionary). It is a way of learning to control your reactions to emotional or stressful stimuli so that you can respond in a more thoughtful manner. Thise awareness can be learned through the practice of mindfulness.
- ‘Mindfulness, NHS Choices, accessed at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/mindfulness/, on 04/17/2018
- Tom Ireland, ‘What Does Mindfulness Meditation do to Your Brain,’ Scientific American, 06/12/2014, accessed at: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/what-does-mindfulness-meditation-do-to-your-brain/, on 06/13/2018
- ‘Americans Check Their Phones 80 Times a Day: Study,’ 11/08/2017, New York Post, accessed online at: https://nypost.com/2017/11/08/americans-check-their-phones-80-times-a-day-study/, on 06/07/2018
- Susanna Huth, ‘Employees Waste 759 Hours Each Year Due to Workplace DDistractionsDistractions,’ The Telegraph, 06/22/2015, accessed at: Distractions,’Distractions,’ The Telegraph, accessed at:
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/jobs/11691728/Employees-waste-759-hours-each-year-due-to-workplace-distractions.html, on 06/10/2018
- ‘Stress Effects on the Body,’ American Psychological Association, accessed at: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-body.aspx, on 06/08/2018
- ‘Working Days Lost,’ Health and Safety Executive, Oct 2017, accessed at: http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/dayslost.htm, on 06/08/2018
- Emily Burt, ‘Most Employers Fail to Meet Basic Standards in Supporting Employee Mental Health,’ People Management, 04/17/2018, accessed at: https://www.peoplemanagement.co.uk/news/articles/employers-fail-to-meet-basic-mental-health-standards, on 06/08/2018
- Jeanne Meister, ‘Future of Work: Mindfulness as a Leadership Practice,’ Forbes, 04/27/2015, accessed at https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeannemeister/2015/04/27/future-of-work-mindfulness-as-a-leadership-practice/#59939043e1cf, on 05/31/2018
- Kristine Wong, ‘There’s No Price Tag on a Clear Mind: Intel to Launch Mindfulness Program,’ The Guardian, 04/08/2014, accessed at: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/price-intel-mindfulness-program-employee, on 06/17/2018
- Dawn Foster, ‘Is Mindfulness Making Us Ill?’ The Guardian, 01/20/2016/ accessed at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jan/23/is-mindfulness-making-us-ill, on 06/17/2018