Mindfulness training is a hot topic right now. Companies such as NAB and IBM Australia were early adopters, and now organisations large and small are offering it to employees. Google’s Sydney office has a dedicated meditation room, as does Melbourne law firm Seyfarth Shaw.
Harvard Business Review’s 2014 interview with Professor Ellen Langer on the topic of mindfulness went viral and opened the gateway for the formerly esoteric practice to be adopted by the corporate sector – it’s now pretty mainstream.
What is mindfulness?
It’s simply a form of meditation that helps people focus, eliminate distracting thoughts and keep them in the moment. By being aware of their cognitive processes and paying attention to what they are feeling and thinking, people are able to maintain a calmer, more objective perspective.
Practitioners certainly report benefits. Numerous studies attest to lower levels of stress and anxiety, an improved ability to cope with difficult situations, and enhanced focus and creativity.
However, with the emphasis on giving the employee the skills to deal with work-related stress, are we in danger of ignoring the need for better job design, more compassionate management and improved workplace conditions?
Some researchers think so.
Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organisational behaviour at Stanford, says that the onus should be on employers to create workplaces where people aren’t pushed to their limits. His meta-analysis of 228 studies examining common workplace stressors and their effects on health showed that if employees feel valued, trusted and respected at work, their health will improve. Instead of fixing people up after they’ve experienced stress, he suggests creating a more wholesome workplace in the first place.
“Almost everything in the work environment that is causing worker stress could be fixed by employers if they wanted to,” he says. “Workplaces are killing us because they stress us.”
Safework Australia also supports the notion of better job design as a way of improving health outcomes. Mental health and general wellbeing can be enhanced, they say, by improving a range of aspects of work. They point to solid evidence that mental health is negatively impacted by shift work and overtime, poor leadership, aggression and bullying, overwork and low job control.
Zoe Krupka, a psychologist at the Cairnmillar Institute in Melbourne, also sees a disconnect between the causes of workplace stress – the conditions under which people work – and the emphasis on the individual’s response to stress.
“We’re working longer hours than ever before, and as our employment conditions continue to worsen, they’re simply repackaged into a new version of normal in an effort to make the truly pathological state of many of our workplaces appear acceptable” Krupka says.
Professor Julie Cogin from the Business School at the University of New South Wales cautions that mindfulness programs or yoga classes should be only part of a strategy.
She advises organisations to think carefully about the problem they are trying to solve before going ahead with such programs. “If the goal is to build wellness then an organisation needs to address all aspects of the workplace culture,” she says.
Professor Cogin also suggests promoting associated capabilities such as delegation, time management, stress management and resilience. Influential people within the organisation also need to model the way by taking regular breaks from work. All the systems need to be aligned for mindfulness programs to work well.
Such experts are part of a chorus of warnings that, while it’s a good thing to help employees develop resilience through mindfulness programs, organisations also need to look at the underlying causes: poor job design, stressful work, poor management and excessive workloads.