For some, it’s a fad. For others, it’s “more critical than exercise”. So should you consider mindfulness training in your organisation?
Once relegated to the domain of new age pseudoscience, mindfulness is becoming to offices today what Lucky Strike cigarettes were to workplaces in the 1960s. Companies from Google to Goldman Sachs, and locally, Telstra and SBS, have implemented corporate mindfulness initiatives, and the trend shows no sign of slowing down.
Yet despite alluring promises of a happier, more creative and sustainable workforce, mindfulness has its sceptics.
Isn’t it just meditation?
“The philosophy of mindfulness is learning how to accept certain situations, learning not to react to certain things and also to not judge what’s happening, in a good or bad way. Just observe and pay attention,” says Addie Wootten, a clinical psychologist and the CEO of mindfulness program Smiling Mind.
Michael Bunting, founder of mindful leadership consultancies Worksmart Australia and The Mindful Leader, says the way mindfulness is taught hasn’t helped in some cases.
“What we’re seeing often in mindful leadership is that people say they’re teaching mindfulness when what they’re doing is teaching some meditation skills and calling it mindful leadership, which is a longshot at best. You could just teach the same course while swimming and call it mindful swimming. It might make you a calmer swimmer, but it won’t make you a better swimmer.”
What does it do?
What, then, are the ways in which mindfulness can make employees and leaders “better”? From a neurological perspective, mindfulness practices train the brain to have a healthier response to stress, among other things.
“The brain alters so it doesn’t fire off transmitters as quickly in response to stress in those people who practise mindfulness,” says Wootten.
“What we’re finding is that when people are practising mindfulness, when a stressful event occurs, instead of automatically worrying, people are able to look at the situation with a little bit more perspective.”
There are plenty of organisations willing to claim the benefits of introducing mindfulness programs into their workforce.
Global law firm Herbert Smith Freehills told The Australian that its mindfulness program, facilitated by corporate trainer Hougaard, “increased effectiveness by 35 per cent and focus by 45 per cent”. One partner says mindfulness practice is now “more critical than exercise”.
When Paul Taylor, creative director at advertising agency M&C Saatchi’s Melbourne office, first began practising mindfulness in a group at his office, he was initially sceptical.
“In an office you have a certain kind of relationship with the other people there, but that becomes sort of pointed when you sit around a boardroom together and all close your eyes and breathe deeply. It’s a bit awkward for the first couple of times.”
But he soon found that regular mindfulness practices began to benefit him and his team.
“It creeps up on you. You start feeling better about other people and how you deal with them. And you become more resilient with the people you work with, and also your clients.”
He concedes that finding tangible evidence of the impact of mindfulness can be challenging.
“You can’t benchmark creativity and say this year was better than last year because of mindfulness,” says Taylor. “But it’s true to say that it creates an environment where better work can be done.”
Some have attempted to measure the effects, however. For the mindful programs rolled out by Worksmart Australia, which have been adopted by Hilton, American Express and others, Bunting and his team collected data based on interviews from within those organisations.
“What we do in leadership is to measure it on a 360 assessment,” he says. “So we [assess] a leader on a bunch of competencies that we characterise as associated mindful leadership and which we then measure. Do those characteristics have an impact on three key outcomes: leadership effectiveness, engagement of people, organisational trust and mental health outcomes?”
He describes the data as “astonishing”. For example, “if your boss is a mindful leader, as opposed to a non-mindful leader, there’s a 50 per cent difference in engagement”.
Look to the data
Nevertheless, even proponents of mindfulness caution against seeing results like this as conclusive evidence of the effectiveness of corporate mindfulness practises.
Daniel Goleman, co-director of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organisations at Rutgers University in New Jersey and author of a number of books about mindfulness, says the problem with trying to interpret research about mindfulness is that the bold claims made by many studies aren’t very rigorous.
He and Richard Davidson, a neurologist from the University of Wisconsin, sifted through a sea of research publications on mindfulness and other kinds of meditation and found that “one per cent of those several thousand articles achieved the gold standards for medical research”.
But of those that did, found compelling evidence in favour of practising mindfulness in corporate environments. “Those solid studies”, they say, “reveal that there are real benefits from mindfulness: stronger focus, staying calm under pressure, better memory, and good corporate citizenship.”
Context is everything
Any suggestion that mindfulness training is a cure-all would be misleading. While the benefits can seem compelling, the state of the workplace matters.
“Many organisations institute wellness programs that focus on encouraging employees to eat better or exercise more. Meanwhile, they overlook the atmosphere of the workplace setting itself,” says researcher Jeffrey Pfeffer.
It’s a concern that is echoed by wellness practitioners in Australia.
“On the one hand, [high-pressure corporate environments] may be the most in need [of mindfulness training],” Tutton says, “and quite proactive in terms of looking for resources. But if they’re not sincere in their commitment to those resources, it’s just not going to work.”
Bunting agrees. “It doesn’t suddenly make a toxic workplace fine, or easy. The company still has a big responsibility for ethics and good trust-based leadership practices.”
This is an edited version of a story that originally appeared in the April 2018 edition of HRM magazine.
Increase mental awareness in your workplace, learn about stress management and equip yourself with health and wellness strategies with AHRI’s customised in-house training. Email AHRI and ask about the course ‘Mindfulness – mental health at work’.