This article was originally found on The Atlantic, which emphasizes that great leadership requires strong emotional intelligence and the latest corporate productivity hack: Meditation Proves Its Value.
Target, Google and Ford have started teaching mindfulness to employees. Will capitalism make something as simple as following your breath difficult?
Since I started meditating two years ago, my practice has been shamefully sporadic. When I manage to stop what I am doing and sit down without a device, I find following my breath a relief – and a contrast to what is happening at work. But as David Gelles notes in his new book, that contrast may be dissipating for the better.
In Mindful Work, Gelles, a business reporter for the New York Times, catalogs the emerging trend of developing employee wellbeing programs that encourage mindfulness, an activity that can perhaps best be described as doing nothing. More specifically, mindfulness means drawing attention to the sensations of the present moment and noticing mental aberrations that stand in the way without frustration or judgment. You can do this anywhere – at your desk, on the subway platform – anytime. Decades of research suggest that spending time in mindfulness can improve focus and reduce stress.
Gelles first reported on the rise of corporate mindfulness programs for The Financial Times in 2012 when he described a rare but promising initiative at General Mills. In recent years, similar programs have popped up at Ford, Google, Target, Adobe, and even Goldman Sachs and Davos. This adoption was quick, possibly due to the potential to improve bottom line: Aetna estimates that since the mindfulness program was launched, it has saved about $ 2,000 per employee in healthcare costs and about $ 3,000 per employee in productivity. Mindful employees, it is believed, are healthier and more focused.
I recently spoke with Gelles about why mindfulness programs arise and what happens when you subject a non-materialism practice to the forces of capitalism. The following interview has been edited and condensed for the sake of clarity.
Joe Pinsker: In your book you attribute mindfulness in America to Henry David Thoreau, who read many Buddhist and Hindu texts. You also mention that Allen Ginsberg picked up on this thread in the 1960s, but can you talk about the first moment of starting the business in the mid-1990s?
David Gelles: There was an example that was perhaps unusual, very surprising. Long before Google taught emotional intelligence courses at Mountain View, Monsanto, of all people, tried mindfulness. They had a very progressive CEO there for a moment who had a personal interest in this practice. He brought in a very experienced teacher named Mirabai Bush, and they began teaching mindfulness to the company's executives.
Those executives, who have been in the corporate world throughout their careers, were suddenly exposed to mindsets and relationships with themselves and with each other and even with their customers and maybe even the planet that they had never experienced before. Some people had these real, very emotional openings. I heard that some people actually left the company when this started. It started to make a difference in the way some of the top executives at this company felt about the world.
And then of course it happened that the CEO was fired, the program was discontinued, and no one ever mentioned it again. These things happen in America.
Pinsker: Then why do you think mindfulness is now taking root in the corporate world? My first theory is that companies are more likely to adopt things that they can quantify, and it's only recently that mindfulness research has been able to really hard quantify its benefits. Do you think that's a good theory or no?
I think we're in a place where we can have much more empirical conversations about it, which I think helps make it less of a woo-woo new age thing. Gelles: I think that's absolutely a big part of it. I think there are three main reasons we are seeing mindfulness in the workplace now more than ever. The first is exactly what you said. There has been this enormous volume of research over the past 30 years. Academic research, scientific research that really quantifies the effects of mindfulness. And we can now see that it is actually changing the structures of our brains in ways that we believe are largely positive. It actually improves our immune systems in ways that we have been shown to measure. It actually appears to be reducing the stress we experience and the stress our bodies seem to report through through measures like heart rate variability and cortisol levels. So the data is there. We know changes are being made and that those changes are largely beneficial.
And now we're just seeing the next step. We are beginning to see companies doing some work to analyze what happens when they introduce mindfulness on a large scale. At Aetna, the company I featured in The Times earlier this month, healthcare costs actually fell for the first full year after launch. Suddenly there is this tempting promise that it may even affect the bottom line. So that's a reason. I think we're in a place where we can have much more empirical conversations about it, which I think helps make it less of a woo-woo new age thing.
The second thing I think helped is that mindfulness has become a truly worldly pursuit over the past 30 years. Yes, it has some relationship, some origins in traditional Eastern practices, but today people are by no means teaching or practicing anything like religion. I think secularization, the fact that it is almost entirely a purely scientific practice, has made it much more accessible, especially for large corporations.
The third is, I think mindfulness is accepted in the workplace today because we seem to need it more than ever. We are so stressed out. We are bombarded with constant information overload. We are so addicted to our technology that the promise of a technology that will allow us to return to the present moment and no longer be obsessed with what we have just read on our Twitter stream or what we have on our Facebook Publishing page has a unique and lasting appeal that is completely understandable. I mean, after a really hectic day at The Times, the opportunity to calm down is really lovely.
Pinsker: If mindfulness is especially important today because it encourages people to become more aware of the way they deal with distraction, how does the idea of mindfulness fit with the modern burden of constant multitasking?
Gelles: I would actually say that multitasking is a myth. I think we can rarely, if ever, do two things at the same time. I think we do tasks very quickly, which leads to inherent inefficiencies. Is that part of the fabric of the modern workplace? To a certain extent it is. And I think this is the moment of opportunity. If I focus on actually writing a story, can I just focus my attention on writing that story instead of checking Facebook every 30 seconds while checking out Tweetdeck at the same time? It is possible. Of course, my mind is drawn to these constant inputs, these constant stimuli.
But that's the whole game. The whole game is not necessarily to give in to those urges. When the phone rings, do I pick it up? Yes. I am not advocating a hermetic office lifestyle. But I think the point remains that if we can actually focus on doing one thing at a time, I believe that the outcomes and outcomes have a chance to be better than if we were constantly distracted.
Pinsker: Over the years there have been all sorts of programs that companies have put in place because they feel this is the right thing at this point in time. Is there any evidence that mindfulness will be a business fad, or is there any evidence that it will really be a long-lived thing in the American workplace? G
elles: There is always a risk that these things will go crazy. And one of the things I ask in this book is a real focus on getting good teachers into the workplace. For without good teachers it will be all too easy to dilute and distort the meaning and richness of these traditions, and that can easily go south very quickly.
Even so, I think there is real reason to believe that this represents an ongoing demand. And whether it is referred to as "mindfulness" or not, I don't think it is a fad for employees and employers to realize that we need to take better care of our own minds and bodies and that we can actually do better Business and create better results. I think this is hopefully a permanent change in the way many of the biggest companies think about how they need to do business.
Mindfulness can help us heal with our own reactions to negative events at work or at home, but it will not prevent bad things from happening in the first place. Pinsker: In the book you talk about the program in the packaging and distribution facilities of Green Mountain Coffee. And you cite this as an example of how mindfulness can be applied to working professions. So I was wondering if this was being used equally in white-collar and blue-collar jobs. And is it equally promising for both?
Gelles: Let me answer the second part first. I think anyone interested in mindfulness could potentially benefit from it. I say "anyone who is interested" because I am not here suggesting that absolutely everyone should meditate. Who should I say such a thing? But for those with a curiosity and appetite for it, I think whether they are a factory worker or a C-suite manager, it makes sense to at least take a chance and see if there is any value for a person .
In my experience, whether or not the programs are evenly deployed, the answer is likely no. This has likely shifted towards industries for the most part. On the other hand, our entire economy is leaning towards branches of industry. We live in an information economy, so it is perhaps not surprising that Intel, Adobe, and Google, with their enormous employees, are some of the greatest owners and proponents of this industry.
Pinsker: You seem a little concerned, especially towards the end of the book, that when practicing mindfulness, people might come from a perspective where workers are "cured of stress", if that's the way they are supposed to, after a single session the launch pad for a long and constant process. What can you do to prevent this from happening?
Gelles: There are all sorts of pitfalls as they keep getting bigger. One of them is ineffective teachers regardless of the medium, and another is feeling too promising and too little delivering. I think when people hear, "Mindfulness Reduces Stress," they suddenly think they will be able to take a class or two, and jobs will no longer be stressful. And of course that is not the case. Mindfulness can help us heal with our own reactions to negative events at work or at home, but it will not prevent bad things from happening in the first place.
Pinsker: You provide numerous examples of how mindfulness has led or at least contributed to socially responsible corporate behavior. Another argument that appears throughout the book is that it is a good business decision. You save money on health costs and, for example, gain a lot in productivity. Is there something contradicting about harnessing the power of mindfulness, in part intended to diminish the importance of worldly pursuits to improve the bottom line?
Gelles: We live in a capitalist economy, and mindfulness cannot change that. I think what it can hopefully do is give individuals, organizational influencers, and maybe even companies themselves, the perspective it takes to make decisions and changes that not only affect the bottom line but also our emotional, physical benefit and social wellbeing.
Now this will be easier in a private company than in a large public company with tons of red tape and public shareholders and analysts who all expect quarterly earnings to rise over time. That alone is a great, inherent challenge for the moment we are in right now. Our current economy primarily values profit and increases quarterly profit. And I think that's an inherently flawed measure of long-term success.
So I don't think the two things are incompatible because I think it's about managing expectations. Nowhere have I heard and I hope I have not suggested that mindfulness will somehow lead to the next utopia. It won't fix all of our problems. But I hope it can help around the edges.
Pinsker: In the book, you mentioned in passing that Goldman Sachs has some kind of mindfulness program. Do you know what exactly your program consists of?
Gelles: They keep promising to bring me in and show me, but I haven't seen it yet. My understanding is that they offer mindfulness meditation classes to some of their staff. One of its board members, Bill George, is one of the loudest advocates of mindfulness in the business world. He actually teaches a mindful leadership course at Harvard Business School.
I don't know a company says, "We practice mindfulness. Look at us, we are suddenly an absolutely flawless corporate actor." Pinsker: I don't want to single out, but how do you reconcile a culture of mindfulness with a company whose contributions to society are less than obvious? Is there a risk that a company will imagine that it is doing the world good by promoting the mindfulness of its employees?
Gelles: I think it's easy to make the mistake of mistaking a company for its employees. There are only a few instances in the book that I am really trying to say that mindfulness has led a company to make decisions that are contrary to their previous behavior. I hope the focus is on the employees themselves. Mindfulness is most effective when individuals use it to take better care of themselves and to be more compassionate and accepting of their colleagues and other people they interact with.
This is where I'm really trying to deal with expectations, and I don't know a company would say, "We practice mindfulness. Look at us, we're suddenly a perfectly flawless corporate actor." I have not yet seen people make this point. But I think you asked the right question: is there a risk that companies will use them as evidence that they take good care of their employees, even when in other cases they may not? But I think this is where people like you and I have to hold them accountable.
I was lucky enough to have started a moving meditation with Tai Chi at a young age. By practicing tai chi for over 25 years, I have laid a solid foundation to support the most important aspect of EQ development, which is attention training.
If you are interested in helping yourself or helping the teams you manage, you can learn more about EQ training using the links below.
- What is EQ?
- Emotional Intelligence Training Course
- Learn to meditate with the Just6 app
- Meditation and science
- 7 reasons why emotional intelligence is fast becoming one of the most sought-after professional skills
- The Secret to High Salary Emotional Intelligence
- How to bring mindfulness to your employee wellness program
- Google search within yourself