When Positive Change Guru delivers mindfulness at work programmes were sometimes asked “Isn’t this just another way to screw more out of us?”. Fair Question. Not one to dodge a difficult conversation, here’s our response based on our latest research, ‘Bullet Proof 9 to 5 – ers’ into Mindfulness and Leadership.
Workplace Mindfulness Vs MBCT/MBSR
The duration of workplace mindfulness courses varies from between one day to twelve weeks. In leadership mindfulness programmes the duration tends to be as short as possible in order to gain buy in from senior executives. But do these abbreviated programmes work? Wolever suggests that reduced mindfulness programmes still result in measurable benefits for participants from reduced stress to increased focus. Google ascribe ’20 minutes’ as the magic number to maximize benefits. The abbreviated approach however has meant that mindfulness at work programmes are not without their critics. Zahn documents the rise of the mindful quick fix or ‘spiritual gentrification’ likening it to the eviction and physical displacement of locals in San Franscisco who are being edged out of the housing market by silicon valley executive as house prices rise and the area becomes gentrified. It is also worth noting that much of the evidence for the efficacy of mindfulness is based upon research into 8 week week MBSR/MBCT programmes and not mindfulness at work shortened sessions.
Homogenous Quick Fix?
Folk describes the annual gathering of mindfulness practitioners, corporate ambassadors and celebrity endorsers at Wisdom 2.0 in California as “A networking opportunity with a light dressing of Buddhism”. Zahn also notes that “Corporate mindfulness has rendered Buddhism far whiter and wealthier than it has ever been.” Locke echoes this standpoint noting that Asian practitioners are steadily being edged out of programmes and centres in the States. Wilson points the finger of blame partially at the media, “The vast majority of information about mindfulness is disseminated by white people, in media venues controlled by white people, for the primary consumption of white people”. The dilution of mindfulness is a recurring theme and not relating soully to what happens in the workplace. The is a constant struggle at play within the field of mindfulness as it is embraced by a wider audience. This is felt keenly in the workplace, but is not restricted to that domain.
Are we comparing like with like?
The technical aspects of abbreviated workplace programmes are also brought into question. Langer and Moldoveanu take issue with reduced sessions in many mindfulness workplace programmes, positing that shorted programmes are not new iterations of an old tradition, instead they simply miss the point that mindfulness is a process with a requisite commitment to regular and sustained practice. When programmes are watered down in this way Langer argues that the benefits are also diluted. There has been a dramatic increase in mindfulness media related articles, some positive, some, less so. The Financial times also began to question the validity of workplace programmes after being invited to the 2014 Mindfulness at Work Conference hosted by Cranfield Business school. The Times accused the conference of providing weak anecdotal evidence, singling out one piece of research which had been based on a mindful breathing exercise lasting just fifteen minutes. Rather than showcasing the best of workplace programmes the Times lambasted the conference for poor quality research and cited the host, Cranfield, as charging exorbitant amounts for two day mindfulness at work programmes. It is difficult to defend workplace mindfulness programmes in the face of such selective evidence.
Walking the Middle Way
Most of us spend a huge amount of our waking hours in the workplace. With work related stress on the increase (CIPD 2015) it would appear that these are not necessary happy hours for all sections of the workforce. It is important then that our workplaces contribute to our wellbeing rather than diminish it. There is emerging evidence that mindfulness can and does benefit employees of large and small organisations. However, there is an undeniable shift taking place in mindful meditation practice. In the same way that Theravada Buddhists broke away from mainstream Buddhist doctrine by establishing a lay practice and the foundation of modern mindfulness, during the early twentieth century anti-colonial protests, modern day mindfulness is currently experiencing fundamental changes. It is shifting in a way that some may feel is reducing it down to a simple practice. Bhikkhu encapsulates this standpoint “Rather than applying mindfulness as a means to awaken individuals and organizations from the unwholesome roots of greed, ill will, and delusion, it is usually being refashioned into a banal, therapeutic self help technique that can actually reinforce those roots”. The feeling that mindfulness has been appropriated by corporations looking to make a quick buck runs deep. Moderates such as McMahon document historical changes in Buddhism, stating “Now it’s changing again,” cautioning against the view that the practice has ever been, or ever will be, unchanged.
Reinforcing the status quo?
Unlike the Theravadic challenges to the status quo of the early twentieth century Loncke argues that today’s corporate appropriation of Buddhist traditions simply enforces it. Reinforcing workplace, norms and values by sticking a plaster over social inequalities such as low pay, zero hour contracts and increasing workloads. Purser and Loy refer to this as “McMindfulness” the homogenization and hijacking of an ancient tradition to, as Zahn states, ask employees to ‘Sit down and shut up”. Whatever the intention, perhaps, as Mark Williams suggests in his Financial Times interview, we will simply change the corporate world by stealth. That when corporate intentions are initially less than honorable, they may “Discover ethical behaviour from the bottom up, so they find they’re less angry, less dismissive, not so comfortable with gossiping, find themselves doing generous acts. They change their views, they hold them in a larger space.” Workplace mindfulness programmes will undoubtedly continue, therefore it is important to identify a middle ground in this debate. The provision of programmes that respect the ‘process’ of mindfulness and recognize the importance of a solid, standard protocol for evidence based courses is paramount.
The bottom line
At the same time, recognition is needed that there may be legitimate reasons for work based programmes to adapt and flex to meet the needs of already time poor organisations and employees. Hayes analysed Intel’s employee mindfulness programme, finding that amongst the 1500 participants, there was an increase in the ability to focus and a decrease in the perception of stress. Hayes adds “At the end of the day executives want to know how we’re impacting on the bottom line”. In the current environment, although it flies in the face of Buddhist tenets, a measurable return on investment for time spent out of the office is a critical factor for most human resources departments. The middle way will respect all viewpoints and retain the robust evidence base from Kabat-Zinns original research.
If you’d like to talk to us about workplace mindfulness, the middle way, feeling stretched or anything else, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org