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How mindfulness meditation is infiltrating the corporate world

mindful workI thought I’d read every­thing about mind­ful­ness, but this was news to me: Steve Jobs was a med­i­ta­tor. Back in 1981, long before mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion became a pop­u­lar sub­ject of sci­en­tif­ic inquiry, Jobs, the cofounder and pub­lic face of Apple Com­put­ers, was already prac­tic­ing mind­ful­ness as a way to calm his mind, stay focused, and feel hap­pi­er.

Accord­ing to David Gelles, busi­ness reporter for the New York Times, Jobs is not some lone outlier—the num­ber of busi­ness lead­ers embrac­ing mind­ful­ness is at an all time high, and grow­ing. To write his new book, Mind­ful Work: How Med­i­ta­tion Is Chang­ing Busi­ness from the Inside Out, Gelles trav­eled the coun­try, talk­ing to large and small busi­ness­es and cor­po­ra­tions, to uncov­er how mind­ful­ness meditation—far from being a fringe practice—is going main­stream.

Part of his book is devot­ed to recount­ing how mind­ful­ness prac­tices first became pop­u­lar­ized in the west and lat­er became a focus of inquiry for mod­ern neu­ro­science. He goes over ground that will be famil­iar to many read­ers of Greater Good, review­ing sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies that sug­gest mind­ful­ness has many pos­i­tive ben­e­fits, includ­ing pain relief and decreas­ing stress reac­tiv­i­ty and depres­sion. He also writes of Richard Davison’s work at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin, who’s found that long-term med­i­ta­tors have increased activ­i­ty and grey mat­ter in the pre­frontal cor­tex of the brain—the area respon­si­ble for high­er order think­ing, such as judg­ment, deci­sion-mak­ing, and dis­cern­ment, as well as pro-social behav­ior, like empa­thy, com­pas­sion, and kind­ness.

But while many researchers have shown pos­i­tive effects of mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion, few­er stud­ies have looked at these effects in the work­place. Gelles describes one exper­i­ment in which a biotech com­pa­ny in Madi­son took an eight-week course in mind­ful­ness-based stress reduc­tion taught by Jon Kabat-Zinn and dis­cov­ered that it helped work­ers feel sig­nif­i­cant­ly less stressed than a con­trol group of co-work­ers. Per­haps more sur­pris­ing­ly though, the work­ers who did the course also mea­sur­ably increased their brain grey mat­ter and showed improved immune func­tion.

Research like this, as well as the per­son­al expe­ri­ences of var­i­ous indus­try lead­ers, seems to have gal­va­nized com­pa­nies to try mind­ful­ness in the work­place, and Gelles’ book is pri­mar­i­ly a “who’s who” of those com­pa­nies. We read about the mind­ful lead­er­ship pro­gram at Gen­er­al Mills, which is ongo­ing and has pro­duced a more pos­i­tive work envi­ron­ment for its employ­ees. And we learn how the health insur­ance orga­ni­za­tion, Aet­na, came to offer mind­ful­ness to more than a third of its employ­ees in order to decrease work­er stress and asso­ci­at­ed health­care costs.

Accord­ing to Gelles, many com­pa­ny lead­ers embrace mind­ful­ness not just to improve work­er health and inter­per­son­al rela­tions, though those are wor­thy goals. Many are also find­ing inspi­ra­tion through a mind­ful­ness prac­tice to take more social­ly respon­si­ble action in their com­pa­nies.

The most mind­ful com­pa­nies I observed were those whose founders or CEO’s embod­ied mind­ful liv­ing per­son­al­ly and strived to reflect those same prin­ci­ples in their busi­ness oper­a­tions,” he writes. “They were com­pa­nies that looked deeply at the work they did and strived to do it with com­pas­sion for their employ­ees, respect for their sup­pli­ers and part­ners, and a keen aware­ness of their impact on the plan­et.”

For exam­ple, Patagonia’s CEO has been fos­ter­ing a move­ment of “mind­ful con­sump­tion,” encour­ag­ing cus­tomers to “be hon­est with our­selves about what we need, as opposed to what we want.” Eileen Fish­er, founder of the cloth­ing line, has been prac­tic­ing mind­ful­ness for years, and she is con­stant­ly look­ing for more sus­tain­able ways to make prod­ucts and to share prof­its and deci­sion-mak­ing with employ­ees. And then there’s Face­book, which has tried to increase emo­tion­al self-aware­ness in its users, par­tic­u­lar­ly around pho­to shar­ing and tak­ing down offen­sive pho­tos.

Many of Gelles’ sto­ries are uplift­ing and inspir­ing, but I couldn’t help feel a bit jad­ed by all the cor­po­rate hoopla. For exam­ple, when I read that Mon­san­to had at one point also giv­en mind­ful­ness class­es to employ­ees, it made me won­der: Is prac­tic­ing mind­ful­ness always a good thing?

Hap­pi­ly, his report­ing is a bit more nuanced than it may seem at first glance. He writes of busi­ness­es he vis­it­ed where mind­ful­ness pro­grams were being slapped togeth­er with­out much atten­tion to pro­gram qual­i­ty and with­out mak­ing any kind of deep impact on busi­ness as usu­al. In addi­tion, he includes a chap­ter on those who aren’t quite ready to drink the Kool-Aid, yet—people like mind­ful­ness researcher Willough­by Brit­ton of Brown Uni­ver­si­ty, who sug­gests that too many peo­ple are read­ing too much into the research in mind­ful­ness, pro­mot­ing ben­e­fits that are only just begin­ning to be stud­ied and under­stood.

Some crit­ics cit­ed in the book charge that if mind­ful­ness is seen only as a ben­e­fit to a company’s bot­tom line, then it’s not ful­fill­ing its pur­pose, which is per­son­al trans­for­ma­tion. Yet, while giv­ing voice to their view­points, Gelles ulti­mate­ly seems to dis­agree with their con­clu­sions.

The true pur­pose of mind­ful­ness is to cul­ti­vate com­pas­sion for our­selves and oth­ers, to free our­selves from this peren­ni­al dis­sat­is­fac­tion that makes us feel as if noth­ing is ever good enough,” he argues. And this, he implies, is some­thing any­one can ben­e­fit from—even employ­ees at Mon­san­to.

If he is right, and if mind­ful­ness is infil­trat­ing the cor­po­rate world in the ways he sug­gests, per­haps there is room for opti­mism. Busi­ness lead­ers and cor­po­ra­tions may not under­go rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion through mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion. But Gelles sug­gests that a lit­tle mind­ful­ness is bet­ter than noth­ing, and prob­a­bly won’t hurt.

If, through prac­tice, employ­ees become a lit­tle less stressed out, if rela­tions between cowork­ers become just a bit more har­mo­nious, if com­pa­nies are inspired to behave just a lit­tle better—that will be a good thing indeed.”

jill_suttie.thumbnail– Jill Sut­tie, Psy.D., is Greater Good‘s book review edi­tor and a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to the mag­a­zine. Greater Good is an online mag­a­zine based at UC-Berke­ley that high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tific research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism.

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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