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Mindfulness or Mind Control at Work?

Richard Davidson at the Mindfulness & Well-Being at Work conference on November 13-14, 2015, in Berkeley, California. Photo: Auey Santos

–Richard David­son at the Mind­ful­ness & Well-Being at Work con­fer­ence on Novem­ber 13–14, 2015, in Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia. Pho­to: Auey San­tos


There’s a back­lash brew­ing against mind­ful­ness at work.

Cor­po­ra­tions have jumped on the mind­ful­ness band­wag­on because it con­ve­nient­ly shifts the bur­den onto the indi­vid­ual employ­ee,” write Ron Purs­er and David Loy in the Huff­in­g­ton Post. “Stress is framed as a per­son­al prob­lem, and mind­ful­ness is offered as just the right med­i­cine to help employ­ees work more effi­cient­ly and calm­ly with­in tox­ic envi­ron­ments.”

Do such argu­ments have sci­en­tif­ic mer­it? Or do they throw the mind­ful baby out with the cor­po­rate bath water?

These are ques­tions I explored with speak­ers and par­tic­i­pants at the recent con­fer­ence Mind­ful­ness & Well-Being at Work, orga­nized at UC Berke­ley by the Greater Good Sci­ence Cen­ter, Mind­ful mag­a­zine, and the 1440 Mul­ti­ver­si­ty.

Many of the peo­ple I spoke with agreed that mind­ful­ness pro­grams, which are just start­ing to get off the ground, have problems—but not, per­haps, the ones cit­ed by crit­ics in the New York Times, The Atlantic,, and else­where. Researchers, mind­ful­ness teach­ers, and busi­ness experts all seem to agree that red flags go up when cor­po­ra­tions start to mess with the minds of their employ­ees. And yet more and more stud­ies are find­ing that the train­ing also con­fers many benefits—not the least of which is a stronger sense of self-con­trol.

Our brains are always being shaped, wit­ting­ly or unwit­ting­ly,” said pio­neer­ing mind­ful­ness researcher Richard David­son in his con­fer­ence keynote. Mind­ful­ness, he said, “is a way of tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for your own mind.”

What is mindfulness at work supposed to do?

As work­place mind­ful­ness pro­grams, such as SIYLI and the Poten­tial Project, have grown, so has the cho­rus of crit­i­cism. Many of these pro­grams and exper­i­men­tal inter­ven­tions aim to min­i­mize the time involved. They are mov­ing online, and are try­ing to short­en the com­mit­ment to as lit­tle as two weeks or just ten min­utes a day. Most focus on stress reduc­tion, build­ing on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s famed and research-test­ed Mind­ful­ness-Based Stress Reduc­tion pro­gram.

For crit­ics, that’s pre­cise­ly the prob­lem. On, for exam­ple, Ronald Purs­er and Edwin Ng quite rea­son­ably point out that “employ­ee stress is not self-imposed nor due to a lack of mind­ful­ness.” Instead, stress aris­es from exter­nal, often unfair, conditions—such as job inse­cu­ri­ty or con­stant tech­no­log­i­cal change—that mind­ful­ness might only mit­i­gate, or so cor­po­ra­tions seem to hope.

The solu­tion, Purs­er and Ng argue, is to change work­places, not change your­self. They dis­miss the pos­si­bil­i­ty that help­ing employ­ees to cul­ti­vate moment-to-moment aware­ness might actu­al­ly help them to change work­places.

This, of course, seems to sug­gest that stress relief is an unwor­thy goal, and per­haps even a dis­trac­tion from high­er-lev­el sys­temic changes. In the UK mag­a­zine The Con­ver­sa­tion, Zoë Krup­ka goes fur­ther, charg­ing that cor­po­ra­tions are co-opt­ing mind­ful­ness and turn­ing it into “a sim­ple way to bear the unbear­able.”

Her charge is not against mind­ful­ness itself but against quick-and-easy cor­po­rate mind­ful­ness. As Krup­ka writes, “This is per­haps the crux of the prob­lem of the mind­less appli­ca­tion of Bud­dhist med­i­ta­tion prac­tice: the mar­ket­ing of mind­ful­ness as a solu­tion to work stress and life bal­ance rather than the com­plex spir­i­tu­al approach to liv­ing it is meant to be.”

Indeed, many of the pre­sen­ters at the con­fer­ence seemed intent on per­suad­ing the audi­ence that mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion is good for the bot­tom line, point­ing to a ris­ing num­ber of stud­ies that sug­gest mind­ful­ness could increase cus­tomer hap­pi­ness, improve deci­sion-mak­ing, or build self-con­fi­dence in lead­ers, all of which can the­o­ret­i­cal­ly help make the busi­ness more suc­cess­ful as a busi­ness.

One speak­er, Jacque­line Carter, high­light­ed a ben­e­fit I had nev­er even thought of: that mind­ful­ness train­ing can help save lives in cer­tain jobs. We might find it fun­ny to imag­ine burly car­pen­ters and elec­tri­cians sit­ting on cush­ions with their legs crossed and eyes closed, but in the con­struc­tion indus­try, said Carter, the train­ing has a very con­crete ben­e­fit.

The biggest rea­son why acci­dents hap­pen on [con­struc­tion] jobs is that peo­ple aren’t pay­ing atten­tion,” she said.

Mindful practice, modest goals

This made me real­ize that some of the high-lev­el crit­i­cisms of mind­ful­ness train­ing at work might be miss­ing the point.

Mind­ful­ness might not address work­place inequal­i­ty and inse­cu­ri­ty, as Purs­er and Ng allege—but is it sup­posed to? Isn’t it enough to sim­ply inte­grate decades of insight gen­er­at­ed by hun­dreds of stud­ies into the train­ings that are a part of all work­places, so that employ­ees can ben­e­fit in ways that are spe­cif­ic to their indus­tries? If brief train­ing in mind­ful breath­ing and body scans helps con­struc­tion work­ers stay safe, is that real­ly so bad?

It may also be too much to ask sec­u­lar mind­ful­ness train­ing on the job to have the same impact as sus­tained Bud­dhist med­i­ta­tion prac­tice. One recent study, for exam­ple, found that two weeks of work­place train­ing that includ­ed read­ing and 10 min­utes of guid­ed med­i­ta­tion led to bet­ter sleep qual­i­ty. Of course, the train­ing isn’t a cure-all—participants “did not demon­strate sig­nif­i­cant enhance­ments in their abil­i­ty to psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly detach from work,” which was one of the hoped-for results of the train­ing.

It is like­ly you would have to train more intense­ly or for longer peri­ods of time before you see any effects on psy­cho­log­i­cal detach­ment,” said Ute Hül­sheger, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of work and orga­ni­za­tion­al psy­chol­o­gy at Maas­tricht Uni­ver­si­ty and the lead author of the study. “But it is pos­si­ble that sleep qual­i­ty is more sen­si­tive to med­i­ta­tion and that you see the pos­i­tive effects of the mind­ful­ness train­ing ear­li­er.”

In fact, a great deal of on-the-job mind­ful­ness train­ing can nev­er be more than a sim­ple teas­er for the employ­ee. We don’t yet know if these quick train­ings can open the door to a deep­er prac­tice out­side of work, but it seems rea­son­able to sup­pose they might. As Hülsheger’s com­ment sug­gests, there is a great deal we don’t yet know for sure.

How could we? It’s only in the past few years that busi­ness­es have start­ed offer­ing mind­ful­ness train­ing to employ­ees. The peo­ple doing and tak­ing the train­ing now are pioneers—and pio­neers make mis­takes.

What do you do with awareness?

Our lack of knowl­edge seemed to par­tic­u­lar­ly trou­ble Purs­er and Ng, who crit­i­cize cor­po­rate mind­ful­ness from a Bud­dhist per­spec­tive.

They quote Clare­mont Grad­u­ate Uni­ver­si­ty asso­ciate pro­fes­sor Jere­my Hunter, ital­i­ciz­ing words that indi­cate pos­si­bil­i­ties, not cer­tain­ties: “If an orga­ni­za­tion can work cre­ative­ly with the ques­tions that increased per­son­al aware­ness can churn up, that could be a great asset.”

In our con­ver­sa­tion at the Mind­ful­ness & Well-Being con­fer­ence, Hunter explic­it­ly agreed with Purs­er and Ng on many of their points, par­tic­u­lar­ly the idea that mind­ful­ness train­ing shouldn’t be under­tak­en lightly—or invol­un­tar­i­ly. “Com­pul­so­ry mind­ful­ness at work is not a good idea,” he said.

Much of the prob­lem with mind­ful­ness at work boils down to a para­dox: Mind­ful­ness asks the prac­ti­tion­er to open up doors with­in them­selves in an oth­er­wise imper­son­al work con­text.

Among oth­er dif­fi­cul­ties, Hunter said, “We need to acknowl­edge the real­i­ty of trau­ma.” Before work­place train­ings he con­ducts, Hunter inter­views every­one who is going to par­tic­i­pate about their his­to­ry, ask­ing specif­i­cal­ly about expe­ri­ences of vio­lence or abuse, which recent research has found can be ampli­fied by mind­ful­ness train­ing. The train­ing can’t leave peo­ple hang­ing, said Hunter.

What do you do with this aware­ness? Share it? Keep it inside?”

This might be ulti­mate­ly what makes the crit­ics uncom­fort­able: Mind­ful­ness train­ing seems like anoth­er way for employ­ers to invade and con­trol our inner lives. In her essay, Krup­ka seems espe­cial­ly con­cerned that cor­po­rate mind­ful­ness train­ing could end up essen­tial­ly being a form of mind con­trol.

Mind­ful­ness is an ide­al tool to induce com­pli­ance, with its focus on the indi­vid­ual man­age­ment of our respons­es to forces we’re being told are well beyond our con­trol,” she writes.

This is a crit­i­cism that makes Hunter impa­tient. He argues that most “sophis­ti­cat­ed man­agers” are gen­uine­ly inter­est­ed in the well-being of employ­ees. Even if that weren’t true, how­ev­er, mind­ful­ness is a skill that can be used in many ways.

Most of life is sub­ject to forces well beyond our con­trol,” he wrote to me in an email after the con­fer­ence. “Any­one with chron­ic ill­ness, scream­ing chil­dren, or an air­line fre­quent fli­er account could tell you that. Hav­ing more tools to bear the unbear­able is always a good thing.”

While this year’s Mind­ful­ness & Well-Being at Work con­fer­ence focused large­ly on empow­er­ing par­tic­i­pants to go back to work on Mon­day and devel­op new pro­grams, future gath­er­ings will, I sus­pect, con­tain a great deal more dis­agree­ment as well as news of real-world results.

Mind­ful­ness might not cre­ate utopi­an workplaces—but all the research and anec­dotes to date sug­gest that it pro­duces mod­est but mea­sur­able improve­ments in the well-being of the work­ers. That’s well worth pur­su­ing.

Jeremy Adam Smith– Jere­my Adam Smith is pro­ducer and edi­tor of Greater Good, an online mag­a­zine based at UC-Berke­ley that high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tific research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. He is also the author or coed­i­tor of four books, includ­ing The Dad­dy Shift, Are We Born Racist?, and The Com­pas­sion­ate Instinct. Before join­ing the GGSC, Jere­my was a 2010-11 John S. Knight Jour­nal­ism Fel­low at Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity. Pub­lished here by cour­tesy of Greater Good.

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