Workplace Mindfulness: Silver Bullet or Trojan Horse?

office mindfulness meditation
Photo by keioffice26

Mindfulness programs are increasingly viewed as solutions to a host of workplace afflictions, from worker absenteeism to the perils of multitasking, impaired productivity and healthcare utilization/costs. While mindfulness has been termed a silver bullet for workplace wellness, it may not always work in the fashion intended by executives, and may have hidden costs or consequences.

In support of the silver bullet, studies have suggested short-term mindfulness training is beneficial to employee health and productivity, thereby positively influencing company goals and objectives. But employers beware, meditation is not a simple breathe + relax = produce formula. Benefits such as relaxation and clarity represent a fraction of the experiences generated through mindfulness practice. In the totality of such experiences, some may temporarily lead workers to disengage with work, or to transition to a different field.

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Take, for example, a recent piece in the Guardian that discusses how things sometimes get worse before they get better for meditation practitioners. Meditation teacher Lokhadi notes that as we become increasingly aware of our minds’ habits, our sensitivity to experience increases. Without appropriate supports, particularly for those with a trauma history or other pre-existing mental health conditions, significant emotional difficulties may arise. This process may impair, rather than facilitate, desired corporate outcomes. (Should the individual receive appropriate support, working through these issues is likely to facilitate well-being and enhanced productivity in the longer term, although some individuals report difficulties that span many years).

Mindfulness training may also become a form of avoidance or spiritual bypassing, where we ignore the painful realities of our lived experience, justifying our behavior through misunderstanding Buddhist precepts. As mindfulness coach Dr. David Brendel shares, one client was so absorbed in accepting her life, that she failed to optimally perform in her leadership role by not confronting, disciplining and/or firing underperforming workers in her company. Using meditation to avoid engaging in difficult or painful experiences can be quite common, and is best addressed with the support of an experienced teacher. Yet most participants in workplace mindfulness initiatives lack access to a skilled longer-term teacher with whom to discuss their practice and experience.

Enhanced self-care is another unintended side effect of mindfulness practice. For workers, this is great; we are more likely to integrate more healthy practices into our lives, including eating and sleeping better, exercising more, and spending time with friends and family. While this may beneficially impact our health insurance premiums and boost productivity in the office, it may also mean we’re less willing to work overtime or take on extra work that may be needed for a promotion.

Why? “Meditation makes it harder to do useless tasks that don’t align with my life or values,” mused my friend during a recent conversation about mindfulness as a workplace panacea. Mindfulness training helps us to become more aware of the gap between our lives, habits and values, a discrepancy that becomes increasingly difficult or painful to sit with over time. In the short-term you may experience greater job dissatisfaction, but longer-term, you may change to a field or career that better reflects your values. In the long run, both you and your employer benefit; if it’s not a good fit, your work benefits no one.

Bringing mindfulness training into corporations is not unlike importing a Trojan horse. Given the contrasting natures of meditative practices and many corporate cultures, it is unlikely that mindfulness training will unilaterally improve productivity, absenteeism and other outcomes without some corresponding shift by the corporation or management itself. Mindfulness training has the potential to powerfully alter corporate culture from within, and/or result in workers deserting their ranks in favor of more positions that better align with their values.

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