When you hear the word “mindfulness,” what do you picture?

A group of Buddhist monks meditating? A yoga classroom full of students standing on their heads? Or your own office?

Since Time Magazine’s January 2014 cover announcing “The Mindful Revolution,” mindfulness, previously a spiritual practice and form of therapy, has flooded corporate America. Companies including Salesforce, Google and Apple have implemented mindfulness training, and entire organizations are dedicated to helping companies make their cultures more mindful. Former General Mills vice president Janice Marturano, who started a corporate mindfulness initiative there, left her job in 2011 to create the Institute for Mindful Leadership and published “Finding the Space to Lead: A Practical Guide to Mindful Leadership” in 2014. A former Buddhist monk named Andy Puddicombe co-founded a company called Headspace, which provides a free meditation app of the same name.

All of this enthusiasm – not to mention dollars – devoted to mindfulness begs the question: Is it really an effective tool, or is it just the latest fad?

What Is Mindfulness?

The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley defines mindfulness as “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment,” while accepting those thoughts, feelings and sensations without judgment.

These two skills – focus and awareness – are the foundation of mindfulness. The goal, according to Kimberly Schaufenbuel of UNC Executive Development, is “to recognize and accept inner thoughts and feelings.” By recognizing and accepting all of your thoughts and feelings – and then letting them go – your stress levels should decrease, and you should be able to focus better on the present.

That’s the theory, anyway. But David Gelles, author of “Mindful Work: How Meditation Is Changing Business from the Inside Out,” warns that while American meditation-related businesses reported revenue of $984 million in 2015, “a race to the bottom seems to be underway.” In a society obsessed with the quick fix, Gelles asks, is developing a skill that requires “hours of sometimes uncomfortable contemplation” really feasible?

Furthermore, Fast Company argues that there are several reasons mindfulness “overpromises and under-delivers.” Many mindfulness training programs are too muddy in their definition of mindfulness and don’t align with a company’s culture. Without a clear structure and (pardon the pun) mindful approach, these training programs may become a “watered-down fad.”

Does It Work?

Still, the number – and size – of companies that have incorporated mindfulness training into their organizational culture and strategy demands a closer look at its effectiveness.

For example, Steve Jobs was a famous meditator and implemented mindfulness programs at Apple. Google offers many mindfulness courses for its employees; its most popular, “Search Inside Yourself,” has been completed by thousands of employees since it launched in 2007 and has a six-month waitlist. Aetna’s mindfulness programs, launched in 2010, were so successful among its employees that it now offers them to its customers. Chase even teaches mindfulness spending to its customers.

Why did mindfulness enter the workplace? The American Institute of Stress estimates that job stress costs over $300 billion every year in the U.S. One of the first uses of mindfulness in western society was Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a therapy pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979. MBSR’s effectiveness in reducing stress in a mental health context is well supported by research, so it makes sense to try to apply its principles in the workplace, where the cost of stress is so high.

According to the Greater Good Science Center, mindfulness training improves learning, memory, emotional regularity, empathy and attention. At NYU, business students report that mindfulness training makes them “more self-aware, more focused, and better able to recognize and understand their own thoughts and emotions” – in short, helped them become better leaders.

A recent Harvard Business Review article explored whether the benefits of mindfulness training extend to the organizational level. Its authors wrote that like individuals, organizations need “space to deliberately choose how to speak and act,” and mindfulness can help organizations strategize by determining “which ideas and aspirations are important and which assumptions limit their growth.”

Other research concluded that incorporating mindfulness into organizational culture improves collaboration and relationships, and Schaufenbuel reported that such programs reduce absenteeism and turnover, increase productivity, and enhance both employer-employee and company-client relationships.

What is stress costing your company? Data suggest it may be more than you think. Stay tuned for the second article in this series, which will provide tips to help you implement mindfulness training in your workplace.

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