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Is Corporate Mindfulness Training Just Zen Washing?

A recent study that highlights the benefits of daily meditation practices in the workplace has people talking about the commercialization of mindfulness, and whether it has gone too far.

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It’s difficult to dispute the benefits of mindfulness, especially with a mounting stack of research published on the topic. One of the more recent studies—a paper published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes in early September, on how mindfulness impacts interpersonal relationships at work—is a good example of the empirical evidence pouring in. But are corporations and organizations now using mindfulness programs as a salve to treat overworked and highly stressed employees? 

See also 5 Mindfulness Practices to Rewire Your Brain and Improve Health

The study

In this particular study, a team of business professors researched how the behavior of employees changed when they participated in mindfulness practices at work. At a large insurance company in the U.S., the researchers had employees meditate between seven to ten minutes a day for five days and then fill out assessments in the morning and afternoon about their helpful behaviors for the day. At an IT consulting company in India, for one day, select employees underwent a brief mindfulness intervention in the morning and then their coworkers reported on how helpful they were that day. The final study was conducted in a lab with the aim of discovering why mindfulness practices make people more helpful, while the field experiments tested if mindfulness makes people more helpful. In the lab, participants were asked to either complete a 15-minute focused breathing meditation, a 15-minute loving kindness meditation, or listen to a New York Times article as a control. The participants then had to deliver bad news to a fictitious subordinate, and respond to a survey that looked at empathy, perspective taking, positive emotions afterwards. 

The results 

The researchers found that there was an increase in prosocial behaviors—behaviors that are intended to help other people—in the workplace when individuals participated in even just a few minutes of a mindfulness practice, like focusing their attention on their breath or their bodies while refraining from analyzing the thoughts that passed through their heads. In an interview with Knowledge@Wharton, the online business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Lindsey Cameron, a co-author of the study, says “the most surprising [result] is that there isn’t a difference between breath-based mindfulness meditation and the loving kindness one.” All it takes is “really short doses of mindfulness—seven to eight minutes” and “you’re getting smoother, pleasant, more helpful workers” says Cameron.

See also 6 Ways Meditation Can Help You Feel Happier at Work

Since so much of our daily lives are spent at work, notes Cameron, “mindfulness can act like a buffer to improve relational coordination and functioning.” And CEOs have caught on. R. W. (Buck) Montgomery famously implemented meditation into the work day in his (now sold) chemical manufacturing firm in 1983, and the results were astounding. “Over the next three years, absenteeism fell by 85%, productivity rose 120%, quality control rose 240%, injuries dropped 70%, sick days fell by 76%, and profit soared 520%,” said Montgomery. In 2017, the National Business Group on Health published a study that stated 35% of employers polled offered mindfulness training, while 26% were considering implementing it in the future. If mindfulness training at the office is proven to make people more efficient, it’s easy to see why CEOs would want their employees to participate.

But is mindfulness training at work entirely a good thing?

Vice News chimed in on the discussion of the latest study, reminding readers of the modern-day insanity that is spending so much time at work. Vice writer Katie Way cites a recent survey that shows that work-related stress has been on the rise for over three decades and opines that “[e]mployees don’t need to breathe deeply and purposefully or get into desk-bound yoga—we need adequate wages, benefits, parental leave, and a robust work-life separation.” 

So is mindfulness training at work a twisted ploy to delay the onset of employee burnout, or is it a tool that conscious bosses can use to improve the quality of life for the people that they’re with every day? We suppose you have to (mindfully) decide for yourself.

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