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“Attention. Attention. Here and now, boys. Here and now.” Aldous Huxley envisioned a utopian society where mynah birds hanging out in the trees were trained to regularly blurt a warning to keep the inhabitants’ thoughts from wandering from the here and now. In the 21st century, smothered by a world of distractions, could we use something similar to help us keep our bearings? More and more business leaders think so and are tuning into “mindfulness” in an attempt to create a bold impact in their busy day-to-day lives.

What is mindfulness?

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the originator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), expresses it this way: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Trained in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Kabat-Zinn is a molecular biologist and student of Buddhist meditation, and he introduced the Western world to MBSR in 1979.

Mindfulness is an approach to meditation that differs from Transcendental Meditation (TM). TM, brought to the West by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1960s, comes from the Vedic tradition and is a technique employed to avoid distracting thoughts and promote a state of relaxed awareness. A mantra is used as a vehicle to settle the mind and, ultimately, transcend thought.

The main difference between TM and mindfulness lies in the goal. In mindfulness, the objective is to have one’s thoughts be on the present moment; in one’s goal to transcend thought itself to experience a state “pure awareness” without an object of thought.

Who is buying in?

Kabat-Zinn instituted mindfulness as a coping mechanism for patients suffering from chronic pain. Over the last almost 40 years, the practice has gained traction not only in the medical profession, but in a broad spectrum of social functions—including such disparate groups as schools, prisons, sports teams, and the military.

Aetna employees who had participated in at least one class or more of yoga or mindfulness-based stress reduction reported, on average, a 19 percent reduction in pain, a 20 percent improvement in sleep quality, and a 28 percent reduction in their stress levels.

Not to miss an opportunity, the corporate world has latched onto the practice—as both purveyor and consumer. Mindfulness is now a billion dollar industry. A Google search for “mindfulness” yields over 72,000,000 hits including apps, articles, dedicated websites, workshops, and retreats. A similar search on Amazon results in 158,680 products of all sorts (25,052 of which are books) on the subject.

On the consumption side, according to a 2016 study by the National Business Group on Health (NBGH) and Fidelity Investments, 22% of employers offered mindfulness training at work. Another 21% planned to add such training in 2017.

Ford, General Mills, Target, Adobe, Goldman Sachs, Prentice Hall Publishing, Proctor and Gamble, and Nike—a broad spectrum of brand name companies are making significant investments in mindfulness programs. High-tech firms (like Apple, Sony, and Google) in particular, have bought into mindfulness big time.

As a consumer of mindfulness, what does corporate America expect to get in return for this investment? In a July 16, 2016 article in Forbes Magazine, Jeena Cho claims 6 “proven” benefits of mindfulness and meditation, including anxiety reduction, implicit age and racial bias reduction, depression prevention and treatment, body dissatisfaction reduction, cognition improvement, and focus and concentration improvement. The return on investment then is healthier, happier, more focused, and ultimately more productive employees.

What do critics say?

Not surprisingly, the Westernization of mindfulness has resulted in various criticisms. Firstly, purists complain that this mainstream and corporate obsession with mindfulness is “cultural appropriation.” Among practitioners’ responses—appropriation is okay when it’s done for the right reasons.

Other critics question the hype surrounding mindfulness and the many benefits attributed to it. In 2007, the Association for Health and Research Quality at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), after reviewing 18,000 scientific articles on meditation, questioned the academic rigor of the studies, warning that the benefits of the practice could be overstated.

people meditiating

Another criticism is the risk of so many high-tech companies using mindfulness to cover up the real problems of their corporate culture—stressed-out, overworked employees. Critics claim that by adopting mindfulness programs, corporations can circumvent having to hire more workers or to increase wages.

It’s not uncommon for business leaders to jump on the next big thing (such as total quality management or TQM, six sigma, extreme team building, one-minute management) hoping to infuse magic into their employees that translates into a larger bottom line. So it’s reasonable to question whether mindfulness is just another fad.

The exponential growth in the embrace of mindfulness is perhaps indicative that the practice may be more than just a fad. Among the already cited benefits, Silicon Valley has made the connection between mindfulness and emotional intelligence (EI) and is sold on the idea that EI provides a competitive advantage.

Corporate Leaders Advance the Cause

Most corporate leaders touting the benefits and implementing wellness programs are actually practicing what they preach. Mark T. Bertolini, the chief executive of Aetna, the health insurer, is an excellent example. Bertolini became a believer after suffering a ski accident in 2004 which left him disabled for a year. As a consequence of his injuries, Bertolini began investigating alternative healing methods such as acupuncture and yoga that Aetna would not cover. His personal experiences led him boldly to champion these alternative methods.

In 2010, 239 Aetna employee volunteers participated in a 12-week mind-body stress reduction program including mindfulness meditation and yoga. A study conducted through the collaborative effort of Aetna, Duke Integrative Medicine, eMindful and the American Viniyoga Institute recorded the participants’ experiences. Aetna employees who had participated in at least one class or more of yoga or mindfulness-based stress reduction reported, on average, a 19 percent reduction in pain, a 20 percent improvement in sleep quality, and a 28 percent reduction in their stress levels. Participants also reported they were more efficient on the job, gaining an average of 62 minutes per week of productivity each, which Aetna estimated was worth $3,000 per employee per year. Additionally, Aetna estimated it saved 2,000 per employee in health care costs.

Six and a half years later, Aetna is still demonstrating this commitment. In June 2017, Aetna opened a Mindfulness Center in Hartford, Connecticut where employees can participate in mindfulness activities throughout the week and learn how to incorporate the exercises into their daily lives. The ultimate goal of Aetna’s bold leadership is to change the corporate culture to create a healthier, more supportive workplace.

If lasting, the embrace of mindfulness by business leaders with the highly touted benefits of improving EI, reducing stress, and reducing bias bodes well for the working masses. Considering that most working people spend the majority of their waking hours within the work environment, healing the corporate culture can only be a good thing.

And if mindfulness makes for better leaders, bring it on.

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