When asked how he went bankrupt, a character in Ernest Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises responds, “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” This description encapsulates so many of the changes that emerged as a result of the pandemic, most especially within the workplace. Plenty of the shifts we saw to working practices—such as introducing some form of home or hybrid working as standard—have already become accepted1 as part of the much-touted “new normal”. Others are still evolving, not least when it comes to the relationship between businesses and their employees’ health and wellbeing. One practice that has emerged as potentially pivotal in bridging the gap between personal welfare and workplace performance is that of mindfulness.
The Oxford Mindfulness Center2 defines mindfulness as “moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience, without judgment.” Dan Harris, author of 10 Percent Happier3, describes it even more plainly. “I think of mindfulness as the ability not to be yanked around by your own emotions”. Whatever definition you use, the consensus is that mindfulness offers an array of benefits on a personal and professional level. Which is why it’s no wonder business innovators—some before the pandemic, many after— have chosen to bring it into the workplace.
A 2019 survey by LinkedIn4 found that nearly half of workers feel stress in their jobs, with 70% of them feeling it as a result of their workload and their work-life balance. Meanwhile Gallup5 found that 23% of employees feel burnout at work very often or always, and a further 44% reported feeling it sometimes. The fact that these findings are from before the pandemic makes clear that businesses had been dancing on cracks for a long time before the ultimate disaster struck, and that the system (or at least a stark number of the employees within it) were teetering on the brink. To call the pandemic the straw that broke the camel’s back would be to minimize its devastation. But let’s face it, the camel was staggering and stumbling for a long while before whispers started emerging from Wuhan.
Some businesses could see that. It’s why many of the leading corporate innovators had been incrementally introducing mindfulness techniques to their work environment through the late 2000s and 2010s6. Apple, Google, Twitter, and a whole host of other Silicon Valley movers and shakers were championing everything from meditation rooms to in-office yoga and mindfulness classes through mindful lunches. That was Hemmingway’s gradually. Then, in March 2020, came the suddenly. Worker welfare became unignorable. Mindfulness emerged as a clear solution.
Mindfulness productivity gains and profit
Reducing burnout and caring for worker well-being are some of the benefits mindfulness offers businesses. But to put the major tech players’ adoption of such techniques down purely to concern for their personnel may be to give them undeserved credit. While worker welfare likely did factor into their reasoning, they were no doubt also influenced by the numbers surrounding mindfulness’ productivity gains.
Aetna, a US health insurer that trained 13,000 employees in mindfulness practices, estimated an annual productivity improvement of around $3,000 per employee, as well as a reported reduction in stress levels of 28%7. Meanwhile SAP, a leading German software company, saw a 200%8 return on investment, based on data from a survey undertaken with the help of 650 SAP employees who underwent mindfulness training through the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute9 (SIYLI). Awareness around well-being and mental health has increased in prominence across society as a whole and the business world is no different, but it would be naïve to pretend the bottom-line numbers weren’t a major contributory factor—if not the primary one— in mindfulness’ corporate ascendency.
Of course, to give Silicon Valley credit for the benefits of mindfulness would be myopic in the extreme. These ideas are of an Eastern origin and have been around for millennia. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of MBSR10 (mindfulness-based stress reduction), is often attributed with bringing mindfulness techniques westwards in the 1970s. Though it’s the advent of more modern technology—best exemplified by the then-unimaginable convenience of yoga and meditation apps— that has contributed significantly to the practice’s meteoric rise.
Spirituality integrates with business
While it may be tempting to presume that utilising these grand spiritual ideas for corporate agendas was a result of this move westwards, instigated by the monetise-at-all-costs instincts of Mega Capitalism, that assumption would be wrong. East Asian corporations such as Panasonic and Toyota have long been taking advantage of ancient teachings in a corporate context11. In fact, “zen”, a widely recognised if less widely understood concept relating to (and deriving from the Sanskrit translation of) meditation, is the foundation of the term “kaizen”.
Kaizen12 is a commonplace piece of business terminology in Japan, meaning change for the better or continuous improvement. It involves making the work environment more efficient and effective by creating a team atmosphere, improving everyday procedures, ensuring employee engagement, and making a job more fulfilling, less tiring, and safer. Its prevalence demonstrates that the marriage between mindfulness and corporate practice is no recent (or exclusively western) thing.
When looking at the benefits mindfulness offers, it’s easy to see why it’s an appealing prospect to all parties, east and west. Mindfulness has been found to help reduce emotional exhaustion13, to help foster compassion and empathy14, to improve decision making15, to reduce aggression16, to generate greater attention and focus17, to promote divergent thinking18, to reduce stress, and to improve short term memory19. It is a seemingly endless list of benefits, each impacting instrumental parts of our day-to-day life, personal and professional. What’s more, research20 shows that only short mindfulness sessions are necessary to achieve such results, rather than any dramatic lifestyle overhaul. A matter of minutes each day is enough. It’s no wonder businesses see it as an easy win. Even the US army is using mindfulness21 training to help soldiers better prepare for and deal with stress, before and after deployment.
How mindfulness works and how it impacts—and potentially alters—our brain has unsurprisingly been the intrigue of scientists and academics the world over. In their book Altered Traits22, Daniel Goleman, a Harvard psychologist, and Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found that mindfulness practices such as breathing meditation are associated with decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, the region of the brain that initiates a response to stress. Researchers at the University of the Sunshine Coast23 in Australia found that mindfulness training increased the efficiency of brain pathways that process information coming in from the senses. In other words, participants in their study were found to literally see information more accurately24. The idea that mindfulness can genuinely re-wire our brains continues to enthral, and the evidence is mounting.
Scott Shute25, former Head of Mindfulness and Compassion at LinkedIn, author of The Full Body Yes: Change Your Work and Your World from the Inside Out, and upcoming guest on The 1% Podcast26, wants to mainstream mindfulness—in the workplace and beyond. Scott says that we should treat mindfulness in the same way we trat our physical health. “Fifty years ago, physical exercise was a strange thing. Now, every company feels good if they can provide gyms at work.”27 His argument is that in the same way we make time to exercise or go out of our way to eat nutritiously, we should also make the effort to strengthen our minds.
Considering the wide-scale proven benefits, the relatively little effort needed to achieve them, and the ubiquity of mindfulness apps28 offering free trials for curious parties, now feels as good a time as ever to start your mindfulness journey. One that will likely provoke change in two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.