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.
More on burnout
- “The cultural obsession with productivity has led to an epidemic of burnout and stress in the workplace, and it’s impacting quality of life as well as businesses.” (Read more)
- “Reducing burnout and caring for worker well-being are some of the benefits mindfulness offers businesses” (Read more)
More on mindfulness
- “Mindfulness and meditation can help with stress and the ability to remain calm under pressure. Prioritising mental health is equally important as physical health and the items on a to-do list. Goals are important, but they also need to be sustainable.” (Read more)
- “Studies have shown that practising mindfulness and meditation can help with depression, chronic pain, anxiety, and a variety of other mental and physical conditions.” (Read more)
In a pre-pandemic world, employees would often show their dedication to the job by being the first one in the office, the last one to leave, and rarely taking breaks. Busyness was a sign of the high achiever. Now, with hybrid working conditions of both remote and in-person, the method might not be the same, but the mindset is still prevalent. The ideal employee is one who is always ‘on’.
For an executive, the need to be busy might look like an inability to shut off, constantly checking emails on the weekends, or refusing to delegate work. But this is not sustainable. The cultural obsession with productivity has led to an epidemic of burnout and stress in the workplace, and it’s impacting quality of life as well as businesses.
What are the signs of burnout? And why should leaders care about the well-being of their employees and themselves?
The World Health Organisation classifies burnout as a ‘syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’. It lists the three characteristics of burnout as:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
- reduced professional efficacy (WHO, May 2019)
In a study by Personio, 38% of employees in the UK and Ireland are looking to change roles due to toxic workplace culture, bad work-life balance, and a lack of career progression. This turnover rate could cost businesses nearly €17 million. In fact, companies in the States are seeing a similar trend with a ‘record number’ of employees quitting their jobs. McKinsey & Co. refers to it as ‘The Great Attrition’. Burnout always existed, but the pandemic has exacerbated its effects.
Employee burnout is a huge problem that affects not only the employee themselves, but the business, the leaders, and the broader culture. And it’s costing millions.
Busyness can lead to burnout because of the ‘tunnelling’ effect. According to a Harvard Business Review article, researchers describe this phenomenon as the inability to focus on anything but the immediate task at hand. In this state, there’s no bandwidth to focus on long-term goals or strategic planning. It’s exhausting. The first step to breaking free of this cycle is to recognize the signs of burnout and admit that something needs to change.
As burnout and stress are cumulative and chronic, a few ‘bad’ days in a row should not be ignored. Nutrition, sleep, and physical exercise play a huge role in overall well-being. It’s important to get a minimum of seven hours of sleep a night, eat a well-balanced diet, and move the body regularly. Meditation and mindfulness are also proven to improve the effects of stress when practised consistently.
Another way to combat burnout, which on the surface may seem counterintuitive, is scheduling downtown and relaxation into the workday. A Scientific American article explains that ‘downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to achieve our highest levels of performance’. Downtime can include a meditation practice, but it can also be taking a midday nap or a walk outside.
For a company culture to drastically change, leaders need to create new models for productivity and success. Perhaps the ideal employee is one who prioritises their mental health and physical well-being while getting the job done. Leaders can also encourage their employees to create personal boundaries. There will be times when an executive or manager sends an email at 9 p.m., but it does not mean that they require an immediate response.
Lastly, burnout is often a symptom of an underlying issue. There are simple ways to combat burnout, such as proper diet and nutrition, sleep, and setting boundaries, but there could also be another cause that requires deeper reflection.
In a study on how the most successful people conquer burnout, Bismarck Lepe, CEO, talks about the importance of mission in relation to burnout:
‘I don’t believe “burnout” is a function of the amount or intensity of work one takes on. Rather, feeling burned out is usually caused by a misalignment between the individual and their daily tasks’.Bismarck Lepe, CEO Wizeline
Stability, benefits, and healthcare are all important aspects of a job, but if a person hates their work, it can also have an array of negative health impacts. The solution to burnout might be less about finding work-life balance and more about finding work that is fulfilling.
Burnout may be leading to a million-dollar loss for businesses, but the price on quality of life is equally bad, if not worse. If leaders can address burnout and stress and create better working conditions, there will be more attraction and retention rather than attrition. Change needs to start from the top-down for the culture to shift.