Mindfulness is one of the most research-backed management trends of all time. Literally hundreds of studies, including some from the world's most prestigious academic institutions, have shown again and again that teaching people to sit still and pay attention to the present reduces stress and boosts both mental and physical health.
So who could possibly complain about companies offering their employees mindfulness training, apps, or seminars? While no one disputes the potential benefits of individual mindfulness, there are those who say corporate meditation programs can do more harm than good, with one writer even going so far as to call them an "abomination."
Not for everyone...
The first criticism of corporate mindfulness comes from a team of academic researchers that recently looked into whether there are any exceptions to the mountain of findings that show meditation boosts happiness and effectiveness at work. They found a big one.
The point of mindfulness is training your mind to be fully present, rather than daydreaming about the past or the future. But what happens when your daily reality at work is full of unpleasant emotions your job requires you to hide, such as in customer service jobs?
When the researchers looked at the effects of mindfulness training on those with customer-facing roles, they discovered that being instructed in attending to reality really wasn't helpful. "For employees whose jobs frequently required them to display inauthentic emotions, greater levels of mindfulness consistently led to lower self-control and lower overall performance," the study authors report on HBR.
As anyone who has ever had to work with the public can probably guess, that's because it's far easier to fake a smile with an unpleasant customer when you're mindlessly thinking about your upcoming vacation than when you're mindfully focused on exactly how insane they're being.
Or as the authors put it, when employees become more mindful, "the unpleasant feelings that they had been suppressing (perhaps subconsciously) come to the fore. This in turn reduces job satisfaction and performance, as the mental resources needed for work get sapped by a newfound awareness of their own inauthenticity and negative emotions."
...and not if you don't have the basics sorted out.
Which brings me to the larger complaint about corporate mindfulness. While it's fairly straightforward to see how tuning into reality can make a crappy customer service gig worse, it's less clear how meditation might backfire for more prestigious jobs, such as those in the tech sector, which is famous for its embrace of meditation. But in a recent piece for Current Affairs with the impassioned title "Corporate 'Mindfulness' Programs Are an Abomination," writer Thom James Carter makes just that case.
Getting yelled at by irate customers in a call center is understood by one and all to be the highroad to burnout, but Carter points out that, despite their shinier public image, tech behemoths like Apple and Google can also be brutal employers.
"Behind tech companies' soft (and somehow reassuring) branding, through their manicured offices, and past the generously-stocked coffee machines and beer fridges, there's a culture of perpetual stress," he writes. Which is why, "when we think of contemporary tech companies, we primarily think of long workdays and the often-lost weekends."
It's also why, he reports, 61 percent of tech employees feel underpaid and 57 percent feel burned out (this data is pre-pandemic). Offering mindfulness training to these employees doesn't make their workload less relentless. It's just another way to wring a few more productive hours a week out of them before they collapse.
For well-compensated, generally content executives or developers, mindfulness may be an excellent tool to help them better cope with the demands of a job they enjoy. But for many in-the-trenches tech workers, mindfulness is a Band-Aid meant to keep them limping along without having to treat the root cause of their suffering. Because that, Carter stresses, would be way more expensive than a company-wide Headspace subscription.
"There'll never be enough pizza parties, yoga sessions, or mindfulness breaks to knock a culture of stress, of pressure, of burnout -- not just in the tech industry, but in all industries -- on its head. Real internal changes need to be enacted," he writes. That means "paying people appropriately for their labor. It means setting manageable workloads, within appropriate work hours. It means defined holiday time. It means job security. It means health care plans.... However, doing this would be seen as incredibly costly in the eyes of skinflint companies."
Mindfulness in other words, can be a useful tool for already well-cared-for workers. But it shouldn't be used to paper over the fact that a job is objectively bad. Meditation is a powerful 5,000-year-old technique, but it's no match for unfair or dehumanizing work. So before you sign your team up for that mindfulness training, make sure you have the basics of being a good employer covered first.