The Examined Life

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Making a business case for mindfulness

With stress-related illness draining the coffers at many organisations, and the advantage to companies of attentive, resilient staff, you might think the workplace was fertile ground for mindfulness training. But while there have indeed been some pioneering programs, meditation in most business settings has yet to really take off, especially when compared to a sector like healthcare.

Employers aren’t easily convinced that investing in stillness, openness and gentleness will improve productivity. We’ve come to associate business with busyness, and slowing down to notice more can seem at odds with a corporate culture of speed and acquisition.

Yet this is actually what makes mindfulness so valuable in a business context. Workers are human beings, and we function better when we feel centered—all the anxious multi-tasking and plate-spinning doesn’t actually do us or our work any good. Unfortunately, when a culture of grasping and aggression is entrenched, it takes a skillful approach to magnetise people to something different.

My colleague Michael Chaskalson offers such an approach in his new book The Mindful Workplace: Developing Resilient Individuals and Resonant Organisations with MBSR (Wiley-Blackwell). As a mindful business specialist, Michael knows the language of the corporate world, and he persuades by making a business case for mindfulness. Far from being a hindrance to productivity, Michael shows how mindfully paying attention is crucial to it, a vital asset to the creativity, emotional intelligence and relationship-building finesse that characterises successful enterprise. His book is a skilful weaving together of art, science and practice, presented with clarity, simplicity and warmth.

The business case he sets out is straightforward. Stress in the workplace is at epidemic levels, costing businesses an estimated $2,800 per employee every year. Meanwhile, taking a mindfulness course at work significantly reduces days off due to stress (by 70 percent over three years, according to one case study, in which a mindfulness course was offered to staff at Transport for London, the large company that runs the English capital’s subway network).

Taking a mindfulness course at work has also been shown to facilitate a shift in neural functioning towards states associated with positivity, creativity and well-being, and away from defensiveness and depression, as well as strengthening the immune system. There is now hard science that meditation training can lead to happier, healthier and more engaged people, and happier, healthier, engaged people tend to make good coworkers.

This may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s easy to underestimate resistance to mindfulness being offered in a workplace setting (for example, here's how the offer of a program was received by one individual). Corporate cultures are driven by results, and only by exploring, understanding and explaining how mindfulness can deliver those results can it hope for a warm welcome.

The challenge is great: mindfulness is incompatible with an approach to work that prioritises profit over people, getting ahead over being here now, cut-throat deals over kindly awareness. But the promise is great too: in time, mindfulness could bring something much deeper than a patching over of job stress. It has the potential to transform the way we traditionally do business itself, shifting the balance from competition to collaboration, and from grasping to offering, helping us let go of the tension that comes from pursuing profit-based goals at the expense of human well-being.

The task is to convince that greater success can stem from a set of values that are not traditionally associated with a business temperament. It takes a brave employer to risk going against the stream by advocating values that are seen as soft or weak, which is why continuing to build a scientific case for a mindful workplace is so vital. We need an answer to the charge of fluffiness that speaks the language of the business world as it exists today. Evidence of better results and more creative people is a pretty good start, as is a book that sets them out so lucidly.

posted by Ed Halliwell, 12:00 am