Like many people, I have considered stress to be an inevitable part of the workplace.
Yet a recent paper by researchers from Stanford and Harvard suggests we better stop taking workplace stress for granted and address it head on. The researchers posit that health issues arising from job stress—like hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and poor mental health—can lead to conditions that kill more than 120,000 people per year. This would make work-related stress one of the top-five causes of death in the United States, akin to accidents, more lethal than diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or influenza.
But don’t despair! A new wave of research suggests that organizations have a stress antidote at their disposal: meditation. According to this research, organizations that institute a mindfulness meditation program might dramatically reduce employee stress while simultaneously improving productivity. Such programs are truly beginning to catch on, with free (for employees) programs launching at prominent Fortune 500 companies like Procter & Gamble, General Mills, Comcast, and Google.
However, employees and business leaders interested in establishing such programs often don’t know how to design and execute a program that will be sustainable and integrate well within their organizational culture.
For advice on dealing with these practical challenges, I turned to Golbie Kamarei, who, against long odds, has helped meditation infiltrate and flourish within the conservative halls of the financial services industry.
In my discussion with Kamarei, she highlighted five broad principles based on her experience that serve as a useful framework for bringing a guided meditation practice—or really any cultural initiative—to life within an organization.
1. Start with the why and the how will come.
Kamarei was introduced to meditation in December 2011 when she attended a yoga ashram. Her education and experience until that point had led Kamarei to understand the mind and human behavior through a Western lens. The ashram visit was her first introduction to Eastern psychology and philosophy, and the experience was life-changing.
“It felt like it completed so much of what I was looking to find,” Kamarei explained. “And I really dug into it. For three years since then, I’ve spent nearly every vacation or long weekend at an ashram or taking a workshop.”
Upon returning to work after each workshop or retreat, colleagues would pull her aside to inquire about what she was learning and how she was applying it to her life. “All my friends and colleagues at work would ask, what did you learn this time? And I would start to translate it into a language that worked for them. That was really the beginning of what became the BlackRock Meditation Program.”
In these conversations, Kamarei recognized a common need from her colleagues that she thought meditation could help address. “My goal and aspiration at the beginning was just to help one person,” explained Kamarei. “The practice changed my life and if I could help create the conditions by which it could change another person’s life, that would be enough.”
The program launched in April 2013 with an email invitation to the entire New York office. Three-dozen employees attended the first guided meditation the following week. As sessions continued, word quickly spread throughout the organization and Kamarei looked for ways to scale the program to other offices. Kamarei explains it philosophically with some advice: “I believe mission-driven work will figure out a way. If you know why something is important to you, you’ll do whatever it takes. You don’t always need to know the next step; if you’re doing it with an authentic desire to have impact, the next step will reveal itself.”
2. Align with your organization’s priorities, values, and principles
Although tapping into a personal mission was important to Kamarei, she also believes that understanding the particular organizational context is equally crucial.
“In order to make it relevant or get support,” says Kamarei, “you have to know what’s important to your company. What are the needs of your company? What are the values, what are the priorities, what are the principles? If you can understand those and speak that language then you can translate any idea you might have into becoming relevant.”
For Kamarei, translation literally meant adapting the language of her sessions to BlackRock’s business culture.
I don’t ‘om’ in meditation, I don’t use the language that I might hear at a meditation workshop or a yoga class even. I use the language of a high performance work environment. And that’s how people who might say, ‘that’s just hippy stuff,’ say ‘Oh I get that! My mind wanders 47 percent of the time? Ok! I’m more productive if I can regulate my body systems and manage my stress response? Got it!’”
A large part of Kamarei’s language shift has to do with infusing her practice with scientific justification. She draws on Matthew Killingsworth’s studies on mind wandering, Richard Davidson’s findings on neuroscience and meditation, and Robert Sapolsky’s work on stress.
“I work in a rationally-oriented, linear-thinking industry,” says Kamarei, “so science is deeply valued.”
Since getting buy-in it starts with a deep understanding of the organizational culture, it was essential that Kamarei had worked on different teams and global initiatives around the firm since 2007. She had a strong sense of BlackRock’s cultural DNA, which allowed her to successfully link the program to BlackRock’s organizational values in her discussion both with employees and firm executives. Because “innovation” is a core BlackRock principle, Kamarei cites the connection between the authenticity her program promotes and the creativity and collaboration that gets unleashed when stress is reduced.
On a day-to-day level, Kamarei focuses on embodying the culture herself. “If you hire someone externally, without an active internal champion, you run the risk of employees thinking that a meditation or mindfulness practice won’t translate to their hectic, high-pressured lives,” she says. “You need someone who lives the culture and is engaged in the practice. This program is a passion and volunteer effort, but in my full time job, people see me working hard alongside them, dealing with the same stressors and demands they encounter. I think that makes the practice more accessible for them, to see it in action and in a relatable way.”
3. Collect quantitative data to support mindfulness at work
Kamarei has worked to build a strong case for the benefits of the program, realizing that positive energy wasn’t enough to make it sustainable. Since its inception, Kamarei has logged anecdotal examples of positive employee responses, collecting over 500 testimonials.
Initially, she used these quotes to bring to life the emotional power of her program. “If I was sitting down with a more senior person at the firm,” recalls Kamarei, “I’d say ‘you might not be able to visualize the impact, but here are four quotes about the impact it’s had on someone’s ability to be more productive, or the impact it’s having on peoples’ health and well being.’”
As time passed, Kamarei made it a priority to also collect quantitative data to support her cause. She sent out a survey, which produced the following percentages:
- 91% believe it positively adds to the culture
- 88% would recommend it to a colleague
- 66% experience less stress or are better able to manage stress
- 63% are better able manage themselves at work
- 60% experienced increased focused, mental resilience, and better decision-making
- 52% better manage relationships with peers at work
- 46% experience increased innovation and creativity
In a data-driven firm like BlackRock, quantifying impact has been crucial to building a case for the program’s expansion; this is a necessary factor to consider for anyone looking to establish a similar initiative.
Yet, since there’s a chicken-and-egg relationship between collecting supportive data and making the initial case for a program, Kamarei suggests it makes sense to start with research or data from other organizations that have already succeeded.
As Kamarei explains, “Aetna quite publicly has articulated the impact meditation has had on their employee population in terms of lowering the health care costs of their employees, reducing their stress, or increasing their productivity. So I’d say, ‘look at the impact there!’”
4. Give people a sense of autonomy over their practice.
Kamarei is adamant that a key to establishing a program such as hers is leaving room for all voices, opinions, and interests and giving employees a sense of autonomy over their practice. To that end, Kamarei has been very deliberate about introducing many different styles of meditation and mindfulness, as well as bringing in guest teachers with diverse backgrounds.
“There are many styles and techniques, and no one is better than another. Each serves a purpose and may resonate with a different person. It’s not for me, it’s not for the firm to tell you what is right or wrong,” says Kamarei. “It’s about giving you a platform so you can make your own choices. That is consistent with BlackRock’s culture. There is no one right way to invest. It’s important to leave room for everyone.”
Kamarei also isn’t deterred by skeptics and makes a point to include them in the conversation. “I love speaking with my colleagues who are less familiar—or are even skeptical—about meditation. Seeing them light up once they experience the practice is so meaningful.” For those seeking to conceptually understand meditation, she often frames it this way, “at one end of the spectrum, meditation can be seen as a mental exercise, a shift in perception, a technique that allows you to relate differently to your thoughts, emotions, sensory experiences, the moment itself. At another end of the spectrum, it can be a portal to a deeply transformative personal experience.”
5. One person can change an organization, but lasting change never happens alone.
Finally, Kamarei believes that, while one individual can launch an initiative like hers, it is not sustainable without a supportive, active team that shares a common vision and commitment to its success. “This whole wave of mindfulness is fantastic and beautiful,” says Kamarei, “but what is going to be the game changer is lasting change—you can go to a workshop or a mindfulness course and those are tremendous, but how do you integrate the practice to create sustainable change?”
The broad answer is a combination of bottom up and top down change. In the case of BlackRock’s program, the bottom up change involved organic, word-of-mouth dissemination, and a smart rollout strategy. For example, while all members are part of the global community and receive Kamarei’s weekly emails, she makes a conscious effort to maintain a more personal, region-specific flavor.
When the program launches in a new city, an email invitation comes from the local People and Culture Committee rather than Kamarei herself. When employees opt in to the program, they immediately receive a note and calendar invite from the local Meditation Program volunteers who are available to welcome new members, answer questions, and support the logistics of the program. Each office also has their own local distribution list, so members can share information with each other about regional events or resources. By keeping it personal and “bottom-up,” the program has kept its authenticity.
Employees at all levels of the organization have joined and been personally impacted by the Meditation Program, but Kamarei specifically noted the importance of inspiring senior leadership. “As it started to become this wave in the firm, that’s when we got an executive sponsor. That’s when we began talking about mindful leadership and what that might mean to the culture.”
Tailoring communication to senior managers solidified the top down support and infrastructure necessary to sustain the program longer term. Soon, Kamarei started receiving invites to leadership off-sites, where she talks about authenticity, mindfulness, and how they impact BlackRock’s culture.
“It may have started as a one person show, but now there are 50 volunteers around the world who believe in the program and want it to succeed,” says Kamarei. “The Meditation Program reflects the heart and soul of the people and employees of BlackRock.”