Bringing Mindfulness to Work? Beware of the Peddlers

Companies are rushing to teach staff mindfulness. But some need to find more experienced teachers.

Those familiar with the McMindfulness backlash should take note of the chapter devoted to the subject in David Gelles new book, Mindful Work. In it, Gelles visits Reebok headquarters outside of Boston, where Richard Geller, a consultant whose clients include IBM and Papa Gino’s pizza, teaches mindfulness to staff.

As participants trickle in, Geller turns on pan flute music. After some instruction in seated meditation and body scan and when these tools could be used, the session ends an hour later.

For most of us, that might sound like a hefty dose of meditation at the workplace, if a bit awkward, music-wise. But for Gelles, it was problematic. For one thing there was little mention of becoming aware of the coming and going of sensations or any discussion of decreasing emotional reactivity.

“Absent any explanation of the insights that mindfulness can spark, the whole affair was rather underwhelming,” Gelles writes. “It was as if the management at Reebok believed that just by showing up to a single meditation class, the workers might be cured of whatever ails them.”

For Gelles, the Reebok example depicts one of the greatest risks of bringing mindfulness to work. And it’s not that mindfulness is reaching “cult status in the business world,” as David Brendel suggests in the Harvard Business Review this month. Rather, it’s something more specific.

Tucked in the rising wave of mindfulness’ popularity, peddlers lurk.

Gelles writes:

Geller’s meager offering is but one example of a great rush to peddle mindfulness training to anyone who is willing to pony up the bucks for an hour-long session that might appease worn-down workers hankering for any semblance of stress relief.

Gelles warns that “this scene is likely to be played out with increasing frequency in the years to come”: over-excited management foisting sub-par versions of meditation on staffers.

In his article, Brendel, an executive coach, supplies cringe-worthy examples of this phenomenon. One executive leads a mandatory guided imagery session (to the dread of his staffers); another leader fails to confront underperforming workers for fear that it would conflict with their newly minted mindful disposition.

“The person doing the guided imagery gave me the total creeps,” says Mirabai Bush, a long-time meditation teacher who has worked with Google, Monsanto, and other companies to train staff in mindfulness. “Guided imagery is not a mindfulness practice.”

In her experience, even the staunchest business minds can get “new-agey” about mindfulness.

“There’s all kinds of people out there teaching and they get carried away with their own desires,” she says. “So everybody’s quiet and watching their breath, and they think, Oh, this is perfect, I’m going to lead them into full awakening by having them imagine themselves walking into the white light.

And that was a financial services corporation!” she adds.

Gelles told Mindful that most of what he saw while writing Mindful Work was not cringe-worthy. But he did speak with people who taught mindfulness to large groups of employees, even though they had limited experience.

“I think having some best practices is really important right now, given how much interest there is and given how many different types of groups are involved—from education to the military to business,” Gelles says.

“Even yoga teachers today, there’s teacher training. But we don’t seem to have anything like that in a broad way for mindfulness,” Gelles continues. “I don’t believe it exists yet, absent from Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which I think has done enormous good but probably also has its limitations.”

Indeed, for Google, one of the earliest adopters of mindfulness, posting a sign-up sheet for staff to take “MBSR classes” outright failed.

“Nobody signed up,” says Bush.

It wasn’t until Google adapted MBSR to fit the young, data-driven engineers that staff showed interest. Google referred to the teachings as “mindfulness-based emotional intelligence” and showed how different practices could cultivate this intelligence. The course was rebranded as Search Inside Yourself. More than two thousand of Google’s engineers around the world have taken the course since then.

If mindfulness needs to be tailored to particular work environments, it goes without saying that forcing staff to meditate is not going to get you anywhere. Bush reminisces about one visit to the Federal Trade Commission in DC where management got so enthusiastic about the results of their own meditation sessions that they thought everybody should do it.

“Everybody did not want to do this,” Bush says. She adds that the group was made up of lawyers and litigators, “so if they didn’t want to do it they were intense about it.”

It was a big learning for me: it doesn’t work if you’re forcing it.”

Bush says there has to be a lot of feedback in the process to assess staff needs and learn what they can (and want to) get out of the course. And if teachers are leading a group meditation, it’s good to mention that if people feel uncomfortable, they can sit in silence and just relax.

Then comes the trickier work: sorting through the normal human response to quieting down (No, definitely don’t want to do this!) and “responding and changing as needs arise because you realize something else would be more effective,” says Bush.

That’s one of those decisions a good teacher can make.”