Put Meditation to Work: Inside the Mindfulness Movement
As the workday starts I sit in deep solitude, breathe deeply, and just let myself be. I am far from the morning madness of loading kids’ backpacks and heading to school, editor meetings, emails, and work demands. My morning meditation helps me set the tone for all that follows and I am able to face the demands of the day with a quiet focus.
Who knew 10 minutes could be such a powerful experience? As someone who's no stranger to work-induced anxiety and burnout, beginning a regular meditation practice has been a game changer. I feel more lucid on days that I've been loyal to my meditation practice; less likely to panic when an unexpected work hiccup arises. I also find it much easier to sit at my computer and focus on the tasks at hand. This is precisely why I often add a shorter afternoon meditation into my schedule, as well.
My own experience points to a growing meditation movement. Mindfulness training is becoming an increasingly popular offering in workplace wellness programs. Employees and managers alike are hungry for it, says Liz Wilkes, CEO of Exubrancy. The office wellness company provides an array of services aimed at enhancing employee well being, bringing everything from meditation to fitness to massage directly to the workplace.
"Anecdotally, participants in our programs have told us, 'This is the safest space in my company.' Or 'It was my weekly meditation classes that got me through this extraordinarily challenging personal time in my life,'" she says.
The mindfulness phenomenon has been picking up steam over the last decade. As David Gelles, a New York Times business reporter and author of Mindful Work, told The Atlantic's Joe Pinsker in a 2015 interview, it first began blooming in the mid-1990s when large-scale companies began calling in experts to teach mindfulness techniques to executives.
Monsanto was actually one of the first to dip its toes in the water, attracted to mindfulness as a way of fostering creativity among its top executives, according to mindful workplace expert Mirabai Bush. General Mills was another early adopter. Janice Marturano, who founded its mindfulness program, told Gelles in a 2012 interview for The Financial Times: “It’s about training our minds to be more focused, to see with clarity, to have spaciousness for creativity, and to feel connected.”
Google’s Search Inside Yourself initiative, which began in 2007, is perhaps the most popular mindfulness-based leadership program today. Bush, who helped Google get the program off the ground, shared some wonderful insights on the power of workplace mindfulness in a recent episode of the On Being podcast. The story goes, it all began with one Google engineer who wanted to bring the benefits of meditation to the company at large.
Google certainly doesn't stand alone. Aetna, Target, and Intel also have renowned employee wellness programs that spotlight meditation and mindfulness. Why the increase in popularity? Gelles partly credits the uptick to the abundance of research suggesting that meditation improves the quality of our work.
Why infuse the workday with meditation and mindfulness?
Sticking to a regular meditation practice is linked to some profound benefits. In 2015, Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar, Ph.D. told The Washington Post that just eight weeks of meditation can actually change the brain in areas that are linked to anxiety and fear, as well as empathy and human connection. And researchers at Northeastern University are echoing what longtime meditators already know to be true—that meditation increases compassion. What's more, it's associated with improved mental health and cognitive functioning.
So what does this have to do with the workplace? There appears to be a huge carryover between these personal benefits and our professional lives.
"There's a lot of data out there on the ROI and benefits of meditation related to decreased absenteeism, and increased productivity," says Logan Sugarman, co-founder of Refresh Body, a wellness concierge service for individuals and corporations. "By making it an integral part of your work life, it helps relieve stress factors in the employee's life, and makes them a little less anxious as they navigate their workday."
Ilya Pozin calls out some noteworthy research in this 2014 Inc. article, specifically when it comes to boosting productivity. According to the INSEAD Business School, mindfulness meditation can pave the way for more rational thinking and better business decisions. Pozin also points to studies suggesting that mindfulness just might infuse the workplace with more happiness and creativity.
And another benefit? Employers that offer meditation and other mindfulness-focused wellness programs appear to have higher employee retention. While it's tough to find hard numbers on this one, Josh Bersin at Forbes draws a close relationship between companies that offer these types of programs and those that have a positive work culture where employees are invested and engaged.
Those who facilitate meditation sessions have seen the benefits first hand. "It's a water-cooler effect whereby you're getting groups from different teams, like accounting, marketing, and upper management all having a shared experience that they can discuss, which creates a common bond," explains Sugarman.
Simple mindfulness techniques to try
Wilkes has a bit of advice for office managers and other team members looking to bring mindfulness into the company culture: don't over-think it.
"I'd highly recommend a single workshop or short series of meditation classes before diving into a deeper commitment," she says. "At Exubrancy we've been very fortunate to find that once we do introduce people to mindfulness training and meditation sessions, they become very, very sticky because they become such an important part of people's week."
Even if your company doesn’t offer workplace meditation (yet), here are a few simple mindfulness techniques to get you started:
Focus On Your Breath: Disconnect from all electronics and find a comfortable place to sit. Natural outdoor settings are ideal, but a quiet place in the office will do the trick. Spend five to 10 minutes taking deep, cleansing breaths. When thoughts arise, and they will, gently redirect your attention back to your breath.
Opt for a Mindful Lunch: The great Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh popularized the practice of eating with intention, known as mindful eating. Get away from your computer screen and honor your meal; chew slowly and make it a point to really taste your food. Instead of going through the motions of eating so you can move on to your next task, be present for every bite.
Consider Technology-Enabled Meditation: Wilkes is a fan of the Headspace app, which you can think of as a portable, on-demand meditation trainer. While at your desk, consider running the Calm.com homepage in the background. It provides ambient sounds and soothing images to help keep you centered.
Think your calendar is too crammed to incorporate a few minutes of quiet reflection into your workday? As the ancient Zen proverb goes: “You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day—unless you're too busy. Then you should sit for an hour."
Illustration by Annette Wong