What employers risk getting wrong about mindfulness and mental health

Participants meditate during an event in The Gherkin in London’s financial district on World Meditation Day, Britain, May 21, 2019.
Participants meditate during an event in The Gherkin in London’s financial district on World Meditation Day, Britain, May 21, 2019.
Image: Reuters/Peter Nicholls
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Take a deep breath through your nose and count to five, filling your lungs like a balloon.

Now let it all out, exhaling a long, slow breath through your mouth.

Feel better?

Great! Now, just answer those two new emails marked “urgent,” respond to the Slack message from your boss, and rattle off that memo to your team before your next meeting—and don’t forget about the big deadline at the end of the day.

Mindfulness and meditation really do make people feel better. They reduce stress and anxiety and help us learn to focus our attention and keep our emotions in check. But how much can they do to counteract the problems we face at work?

In 2017, 36% of employers in the US offered some form of mindfulness training to workers. By 2018, that percentage was up to 52%, according to a survey of more than 150 firms by the Fidelity Investments, and the National Business Group on Health. Companies like Google, Aetna, and Intel have offered mindfulness programs to employees for years, while a new wave of employers are offering meditation apps like Calm and Headspace as a workplace benefit in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The risk to all of this mindfulness is the possibility that companies will rely on it as a way to anesthetize people to the stresses of work. If, after a 12-hour work day, someone meditates so they can “calm down, go to sleep, and get up tomorrow and do it again,” then the benefits of the practice are beside the point, says Jeff Wilson, author of the book Mindful America and a professor of religious and east Asian studies at Renison University College in Ontario. “What would have been better is for the employer to change your working conditions, rather than giving you free access to a meditation app.”

Mindfulness training is no substitute for flexible hours or a realistic workload. That said, if companies offer mindfulness training as well as other robust forms of support for workers, there can be real benefits.

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Mindfulness and the path to mental health

Starbucks now offers all employees a free subscription to Headspace as part of a larger new mental-health initiative rolled out in 2020. Ron Crawford, the company’s vice president of global benefits, says the program aims to address three common barriers to getting mental-health help: stigma, access, and quality of care.

Headspace, Crawford says, is meant to be useful in coaching people on meditation and mindfulness techniques. “But it also helps people be more comfortable talking about mental health,” he says.

The idea is that as Starbucks workers use Headspace, they’ll become more aware of their state of mind and (hopefully) more open about discussing it—say, telling a co-worker about how they’re feeling less stressed after instating a morning meditation practice, the same way they might discuss the physical benefits of doing yoga or lifting weights. That, in turn, normalizes a work environment where people can talk openly about dealing with anxiety, stress, depression, and other problems, discuss what’s worked for them, and encourage one another to seek help.

“The thing about mindfulness is it’s not the goal in itself in my mind,” says Crawford. “It’s the pathway that gets us to a dramatic improvement in mental health.”

So far, over 70,000 Starbucks employees have become active users of Headspace, Crawford says. The company also offers employees and their families 20 free mental-health sessions per person each year with a therapist or coach.

“The thing I would say to the most hardened employer out there is we’re all suffering from the downstream consequences of not taking care of mental health early,” says Crawford. “It becomes a healthcare problem, with terrible and costly outcomes.” The impact on a company’s bottom line encompasses everything from absenteeism and lower productivity to medical costs. The total economic cost of major depressive disorder in the US, for example, is estimated at $210.5 billion a year, with 62% of those costs tied not to depression itself but related issues like anxiety disorders and sleep problems.

Offering a mindfulness program in combination with other mental-health benefits and options, Crawford says, is “a really straightforward way to catch things early on before they become workplace issues.”

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Putting attention to work

Others see mindfulness programs as a way to not only help employees’ mental health, but to improve their performance. Studies suggest that learning to apply mindfulness to our work really can change the result: A 2009 study published in the journal Psychology of Music, for example, asked one group of orchestra musicians to play a piece in the style of a performance they’d previously done—more or less giving them permission to mentally check out. The other group was instructed to play the piece mindfully, taking note of subtle ways they could alter their rendition from past performances.

Audiences could tell the difference, and preferred the performance by the latter group. “There’s this view that if you let everyone do their own thing, chaos will reign,” Harvard University psychologist Ellen Larger, who co-authored the study, told the Harvard Business Review. “But if everyone is working in the same context and is fully present, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t get a superior coordinated performance.”

For knowledge workers in particular, “in order to be effective, they’re primarily working with the quality of their attention,” says Rich Fernandez, the CEO of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. The institute, which also goes by the waggish acronym SIYLI (“silly”), is a nonprofit spun off in 2012 from the wildly popular in-house mindfulness course developed at Google by software engineer-turned-head-of-personal-growth Chade-Meng Tan. SIYLI now offers mindfulness programs in more than 50 countries. The institute’s largest client is SAP, the multinational German software company, where more than 13,000 employees have participated in mindfulness training.

Over the course of 12 to 16 sessions, the program teaches people practices for cultivating attention, along with the neuroscientific research on which the practices are based. Under the theory that mindfulness is the foundation of emotional intelligence—another key skill for knowledge workers—the sessions aim to help people first look inward and then outward, toward strengthening relationships with their colleagues.

One example, Fernandez says, is “focused attention training,” in which people are encouraged to spend 30 seconds settling and anchoring their attention before a meeting begins, in order to be better prepared to engage with one another. Another training session meant to help with difficult conversations and conflicts offers “communication-oriented listening exercises, where we’re adopting mindsets around understanding and perspective-taking rather than criticism,” he explains. Yet another technique, called “response flexibility,” encourages workers to use mindfulness skills to pause and process difficult feedback rather than reacting right away.

In practice, Fernandez says, this kind of training can make a big difference in how workers handle tough problems. He cites one participant who worked on the research and development team at an aerospace engineering company and was struggling with a problem to get an airliner operational. “This person used some of the tools around attention management and insight and inquiry, and also managing stress and anxiety—we know the best ideas don’t come under duress.” Ultimately, Fernandez says, “she created a solution that enabled the project to be viable,” and credits the skills she got from the SIYLI course.

Teachers often adapt the coursework to suit the culture they’re teaching in. In Nigeria, for example, where most participants are either Christian or Muslim, the question arose of whether mindfulness was truly secular (as SIYLI typically portrays it), or a form of prayer. The Nigerian teacher in charge of the course came up with a helpful distinction, Fernandez recounts: “Prayer is speaking to God, but mindfulness is listening to what the response is—it’s to develop awareness for what’s emerging in your own mind and heart.”

“We never mention God in our program,” Fernandez explains, “but culturally, it made sense.” In Japan, he says, course participants often recognize that some of the practices could be considered derivative of Buddhism, but typically appreciate viewing them through a neuroscientific lens.

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The office as access point

Just because a company offers mindfulness instruction doesn’t mean that workers will engage with it. Zindel Segal, a clinical psychologist at the University of Toronto Scarborough, points out that many mindfulness apps have low retention rates, with people dropping off the practice after a couple weeks. (That said, Headspace and Calm have relatively strong retention rates, according to a February 2019 report from app analytics company Apptopia: 7.65% of Headspace users and 8.34% of Calm users were still engaging with the apps after 30 days, compared to an average 6.29% retention rate for other popular health and fitness apps.)

“Mindfulness isn’t something that’s an easy thing to engage with,” says Segal. “It takes effort. It takes practice.”

But even a brief introduction to mindfulness may wind up paying off down the line. Wilson points out that the workplace is now one of the major places where people first encounter the concepts of mindfulness and meditation—but the benefits can go well beyond the corporate realm.

“Once somebody has learned to meditate, even if they learned it at work, potentially that may have all sorts of possible effects in their lives or their family members’,” Wilson says. “They come home, they teach their kid to meditate because they learned it in a seminar at work. Once it’s out of the bag, it can go all over the place.