In a corner of Etsy’s new 200,000 sq ft (18,581 sq m) headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, there is a room meant only for breathing.
Save for the lack of furniture, “A-901: Breathing Room” appears as an ordinary conference room. It sits squarely within the rest of the office, which buzzes with the steady meetings and conversations that characterize most corporate buildings. Soft mats, for sitting, are piled to one side of the room. Digital devices are not allowed.
A few times a week, dozens of employees gather in the room for meditation sessions, scheduled and sponsored—prompted, even—by Etsy. It’s just what it sounds like: An instructor sits at the front off the room, telling employees to close their eyes, forget about work, and simply reflect. The idea, Etsy tells Quartz, is to “encourage more sustainable approaches to work.”
Meditation has found an especially enthusiastic niche at companies like Etsy—an online retailer focused on homemade goods—which pride themselves on a modern, holistic approach to employee wellness. It’s a philosophy that many of Silicon Valley’s tech startups are also keen to embrace. As a 2015 New Republic essay pointed out, mindfulness classes at offices are part of a sweepingly ambitious attempt to restore “meaning” to work as corporate America scampers to offer new and exciting perks to employees.
Yet the trend has its vocal skeptics. It’s been several times criticized as “one more thing in which employees feel obligated to participate:” a benefit that adds pressure for workers and really only benefits the employer. Mental health, some say, just doesn’t work as a corporate perk (To that, an Etsy spokesperson who declined to be named says: “Of course we’re a publicly traded company and have ambitious goals, but we think the ways you can lean into work are primarily by getting some balance.”)
But what if we think of meditation less as an office perk like free juice in the fridge—and more as a life skill? The mental equivalent of knowing how to use an Excel spreadsheet?
Recent research shows that what employees want most from their work environment is an avenue for learning. In an age when workers are much less faithful to companies than to their own career interests, education—as a lifelong skill, nowadays, rather than a phase of life that ends after college—has become paramount.
There are key ways in which meditation can help people improve at work. It’s been shown to reduce stress, catapult productivity, increase blood circulation in the brain, improve memory, and spark creativity.
Lodro Rinzler, co-founder of MNDFL, the New York-based meditation boutique that sends its instructors into Etsy’s office, contends that mindfulness in itself “is a form of education.” He compares it to the value gained by learning computer science skills. “People don’t do coding because it’s a cool hobby; it’s a useful skill to take on,” Rinzler notes. MNDFL sends instructors to teach at an increasing number of companies around the city.
“People recognize that patience, sleep, these are things they can get better at, with mindfulness practice,” he says. And that surely makes for better worker bees in the office.
The question now, as the trend toward mindfulness draws more and more interest from businesses in various industries, is whether putting employees’ introspective learning at the forefront is helpful to both parties—or just burdensome.
As political economist William Davies previously told Quartz, in many cases the best office perk may still be, simply, “a system where employees can go to work, and just do the work.”