4 January 2016

Mindfulness at work: the fallen celebrity of 2016?

Over the last few years, thanks to big corporations, the media and enthusiast practitioners mindfulness training at work has reached celebrity status. It’s promoted as a solution to many or most of our daily organizational problems and demands like stress and burn-out, bad communication and cooperation, creativity and high performance. What is the truth about mindfulness at work and can it live up to its promises?

It’s not strange that business looks to mindfulness as a solution for persistent problems in the workplace. In this fast paced world of pervasive technological innovation, ever new business models and accelerating agile organizing stress and anxiety at work are still around or even more prominent. And mindfulness’ track record in individual stress reduction is attractive for both employees and HR-departments, and rightly so. But the uncritical over-enthusiast promoting by mindfulness teachers of various backgrounds and its hardly well considered introduction by HR-departments that are under pressure to deliver might be a recipe for disaster: mindfulness at work won’t be able to live up to its promises. And this can easily lead to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. From celebrity to outcast.

To prevent this from happening we need a balanced, practical and experimental approach to mindfulness in organizations. Balanced because there is a big need for realism about the science behind mindfulness at work. Yes, there are many first insights about its effectiveness and the mechanisms behind this, but there is no conclusive evidence yet. Mindfulness training has been shown to deliver positive contributions to lowering levels of stress, cognitive flexibility and open-mindedness, improving personal relations at work and avoiding miscommunications. And also to help people take better care for themselves. But what kind of training program works best for a certain group of people and in what kind of organizations is still an open question.

Practical because introducing mindfulness training programs at work (and there are many options) needs to be done contextual and based on realistic arguments. Most promoting of mindfulness is based on overstating the possible outcomes without relating the introduction to the need of a sound training practice and a supportive environment within the organization. Mindfulness training will not work if it is seen as a quick fix to persistent problems that have an organizational and not a personal nature. Many mindfulness teachers are too eager to teach and lack an understanding of what is going on in organizations. And sometimes HR-departments are so pressured to deliver that anything goes, even low quality delivery of mindfulness training.
And finally we need to introduce mindfulness at work with an experimental attitude: learning on the spot. The core of a first mindfulness program in an organization is to learn the participants the basics of mindfulness meditation and yoga and to help them develop practices to be able to be more mindful throughout the workday. The experimental attitude is important for both participants as teachers in a mindfulness program. For participants it is important to understand this slow and experimental learning process as an attitude that comes with being able to be more mindful at work. For teachers to embody this attitude to the towards what is happening in a mindfulness at work program and seeing the learning process of the participants and the effects that learning has outside the class.

Only with such a balance, practical and experimental approach mindfulness at work can prevent becoming the fallen celebrity of 2016 that could not live up to its promises.