The practice of mindful awareness has come out of the yoga studio and moved into the workplace – from cubicle city to the c–suite - with surprising speed.
Executives at Ford, General Mills, Goldman Sachs, Apple, Google and other top American companies have been bringing secular versions of ancient meditation and contemplation to the office not just for their employees’ health and well-being – but for their businesses’ bottom lines. Employees at Aetna who took a course in mindfulness saw a $2,000 drop per year in their health care costs and experienced increased productivity as well.
Hedge fund managers on Wall Street are practicing mindfulness. Hospital administrators in busy medical centers are finding ways to embrace their inner calm. Even lawmakers on Capitol Hill in Washington are meditating (shockingly).
“Companies are finding real benefits when they bring mindfulness to work,” said David Gelles, author of a new book, Mindful Work: How Meditation Is Changing Business from the Inside Out. Stress reduction is chief among them. “The pace of our daily lives is so intense that any opportunity to break the habit of going non-stop and stressing ourselves out is not only pleasant, but necessary.”
Gelles vividly describes a mindfulness session he witnessed at General Mills. First, a deputy general counsel led a group of employees in a breathing exercise to aid their concentration. Then she asked them to “expand that awareness” to the rest of their body – their hands, their feet. They did some gentle yoga, had a group discussion, enjoyed a poetry reading and meditated again.
“As a business reporter I had never seen anything like it,” Gelles says in his book:
At the end of the session, the General Mills employees seemed decidedly more relaxed than they had been when they arrived. No doubt they still had plenty of complaints and lingering stress about their jobs [the company was in the midst of a round of layoffs]. Yet it was also clear that after the two-hour class, there was a genuine warmth in the room…. At least one woman in the session had been informed she was being let go. She cried a bit. Then, several of her colleagues, including some strangers, approached to offer hugs and words of support. It was altogether a more humane atmosphere than the cutthroat buzz I’d so often encountered at corporate headquarters.
Gelles has himself practiced mindfulness for 15 years – but he’s quick to correct anyone who assumes this means a more relaxed approached to work, productivity and results.
“Mindfulness does not ask us to not work fast or hard,” he said. “The idea is to intentionally create some space around our tasks and to lose some of the self-judging many of us are prone to on a regular basis. It’s far better if we approach things as they happen even if they’re happening at a very fast pace. We need to accept them for what they are and move forward.”
In addition to reducing stress, Gelles shared three other benefits many corporate leaders, executives and workers are finding from mindfulness:
Increased focus and concentration. “We regain control of our attention. We come back to our breath over and over again even when our minds wander – and they’re always wandering. Simple attentional training can yield big benefits in the long run.”
Improved creativity, calmness and compassion. “Many leaders who embrace mindfulness cite these valuable qualities. They especially find an increase in their empathy toward a range of constituents. Bill Ford at Ford Motor Company discovered this, as has Mark Bertolini, the CEO of Aetna.” Workers find their frustrations are not as unique as they think. That new understanding can become a liberating force.
Fuller awareness of everyday tasks. “You notice your thoughts, your emotions – then you proceed,” said Gelles. “It’s about being aware of small moments. This can be even more effective than taking a big chunk of time to practice mindful meditation.”
Gelles cites three reasons mindfulness as practiced today has gained traction. “The research is finally here – there’s a huge amount of data showing the benefits of this practice. There’s also been a broad shift in the culture. And we’re all so connected to screens that any opportunity to interrupt that velocity is welcome.”
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