Mindfulness in the Workplace: Benefits, Risks, Complexities

A side profile view of a Female adult figure created by a random pattern of Binary numbers.
A side profile view of a Female adult figure created by a random pattern of Binary numbers.

There is an increasingly nuanced understanding of the potential benefits and risks of mindfulness strategies (including meditation and yoga) in the workplace. A recent Harvard Business Review article entitled "How Meditation Benefits CEOs" discusses the empirical research that has established the effectiveness of mindfulness strategies for enhancement of resilience, emotional intelligence, empathy, creativity, and mental focus.

The neuroscience of mindfulness techniques also is more convincing than ever. This research demonstrates that mindfulness techniques can induce remarkable changes including enhanced functioning of the brain's anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is correlated with superior performance on tests of self-regulation, learning from past experiences, and optimal decision making. So it is understandable and justified that many U.S. companies have been offering their employees a host of mindfulness options in the workplace. There is growing exploration of how mindfulness improves executive coaching when specialists from these disciplines collaborate closely in an integrated professional practice.

As the potential benefits of mindfulness in business settings become clearer, so too do the potential risks. If individuals misuse mindfulness strategies to disengage from stressful realities, they run the risk of avoiding essential considerations at work and making poor decisions as a result. Regardless of whether mindfulness is misused in the service of avoiding careful thinking, research in fact shows that the relationship between mindfulness techniques and critical reasoning is not straightforward and warrants further research. Another concern with misapplying mindfulness is that it can induce distress and adverse reactions (such as depersonalization) in individuals with mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety.

Furthermore, serious concerns have been raised as to whether some employees may feel pressured or coerced into participating in workplace mindfulness activities -- which is contrary to the spirit of mindfulness as a self-chosen and deeply personal pursuit. Also, there are concerns as to whether corporations are offering mindfulness classes in part as a productivity tool and a method merely to put a band aid on workplace stress -- rather than actually reduce stress in meaningful, fundamental ways and improve overall quality of life in the workplace. A host of potential problems and limitations of mindfulness in business settings prompted the recent publication of an article entitled "Mindfulness in the workplace: Have we had a gutful?"

The time is ripe for a balanced and realistic consideration of the complexities of injecting mindfulness into business settings. Fortunately, there has been an impressive movement recently toward a broader and more inclusive discussion of the potential applications of mindfulness in the workplace. We are seeing intriguing new forums for thoughtful exploration and credible discussion of these complex issues.

The upcoming Mindful Business Conference in New York City is a prime example of how the conversation about mindfulness is expanding and deepening. This conference will present a timely opportunity for discussion of diverse mindfulness questions among experts from government and multiple sectors of the business world. The fact that mindfulness has entered mainstream business conversations -- and is now receiving the detailed and nuanced attention it deserves -- is highlighted by the notable list of conference presenters and participants. These include such luminaries as ABC News anchorman Dan Harris (author of the book "Ten Percent Happier") and U.S. Congressman Tim Ryan (author of the book "A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit").

Mindfulness can only attain sustainable success in the business world if its benefits are optimized and its risks minimized. Participants in mindfulness practices in the workplace must engage voluntarily and proactively if their endeavors are to bear fruit. A particularly encouraging step toward maximizing benefits and managing risks is the development of novel computer technologies that can deliver mindfulness services in the workplace. For example, the recently launched company Whil offers technologies that empower individuals and companies to customize mindfulness activities for their own needs. Whil was founded by Joe Burton -- the former President and Board Advisor of Headspace, a successful company offering online meditation apps that users can incorporate into their daily routine as they see fit.

Workplace mindfulness is coming of age in a sophisticated way. Its success will depend on careful exploration and open discussion of its potential benefits and risks. Business leaders ought to educate themselves about the research that supports mindfulness, while considering best practices for incorporating mindfulness strategies in the workplace so as to avert its potential pitfalls. Executive coaches should familiarize themselves with offering mindfulness strategies to clients and, when possible, team up with mindfulness specialists to provide clients with an integrated set of services. Digital technologies to enhance mindfulness in the workplace hold great promise, so long as clients can leverage them in a flexible and autonomous fashion. The discussion will continue to deepen at the Mindful Business Conference this year and at a growing number of forums which push the envelope in this burgeoning area of the modern business world.