Since I started meditating two years ago, my practice has been shamefully sporadic. When I do manage to stop what I’m doing and sit down, device-free, I find following my breath to be a relief from—and a contrast to—what happens at work. But as David Gelles observes in his new book, that contrast is dissolving, perhaps for the better.
In Mindful Work, Gelles, a business reporter for The New York Times, catalogues the nascent trend of establishing employee well-being programs that promote mindfulness, an activity that is perhaps best described as doing nothing. More precisely, mindfulness means drawing one’s attention to the sensations of the present moment, and noting, without frustration or judgment, any mental wanderings that get in the way. It can be done anywhere—at your desk, on the subway platform—and at any time. Decades of research suggest that setting aside time for mindfulness can improve concentration and reduce stress.
Gelles first reported on the rise of corporate mindfulness programs in 2012 for The Financial Times, when he described a rare but promising initiative at General Mills. In the years since, similar programs have popped up at Ford, Google, Target, Adobe—and even Goldman Sachs and Davos. This adoption has been rapid, perhaps due to its potential to help the bottom line: Aetna estimates that since instituting its mindfulness program, it has saved about $2,000 per employee in healthcare costs, and gained about $3,000 per employee in productivity. Mindful employees, the thinking goes, are healthier and more focused.
I recently talked to Gelles about why mindfulness programs are sprouting up and what happens when you expose a practice unconcerned with materialism to the forces of capitalism. The interview that follows has been edited and condensed for the sake of clarity.
More in this series
Joe Pinsker: In your book, you trace mindfulness in America back to Henry David Thoreau, who read plenty of Buddhist and Hindu texts. You also mention that Allen Ginsberg picked up this thread in the 1960s, but can you talk about its first moment of corporate uptake, in the mid-1990s?
David Gelles: There was a, perhaps unusual, very surprising, example. Long before Google was teaching emotional intelligence courses in Mountain View, Monsanto, of all companies, tried mindfulness. They had a very progressive CEO for a moment there, who had a personal interest in this practice. He brought in a very skilled and experienced teacher named Mirabai Bush, and they began teaching mindfulness to the executives of the company.
These executives who had been in the corporate world for the duration of their careers suddenly were exposed to ways of thinking and ways of relating to themselves and to each other and even to their customers and maybe even to the planet, that they had never experienced before. Some people had these real, very emotional openings. Some people, I've heard, actually quit the company when this started to happen. It was starting to make a difference in the way some of the top executives at this company were thinking about the world.
And then of course what happened is the CEO got fired, they shut down the program, and no one ever mentioned it again. These things happen in corporate America.
Pinsker: So why then do you think that mindfulness is taking root in the corporate world now? My first-blush theory is that businesses are more likely to embrace things that they can quantify, and only really recently has the research into mindfulness been able to put really hard numbers on its benefits. Do you think that's a good theory, or no?
Gelles: I think that's a big part of it, absolutely. I think there are three main reasons why we're seeing mindfulness in the workplace today more than ever before. The first is exactly what you said. Over the last 30 years, there's been this tremendous volume of research. Academic research, scientific research that's been really quantifying the effects of mindfulness. And we can now see it actually changes the structures of our brain in ways that we think are largely positive. It actually improves our immune system in ways that we can verifiably measure. It actually seems to reduce the stress we experience and the stress that our bodies seem to be reporting, through measures like heart-rate variability and cortisol levels. So the data is there. We know that it's making changes and that these changes are largely beneficial.
And now, we're just starting to see the next step of this. We're starting to see companies do some work analyzing what happens when they roll out mindfulness at scale. And so at Aetna, the company I profiled in The Times earlier this month, healthcare costs actually went down at the company in the first full year after they rolled it out. All of a sudden, there's this tantalizing promise that maybe it can even affect the bottom line. So that's one reason. I think that we're in a place where we can have much more empirical conversations about this, which I think helps it be less of a woo-woo, New Age thing.
The second thing I think that has helped is that over the last 30 years, mindfulness has become truly a secular pursuit. Yes, it has some relation, some origins, in traditional Eastern practices, but by no means today is what people are teaching and practicing anything like religion. And so I think the secularization, the fact that it's a purely scientific practice almost, has made it much more accessible to big corporations in particular.
The third is, I think mindfulness is being accepted in the workplace today because we need it more than ever, it seems. We are so stressed. We are so bombarded with constant information overload. We are so addicted to our technology that the promise of a technique that allows us to come back to the present moment and stop obsessing about whatever it we just read in our Twitter stream or what we're about to post on our Facebook page has a unique and enduring allure that is totally understandable. I mean, after a totally frenetic workday here at The Times, the opportunity to quiet down is totally lovely.
Pinsker: So if mindfulness is particularly relevant today because it encourages people to be more aware of the way that they're coping with distraction, then how does the idea of mindfulness mesh with the modern burden of constant multitasking?
Gelles: I would actually say that multitasking is a myth. I think we rarely, if ever, can actually do two things at the same time. I think what we're doing is very rapid task-switching, which leads to inherent inefficiencies. Now, is that part of the fabric of the modern workplace? To a certain extent, it is. And I think that's the moment of opportunity. When I focus on actually writing a story, am I capable of focusing my attention just on the act of writing that story rather than checking Facebook every 30 seconds and glancing at Tweetdeck at the same time? It's possible. Of course, my mind is attracted to these constant inputs, these constant stimuli.
But that's the whole game. The whole game is to not necessarily give in to those urges. Now, if the phone rings, am I going to pick it up? Yeah. I'm not advocating for some kind of hermetic lifestyle in an office. But I think the point remains that if we can actually focus on doing one thing at a time, I believe the outcomes and the results have an opportunity to be better than if we were constantly distracted.
Pinsker: There have been all sorts of programs over the years that companies have put in place because they think that it's the right thing to do at that time. Is there any sign that mindfulness will be a corporate fad of some kind, or are there signs that this really will have longevity in the American workplace?
Gelles: There's always the risk that these things become faddish. And one of the things that I call for in the book is a real focus on getting good teachers into the workplace. Because, absent good teachers, it's going to be all too easy for the meaning and the richness of these traditions to be diluted and distorted, and that can easily go south very quickly.
That said, I think there's real reason to believe that there's an enduring demand for this. And whether or not it's going to be called “mindfulness,” I don't think it's a fad that employees and employers are realizing that we have to take better care of our own minds and our own bodies and that, by doing so, we can actually create better companies and better outcomes. I think that that is a hopefully lasting shift in the way that many of the largest companies are thinking about how they have to do business.
Pinsker: In the book, you talk about the program at Green Mountain Coffee's packaging and distribution facilities. And you raise that as an example of how mindfulness can be applied to even blue-collar professions. So I was wondering, has this been evenly deployed in white-collar and blue-collar jobs? And is it promising for both in the same way?
Gelles: Let me answer the second part first. I think everyone who's interested in mindfulness could potentially benefit from it. I say "everyone who's interested in it" because I'm not here suggesting that absolutely everyone should be meditating. Who am I to say such a thing? But for those who have a curiosity, an appetite for it, I think whether they're a factory-floor worker or a C-suite executive, there's merit in at least giving it a shot and seeing if there's value for an individual.
As for whether or not the programs are evenly deployed, in my experience, the answer is probably no. This, for the most part, has probably skewed towards white-collar industries. But then again, our entire economy is skewing towards white-collar industries. We live in an information economy, so it's not, perhaps, surprising that Intel, Adobe, Google, with their enormous workforces, are some of the biggest proprietors and proponents of this.
Pinsker: You seem to be worried a bit, especially near the end of the book, that as mindfulness is implemented, people might come at it from an angle of workers being "cured of stress" after a single session when really it's supposed to be the launching pad for a long and constant process. What can be done, do you think, to prevent that sort of thing from happening?
Gelles: There are all sorts of potential pitfalls as this starts to ramp up in scale. One of them is ineffective teachers, whatever the medium, and another is this sense of over-promising and under-delivering. I think when people hear, "mindfulness reduces stress," all of a sudden they think they're going to be able to take one or two classes and jobs won't be stressful anymore. And that's just not the case, of course. Mindfulness can help us heal with our own reactions to negative events, either at the workplace or home, but they're not going to prevent bad things from happening in the first place.
Pinsker: You provide plenty of examples of how mindfulness has led to, or at least played a role in, creating socially responsible corporate behavior. But another argument that's running throughout the book seems to be that it's a good business decision. You save money on health costs, and you gain a lot in productivity, for example. Is there anything contradictory about harnessing the power of mindfulness, which is in part meant to diminish the importance of worldly pursuits, to improve the bottom line?
Gelles: We live in a capitalist economy, and mindfulness can't change that. I think what it can do, hopefully, is give individuals, influencers of organizations, and maybe even companies themselves the perspective that's needed to make decisions and changes, even, that are beneficial, not just to the bottom line but to our emotional, physical, and social well-being.
Now, doing that is going to be easier at a private company than it is going to be at a big, public company with tons of bureaucracy and public shareholders and analysts who all expect quarterly profits to increase in perpetuity. So that alone is a big, inherent challenge with where we are right now, which is that our current economy values profit and increased quarterly profits above all else. And I think that's an inherently flawed measure of success in the long term.
So, I don't think the two things are incompatible because I think it's about managing expectations. Nowhere have I heard, and I hope I didn't suggest, that mindfulness is somehow going to lead to the next utopia. It's not going to fix all our problems. But my hope is that it can help on the edges.
Pinsker: In the book, you mentioned in passing that Goldman Sachs has some sort of mindfulness program. Do you know what specifically their program consists of?
Gelles: They keep promising to bring me in and show it to me, but I haven't actually seen it yet. My understanding is that they do offer mindfulness meditation classes to some of their employees. One of their board members, Bill George, is one of the loudest advocates for mindfulness in the business world. He actually teaches a course in mindful leadership in Harvard Business School.
Pinsker: I don't want to single them out, but how do you reconcile a culture of mindfulness with a company like that, whose contributions to society are, shall we say, less than obvious? Is there a risk that a company could delude itself into thinking that it's doing good in the world by promoting mindfulness among its employees?
Gelles: I think it's easy to make the mistake of confusing a company with its employees. Only in a few instances in the book do I really try to say that mindfulness led a company to make decisions that stand in contrast to the way that they were behaving previously. The focus, I hope, is on the employees themselves. Mindfulness is most effective when individuals use it to take better care of themselves and treat their colleagues and other people they interact with in a more compassionate and accepting way.
This is where I really try to manage expectations, and I don't know that any company says, "We're practicing mindfulness, so look at us, we're suddenly an absolutely flawless corporate actor." I haven't seen people making that argument. But again, I think you asked the right question, which is, is there a risk that companies use it as evidence that they are taking good care of their employees, even while, in other cases, perhaps, they're not? But I think that's where people like you and me have to hold them accountable.