Why mindfulness won’t be allowed to cut it in the workplace

Japanese kanji symbol for ‘Mindfulness’

Some years ago, before Twitter became a ‘thing’, Gary Vaynerchuk, the entrepreneur, investor, author, public speaker, and internet personality, predicted that once the marketing folk got ‘hold’ of the platform, they would ruin it. Well, it has certainly changed, with more pushing of personal and organisational agendas rather than conversation and healthy debate.

And so to this whole ‘mindfulness’ business, which seems to have been hijacked on a vast scale from Google to Harvard academics. In some cases it has been redacted so much that the ‘dosage’ makes homeopathy seem like a potent medicine.

But let’s take a closer look.

There is some dispute about the word itself. Mindfulness, or the Japanese word nen is represented above by Japanese kanji. Here we have two key elements to this image. Sitting like a roof peak or a mountain is the top character which means, now, today, this present moment. Beneath the peak is shin which is translated to heart and/or mind.

The concepts of “mind” and “heart” (not as in the organ in the chest but the more conceptual meaning) are usually considered to be the same thing in Japanese. The combination of these characters suggests this possible interpretation: heart and mind brought together into this very moment; full awareness with heart.

Some, who have studied the original Pali word sati in detail would strongly argue that the English translation to ‘mindfulness’ is far from accurate. A closer definition might be ‘to bear in mind’ (in the present moment, just as things are). Here we can see we are dealing with something of depth, a concept, a deep down essence of truly being rather than a one-word label.

However, the mindfulness industry have managed to distill it down for us into three main areas of ‘understanding’:

  1. Something to do with Buddhists. It’s good for you but we don’t really know anything else about it. It might involve sitting cross-legged.
  2. ‘Branded’ commercial meditation products ‘created’ and endorsed by academics such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP)
  3. Sort of like, making your mind a blank, like sitting around saying a mantra and humming. Just chilling.

Any of the above is the equivalent of reading a healthy, balanced menu and expecting to be nourished without eating any of the food.

A recent research paper, ‘The Potential for Mindfulness-Based Intervention in Workplace Mental Health Promotion’, found that although as a workplace health promotion program, the Mindfulness Based Intervention (MBI) seemed to have potential in improving mental illness risks for employees with poor mental health, there was insufficient evidence to support its effect on mitigating job strain. It went on to say that other MBI approaches should be investigated to decrease job strain. This paper provides us with a clue to what is going on.

Trying to apply ‘mindfulness’ like a band-aid is not the answer to anything much. We may want and demand quick fixes but we do need to understand that however we describe this thing currently known as mindfulness, it needs to become a way of life, a change in our habits, a softening of our hearts. To have a profound long-lasting effect in our organisations we have to rethink and re-engineer the very foundations on which these job-strained cultures sit.

Within these sanitised versions of ‘being more aware’ little attention is given to the hard yards that are required to deliver a more compassionate approach to ourselves and to others. First of all we must want to do this work; for it is work and one has to apply oneself with dedication. Secondly, we will probably have to face up to less pleasant sides of us that have been buried away for many years, but that need to be taken out, dusted off, examined and dealt with. Being truly mindful is as much hard work as it is refreshing and life rejuvenating. It is not for the faint hearted.

I support anything that causes us to stop and question some of our less than gracious behaviours, even if for only a sanitised modern moment. I hope that some individuals will have their curiosity peaked at this and will decide, for themselves, to follow and explore a more peaceful life. Until then we do have another pronouncement from Gary Vaynerchuk to consider:

“This will be a fun space to follow — Meditation… The Next Big Business Wave.”

Unlike Twitter’s future, which at the time of writing, is highly uncertain as no one quite knows what to do with it, this whole mindful thing has been around thousands of years and is understood by many. When the quick-fix merchants have up sticks and left town for the ‘next big thing’ — there will be more than enough people taking to ‘the cushion’ to help live a useful life in an uncertain world. Just as it ever was.