mindfulness at workOften touted as the equivalent of going to the gym for the mind, mindfulness is an emergent phenomenon that promises relief for busy professionals—asking them to slow down, stop, sit, relax, breathe, and find a moment to be in the present. Indeed, sitting silently is fast becoming the new hurrying. 

New Republic magazine dubbed 2014 the "Year of Mindfulness." Hot on its heels, an article in the Harvard Business Review noted that mindfulness is close to taking on cult status in the business world.

No doubt, it seems like all the cool kids have turned to the quiet side and are drinking the soothe aid: Google, Apple, IBM, Intel, McKinsey & Company, General Electric, General Mills, Nike, Sony, Ford, Target, IKEA, eBay, LinkedIn, and the U.S. Marines, to name a few. Replete with a long list of endorsements from celebrities and business leaders, just about every major publication and media outlet (ATD included) has commented on the trend, the coverage of which has been overwhelmingly positive. 

Then came 2015: the year of backlash. Among the concerned, Adam Grant wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times, "Can We End the Meditation Madness?"Emma Barnett called mindfulness "the saddest trend of 2015" in The Telegraph. Melanie McDonagh one-upped that charge by claiming mindfulness is "worse than just a smug middle-class trend" in The Spectator. David Brendel warned "There Are Risks to Mindfulness at Work" in the Harvard Business Review. 

Where do I stand amid all this commotion? Stupendously ignorant, for the most part. Although I have been aware of a disturbance in the force for several years now, the presence of mindfulness in business had really only registered on the outer periphery of my awareness. I don't meditate, and I don't have any opinion on the people who do. But the noise interests me. 

For me, three questions stand out: 

  1. What is mindfulness?
  2. What research has been done?
  3. Why should anyone in the business sector care?  

I quickly began to sift through academic papers and popular press reports. Here’s an overview of my findings. 

Definition and Origins 

The English words "mindfulness," "mindful," and "mindfully" have been in use for hundreds of years, but they were never explicitly connected to any type of meditation practice—until the late 19th century. "Mindfulness" was the noun selected for translation into English by the religious scholar Thomas Rhys Davids from the term "Sati" of the Pali language, which is the language used in the central texts of the Theravada branch of Buddhism. Sati is an essential concept in Buddhism, part of the seventh element of the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path ("right mindfulness"). 

According to Jeff Wilson, author of Mindful America (2014), there were three main forces that propelled the mindfulness movement into mainstream awareness, all emerging around the 1970s. The first was the vipassana meditation movement. The second was the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, author of more than 100 books on mindfulness, Buddhism, and peace, whom the Irish Times has described as the “father of mindfulness.” The third force was Jon Kabat-Zinn, who has played arguably the biggest role in establishing the scientific credibility of mindfulness in the West. 

Although Kabat-Zinn has studied with Buddhist teachers, including Thich Nhat Hanh, and he has drawn on a variety of meditation techniques from different Buddhist traditions, the medical professor is not a Buddhist, nor is his approach to mindfulness religious in nature. Kabat-Zinn, who has a PhD in molecular biology from MIT, became interested in the health benefits of mindfulness, which he sought to investigate and study through a scientific lens. Recognizing that people seemed to benefit psychologically and physically from extended time spent pinning their attention to the present, Kabat-Zinn went on to develop a popular mindfulness program that was dislocated from its religious roots. 

Kabat-Zinn founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Centre for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society. According to the centre’s website, the eight-week MBSR program has been attended by more than 22,000 people. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), also an eight-week course, is an adaption of the MBSR program, which has emerged as a popular therapeutic intervention to treat depression. (The MBSR and MBCT programs are important to keep in mind as a large amount of research on mindfulness revolves around these two programs.) 

Process 

Mindfulness practice typically involves the deliberate effort to stabilize attention on specific physical sensations and environmental stimuli, attempting to reestablish a lock with the present moment when (and not if) the mind begins to wander. This deep engagement with the here-and-now is combined with an attitude of acceptance and openness, enabling thoughts and emotions to come and go without cognitive evaluation. Focused attention on breathing while maintaining nonjudgmental awareness of thoughts and sensations is the most common activity used in mindfulness training. 

A distinction can be made between two main types of mindfulness practice: formal and informal. 

  • Informal practice involves cultivating awareness of the present during our everyday routines. This might include observing the surroundings on the bus ride to work, listening intently to people during conversation, or having awareness of the texture of food while chewing lunch. 
  • Formal meditation practice is the mental equivalent of going to the gym. This involves a sustained period of focused attention as part of a predetermined routine. Simple physical activities that can be performed almost anywhere—such as sitting, eating, or walking—are often selected, which can be undertaken in a solitary or group setting, indoors or outdoors, for a period as low as 10 minutes a day to two hours or longer. 

The MBSR program, for example, involves 2.5-hour group classes (typically the average size is 25-35 participants) held every week for eight weeks, plus daily home assignments and one all-day class. Perhaps the most well-known organizational equivalent of MBSR is Google's "Search Inside Yourself" mindfulness program. According to Business Insider, the program has been in effect at Google since 2007, and can be taken as either a 2.5-day intensive course or about 20 hours of classroom time spaced over seven weeks. 

Daniel Goleman, the Harvard-educated psychologist and science journalist who is best known for popularizing the concept of emotional intelligence, has identified four basic elements involved in mindfulness practice. Citing the work of Hasenkamp and Barsalou (2012), these are:  

  • you focus on one thing (say, your breath)
  • your mind wanders off
  • you notice it wandered
  • you shift attention back to that one thing again. 

The deliberate act of bringing one's attention back to the present after it wanders off can be thought of as “the basic rep in our mental gym, quite akin to lifting free weights,” says Goleman in a 2014 article for HuffPost Healthy Living.

Difference Between Mindfulness and Meditation 

Mindfulness is a form of meditation. “Meditation” is a term that broadly clusters together a wide range of practices under the one banner, which is convenient from a language perspective, but can lead to confusion when understanding particulars. It’s a little like having a friend tell you she's into “fitness.” Does this mean jogging, sprinting, hiking, free weights, cross fit, pilates, Zumba, boot camps, aerobics, or cage fighting? 

Meditators might seek to cultivate an emotional state such as love or compassion, develop a specific mode of thinking or mental state, relax the body, deal with negative experiences and reduce stress, or achieve a form of spiritual enlightenment, growth, insight and awakening. In terms of technique, though, mindfulness is much more specific. (Meditation = broad / mindfulness = specific.) That’s the first major difference. 

The second major difference has to do with what might be called “name baggage.” Meditation is often associated with religious or spiritual groups. Mindfulness is distinctly secular (at least, as it is known in the West). Because it is specific and secular, mindfulness has naturally been of greater appeal to the business and scientific communities than many other types of meditation practices.

Research Overview 

Just by glancing at the graph below, you can already begin to get a sense of the interest in mindfulness coming from the scientific community, with the number of publications gaining momentum around the start of the century, then exploding in size around 2010.

Winter Mindfulness Table

A large body of research on meditation has already been in existence for quite some time. The scientific studies and business reports that have been singled out below focus almost exclusively on mindfulness—rather than meditation more broadly. It should be noted that mindfulness research as it relates to business is only beginning to emerge. 

Title: There's No Price Tag on a Clear Mind: Intel to Launch Mindfulness Program
Publication: The Guardian (source)
Author: Kristine A. Wong
Date: April 2014

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Awake@Intel is a mindfulness program that Intel plans to make available to over 100,000 employees in 63 countries. To date, 1,500 employees have taken part, having completed 19 sessions. The results so far: “On average, participants responding to pre- and post- self-evaluation questionnaires report a 2-point decrease (on a 10-point scale) in experiencing stress and feeling overwhelmed, a 3-point increase in overall happiness and wellbeing, and a 2-point increase in having new ideas and insights, mental clarity, creativity, the ability to focus, the quality of relationships at work and the level of engagement in meetings, projects and collaboration efforts.”

Title: At Aetna, a C.E.O.’s Management by Mantra
Publication: The New York Times (source)
Author: David Gelles
Date: February 2015

At the American health insurer, Aetna, nearly 15,000 employees have participated in at least one yoga or meditation class “and those who have report, on average, a 28 percent reduction in their stress levels, a 20 percent improvement in sleep quality and a 19 percent reduction in pain. They also become more effective on the job, gaining an average of 62 minutes per week of productivity each, which Aetna estimates is worth $3,000 per employee per year.” Further to these benefits, in 2012 medical claims dropped by 7.3 percent, which amounted to a $9 million saving for the company.

Title: The Mind Business
Publication: The Financial Times (source)
Author: David Gelles
Date: August 2012

The multinational manufacturer, General Mills, has had over 500 employees attend their Mindful Leadership program, created by General Mills’ deputy general counsel, Janice Marturano. According to the company's self-report data: "After one of Marturano’s seven-week courses, 83 percent of participants said they were 'taking time each day to optimize my personal productivity' – up from 23 percent before the course. 82 percent said they now make time to eliminate tasks with limited productivity value – up from 32 percent before the course. And among senior executives who took the course, 80 percent reported a positive change in their ability to make better decisions, while 89 percent said they became better listeners."

Title: Why Mindfulness Works Wonders
Publication: L&D Professional (source)
Author: John Hilton
Date: February 2016

Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF), a global law firm with around 5,000 employees, was the first company to launch a mindfulness program in the Australian legal industry. Approximately 200 employees have gone through the 6-week HSF mindfulness program in the last 14 months. Some of the results from the 6-week program include: "a 12 percent increase in employee focus; a 10 percent increase in employee performance; a 10 percent increase in employee efficiency; a 17 percent increase in employee work/life balance; an 11 percent increase in employee communication skills; a 14 percent decrease in employee multitasking."

Title: The Effects of Mindfulness Meditation Training on Multitasking in a High-Stress Information Environment
Publication: Human Relations (source)
Author: Levy, Wobbrock, Kaszniak, and Ostergren
Date: 2012

“Three groups each of 12-15 human resources personnel were tested: 1) those who underwent an eight-week training course on mindfulness-based meditation, 2) those who endured a wait period, were tested, and then underwent the same eight-week training, and 3) those who had eight weeks of training in body relaxation. We found that only those trained in meditation stayed on tasks longer and made fewer task switches, as well as reporting less negative emotion after task performance, as compared with the other two groups. In addition, both the meditation and the relaxation groups showed improved memory for the tasks they performed.”

Title: Mindfulness Training Improves Working Memory Capacity and GRE Performance While Reducing Mind Wandering
Publication: Psychological Science (source)
Author: Mrazek, Franklin, Phillips, Baird, and Schooler
Date: March 2013

“In a randomized controlled investigation, we examined whether a two-week mindfulness-training course would decrease mind wandering and improve cognitive performance. Mindfulness training improved both GRE reading-comprehension scores and working memory capacity while simultaneously reducing the occurrence of distracting thoughts during completion of the GRE and the measure of working memory… Our results suggest that cultivating mindfulness is an effective and efficient technique for improving cognitive function, with wide-reaching consequences.”

Title: Mindfulness Goes to Work: Impact of an Online Workplace Intervention
Publication: Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine (source)
Author: Aikens, Astin, Pelletier, Levanovich, Baase, Park, and Bodnar
Date: July 2014

Eighty-nine (89) participants from the Dow Chemical Company were selected and randomly assigned to an online mindfulness intervention (n = 44) or wait-list control (n = 45). The results of the intervention found “the group had significant decreases in perceived stress as well as increased mindfulness, resiliency, and vigor. This online mindfulness intervention seems to be both practical and effective in decreasing employee stress, while improving resiliency, vigor, and work engagement, thereby enhancing overall employee well-being.” 

Title: Examining Workplace Mindfulness and Its Relations to Job Performance and Turnover Intention
Publication: Human Relations (source)
Author: Dane and Drummel
Date: January 2014

“In recent years, research on mindfulness has burgeoned across several lines of scholarship. Nevertheless, very little empirical research has investigated mindfulness from a workplace perspective… Testing these claims in a dynamic service industry context, we find support for a positive relationship between workplace mindfulness and job performance that holds even when accounting for all three work engagement dimensions.”

Title: Examining the Protective Effects of Mindfulness Training on Working Memory Capacity and Affective Experience
Publication: Emotion (source)
Author: Jha and Stanley
Date: 2010

The effects of mindfulness training on working memory capacity in high stress environments were investigated in relation to a military unit (n = 31). Two control groups were included: one military (n = 17) and one civilian (n = 12). Within the military unit, working memory increased in proportion to the amount of mindfulness practice, while the civilian control group remained stable and the military control group showed decreased capacity. The authors concluded that "working memory capacity may be bolstered by mindfulness training" and the training may also "protect against functional impairments associated with high-stress contexts." The study was the first to empirically examine the protective effects of mindfulness training within the context of pre-deployment military.

Title: Mindfulness-Based Interventions in Schools—A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis
Publication: Frontiers in Psychology (source)
Author: Zenner, Herrnleben-Kurz, and Walach
Date: June 2014

"We systematically reviewed the evidence regarding the effects of school-based mindfulness interventions on psychological outcomes, using a comprehensive search strategy designed to locate both published and unpublished studies... In total, 1348 students were instructed in mindfulness, with 876 serving as controls, ranging from grade 1 to 12... All in all, mindfulness-based interventions in children and youths hold promise, particularly in relation to improving cognitive performance and resilience to stress."

Title: Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain
Publication: Harvard Business Review (source)
Author: Congleton, Hölzel, and Lazar
Date: January 2015

“This year [2015], a team of scientists from the University of British Columbia and the Chemnitz University of Technology were able to pool data from more than 20 studies to determine which areas of the brain are consistently affected [by mindfulness training]. They identified at least 8 different regions… Neuroscientists have also shown that practicing mindfulness affects brain areas related to perception, body awareness, pain tolerance, emotion regulation, introspection, complex thinking, and sense of self. While more research is needed to document these changes over time and to understand underlying mechanisms, the converging evidence is compelling.”