Chances are that you’ll be interrupted before you finish reading this story, especially if you’re at work. It might be a phone call or a text message, a tweet or an e-mail. It might even be a real, live co-worker tugging at your sleeve. (Has it happened already? It’s OK. I’ll wait.) Studies suggest the average worker is interrupted once every 11 minutes; it takes on average about 25 minutes for that worker to get back on task. It’s just one of the everyday strains on the modern worker, and just one reason why some companies are incorporating meditation practices into the workplace, in a bid to preserve their employees’ productivity, never mind their mental health.
Increasingly applied in western psychology, the practice of mindfulness comes out of the Buddhist tradition of meditation, and is championed by a growing number of celebrities, athletes and executives. A report funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research defines mindfulness as “a kind of nonelabrative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional eld is acknowledged and accepted as it is.”
If that sounds far out, its proponents insist it produces very tangible workplace benefits. “When we’re mindful, we’re able to work from a presence of mind that enables us to be effective and efficient,” says Maria Gonzalez, co-author of the new book The Mindful Investor. Her Toronto-based Argonauta Consulting trains executives in mindfulness techniques. She says the practice creates a greater calm, helping workers better manage stress (and with U.S. companies losing an estimated $200 billion annually on stress-related workforce issues like absenteeism and subpar performance, that can make a big difference to the bottom line). What’s more, it improves workers’ ability to concentrate and focus. “The workplace benefits are enormous,” says Gonzalez, whose clients include BMO Financial Group, Ontario’s Hydro One and the Conference Board of Canada. “There’s personal resilience, and the ability to sustain performance. You’re able to prioritize better, your time management is better. You have an enhanced ability to undestand client needs. You’re also much more creative, and come up with better solutions.”
The highest-profile example of a company investing in workplace mindfulness remains Google. One of the search giants’ original employees, a software engineer named Chade-Meng Tan, has invested a portion of the loot he garnered from Google’s IPO to research the scientific basis of meditation’s benefits. “The short story was, I wanted to create the conditions for world peace in my lifetime,” Tan says of his efforts. In 2007, he created the Search Inside Yourself program under the sponsorship of Google University, the company’s in-house employee education apparatus. That program, which Tan estimates has served as many as 500 Googlers, led to his current role as Google’s head of personal growth.
Search Inside Yourself focused on developing workers’ emotional intelligence, and educating them about the scientific underpinnings of material that can seem a touch New Agey. It incorporated instruction on mindful breathing and listening techniques that would offer personal benefits for its students, but with an eye on improving the company’s bottom line.
“We do not just teach empathyand compassion practices,” says Tan, “we also relate them to the skillful exercise of team leadership and also use those practices as a foundation for developing business-relevant skills like conducting difficult conversations and developing trust in teams. The idea is to make the business and employees far more effective (and hopefully, more profitable) by developing emotional intelligence company-wide. ‘Spiritual wellness’ and happiness are just the unavoidable side-effects.”
Google has since created meditation spaces around its campuses, and employees have organized classes. Of course, most of the business world still needs convincing of the merits of mindfulness, but Tan is optimistic it will gain traction. He cites the example of HP, which years ago was considered an oddball company for its notion that treating employees very well could increase profitability. “Today, it’s taken for granted by everyone, at least in Silicon Valley,” Tan says. “Similarly, one day, there will be a company that will demonstrate that having employees practise deep mindfulness and compassion is very good for business, and eventually, it will be taken for granted everywhere. I hope that company is Google.”