David Gelles presents mindfulness as tool to combat stress and raise productivity

Book sketches the need for employers to focus on worker wellbeing

Tue, Mar 24, 2015, 01:00


Book Title:
Mindful work, how meditation is changing business from the outside in


David Gelles

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The fact that mindfulness programmes are now one the most attended sessions in at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos is a sure sign that the idea has become truly mainstream for business.

Once the preserve of hippy, New Age types, mindfulness is now increasingly accepted as a powerful tool for reducing stress and creating, happier, more focused and productive employees. This book charts the rise of this phenomenon in the corporate world.

David Gelles, a business journalist who admits he was somewhat timid in approaching the Financial Times a number of years ago about writing an article about mindfulness in business, recalls the reaction to his piece, which made the cover story of the paper’s weekend magazine, was overwhelming.

Harvard Business Review, he notes, got a similar reaction when it wrote about the subject. Why? Perceived stress levels are increasing for starters. Statistics quoted here from the American Psychological Association suggest that 69 per cent of employees report work to be a significant source of stress and 41 per cent say they believe this reduces their productivity. It’s a growing problem too.

Carnegie Mellon research suggests that, over the past 30 years, stress levels have increased by 25 per cent for men and 18 per cent for women in the United States. Perhaps less easily measured, there’s a perceptible movement, nonetheless, towards greater enlightenment in the workplace and concern for values other than financial, a reaction perhaps to the fallout of the 2008 economic and financial crisis. The increasing influence of Californian culture, a hotbed for corporate wellness thinking, is also significant. Silicon Valley has long embraced mindfulness, with poster figures for the movement including Apple’s Steve Jobs.

Mindfulness has many beneficial qualities, including reduced stress, more focus and compassion. It works on our stress by helping us understand what we can and cannot change. It reveals just how often our minds are passing judgments that are making us unhappy.

How we feel is not so much about what is happening but the emotions we experience as a reaction to those events.

Each time we notice that we are lost in thought, we put a little distance between the voices in our heads and any notion that what we are experiencing is the only version of the truth. Gelles is an enthusiast as well as an observer of this trend. He bolts on some potted mindfulness techniques at the end of the book as well as a listing of resources including centres where mindfulness can be studied.

Stress is literally a killer, he says. He recalls attending an exclusive mind-body conference at a posh SoHo loft owned by Arianna Huffington.

There, celebrity doctor Mark Hyman explained to Katie Couric just how bad stress was. “If you really knew what was happening to you when you are stressed, you would freak out. It’s not pretty,” he told a room full of stressed New Yorkers.

After detailing its horrific effects and being told by Couric to “please stop!”, he warned them stress seeks you out and tends to find you. Mindfulness, however, involves work. It’s becoming harder work too, with the all-pervasiveness of technology not helping. Multitasking simply doesn’t work. Being in the present while constantly enslaved to updates from our digital devices is a state that doesn’t serve us well. A wandering mind is an unhappy mind, the science tells us.

Not everyone is happy with big businesses embracing mindfulness, however. One of the more interesting chapters in the book looks at the backlash by purists against what it sees as “McMindfulness”.

This has even taken the form of protests by dreadlocked traditionalists in San Francisco against Google at a corporate sponsored wellness programme. A YouTube video of the incident, featuring a tussle between a black-clad bouncer and a pixieish activist at a meditation conference, went viral, the irony presumably not lost on viewers.