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E27: Academia's Fears About Mindfulness Breaking Down Capitalism

Sarah Vallely

Hey, did you know that they are teaching mindfulness at work? They're teaching mindfulness in hospitals, in MBA programs, and high tech firms and investment banks. In the military. All these different organizations are teaching mindfulness. Here are some of the positive outcomes that these organizations are gaining because they're teaching mindfulness to their employees, better attention and concentration, improved coordination, (which is probably important for jobs that involve, doing something physical), improved safety, increased creativity, being more adaptable, emotionally resilient, lower stress, and less sick leave, (people are taking less sick leave after participating in these programs).


Addressing Unintended Ethical Challenges of Workplace Mindfulness: A Four-Stage Mindfulness Development Model; Journal of Business Ethics; 2017



I wanted to start out by talking about this 17 Page journal article that I read that was published in a prominent journal called Journal of Business and Ethics. In this lengthy article, the author's outlined all the reasons why you shouldn't teach mindfulness in the workplace. I mean, they're pretty fascinating. I can't wait to hear your opinion. So one is that keeping busy keeps people from experiencing depression. And so the concern is that depression could be triggered when mindfulness practices interrupt their busy routine.


Jacob Derossett

I'm gonna hold my opinion.


Sarah Vallely

And then on top of that, employees might not feel as driven if they learn mindfulness, basically, does this mean that corporations want to keep their employees’ depression suppressed so they work better? Is that what's going on in America?


Jacob Derossett

I wonder if it's based around the fact that it's going to cost money, I don't know, it could be a genuine concern. So you want people to be more busy, so they're less depressed, even though the research on utilizing mindfulness to decrease depression is pretty outstanding. So it sounds like somebody doesn't know what this is all about?


I do remember when we read the book for our group “10% Happier”, which is an incredible book, it's actually one of my favorite mindfulness books, because I connected so deeply with what Dan Harris was saying. But he mentioned that he actually did experience being less driven. You may experience somewhere along your path of deepening your practice, a period of reduction in drive, because you're getting into and starting to understand acceptance and emptiness.


So there are always going to be these little bumps along the road. If you exercise, and you go into an exercise routine, and then your back is a bit stiff? Well, the benefits of exercise are just monumental, versus like a little bit of back stiffness. It's kind of like saying, well, we don't want our employees to exercise, because they could experience some back stiffness, and it may decrease acutely. So these all sound like very acute issues, not chronic issues.


Sarah Vallely

I read that book, too. I completely agree. I remember when he was concerned “am I going to be less driven in my role on TV”, but he found the sweet spot and was able to make that work. So yeah, good point. Okay, let's go on to the next one. They're concerned that learning mindfulness at work might make people think more deeply about the meaning of their job, or think more deeply about the meaning of their own life, which might lead to anxiety.


Jacob Derossett

So they're worried about the amount of introspection that someone may have?


Sarah Vallely

Exactly. Yeah. I don't think Jon Kabat Zinn is going into Coca Cola and telling everybody you're going to die. So nothing really matters. All we have is the present moment. Is that happening? Should we Google it? Are people like Jon Kabat Zinn going into corporations and saying things like this? I don't think so. They make it sound like people are coming into corporations and teaching them Buddhism. These are real Buddhist ideas--who am I?, what is the self?


On a Buddhist retreat, they will say things like, we're all going to die. So basically, don't hurry. If you're hurrying, all you're doing is hurrying up to die. On a Buddhist retreat, you could have a little bit of an existential crisis. But this is not the type of mindfulness they're teaching in corporations. As far as I know. This is one of the reasons why there is a type of mindfulness that's completely separate from Buddhism.


Another concern that the authors of this article have , employees need to constantly plan for the future, especially managers. So teaching them to let go of this idea of past and future could conflict with this. So what they're referring to here is that concept of impermanence. Suffering is caused by our inability to understand that everything is in constant flux, things are being born, they're dying. So letting go of this past and future helps us with this idea of impermanence.


Jacob Derossett

But bringing somebody's awareness to the fact that everything is impermanent, would somehow like negate their ability to plan for the future?


Sarah Vallely

Yeah, that's the thing. I think that if anything, the practice helps you still your mind so you can make better decisions. You're making a decision from a clearer, place from a less stressful place. You have more mental energy to come up with good solutions. So I don't see this as a problem.


Jacob Derossett

I have a hard time seeing the connection there. To being aware of impermanence and having a difficult time planning for the future? You still have to plan your job. I don't know about that one.


Sarah Vallely

I remember I was on a retreat once years ago, and I was struggling with this concept--We have to let go of the past, we got to let go of the future and stay in the present. But I got shit to plan like, I have a life. And so I did talk to the teacher one-on-one about this. And that's when he explained to me about right action, right thought and right speech. When you practice mindfulness, you naturally start to live this life where you're living out better actions, better speech, better thoughts.


Jacob Derossett

Yeah, for me, I always think of what Jack Kornfield always says, “You have to remember your Buddha nature and your social security number.”, You have both and they're not exclusive. So if you're working for Coca Cola, and you're a bottling person, it's your duty to be the best at that, that you can be. And you can do that and change people's lives. But that doesn't mean that you don't remember your grocery list, you have to also do that.


Sarah Vallely

I like to remind my students that it's not as important what we're doing but how we're doing it. Another concern that these authors have is, if employees reduce their stress, they might achieve a state of emptiness, which might be “ethically awkward”. First of all, the Buddhist concept of emptiness refers to empty of perceptions, empty of judgments. It's not emptiness that a lot of us associate with depression.


As far as “ethically awkward”--These authors give an example of how this could be ethically awkward if you work for an advertising agency that, “promotes consumption by manipulating customers to make destructive social comparisons and so teaching them mindfulness could be ethically awkward.


Jacob Derossett

Well, it sounds like if you are doing something that is non ethical and then you become aware of it, it will be awkward because you’re trying to choose a path of being ethical. Yeah, that's awkward.


Sarah Vallely

Let the employees not be aware of the unethical messages they are creating for the world. Let's not let them become more ethical, so they don't feel awkward at work. It's just so crazy to me.


Jacob Derossett

Yeah, it sounds like in the 60s when they didn't want everybody to do acid because they're going to become too hyper-aware of how messed up the government was. They're going use cannabis and LSD and peyote and then they're going to be hyper-aware of how messed up everything is. Michael Pollan writes this book about how to change your mind and why psychedelics weave new pathways into your brain, and they literally clean your slate and help you to experience things from a different perspective. And because of that, it by nature helps you to change your mind.


Sarah Vallely

I completely agree this is very similar to that experience in the 60s, same type of ideas. But at the same time, I don't think people are going to have a huge awakening from a professional development on mindfulness at work. It'd be nice, I suppose. But I think it's just going to reduce some of their stress. These authors admit that they are Buddhist. So that's another twist here.


Jacob Derossett

Maybe they're trying to candidly explain the situation for these corporations. For example, if you're in a meeting, and you're talking about why we need another kingsize candy bar, and “oh, we need to put the candy bars up by the register to incentivize people to make an impulse buy”. Then somebody raises their hand, “Do we want people buying more candy bars? Is that is that the right thing to do?” This is a bit awkward. Yeah, stop meditating. Ha!


Sarah Vallely

Maybe it happens. Maybe I'm completely wrong on this. Maybe these questions are coming up in corporations without mindfulness being brought into the picture. Another concern that the authors have, (this is my favorite one)… employees might develop insight, empathy, and egolessness. And then they might reject the “values or low ethical standards of their organization, or indeed, capitalism.”


Jacob Derossett

I'm realizing that this paper is written ironically. I couldn't see the corporation writing that and saying, “Oh, they might be aware,” you know what I mean?


Sarah Vallely

No, I'm totally with you. I was laughing at multiple points during this 17 Page journal article. And I got to the point, where I thought is this a joke? Did these Buddhists come together, write this as a joke and get it published in this prominent journal?


Jacob Derossett

I think so. Yeah. It sounds like sarcasm, the more. That's definitely I think that's what's going on.


Sarah Vallely

Yeah, it's hilarious. The authors spend the rest of the article detailing the process for teaching mindfulness to your employees and what to watch out for at each step. They even point out the step step that the employees might attain enlightenment. You go on a Buddhist retreat, and there's such a small percentage of people that are going to hit enlightenment. Do you really think that at a professional development in a corporate setting, you're going to become enlightened?


Jacob Derossett

Some of the old Zen stories share that people are sweeping, and then a rock hits a stalk of bamboo, and they come to enlightenment. So in modern times, someone's going to park their car one day, and they hit the alarm button on accident on their car when they're trying to lock it and that's going to spontaneously cause and enlightenment. And then then you'll have a revolt because everyone's going to leave at the hands of this new employee that knows too much about the business. And then it's going to be a mutiny. And yeah, I could see that. Ha!


Sarah Vallely

I think this would be great movie. One of the last quotes in this article is, it's like their last warning, “On a larger scale, if such growth occurs, (referring to becoming enlightened or becoming more empathetic) across the national workforce, a serious value misalignment would occur, dividing organizations from the workforce.” Ha!


Here are some studies that show that mindfulness is not breaking down capitalism. It's not causing managers to stop planning. It's not causing existential crisis among the workforce, and it's not causing depression. One was published in the Journal of Management and Organizations and their goal was to help their workers become more resilient, specifically to bounce back from negative emotional experience. And to become more adaptable to the changing demands of the stressful experiences in their job. And overall to help the workers develop better coping skills, and be able to respond more appropriately in stressful situations.


Be well: A systems-based wellness intervention using mindfulness in the workplace – A case study; Journal of management and organizations. 2017

So I think that's admirable of the organization to want to do this for their employees, the employees went through an 18-month program. Some of the modules were half day trainings, some were shorter. It was a settlement services company, which is titles, closing escrows. They were taught stress management, healthy eating. They were also encouraged to participate in an exercise program. So it was overall wellness. But there was a big mindfulness piece.


The mindfulness piece included, noticing when the mind wanders, bringing your attention back and starting over again when you lose your focus, focusing on breathing, body scans, loving kindness, meditation, observing your thoughts. So a lot of the key elements to mindfulness practice. Here are the results of this study. The sick leave went down by 93%. They essentially eliminated sick leave.


Jacob Derossett

That's insane. So okay, real quick, because I love the details of how they conduct it. How often were they going to classes on mindfulness? Or were they practicing on their own?


Sarah Vallely

I'm guessing they were in some type of training minimal once a month, over the 18 months, maybe, in some cases twice a month. That's my guess.


Jacob Derossett

That's fascinating, though. I wonder why specifically sick leave was so affected.


Sarah Vallely

This is one of the reasons they believe sick leave was reduced--mental illness has been identified as the leading cause of taking sick leave and work disability. I've never heard this before. Do you think this is true?


Jacob Derossett

I mean, I guess I've never heard that though. Yeah, that's really sad to hear. But it's great to hear that they had found a remedy.


Sarah Vallely

And the workers reported that the benefits that they thought were the most impactful from this program were, (1) they were sleeping better, (2) they were eating better, and (3) they were handling their emotions better. Pretty amazing.


Another study published in a journal called Health and Social Work, these employees were social workers that worked in a hospital. And they participated in two full-day trainings on mindfulness, they were taught, mindful sitting, mindful, walking, mindful movement, body scans, and they were also encouraged to meditate at home.


Preliminary Investigation of Workplace-Provided Compressed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction with Pediatric Medical Social Workers Health and Social Work. 2017

They gave them an assessment before the training, and then six weeks after the training on various things, such as secondary post-traumatic stress, perceived stress, attention and awareness and some other things. So their secondary post-traumatic stress decreased by 17%. Having post-traumatic stress is having PTSD symptoms as a result of being around people who have PTSD. 17% isn't huge, but I think that is pretty incredible, considering they only participated in two days of training. And their perceived stress decreased by 18%. And their attention and awareness increased by 17%.


Jacob Derossett

Were they even guided?


Sarah Vallely

Yeah, during the two-day training, they were guided during some meditations and taught the practice.


Jacob Derossett

those good solid results. I mean, you know, over that period of time,


Sarah Vallely

And in this other study, they didn't teach them mindfulness. This is one of those studies where they assess someone's natural ability to be mindful and then compare it to other factors. They found that people who were more naturally mindful, had higher satisfaction with their positions at work. And they had less desire to leave their organization than those who were not naturally mindful.


Will They Stay or Leave? Interplay of Organizational Learning Culture and Workplace Mindfulness on Job Satisfaction and Turnover Intentions; Public personal Management. 2022


Jacob Derossett

Mindfulness is exploding, but really, I'd say relatively small portion of the population utilizes it. So having extrinsic motivation at work, someone telling you to meditate at a certain time every day, you're more likely to do it and then you're going to get better results. I really hope more companies take this on.


Sarah Vallely

I have several clients who struggle with work stress, and some of the biggest wins that I have with my clients are helping them not be so mentally drained. Mindfulness is a great way to conserve mental energy. I tell my clients our mental energy is finite, it's limited. We go about it as if we have an unlimited amount of mental energy, but we actually don't. And so when they start using mindfulness exercises to take a break from this really intense mental processing in the middle of their work day, that's really helpful. It helps them feel more energized and more clear and more able to do a good job at work and not feel stressed out.


And then the other big win is if we're not mindful of our needs, and what we can take on, then we will overcommit. My clients use mindfulness to check in with themselves to notice “Am I committing to too much here that's going to lead to stress and burnout?” Making those two changes has made a world of difference with my clients.

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