Less stress and more focus. Better health and more productivity. What employer - or employee for that matter - doesn't want that? The way many American companies are achieving those things these days might surprise you though, as meditation and mindfulness has made its way from the monastery to the mainstream.
"Over the past few years, mindfulness has begun to transform the American workplace," begins the foreword to Mindful Work: How Meditation Is Changing Business from the Inside Out, a new book by business writer and New York Times reporter David Gelles. "Many of our largest companies, such as General Mills, Ford, Target, and Google, have built extensive programs to foster mindful practices among their workers. Mindful Work is the first book to explain how all sorts of businesses and any kind of worker can benefit from meditation, yoga, and other mindful techniques."
Where The Journey Begins
Fifteen years ago, Gelles traveled to India and learned how to meditate. After spending nearly a year living in monasteries and going on silent retreats, he returned to college and eventually became a business journalist.
"But even as I wrote about Wall Street for the Financial Times and the New York Times, meditation remained an important part of my life," recounted Gelles in a recent interview with Staffing Talk. "Then a few years ago, I started to hear stories about office workers meditating on the job. I was curious, and even a bit skeptical about whether office workers could really be mindful as the monks I knew in India? Soon it was clear that the answer was yes and I wanted to detail how mindfulness works in and for the companies that adopt it, revealing the profound impact mindfulness can have on the world of work."
It's estimated that around 20 million American people meditate, or almost one in 10. That's not necessarily a mass movement, but as cover stories in TIME, the Scientific American and dozens of other media outlets indicate, the mindfulness movement is definitely visible on the national radar.
In the book Gelles states that mindfulness lowers stress, increases mental focus, and alleviates depression among workers. He also offers real-world examples of how mindfulness has benefited companies that have adopted it; from the millions of dollars Aetna has saved in health-care costs to the ways Patagonia has combined leadership with mindfulness.
There is research to back up those claims of health benefits. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, a division of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, suggests that practicing meditation may reduce blood pressure, symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety and depression, insomnia, and the incidence, duration, and severity of acute respiratory illnesses (such as influenza).
Results of studies also suggest "that people who practiced meditation for many years have more folds in the outer layer of the brain. This process (called gyrification) may increase the brain’s ability to process information....And a review of three clinical studies suggests that meditation may slow, stall, or even reverse changes that take place in the brain due to normal aging."
Overall, about a third of U.S. health care consumers reported using complementary therapies such as yoga, herbal products, acupuncture, meditation, massage and chiropractic care according to a federal survey released in February.
The findings came as no surprise to officials at Allina Health in Minneapolis, after incorporating “integrative therapy” at all of its hospitals and clinics.
“I have tons of data to show therapeutic benefit,” said Dr. Courtney Baechler, a cardiologist and director of the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing in Minneapolis, to the Minneapolis StarTribune.
Some scientists however have reportedly argued that much of this research has been poorly designed, according to this piece in the Scientific American with the title "Is Meditation Overrated?"
To address this issue, some Johns Hopkins University researchers "carefully reviewed published clinical trials and found that although meditation seems to provide modest relief for anxiety, depression and pain, more high-quality work is needed before the effect of meditation on other ailments can be judged."
Everyone Can Be Mindful At Work
Research and hard data aside, Galles says from his own personal experience he knows that mindfulness and meditation can help make offices and factory floors around the world a bit more humane, a bit gentler, a bit more kind. And he says anyone can do it, and everyone can benefit.
"Meditation isn't just for white-collar executives or eccentric tech companies in Silicon Valley," Gelles told me. "It’s something that can be valuable from the boardroom to the factory floor, in multinationals and small businesses alike. Finding time to practice mindfulness at work isn't easy—as with any new discipline, it takes dedication and practice. But for those who commit to becoming more mindful at work, the benefits can be profound—less stress and more focus are just some of the regular benefits I achieve with a meditation practice, and others can as well. The growing mainstream acceptance of meditation and mindfulness amazes me and I expect it to continue."