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Antidote to the overload

Simple, speedy and free, mindfulness meditation is one of the hottest trends in business. 

Photo/Getty Images

When 2500 billionaire philanthropists, mega-brand CEOs and world leaders got together at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, the buzz wasn’t all cyber-terrorism, EU-bailouts and the future of Ukraine. At least one session revelled in lengthy, soothing silences with the occasional ting of a chime. A jam-packed crowd of 100 power-players met for a panel called Leading Mindfully, to meditate and discuss why a 2500-year-old practice is good for business. The gathering was led by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the molecular biologist turned father of mindfulness meditation in the West, alongside Arianna Huffington of the eponymous Post and a board member of Goldman Sachs, among others. If we had any doubts, the Davos meeting nixed them: mindfulness is indisputably one of the hottest trends in business.

While you might expect hippy-founded tech businesses of Silicon Valley – think Apple – would fall for an ancient Buddhist practice promising increased focus and well-being, the range of companies and industries using mindfulness in the workplace is expanding. In the US, thousands of staff at one giant insurance company have taken up the opportunity; Wall Street bankers meditate before high-pressure meetings; fashion designer Eileen Fisher runs meetings in circles with optional om-ing; legal firms offer yoga and meditation spaces. In the hugely lucrative world of professional basketball, Phil Jackson used mindfulness meditation to help coach the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers to a combined 11 NBA championships.

In the UK, an all-party parliamentary group was set up to investigate using mindfulness practice in schools, the health service, prisons and Parliament itself. The broadly favourable interim report was released in January to a packed room of media and parliamentarians; it began with a 10-minute guided meditation and included a young Conservative MP relating how mindfulness helped her deal with depression. The Bank of England offers taster meditation sessions; BP has a meditation room; Rob Symes, chief executive of the Outside View, a London-based digital analytics business, uses mindfulness as part of his company’s “health, wealth and happiness programme”, believing that meditation “can improve business decisions and avoid expensive mistakes”.

What exactly is it that makes so many big organisations willing to invest their time and money? At its simplest, mindfulness asks that you sit quietly, focused on the present, grounded in your body, taking note of your senses as you breathe. If you’re distracted with thoughts and feelings, as you will be, you shouldn’t be disheartened, but return to being conscious of the breath. Do this for as little as 10 minutes, preferably daily, and you will have started to build your own mindfulness practice.

Many people use apps or guided meditations to help them focus. Headspace is one company producing simple meditation guides that are being used by more than a million people in 150 countries. The company, co-founded by former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe, has worked with more than 100 businesses, including Credit Suisse and KPMG. Puddicombe told Business Reporter: “The requests from these companies vary. Sometimes it’s for focus, sometimes productivity. Increasingly we’re seeing a trend that employers are genuinely interested in the health and well-being of their employees.”

Ariana Huffington. Photo/Getty Images


Meditation devotees say it brings them benefits such as sharpening the mind and a greater sense of compassion for themselves and others. But shrouded in Buddhist philosophy, it was unlikely to make a huge impact in the West. In the 60s, hippies adopted the practice, but it wasn’t until 1979 when Kabat-Zinn started his eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stressed Reduction (MBSR) course at the University of Massachusetts that it started to have an impact – though it took more than 10 years and a network TV special for it to really catch on. Now more than 720 clinics around the world teach MBSR. In addition, many people have had success with Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), a form of MBSR that deals with depression, linking thinking and its resulting influence on feelings.

The effects of this simple technique are now being studied by neuroscientists, doctors and psychologists all over the world. Although some of their results may be more robust than others, there is no doubt that they are seeing brain changes. Using fMRI scans to compare the brains of meditators with non-meditators, researchers have found that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the organ that deals with judgment, decision-making and planning, is more active in those who meditate. In another study, meditation increased grey matter in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation and perspective-taking.

There is also evidence that as little as eight weeks of meditation can reduce the physical and mental effects of stress. When we are under stress, our “fight or flight” response is activated, meaning our adrenal glands release cortisol. If the stress is long term, the health effects range from high blood pressure and depression to lowered immunity, digestive problems and weight gain. But when meditation is consistently practised, grey-matter density in the amygdala, which controls our fight or flight response, is actually reduced.

David Gelles.


As expected with something that has become trendy, a lot of buzz surrounds mindfulness, but – neuroscience experiments notwithstanding – not a lot of hard data. David Gelles set out to change that. He has been a meditator since age 18, when he found his mother’s book about Buddhism in their Northern California home. He spent a year in India studying Buddhism, travelling the country and practising meditation for weeks at a time.

When he returned to the US, Gelles became a journalist specialising in the cut-throat world of mergers and acquisitions. It was while sniffing out such stories for his then employer, the Financial Times, that he came upon a local news item: General Mills, the $30 billion food and beverage conglomerate responsible for manufacturing such delights as Wheaties and Betty Crocker cake mix, was using mindfulness meditation to reduce stress and increase focus at its vast factory complex in Minneapolis. He flew to the Midwest to investigate. His conversation with the company’s deputy general counsel, Janice Marturano, about why she set up a mindful leadership course taken by hundreds of employees went viral on the Financial Times website. He knew he was onto something.

Mindful Work: How Meditation is Changing Business from the Inside Out is the result of Gelles’ year of criss-crossing the US, tracking the upsurge of interest in mindfulness among businesses. Gelles is an apostle for the cause: in his view mindfulness can have a profound effect on how we view work and do work – if we would only try it. But he’s also a journalist, prepared to ask the hard questions. His book is filled with case studies and scientific research into businesses to determine whether the staff have benefited from integrating meditation into their buzzing, fizzing, overstretched lives.

“I know there are plenty of sceptics about it – of course there are,” he tells the Listener. “I wanted to find out what people were doing, and use their stories. The research isn’t always that convincing, but people’s experience can be profound and moving.”

Giant US health insurer Aetna is one of his favourites for fending off the naysayers. The company’s health-care costs were reduced 7% after it introduced mindfulness and yoga courses to a third of its staff. “If thousands of employees are less stressed, then they are taking fewer sick days, doing their jobs better – it’s good for them and it’s good for the business,” says Gelles.

It wasn’t easy to get the course going: when new chief executive Mark Bertolini suggested introducing meditation and yoga to help the 50,000-strong workforce deal with stress, his chief medical officer snapped back: “Because you’re doing yoga, everyone has to do yoga?” But Bertolini had used yoga and meditation to help him recover from a near-fatal skiing accident (broken neck, five snapped vertebrae, split shoulder blade) and knew better. “Let’s measure heart-rate variability. Let’s measure cortisol levels if you want to. But let’s see how stressed our people are and look at the results.”

Rigorously planned and analysed, the Aetna pilot programme included viniyoga, which focused on breathing techniques, and mindfulness meditation, which focused on improving work-related stress, work-life balance and self-care. After 12 weeks, the results were impressive: those who completed the course experienced a significant reduction in stress and sleep difficulties. It was estimated that the annual financial benefit to the company was US$2000 ($2700) per employee.

The programme was then extended to more than a third of the workforce, and self-reported stress fell by a third. Employees also became more efficient: according to Bertolini, they are productive for an extra 69 minutes a year because they lose less time between tasks.

If that weren’t enough, they are less overweight too, following the introduction of a mindfulness eating programme. Gelles tells the story of Tandon Bunch, a nurse co-ordinator who worked for Aetna in Arlington, Texas. Bunch, a former college cheerleader who gave up exercise in her thirties due to injury, saw her weight rise to 80kg in middle age. After following the educational support programme, she learnt to listen to her body, to gauge her level of fullness, rather than eat out of habit, and subsequently lost 15kg. These types of changes have led Aetna to estimate it has made an 11 to one return on its investment in mindfulness.



Some people might bridle at the thought of corporate bosses citing a precise 69-minute productivity gain or getting involved in workers’ diet and health regimes. Is this a business wanting to have healthier, happier employees or simply a way of boosting the bottom line? Will it be used to wring every last drop of work out of people, rather than reduce their stress or build their resilience?

“I don’t think the profit motive is driving all of this,” says Gelles. “For one thing, you tend to see mindfulness programmes where senior executives have some sense of their workers’ well-being. And you’re certainly not seeing it everywhere that capitalism thrives. No manufacturers of mass warfare that I know of. I think business leaders are coming to mindfulness, at least in part, from a place of responsibility to their workers.”

He agrees that mindfulness is not for everyone and is concerned that charlatans will wade into mindfulness teaching. “There is a risk it will go the way of yoga – you know, hot yoga, cold yoga, cartoon yoga, sex yoga, just people coming up with more brands to make money. I’d be in favour of setting up a national organisation to agree on best practices, but this hasn’t happened yet.”

For Gelles, it’s a core part of life, benefiting him in numerous ways. The most important? He laughs: “It stops me from being an asshole. There are so many opportunities to be an asshole in the 21st century – to snap, get frustrated, take it out on ourselves and others. It may sound corny, but I’m a nicer person because I meditate. To my colleagues, to my wife, to strangers and to myself. And that’s a pretty good reason.”

Mindfulness meditation: do it yourself

•  Google “guided meditation” and you’ll find a variety to help you get started, or look for a meditation app.

•  Carve out a small amount of time to practise mindfulness meditation before work to set yourself up for the day.

•  Aim to be mindful all day long. Don’t do more than one task at a time; finish one, start another. Paying one thing due attention, without distractions, is a major part of mindfulness.

•  Try to slow down your response time so you’re less emotionally reactive to requests or demands.

•  Don’t work through lunch. Take time to stop and eat, preferably away from your desk, paying attention to what you’re eating and staying in the moment.

•  Make an effort to unplug from technology occasionally. Allow yourself a little time not to be distracted by emails and other 21st-century chatter.

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