The Problem with Workplace Mindfulness (and a better place to start)
You might be at it. And if not, you know someone who is.
Touted as a cure for our times — a catch-all panacea for various modern ills.
Need to tackle stress? Tick.
Reduce anxiety? Good to go.
Enhance performance? You’re covered.
Gain insight? Ka-ching.
Gateway to awareness — easy beans! All while you observe your mind and increase attention to others’ wellbeing.
Sounds awesome. ‘What is this golden elixir?’ I hear you cry.
Yep, it’s mindfulness ….
Mindfulness is an ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s happening around us.
And hoo boy, is it everywhere. It’s even reported that Amazon has latched on via utopian ‘AmaZen’ zones. Despair closets for exhausted workers seeking expanded connection with Captain Jeff’s boundless altruism.
Am I sceptical of mindfulness’ positioning? Yes.
Do I disregard the experience of any individual who feels it helps them? I don’t.
Bringing awareness to automatic reactions and tuning out mental rumination is useful. I also acknowledge the origins of mindfulness run deeper than today’s popular grasp.
Yet standing on the podium of mainstream wellbeing must lend itself to scrutiny. After all, we deserve to have faith in what we practice. And rooted confidence requires a rounded appraisal.
To this end, let’s cast a quick spotlight on reservations surrounding workplace mindfulness; arm ourselves with contrary thinking before chugging the Kool-Aid. Then, a brief look at a reliable and practical approach to supporting your well-being.
Minding the gap
Despite the hype, evidence for the benefits of mindfulness remains sketchy and limited. A step further, mindfulness may also be misleading and harmful.
Not happy with working long hours in precarious conditions? Facing unrealistic expectations in shark-infested waters? You just need to work on your acceptance and become more mindful!
Further, the findings of research into the efficacy of mindfulness raise questions. Competing interests are not uncommon. For instance, affiliations emerged among authors of one mindfulness meta-study. This led to a notable retraction from the mega-journal concerned.
Yet despite these question-marks, companies remain keen to embrace mindfulness.
It’s hardly surprising. Not controversial. Show me an employee well-being gap analysis, and I’ll show you a mindfulness consultant available to fill it in.
Rather than remove stress at the source, encouraging staff to meditate is easier. Low morale, poor management and crazy workloads. Mindfulness might represent an oven-ready response to issues that actually need deeper reflection and long-term solutions (rather than a trendy fix).
Indeed, mindfulness may be a cost-effective, quick dash of glue, at least for the short term. Complain about stress, and you’re reminded about the offer of relaxation classes. Blame’s on you. Learn to be more mindful! We tried to help.
Inward focus is often unhelpful
So there you are — responsible for your own experience. Feeling flooded, overwhelmed and upset. Caught in a corner and on edge, let’s sit still and focus our attention. Sound helpful?
Focusing on your experience can be intense and uncomfortable if you've felt emotional. When faced with distress, humans are primed to take affirmative action — not waiting it out and suppressing our instincts. When you do sit still, anxiety often dials up, and you feel even worse.
Faced with danger, expanding presence and awareness often falls short of an adequate response.
So, where are we up to? Despite reservations, mindfulness may represent a constructive tool in the bigger picture of workplace wellbeing. But taking care of yourself (and your colleagues) often demands something more actionable.
We need to anchor self-care in moving towards something we value. And in short, we value what motivates us.
Besides aiding survival, motivation is an appetite comprising various emotional needs. We know we need food, air, shelter and water.
In addition, we possess a range of emotional needs that remain less well-acknowledged.
While the concept of emotional needs may be familiar — Maslow’s hierarchy springs to mind — this modern model views our needs as each demanding sufficient input for stable wellbeing.
These needs include:
- Security: A sense of safety and certainty; an environment where people can live without experiencing excessive fear to develop healthily.
- Attention: Receiving consideration from others and giving it; a vital form of energy exchange that fuels the development of each individual, family and culture.
- Intimacy: Emotional connection to other people — friendship, love, closeness, fun.
- Privacy: Adequate time and space to reflect upon and consolidate our experiences.
- Connection to a broader community: Interaction with a larger group of people and a sense of being part of the group.
- Competence and achievement: Confidence in our abilities; the conviction that we have what it takes to meet life‘s demands.
- Autonomy and control: A sense of volition over what happens to and around us.
- Status: To feel accepted and valued in our various social groups.
- Meaning and purpose: Being stretched, aiming for meaningful goals, having a sense of a higher calling or serving others creates meaning and purpose. This sense of fulfilment acts as a counterbalance to life’s suffering.
How well you can meet your needs is critical. Companies should concern themselves with what these needs represent for people — and then help employees to create the environmental conditions in which these needs get met.
When these essential requirements are met well enough, stress will be manageable and capacity high. You will be primed to think straight and access your higher faculties. Yet unmet emotional needs represent pressure and stressors. And stress accumulates fast …
When causes of stress are left unaddressed, various health-related conditions can ensue. Anxiety, burnout, anger, addiction, etc., are damaging symptoms of distress.
In essence, mental distress results from a deficit in emotional nutrition.
So, why’s this helpful?
When you look rationally at the individual components of your mental well-being as emotional needs, you have a clear, analytical framework to understand your emotional health.
Critically, you can start considering ways to reduce stress and regain clarity and control.
Armed with this foundation, supplementary practises (e.g. mindfulness) may assume their rightful place to support your wellbeing.
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