Future of Work: Mindfulness As A Leadership Practice


Jeanne Meister, Contributor

May 2, 2015

I first learned about mindfulness at the moment I needed it the most: I was referred to the mindfulness work of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor emeritus of the University of Massachusetts Medical School by my surgeon after breaking both my ankle and top of my foot in an accident. (Disclosure: I am perfectly fine now, but my tennis game is not!) At the time, I was looking for a way to observe and reflect on my physical discomfort. I soon found that mindfulness, once considered a fringe movement in the Western world, is now being incorporated into medicine, science and the workplace. As I began to practice meditation through the tapes and books of Dr. Kabat-Zinn, I started exploring how mindfulness was also being used inside companies, including Aetna, Keurig Green Mountain, Intel, Google, General Mills and many others. In fact, at this year’s World Economic Forum, mindfulness was one of the hottest topics, with multiple sessions not only devoted to the science behind mindfulness but also how to practice it.

As defined by Dr. Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.” A simple exercise to begin practicing mindfulness is to sit quietly and focus on your breathing for two minutes.

Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s early focus was on using mindfulness to transform a person’s relationship to pain (this was also my early use of the discipline), but in the last decade, mindfulness has been used inside companies to lower health costs, improve increase employee productivity, help employees stay “on task” and reduce employee stress through a combination of breathing techniques and mental relaxation.

According to Gloria Mark, professor of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, office workers are interrupted or self-interrupt every three minutes during the day, with distractions coming from both digital and human forms.

In another study in the Wall Street Journal, published by Mark, reported that, on average, employees visit Facebook 21 times a day and check email 74 times.

In his book Mindful Work: How Meditation is Changing Business from the Inside Out, David Gelles describes how mindfulness has gone mainstream with companies as diverse as Google, Aetna, General Mills and Target, all having built extensive programs to foster mindful practices among their workers.

Also, according to a UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School study, the benefits of mindfulness can lead to “improvements in innovative thinking, communication skills and more appropriate reactions to stress.”

Aetna, Intel and Keurig Green Mountain have all started to incorporate mindfulness as a leadership practice and have seen benefits to both the company and the individual employees in improvements in employee health, productivity and job satisfaction.

Aetna Lowers Healthcare Costs As A Result Of Mindfulness Training

Mark Bertolini, the CEO of Aetna, spearheaded the company’s mindfulness program after mindfulness helped him cope with the constant pain in which a ski accident left him.

Aetna partnered with the American Viniyoga Institute and eMindful, a company that leads remote mindfulness programs, and began a small pilot program with 239 employees. The results? The participants in the 12-week courses (either gentle yoga focused on stress-reduction or a Mindfulness at Work program created by eMindful) reported significant stress reduction. And according to the World Health Organization, stress costs American businesses an estimated $300 billion annually and the costs to our healthcare system might be even higher given the role stress plays in conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.

More than one-quarter of Aetna’s work force of 50,000 has participated in at least one mindfulness class, and those who have report, on average, a 28% reduction in their stress levels, a 20% improvement in sleep quality and a 19% reduction in pain. They also become more effective on the job, gaining an average of 62 minutes per week of productivity, each which Aetna estimates is worth $3,000 per employee per year. Plus, Aetna found that the annual healthcare costs of employees that participated in the program were an average of $2,000 lower than their counterparts! It’s no surprise, then, that the healthcare giant has expanded the program significantly, to include a full third of its employees. Even remotely, some form of mindfulness training can mean a big payoff for companies.

Intel Employees Report Increased Creativity And Focus

Intel, another early adopter of mindfulness, began its Awake@Intel program in 2012. The 1,500 employees who have participated in the 19-session course were asked to rank their levels of stress and happiness on 10-point scales. At the end of the sessions, participants reported that their average levels of stress had decreased by two points, and while happiness had increased by three points. Furthermore, they reported a two point increase in “having new ideas, insights, mental clarity, creativity, the ability to focus, the quality of relationships at work and the level of engagement in meetings, projects and team efforts,” according to the UNC study.

While such self-reporting can be difficult to quantify, Intel considers the results sufficiently promising to expand the program to more than 10,000 employees.

Keurig Green Mountain Increases Concentration And Reduces Injuries Through Mindful Stretching

The mindfulness program at Keurig Green Mountain (formerly Green Mountain Coffee) began with top executives, but has become an integral part of corporate culture, from corporate officers to warehouse employees. Robert P. Stiller initially offered meditation classes first to high-level executives, and then mid-level employees. The positive results in terms of stress reduction became clear, and Green Mountain expanded this company-wide.

Green Mountain is offering “mindful stretching exercises” for warehouse and factory workers before each shift. Even those employees who were initially resistant to the program have reported not only lower levels of job-related pain at the end of a workweek, but an increased ability to focus on the job. Since the start of the program, Green Mountain has seen a reduction in workplace injuries – and not just as a result of looser muscles. According to Gelles, managers say that mindful stretching “has made workers more attuned to their surroundings, more aware of their own behavior and, therefore, more disciplined in their execution of tasks on the factory floor.”

Pursuing Mindfulness Inside Your Company

While the cases from Aetna, Intel and Keurig Green Mountain are impressive, you may be asking yourself, how can you communicate the benefits of mindfulness to your leadership? I asked this question of David Gelles and here is a recap of  how a business leader can begin the dialogue on incorporating mindfulness as a leadership practice:

  1. What business benefits do you hope to derive from a mindfulness program at work? And how can you make these goals as specific as possible, such as: increases in employee productivity or increases in employees’ ability to give full attention to the task at hand or decreases in employee health costs.
  2. Does mindfulness fit to your company culture? Incorporating mindfulness is not for every company. Some may think of this as just too new age or fringe for them. But if you consider mindfulness has penetrated both Goldman Sachs and BlackRock, it’s clear that even businesses with no reputation for so-called “new age” practices see mindfulness as a good investment!
  3. How should you start a mindfulness program at your company? Will this work best with a bottom up approach like launching an employee affinity group on the topic? Or in the case of Google, as reported by Laszlo Bock in his book Work Rules, by conducting an experiment with your own staff for a couple of months?
  4. How do you launch mindfulness training inside a corporate training curriculum, which already includes hundreds of leadership development programs? Google’s Chade Meng-Tan first tried to introduce meditation classes at Google, but only after the class Search Inside Yourself was positioned as a “workout program for developing your emotional intelligence” did the program really take off. Now In Search of Yourself has a wait list of six months at Google. Being able to understand how to communicate and position mindfulness inside the company is a key criterion for getting corporate traction for this!
  5. Will mindfulness be focused just on instructor-led programs or will you also offer online learning from eMindful or simply alert employees to a number of popular apps on mindfulness, such as the impressive Headspace?

What the mindfulness movement has proven is that no matter what an employee’s role in the company, mindfulness can allow for a greater level of attention and engagement. An investment of time in the practice can pay dividends in the form of increased employee productivity, well bring, reduced stress levels and even reduced healthcare costs!

But at the end of the day, mindfulness must align to your company’s culture and the vision and mission your employee development.

Readers: What is your experience with mindfulness? Either personal one or inside your company?

This article was written by Jeanne Meister from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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  • Future of Work: Mindfulness As A Leadership Pra... - 05/08/2015 13:58
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