Did you see the Buzzfeed article that everyone was talking about recently? It pointed to ‘burnout’ as an endemic psychological condition of the Millennial generation. In a long, world-weary dissection of her own and her peers’ life experience, Anne Helen Petersen described how the relentless pursuit of self-optimisation – through school years and university, in the workplace and as an online personal ‘brand’ – has been necessary not just to succeed but even to stay afloat.
SELF-CARE: A BURNOUT CURE OR CAUSE
There was one paragraph in the Buzzfeed article that particularly struck a chord with me: “The most common prescription [for enveloping burnout] is ‘self-care’. Use a face mask! Go to yoga! Use your meditation app! But much of self-care isn’t care at all: It’s an $11 billion industry whose end goal isn’t to alleviate the burnout cycle, but to provide further means of self-optimisation. At least in its contemporary, commodified iteration, self-care isn’t a solution; it’s exhausting.”
I found it interesting, especially the reference to meditation apps, because a similar charge is levelled against the booming mindfulness ‘industry’: that it’s being wrongly conflated with – and distorted by – a drive for greater productivity and higher levels of performance, especially in a corporate setting.
THE RISE OF McMINDFULNESS
This isn’t a new critique. In 2015, an opinion piece in Harvard Business Review mused: “Is something lost when we use mindfulness as a productivity tool?” David Gelles’ engaging book from the same year, Mindful Work, includes a chapter on ‘McMindfulness’ which raises a number of good questions about the ethics and efficacy of corporate mindfulness as it becomes more mainstream. And last year, a Guardian article argued: “Lunchtime meditation might reduce workers’ stress – but it does nothing to tackle the rat-race culture that causes it … Mindfulness should help make us aware of how to live more fully, not how to meet a deadline without having a panic attack.”
These are just a few examples from a debate that’s continuing and intensifying. And it’s a situation that resonates strongly and personally with me. I’ve been there – on both sides – so I can see and appreciate both perspectives.
CAN MINDFULNESS DRIVE A HIGH-PERFORMANCE CULTURE?
I’ve sat (and winced) in management meetings when the discussion has segued from “Our people are our greatest assets” to “We need to ‘sweat our assets’ more effectively”, i.e. to wring more work-time and intensity out of employees. And I’ve seen first-hand how mindfulness is co-opted as a means to that end. When I’ve led corporate mindfulness workshops, participants have clamoured for quick fixes and hacks that will help them triage their email inboxes, fence off the distractions of their open-plan office or perform feats of human endurance to meet a tight deadline. Good things to know, maybe, but they ain’t mindfulness.
On the other hand, I’m no anti-capitalist spiritual zealot. I understand the business world, the positive intentions and negative pressures that define it. It’s important for organisations to set clear goals and measures of effectiveness, because that’s how they systematically learn, improve and demonstrate accountability. The same principles will be applied to any mindfulness initiatives that they fund or promote; these initiatives will be expected to deliver clear outcomes and ROI – Return On Investment (based on money and time invested).
But I see three significant problems when mindfulness is adopted primarily as a performance and productivity tool:
1. MINDFULNESS DOESN’T WORK AS A GOAL
First, ironically, mindfulness becomes far less effective when it’s used as any kind of tool. It misses the point. Mindfulness is not supposed to be a ‘doing’ activity – it’s a respite from that, a ‘non-doing’ or ‘effortless effort’, as the Zen masters would say. That magical shift into calm, focused clarity doesn’t happen when you try to make it happen. The very effort is the barrier. We need to let go of our agenda and our attachment to a particular performance-related outcome, and instead approach mindfulness with a spirit of openness and curiosity.
A high-flying and thoroughly burned-out businessman recently complained to me: “I try very hard to ‘let go’, but I find it so difficult!” (I suggested to him, only half-jokingly, that he might also want to let go of letting go…). Western culture – and especially western business culture – doesn’t sit very comfortably with the paradox of ‘goal-less goals’, but without this accommodation, mindfulness loses its special powers.
2. MINDFULNESS GOALS CAN TRIGGER MORE ANXIETY AND SELF-JUDGMENT
Second, if mindfulness is pursued in a strongly goal-oriented way, it can create a whole new catalogue of problems in people’s lives. A tyrannical sense of should and shouldn’t tends to arise in our self-talk:
- I should find the time and self-discipline to use my meditation app every day.
- I should be able to summon up Jedi-like powers of concentration after regular mindfulness practice.
- I shouldn’t feel angry when my colleague lands me in the sh*t again – I should feel equanimity and compassion instead.
- I shouldn’t get stressed, because it will affect my performance… so now I feel stressed about being stressed.
When mindfulness is added to our to-do list and our high-performance benchmarks in this way, it’s making yet another rod for our own backs. It activates our Inner Critics, Pushers and Perfectionists – those troublesome voices of self-judgment, anxiety and shame – and they immediately sabotage our capacity for being calm, clear, creative, compassionate and wise. It’s not just ineffective as a performance strategy, but can actually be counterproductive.
3. MINDFULNESS CAN BE A SOP FOR A TOXIC WORK ENVIRONMENT
There’s a third reason why corporate mindfulness is dangerous when used as a weapon of mass productivity: it becomes a convenient cop-out in a toxic work environment. I’ve been there too. I’ve been on the receiving end of a boss’s belief that, as a proponent of mindfulness, I should be unfailingly calm and compliant in the face of wilfully chaotic leadership and chronic overwork.
This take on mindfulness puts the responsibility on the individual to find ways to cope with dysfunctional work situations, instead of properly addressing the dysfunctional situations. It becomes a tool for denial. And, another irony, it soon negates its performance objectives because, faced with this impossible task of ‘accepting the unacceptable’, employees burn out and turn over in high numbers. Alternatively, if they practice true mindfulness, they will quickly see through their business leaders’ evasion. Out of the uncompromising clarity of mindfulness comes more, not less, assertiveness – so these employees are also unlikely to toe the line for long.
IS CORPORATE MINDFULNESS A BUST?
So where does that leave us? Businesses are under pressure to operate according to well-defined goals and projected ROI outcomes, but authentic mindfulness doesn’t easily submit to this kind of containment. Is ‘corporate mindfulness’ a self-cancelling oxymoron, or can we somehow reconcile these tensions?
“How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation” by Anne Helen Petersen in Buzzfeed News, 5th January 2019 (https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/annehelenpetersen/millennials-burnout-generation-debt-work)
“Is Something Lost when we Use Mindfulness as a Productivity Tool” by Charlotte Lieberman in Harvard Business Review, 25th August 2015 (https://hbr.org/2015/08/is-something-lost-when-we-use-mindfulness-as-a-productivity-tool)
Mindful Work: How Meditation is Changing Business from the Inside Out by David Gelles, 2016
(Eamon Dolan/Mariner Books) (http://davidgelles.com/mindfulwork)
“Mindfulness courses at work? This should have us all in a rage” by William Little in the Guardian, 31st January 2018 (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jan/31/mindfulness-work-employers-meditation)