Could Blissing Out Your Employees Ruin Your Business?

Is meditation a help — or a hindrance — to workplace productivity?  And should more companies be encouraging it?

With all the hype and hoopla over “mindfulness” these days, one might think that the answer was simple. But it’s anything but…

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While the heads of leading IT companies like Google, Apple and Microsoft have been promoting the idea that reduced stress is fundamental to creating a happier and more engaged workforce, not every firm agrees that stress is such a bad thing.  Allowing workers to bliss out could also weaken their motivation to push themselves to excel, some companies fear.

Achievement and excellence don’t just require a sense of calm, they say.  Also important is the lure of financial gain associated with enhanced workplace performance.  And many highly successful employees need an internal motivation to excel, which may require them to stick to difficult tasks, even when experiencing short-term discomfort.

In short, is stress always such a bad thing?  Not necessarily.  It is often by re-dedicating themselves to their work that employees get relief from stress.   Especially for procrastinators, pushing through their stress, rather than trying to “detach” from it, may be key, some workforce analysts say.

Studies have shown that mindfulness practitioners are more likely to accept their current circumstances — to be “grateful for what they have,” which may be less than they actually want — or even need.  That finding bothers companies that want a high-performing and dedicated workforce, which may include employees willing to work long hours to meet company objectives.

There’s also the opposite risk:  Meditating employees may decide they really don’t want to be doing their current job and will start searching for a way out, taking valuable skills and experience with them.  Companies that value retention would like to avoid that outcome.

About 22% of American companies have some kind of mindfulness programs in place for their employees, according to a recent human resources study.  That’s hardly an emerging consensus.  Moreover, these companies tend to be heavily concentrated in specific sectors, including IT giants like Apple, Microsoft, and Google.

Apple’s Steve Jobs, for example, was famous for introducing “meditation rooms” at his company and encouraging his workers to indulge themselves with periods of contemplation away from the office bustle.

The theory is that happier more relaxed employees will naturally want to do their best which will boost their productivity to the company’s advantage.  It’s a compelling theory but there’s no real research evidence to support it.

In general, studies of the positive effects of mindfulness suffer from major methodological problems, including the use of small non-random samples and blatant “confirmation bias.”  Typically, researchers are zealous mindfulness practitioners themselves and are hoping to use their research findings to promote their favorite causes.  They may recruit like-minded participants to their studies and downplay or ignore non-supporting evidence to arrive at their desired research conclusion.

Daniel Goleman, a psychologist, and recognized wellness expert reviewed thousands of mindfulness studies and found that only 1% met commonly accepted standards of scientific “rigor.”

What’s the upshot?  Workplaces that acknowledge employees’ need to be treated as full human beings are likely to reduce absenteeism, substance abuse and other forms of passive resistance to unpleasant workplaces, studies show.

But many employees are just as likely to be motivated by new employer-funded health benefits as well as regular pay raises and bonuses that acknowledge or incentivize their superior work performance.

And the introduction of ergonomically supportive desks and chairs and more employee-friendly workplace designs could be just as satisfying to these employees as offering them time and space for individualized meditation.
In the end, it could be that employees that are accustomed to the high-intensity brain-centered activities, including high-paid IT and software engineers, are those most in need of the mental refreshment associated with meditation.

For your average office drone, playing video games or taking virtual tours of Caribbean vacation spots and planning a paid three-week holiday at the beach in the Bahamas might well do the trick.

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