The growth of mindfulness in business

Workplace mindfulness is a global trend, but is it more than a fad? Vision explores the role of the ancient practice in modern business

In a corporate environment, stress is regularly seen as a status symbol. An imagined mega-corporation will likely be managed by a busy leader - two smart phones in hand, blunt and efficient in equal measure.

“The business world in particular has driven this kind of thinking,” says Cindy Stocken, a Dubai-based consultant. “There’s a stereotype that people look to fill: as a way of saying you’re productive and you contribute, you say you’re stressed.”

As a founding partner of MindfulME, a consultancy that works on improving the happiness and productivity of individuals and businesses alike, Stocken is one of a cohort of thinkers advocating the ancient practice of mindfulness in business – an idea that aims to shatter the corporate illusion that stress equals power. 

In fact, mindfulness has become somewhat of the buzzword of the decade: yoga centres and meditation apps are ubiquitous, particularly in the Western world, and alternative SMEs and mega-corporations alike are offering workshops in the practice. Google even has its own mindfulness evangelist, Chade Meng Tan, whose course ‘Search Inside Yourself’ has a months-long waiting list of employees keen to transform their business practices.

But what does mindfulness actually entail? And is it more than a business fad, a contemporary appropriation of an ancient religious tradition that will soon fade out of fashion?

Stocken explains that the most famous contemporary definition of mindfulness is faithful to the Buddhist tradition. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer of mindfulness in healthcare and education, “speaks about mindfulness as ‘paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, with no judgement.’”

Though this may come across as obtuse, the concept is simple: mindfulness is about being aware of the present moment, without wishing it were different. In practice, this is famously achieved through yoga and meditation, but also through simple practices like measured breathing, and by practicing controlled thinking, such as resisting the urge to let your mind wander.

Though this is seemingly an individual practice, used to improve personal stress levels, Stocken and other experts insist that the implementation of mindfulness in business can reveal company-wide change.

Mindfulness is not going to change the deadlines, the pressure, the nature of the industry or the economy - but that’s not its goal

Rather than transforming a corporation, mindfulness allows employees to work better both alone and together. “It’s not going to change the deadlines, the pressure, the nature of the industry, or the nature of the economy,” explains Stocken, “but that’s not its goal.”

“It gives the people the tools they need, as well as a different way of looking at things.” In particular, the consultant explains, mindfulness is beneficial for giving people leadership and teamwork skills.

“There is a link between mindfulness and empathy,” explains Stocken. “Non-judgement creates a lot of compassion and changes the way you approach people.”

“There’s also a certain amount of space for honest conversations. Collaboration doesn’t become just a word that gets thrown around - there’s actual space for that in a team."

And though the concept of more mental space may seem like an idealistic dream for an overworked leader, there is growing evidence to support mindfulness as a workplace practice. A first-of-its-kind 2012 study of employees participating in the Mindful Leadership programme at mega-corporation General Mills saw 80 per cent of 500 participants see a positive change in their ability to make better decisions, and 89 per cent feel that they became better listeners.

More recently, 2016 studies in the UK and US showed that workers participating in mindfulness training were more likely to show less activity in the regions of the brain associated with anxiety and emotional reactivity when working under high pressure.

It seems, then, that mindfulness could be here to stay. This is very much the case globally, but particularly in Dubai, which has taken significant strides in proving that happiness and ambition can indeed go hand in hand.

Alongside the UAE’s Vision 2021, which aims for the Emirates to become the safest, smartest place in the world, Dubai launched the Ministry of Happiness to prioritise the needs and emotions of Emiratis.

This government entity seeks to make state of mind as much as a priority as long-term financial goals, even introducing mindfulness in school programmes. The result is a subtle but growing change in mindset; he or she who was once a thriving, burnt-out manager may soon become a thoughtful and attentive peer: a mindful leader.