This week I was able to follow up being present at (if not part of) the recent #mindfulnation report launch at Parliament by attending a meeting to promote the work of one of the four areas of research and practice highlighted in the report – mindfulness in the workplace.
The venue for this event was Shoreditch, an area of East London adjacent to the City, at a place called Second Home, a place for young and small businesses to interact. It was to be an evening meeting, so I took the coach from Oxford into London in the late afternoon. It got stuck in traffic coming in. Really stuck. As we crawled along, the girl next to me on the bus, a drama student, eventually worked out that she was going to miss her 6:30 appointment to collect her complimentary theatre tickets for a 7 pm performance. She was very stressed, poor thing, and made repeated calls to friends and family to see what they would say; but none of that could change the speed of the bus in the syrupy traffic. I, too, was going to be late. But then I remembered that I was heading to a meeting about being mindful, and that this was a great opportunity to choose to notice all that was going on in the present It was annoying, yes, but not permanent. I decided to let the annoyance be what it was. The rest of the crawl felt a lot easier, and the observant feeling remained with me all the way onto the Central Line and out from Liverpool Street station through the fascinating side streets to reach Second Home (how vibrant the City and East End were at 7:30 in the evening!!).
I arrived as Jamie Bristow, who alongside Tessa Watt and Sarah Post was one of the leads in the research behind the report, was introducing things in more detail. There were a number of different speakers who gave a fairly broad range of commentary on the possible benefits of introducing programmes of guided mindfulness in the workplace. It was a full room, so I sat at the back and took in the interesting set of speakers.
Some had an external perspective as business practitioners, others were living and breathing (no pun intended) mindfulness as trainers, consultants or coaches. Everyone was at pains to point out the danger of “McMindfulness“, or the commodification of the concept to the point of watering-down practice to homeopathic levels of awareness. By contrast, others wanted to declare a distance from any, and I quote, “woo-woo” associations of Zen meditation and navel gazing. Clearly, there are already several versions of “it”, when it comes to the it of what mindfulness is. Or isn’t.
Though the interest in mindfulness for mental health and well-being that is the primary colour of its application and study in hospitals is present in the workplace stream, too, here that was just a hue. The background colour here is that organisations should employ mindfulness as a tool to deliver a very specific set of benefits – in other words, measurable results in terms of productivity, profitability and cost control.
Having completed the main report, presumably the next steps for Mindful Nation UK will involve following up on its main recommendations which, as stated in the report, are aimed at policy initiatives sponsored by government departments and ministries. This is, of course, a good thing but I wonder whether commercial enterprises can be influenced by government health messages in quite the same way as for the NHS or the criminal justice system. Workplaces are diverse, independent and widespread and difficult to herd. On the other hand, they are also interdependent when it come to looking out for ‘the next big thing’ in profit boosting or development to bring competitive advantage (even though, by definition, competitive advantage cannot be achieved with something everyone has access to). There is no doubt that mindfulness is on an upward trajectory and momentum right now; it’s seriously sexy. This is partly because awareness is intrinsically a good and beneficial thing for learning and living, but increasingly (at least for a while) also because many companies will want to adopt programmes for training (i.e. productivity) purposes because it’s what everyone else is doing. This will make it very big business.
This energy was evident in the short break-out discussions in the room after the main presentations. I sat in on the group discussing “how to make the business case for mindfulness” but as I listened to the various answers and responses to this (and the inherent worry that if you can’t show hard, bottom-line evidence of its efficacy) three questions occurred to me:
1. Is mindfulness an “it” that can be packaged up and sold in this way? Isn’t the nature one of being, not doing? It’s precisely this benefit of not needing to be taught (the phrase ‘mindfulness practice’ is often used as a signal or trigger for practitioner groups to sit and think in a certain way. A lovely, peaceful and connected way, but surely awareness is not only this).
2. When we ask about the business case for mindfulness, haven’t we got the question the wrong way round? We seem to be trying to work out how mindfulness can contribute to the success of the organisation, making whatever criteria you have for measuring success in the organisation the aim. What if, instead, it were those criteria that ought to be in service of a greater awareness (or mindfulness, if you prefer) of the way the world is? I think this would enable many companies to rethink what they do in terms of, for example, sustainability.
3. How could an organisation “be” mindful? What would that look like?
It’s going to be an interesting process following this movement. The people are great, and inevitably interested in following their curiosity. Right now, before it has got to being its own brand, Mindful Nation UK should resist the temptation to have all the answers. The time for real discussion was too short in Shoreditch, so I hope there will be a chance to contribute over a longer period.