The evolution and adoption of mindfulness
Mindfulness is defined by the University of California-Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center as “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and surrounding environment through a gentle, nurturing lens.”
Smyth is the managing director of Mindfulness Utah, which offers mindfulness workshops, courses, retreats and more in-depth consulting work to embed mindfulness practice into companies’ cultures. She says more than anything, mindfulness is just about living in the moment, no matter how mundane that moment might seem.
“Have a snack, but pay attention. Choose not to let your mind think about anything except for what you’re eating,” Smyth says. “Actually see the color of it. Actually smell any scents. Actually notice when you’re chewing it, when you’re swallowing it. Let your mind be present.”
As mindfulness enters the workplace, proponents like the Niagara Institute say its practice can help improve focus and communication and reduce burnout.
In a 2020 study summarized in Harvard Business Review (HBR), researchers Lindsey Cameron and Andrew Hafenbrack found that, while practicing mindfulness, IT consultants and call center representatives in India and the United States were more “attentive and helpful to their coworkers and customers throughout the day.”
Smyth mentions two misconceptions about mindfulness: the idea that mindfulness means just doing things slowly and taking time to give yourself a breath. On the contrary, she says, you can do anything mindfully. Mindfulness is a skill, not just a breathing exercise.
“A lot of people think it’s just taking a breath, and yes, it can be that simple,” Smyth says. “But when we look at mindfulness as a skill, it’s really the ability to pay attention on purpose to what it is you’re doing with intention and without being reactionary.”
The way mindfulness developed in the United States often emphasizes breath, but Smyth instead suggests doing some sort of movement—such as a stretch or a quick walk—as the first step to being more mindful. She says when you’re in a heightened state of stress, focusing intensely on your breath can actually leave you feeling more agitated.
In “Where Mindfulness Falls Short,” a 2021 article published in HBR, researchers wrote that a mindfulness exercise at the end of the day might be more effective than a mid-day mindfulness exercise that makes employees more aware of their work stresses.
Photo courtesy of Mindfulness Utah
"We might walk down the street or … the hallway and miss really simple things that could actually bring a lot of joy to our lives, and at the end of the day, isn’t that life? Don’t we all want to be fulfilled and happy and have these joyful moments? I think that’s kind of the employee’s ‘why,’ the incentive. Maybe there is a little bit more in every moment of your day that you could savor."
Smyth says remaining focused and mindful at work can help employees feel more satisfied, but not everyone is on board with the trajectory of mindfulness in the workplace. After all, remaining on task all day and being more focused on work might just seem like a benefit to employers who want to get more from their workforce.
Ronald Purser, a professor of management at San Francisco State University, is the author of “McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality” and an ordained teacher in the Korean Buddhist Taego Order. He has been an outspoken critic of how mindfulness has been employed in the workplace.
Back in 2013, he co-wrote a blog for HuffPost with David Loy stating, “Corporations have jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon because it conveniently shifts the burden onto the individual employee: stress is framed as a personal problem, and mindfulness is offered as just the right medicine to help employees work more efficiently and calmly within toxic environments.”
In a 2019 CBC Radio interview, Purser said mindfulness needs to be reclaimed “from becoming a hostage of capitalist instrumentalist applications,” saying that it’s turned into a “technique and not a way of life.”
“Mindfulness has been seen as a means to an end,” he said in the interview. “When you separate that out, you’ve made a Faustian bargain. Yes, you can turn it into a nice therapeutic technique that can develop a sense of quiet and calm. But then it could be used for nefarious purposes.”
According to Cameron and Hafenbrack, mindfulness at work was effective in certain situations, such as for people whose jobs require a lot of interaction with other people.
For employees tasked with faking a smile as part of their day—termed “surface acting”—mindfulness can be ineffective or even counter-productive, making them more aware of their negative feelings.
“This, in turn, reduces job satisfaction and performance, as the mental resources needed for work get sapped by a newfound awareness of their own inauthenticity and negative emotions,” the researchers wrote in “Where Mindfulness Falls Short.”
Smyth says while some might think mindfulness sounds like manipulation or resource extraction, employees do get something out of it.
“We might walk down the street or … the hallway and miss really simple things that could actually bring a lot of joy to our lives, and at the end of the day, isn’t that life? Don’t we all want to be fulfilled and happy and have these joyful moments?” she asks. “I think that’s kind of the employee’s ‘why,’ the incentive. Maybe there is a little bit more in every moment of your day that you could savor.”