'Mindfulness' Isn't the Answer to Our Completely Hellish Workplaces

I would rather quit my job than strive to be “smooth, pleasant, and helpful.”
Katie Way
Brooklyn, US
Photo by fizkes via Shutterstock

Practicing mindfulness on a regular basis is good for you and you should do it, if you aren’t already. This take isn’t controversial; it’s really barely even an opinion, given the abundant, well-established evidence that backs up the benefits of introducing some kind of practice—be it yoga, tai chi, or just meditation—into your life. Stress reduction, improvements in memory function and ability to focus, and decreases in emotional reactivity are just a few of the ways mindfulness can make your brain straight-up function better. But a new series of studies posits another neat thing that mindfulness can do: Improve your demeanor as a worker!


The paper in question, published in the September issue of the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, includes a trio of studies conducted by business professors. Researchers observed workers at an American insurance company and an Indian IT consulting center and concluded that even seven to eight minutes of meditation a day can “make people more helpful” in their work environment. “Even with a one-time intervention, you’re getting smoother, pleasant, more helpful workers,” said Lindsey Cameron, one of the paper’s co-authors and a University of Pennsylvania professor in an interview with Knowledge@Wharton. OK, “smooth, pleasant, and helpful” is a great way to characterize dolphins who rescue people from shipwrecks. But as a description of actual human beings, it rings a little more hollow.

Mindfulness in the workplace has become increasingly common at massive corporations where offices double as adult playgrounds (or, like, very swanky dungeons). Cameron’s argument, and the argument in general, for marrying mindfulness to workplace productivity is that because work looms so large in our lives, it’s only reasonable that we dedicate as much physical and mental energy to it as possible. “We spend more time at work than we actually do with our family, and sometimes there can be frictions. People are working in teams, so mindfulness can act like a buffer to improve relational coordination and functioning,” Cameron said to Knowledge@Wharton. Not to be all “Have you guys seen the new season of Black Mirror?” but the idea of practicing mindfulness specifically to become a more pleasant employee is bleak and dystopian.


Sorry, but if my Buddhist family members, the Outdoor Voices exercise dress, and that picture of Lindsay Lohan looking blissed out in front of a temple in Thailand haven’t convinced me to meditate for 15 minutes every day, the prospect of being a more pleasant employee is not gonna be my tipping point!!!

It’s especially rich to see mindfulness touted as a tool for improving worker performance when work-related stress has been climbing for literal decades. Programs like Google’s Search Inside Yourself, a “mindful leadership initiative” that has since expanded into an independent training program, stand in stark contrast to the way the company treats its legion of contractors, some of whom just unionized last month in a historic first for white-collar tech workers. Employees don’t need to breathe deeply and purposefully or get into desk-bound yoga—we need adequate wages, benefits, parental leave, and a robust work-life separation. If the people I know are any indication, sleep-disrupting, relationship-impacting stress might be the only work trend hotter than mindfulness right now.

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