Current Affairs

Corporate ‘Mindfulness’ Programs Are an Abomination

Instead of providing employees with decent working conditions or benefits, U.S. companies suggest they meditate instead.

Despite professing to be movers, shakers, and disruptors, many tech companies are copycats. With their commitment to “innovation,” they’ll adopt trends—from pizza parties to ping-pong tables—from other workplaces. The practice of meditation and mindfulness in particular has had a steady increase in startup offices and Big Tech buildings alike. On the surface this may seem positive, but it’s being used as a smokescreen for what late-capitalist companies do best: putting profit before people.

If we’re going to meditate on meditation and mindfulness—and how we’ve ended up where we are, warts and all—we’ll first need to talk about Jon Kabat-Zinn. Kabat-Zinn, who’s now a professor of medicine, first encountered Buddhism as an MIT student. Becoming something of a meditation and mindfulness aficionado by 1979, he developed a “Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program” at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. The teachings in the eight-week program, however, were presented without any mention of their Buddhist ties. By the early ‘90s, Kabat-Zinn and his work were nationally famous, not least because of a PBS special, Healing and the Mind, and his second book, Where You Go, There You Are, becoming a best-seller. It was Kabat-Zinn’s recontextualizing of meditation and mindfulness as scientific and secular, rather than a spiritual practice primarily performed by Hindus and Buddhists on another continent, that helped diminish the American public’s skepticism. 

Who, specifically, kicked meditation and mindfulness off in the corporate world? Could it have been some CFO who, after an esoteric quest to “find themselves,” brought the idea back to the boardroom? Perhaps. Or maybe it was a promotion-hungry line-manager who, after their hot yoga class, suggested the melding in their next morning meeting. Most likely, though, it was Steve Jobs. In 1974, two years before the founding of Apple, Jobs returned to the U.S. from a trip to India. Upon his return, he had a shaved head, was dressed in traditional Indian garments, and possessed a deepened affinity for mindfulness and meditation. Later, as Apple grew significantly, he established 30-minute meditation breaks for himself and other employees, and commissioned purpose-built meditation rooms inside Apple’s offices.

While it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact person who planted the meditative seed in U.S. workplaces, it is, at least, obvious to name the group of people who cultivated that seed: San Francisco tech bros. (Considering it was once a counter-cultural mecca for open-minded outsiders, but has since become a hub for technocapitalists in Patagonia vests, it’s both apt and ironic that the City by the Bay was where mindfulness and meditation were first co-opted by corporations.) Because, like installing in-office nap pods, calling employees “code wizards” instead of “junior software engineers,” or offering “free” takeout to those working late into the night, any and all practices are up for grabs if they have business benefits. Even if they’re 5,000-year-old spiritual—and inherently anti-capitalist—traditions.

The reason for the tech crowd’s infatuation with meditation and mindfulness is the promise of productivity gains. Once peacefully in the present, employees can be more focused at their standing desks or bean bag chairs, can think more creatively, and can be better equipped to handle stress—which, unsurprisingly, is a major hindrance to productivity in the first place. Researchers have long claimed that mindfulness and meditation do, indeed, have brain-, body-, and mood-enhancing benefits. (Between 1956 and 2005, 813 studies were published on the therapeutic use of meditation, with half of those studies happening after 1994. However, not all of these studies are deemed by the scientific community to be reliable. There is faith, though, in the more recent, better-designed studies that have been undertaken.) 

In 2013, a study by Bassam Khoury et al., published in the Clinical Psychology Review, suggested that mindfulness-based therapy—otherwise known as MBT—is a particularly effective treatment for stress, anxiety, and depression. A 2018 Harvard study, meanwhile, found that “Biological process- and pathway-based analysis of transcriptome data demonstrated enrichment in the following gene categories: immune regulatory pathways and metabolism (among downregulated genes); glucose metabolism, cardiovascular system development, and circadian rhythm (among upregulated genes).” In plain English, that means mindfulness and meditation are not only good for the brain, but the immune system and the body’s other vital organs, too. For the tech crowd, these benefits also tie in with the preoccupation of enhancing the body to superhuman (read: machine-like) levels. Mindfulness and meditation are additional forms of biohacking, then, that can upgrade the human operating systems that make tech companies more money.

Bolstered by qualitative data—essentially, the glowing reviews of meditation offered by Steve Jobs and other faux deities—and the quantitative offerings from scientific investigations, it was only a matter of time before another good thing got ruined.

Searching Your Inner Self

Google also played a part in the mainstreaming of mindfulness and meditation in the business world, and its lead evangelist was Chade-Meng Tan.

Tan was one of Google’s earliest engineers (the 107th, to be precise). When he joined the company in 2000, the bulk of his days were spent on Google’s mobile search service. And when Tan wasn’t writing code, he was using his “20 percent time”—an initiative which has since been pulled that once allowed Googlers to use 20 percent of their paid time to work on separate projects that’d benefit Google—to build an internal mindfulness program. Tan’s vision for the program was that, over seven weekly sessions (or an intensive two-and-a-half-day course), and with instructions from two coaches, Googlers could sit on a meditation cushion and get better at handling stress, relating to people, and relating to themselves. When it launched, Tan called the program “Search Inside Yourself,” a cute pun. (Speaking of search, the top queries from folks in the U.S. in 2020 include “Parasite,” “where is my stimulus money,” “how to make your own hand sanitizer,” and “best stocks to buy during coronavirus,” according to Google’s official “Year in Search” page.)

After just under a decade in engineering, and due to the immense internal popularity of Search Inside Yourself, Tan moved to more interpersonal roles within Google. This enabled him to work on and oversee Search Inside Yourself, and other initiatives, to a greater degree. (He also gained the title of “Jolly Good Fellow,” which, like the “ninja,” “wizard,” “guru,” and “oracle” buzzwordy job titles that have since become more common, evades meaning.) By promoting Tan, and putting a larger emphasis on mindfulness and meditation within a business context, Google—arguably the most famous company on Earth, unfortunately—knew they’d profit by doing so. In a 2014 interview with the Guardian’s Jo Confino, Tan said: 

In many situations, goodness is good for business. If you, as the boss, are nice to your employees, they are happy, they treat their customers well, the customers are happy to spend more money, so everybody wins. Also if you treat everybody with kindness, they’ll like you even if they don’t really know why. And if they like you, they want to help you succeed. So it’s good for your soul and it’s good for your career. 

The language of self-improvement and self-actualization used to justify the appropriation of mindfulness and meditation for capitalist means, however, is corporate sleight of hand. “More money” is always the intention.

Search Inside Yourself wasn’t the only mindfulness and meditation initiative Google had. According to a post published on Google’s blog The Keyword, there’s also a seminar called Fundamentals of Mindfulness, and a program called gPause that “promotes meditation and mindfulness practices.” The post then goes on to say, “These initiatives have been created over the last 10 years in 64 offices around the world with more than 350 volunteers that host guided meditation practices, events and workshops.” Nothing really compared to Search Inside Yourself, though. Tan told Confino that over 2,000 Googlers had gone through the Search Inside Yourself course by 2014. Of course, once others in tech caught wind of it, they wanted in on the action, too. Tan, alongside Philippe Goldin, a cognitive-affective neuroscientist, and Marc Lesser, a mindfulness speaker and workshop leader, spun Search Inside Yourself off into an “independent non-profit educational institute” known as The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. (A wordy name, The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute is reduced down to the acronym SIYLI, which is meant to be pronounced like “silly.”) On their website, SIYLI claims to be “operating in over 50 countries, with tens of thousands of people attending its programs and events.” I don’t doubt this is the case, and that companies—especially tech companies wanting to follow in the footsteps of Google and Apple—have jumped at the chance to get their business on the mindfulness and meditation bandwagon, either through SIYLI or other organizations.

The Fine Print of Corporate Mindfulness

For tech companies in particular, mindfulness and meditation tick a lot of boxes. From a public perception standpoint, being associated with mindfulness and meditation—and then letting everybody know about it via TED Talks, conferences, interviews, webinars, blog posts, podcast episodes, stories, fleets, reels, and whatever comes next—helps support the innovative, forward-thinking facade. Not only does that facade pique the interest of prospective applicants who don’t know any better, but it attracts potential investors and partners. Because, so the logic goes, if a company’s workplace culture is made in the image of Google’s, surely they could achieve the same level of success as well? To boot, there’s also the fact that mindfulness and meditation are relatively cheap for businesses to implement because, of course, that’s been commodified, too. In lieu of actually hiring mindfulness and meditation workshop leaders, companies can instead purchase monthly subscriptions to meditation and mindfulness apps for their employees. Calm, which is supposedly “the #1 app for sleep and mediation,” costs $69.99 annually, or for a one-off payment of $399.99, you can get a Calm subscription “forever.” Headspace, which informs users to “be kind to your mind,” also costs $69.99 annually. (Its founder, Andy Puddicombe, traveled to Asia in his early 20s to become a Buddhist monk. He now has a net worth of $100 million.) 

The most important box that’s ticked, though, is how mindfulness and meditation can facilitate employees to do more. To be more creative, more focused, more engaged, and, ultimately, more productive while at work. Because, despite 61 percent of tech employees feeling underpaid for their labor (remember: not everyone receives Frisco-level salaries, especially those in non-technical positions), and 57 percent feeling burned out, as the team behind Blind, an “anonymous professional network,” uncovered, there’s still a hunger for employees to do more than they should. This is something Dan Lyons, a journalist and ex-tech worker himself, has spoken and written about at length. As Arielle Pardes, a senior writer at Wired, noted in her brilliant article “Silicon Valley Ruined Work Culture”: 

Lyons believes these new-agey corporate practices, along with perks like free snacks or beer on tap, are simply a misdirection from something rotten at the core. He blames worker unhappiness not just on Silicon Valley’s work culture but also on its business model—one he calls “shareholder capitalism.” The modern tech company is obsessed with growth and profit, at the expense of its employees and to the benefit of its investors.

Behind tech companies’ soft (and somehow reassuring) branding, through their manicured offices, and past the generously-stocked coffee machines and beer fridges, there’s a culture of perpetual stress. For many, working in tech can feel like a Sisyphean saga of business pitches, seed rounds, monthly recurring revenue and annual recurring revenue targets, feature releases, and app tweaks—and as the user base grows, so does the to-do list. To add extra pressure, there’s never been such stiff competition to be the best—or, rather, the most well-known and widely-used—app, tool, or platform. (This is particularly evident in the meditation and mindfulness market, as more than 2,500 meditation mobile apps have been launched since 2015.) This is why, when we think of contemporary tech companies, we primarily think of long workdays and the often-lost weekends. Something important needs to get done today, then tomorrow. Then next week, next month, next year, ad infinitum. But the culture of stress within these fast-paced environments is not something mindfulness and meditation alone will fix. Sure, they can help make things seem less pressing and provide a moment for employees to collect themselves, but only as long as other, more direct measures happen—extended deadlines, a reduced workload, some time off, at least. Mindfulness and meditation is not the sole answer.

To sit through a presentation on mindfulness and meditation, when your inbox is overflowing and there’s already an unreasonable amount of work to get through, can feel insulting. To be told that it’s your failure to be aware, resilient, and kind enough in the workplace that’s the cause of stress, rather than the mammoth workload, can feel like a bad joke. When it comes to meditation and mindfulness in the corporate world, the onus is put on the individual. In their original context of spirituality and religion, it makes complete, utter sense that that’s the case. If you wanted to soul search and, hey, perhaps even find inner peace—a minute or two of it, at least—then that’s up to you. But when mindfulness and meditation practices are amalgamated in a late-capitalist framework, it’s not the structures in which they operate that’s the issue: it is you

There’ll never be enough pizza parties, yoga sessions, or mindfulness breaks to knock a culture of stress, of pressure, of burnout—not just in the tech industry, but in all industries—on its head. Real internal changes need to be enacted. The problem for companies with this, though, is that it means (in one way or another) going against the late-capitalist rulebook. It means paying people appropriately for their labor. It means setting manageable workloads, within appropriate work hours. It means defined holiday time. It means job security. It means healthcare plans. It means proper pension funds. It means contracts where one party isn’t the clear winner, and the other the loser. However, doing this would be seen as incredibly costly in the eyes of skinflint companies.  Although these acts are massively helpful for employees, they don’t directly lead to the creation of more shareholder profit. 

Of course, #NotAllTechCompanies. There are tech companies building worthwhile and necessary tools and apps, and treating the humans that work for them as humans, rather than bots, in the process. This is the standard all tech companies, whether they’re a multinational or a bedroom startup, should be holding themselves to. Because, just like every other worker, tech employees shouldn’t be working themselves to a stupor. Nor should they be meditating toward an early grave.

Thom James Carter is a writer based in Scotland. He’s written for The New Statesman, Insider, Metro, Wellcome Collection, The White Review, The Quietus, and more.

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