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Corporate mindfulness

Tackle the sources of stress, not just a 'quick fix'

Dr Mai Chi Vu, PhD Alumna, and Professor Roger Gill, Visiting Professor - January 2020

Over the past few decades, we have seen significant changes in both organisational and management theory. There has been a substantial shift from traditional to more modern and spiritual approaches in the study of organisations.

We have witnessed a switch in the focus of many corporations, from aims such as profit maximisation and shareholder value, to one of wellbeing, spirituality and corporate social responsibility. Alongside this, companies and organisations alike are becoming more complex with their leaders and employees facing ever more diverse and challenging dilemmas. Because of this, more contemporary approaches and practices, such as the use of mindfulness techniques, have become widely employed.

Inspired by Buddhist teachings, mindfulness is an individual practice people use to cultivate wisdom in order to help them resolve problems causing suffering and to enhance personal development. However, in the secular context, corporate or organisational mindfulness is largely recognised as a company’s effort to bring a heightened awareness of its employees to each moment and to help them to discern and respond to threats quickly.

This view and practice of mindfulness exists in stark contrast to the individual level of practice of mindfulness that originated in Buddhism. Instead, this “corporate mindfulness” approach acts as an overtly generalised quick-fix approach to workplace stress, which is often caused in the first place by the companies themselves through compliance with uncomfortable or unrealistic profit targets, sales targets and other such objectives (e.g., ‘do or die’).

This approach has little relationship to its Buddhist origins of ‘right mindfulness’ in the Noble Eightfold Path. This involves learning higher moral disciplines, wisdom and consciousness to facilitate intellectual understanding of your own surroundings and moderate your own desires, thus transforming yourself and reducing the suffering that results from attachment to your desires. Ignoring most of these fundamental components of right mindfulness, secular interpretations and practices of corporate mindfulness are little more than a universalised stress-release technique, open to misuse and exploitation by organisations in the pursuit of greater productivity, profitability and shareholder value rather than human wellbeing.

Consequently, in a study of mindfulness we interviewed 24 leading Buddhist executives from across a number of sectors in Vietnam, a nation that has both a long Buddhist history and a diverse cultural landscape. This was to ascertain how, and at what point, mindfulness techniques could (and should) be introduced in organisations in a way that does not jeopardise the true nature and practice of mindfulness. We adopted a semi-structured interview approach with the respondents to capture the complex and contextual nature of mindfulness practices. The questions were designed to encourage in-depth descriptions, explanation and reasoning by them.

We found that the practice of mindfulness is more effective as an individual, personal practice in which the Buddhist principles are adhered to; this is something corporate mindfulness falls foul of. The respondents indicated that they often use various techniques and practices to attain mindfulness rather than employing a common formula, stressing the importance of factors such as context, personal choice, personal adaptability and capability, and conditions.

Furthermore, some respondents gave examples of both the advantages and the shortcomings of applying Buddhist mindfulness techniques in the workplace, which reinforced the notion that they should be used on a contextual and individual basis.

Many respondents noted that a generalised approach – as seen in many secular, organisational approaches – directly contravenes the traditional Buddhist understanding of right mindfulness. Corporate mindfulness, owing to the tendency to ignore Buddhist fundamental principles in practising the mindfulness underlying it, does not look to eliminate the suffering caused by greed, hatred and ignorance, but instead actually reflects selfishness, greed and inflexibility.

Our research findings suggest that no proper attention has been paid to exactly how the practice of mindfulness should be effectively and ethically designed and transferred into organisations from forms of individual practice. Corporate mindfulness practices are generalised and universalised as a ‘band-aid’ and are often seen as a blanket solution for all types of contemporary problems and suffering.

There are many approaches and techniques that have become the ‘flavour of the month’ in organisations, have been misapplied, and now litter the history of management practice failures. Corporate mindfulness is the latest one at risk.

If there is any hope of remedying these issues, corporate mindfulness must be applied only on a contextual, compassionate and wisdom-focused basis, with employees’ wellbeing in mind.

More importantly, instead of simply adopting company-wide initiatives to tackle workplace stress, it would be more beneficial to employees if organisations were to tackle the sources of stress. This could be achieved through simple changes, such as looking to improve employees’ work-life balance. Methods such as these could prove more effective in improving morale and productivity than simply applying company-wide generic stress reduction techniques to tackle the stress that, often, they cause.

For more information on the research, click here and search ‘corporate mindfulness’