It takes a while to stop the speeding train; switching off the brain to properly meditate takes practice and repetition. After 3-4 cycles I started to notice a feeling of calm. Perhaps the greatest realization, when meditating, for me, was how little I take time to stop and switch off my mind.
Matthew Chapman

In a recent article, we looked at contemporary approaches to improving employee engagement and performance. Taking this one step further, we decided to delve into some more specific aspects of this broad topic. This included exploring the world of meditation to understand some of the more practical applications and successes in the workplace. As part of this initiative, we also tried meditation techniques for ourselves.

Background

Without going into the details of the science, there have been thousands of studies which have shown that meditation can lead to improved health and performance. The most notable indicators are a reduction in stress and anxiety levels. There are also many studies which link such training to physical well-being – for example, reducing blood pressure and improving cardiovascular health. Improved workplace performance may come in the form of improved focus, memory recall and even heightened energy levels. We often refer to having a ‘clear head’ or suffering from ‘brain fog’. This is our less-than-scientific way of knowing and expressing that we are not processing or relaying information at optimal levels. Many studies have demonstrated that meditation can promote greater levels of focus and clarity inside and outside of the work environment.

Meditation Training – Becoming More Common in the Workplace

Meditation is a big business. Jen Wieczner highlights in her article, “Meditation Has Become A Billion-Dollar Business” (Mar 2016) written in Fortune magazine that: “In 2015 the meditation and mindfulness industry raked in nearly $1 billion, according to research by IBISWorld … But even that doesn’t count the revenue from the nearly 1000 mindfulness apps now available.” She goes on, “This year 22% of employers will offer mindfulness training—typically priced between $500 and $10,000 for large-group sessions—a percentage that could double in 2017, according to a forthcoming survey by Fidelity Investments and the National Business Group on Health.”

Business and HR leaders are increasingly embracing meditation. The best-selling books by David Gelles, Mindful Work: How Meditation is Changing Business from the Inside Out and A Mindful Nation by Congressman Tim Ryan have helped to move the discussion into the corporate world.

It is now becoming clear that companies which can offer programs that include meditation training and techniques are viewed as contemporary and employee-centric, thus setting them apart in the war for top talent.

How Meditation Can Improve Performance

Just like you go to the gym to build your muscles, meditation builds the muscles of your attention.
Morgan Dix - "7 Ways Mindfulness Improves Your Performance at Work"

Dix identifies that meditation is a trainable resource and “… if you can learn to harness and improve the quality of your own attention, you and your co-workers will benefit. And if you can create a work culture that values this resource, you’ll be in another league.”

Let’s look at some of the more recognized ways meditation can improve performance and engagement:

1. Improves Focus and Productivity

It is becoming increasingly difficult to focus in today’s workplace, largely due to globalization and technology driving 24/7 contact between the employee and his/her employer. While great strides in collaboration and productivity have been made through the increased usage of communication platforms Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Yammer, Skype, Google Hangouts and the like, we are nonetheless constantly bombarded with attention-grabbing information which we can find stressful and challenging to filter.

If we go back to Rachel Emma Silverman’s article in the Wall Street Journal, “Workplace Distractions: Here's Why You Won't Finish This Article” (December 2012), her words are somewhat prophetic: “Even though digital technology has led to significant productivity increases, the modern workday seems custom-built to destroy individual focus. Open-plan offices and an emphasis on collaborative work leave workers with little insulation from colleagues' chatter. A ceaseless tide of meetings and internal emails means that workers increasingly scramble to get their ‘real work’ done on the margins, early in the morning or late in the evening. And the tempting lure of social-networking streams and status updates make it easy for workers to interrupt themselves.”

Silverman highlighted that Gloria Mark, a professor of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, who studies digital distraction went further: “Office workers are interrupted—or self-interrupt—roughly every three minutes, academic studies have found, with numerous distractions coming in both digital and human forms. Once thrown off track, it can take some 23 minutes for a worker to return to the original task.”

Meditation allows us to recalibrate and regulate our thought processes and to refocus on what is important. It allows us to better center in on a single task and phase out distractions.

2. Helps to Sharpen the Leaders of Tomorrow

There have been studies which identify a correlation between successful leaders and meditation practitioners or more accurately the behaviors derived from meditation practices. In her article, “Meditation as a Pathway for Exceptional Leadership” (Feb 19 2014) written in HR Voice, Natalie Michael draws on a book, Leadership Agility: Five Levels of Mastery for Anticipating and Initiating Change by Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs. They identified that one percent of leaders operate at the most advanced stage, what they called “Synergist Leadership”. Michael explains that, "Synergistic leaders are mindful, meaning they have the ability to be present in the direct experience of the moment. This present moment awareness facilitates connection and relationships with others, especially during challenging conversations and or circumstances. They are also adaptable and able to adjust their style depending on what the situation and person they are interacting with requires, and they are able to create relationships that are truly based on mutual interests.”

Leadership and Talent Development have been thrust into the limelight these last few years and quite rightly so. There has never been so much emphasis on establishing best-in-practice Talent, Learning and Leadership programs for employees. Senior management fully understands that in order to keep ahead of the curve in business terms, you need a highly motivated, well-trained and focused workforce. It is not hard to see, therefore, that having meditation as a tool in a leaders’ toolkit is increasingly enabling a competitive advantage.

3. Creates a Positive and Healthy Culture

Cultures are created out of behaviors by leaders, reinforced or otherwise. If an organization can demonstrate through repeated behavioral patterns its values of calm and mindful leadership, a broader positive and more engaging corporate culture can be created.

The sheer fact that mediation techniques have been more prevalent in innovative leaders’ thinking, more widely reported in business journals through interviews with leading CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and more accepted as forms of training and development in these organizations, it is not difficult to see how a new (and very exciting) business culture is already being created.

4. Improves Listening and Problem Solving Skills

We are all faced with a range of problems and challenges in our working life, varying in forms of complexity and consequence. We like the concept put forward by Manal Ghosain in her blog post, “5 Ways Meditation Can Improve Productivity”, (One With Now, Oct 25 2015): “Think of meditation as a bath for the mind. We step out of thinking and working, and we do something seemingly mundane. And we come up with ideas when we least expect them.” It is an act of cleaning the cupboard, removing the clutter. Meditation is also about enabling us the space and time to see the wood for the trees.

Next time you are listening to someone, try to block out all of the white noise and really listen to what that person is saying and how they are saying it. Look out for tone, inflection, pause. Meditation teaches us that listening should also be active. It fosters understanding, and reinforcement of this understanding can forge strong working relationships. This is especially key when you are operating in teams or managing a variety of personalities. Performance Management discussions are ideal times to really put this into action. Managers must be tuned in when delivering or receiving feedback. Miscommunication or misinterpretation at these critical times can have a huge negative impact on productivity. Conversely, there is a very positive impact when a manager is able to make a connection with both the heart and the mind of an employee.

5. Reduces Stress

Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years. Meditation originally was about achieving a deeper understanding of the powerful and mystical forces of life. These days, meditation is increasingly used for stress reduction. While a growing body of scientific research supports the health benefits of meditation, some researchers believe it's not yet possible to draw firm conclusions about its possible health benefits. Many (including these writers) believe that because it can alleviate stress, it can also help to prevent illnesses that are caused or aggravated by stress.

As human beings we encounter stress every day. It comes in many forms and often out of nowhere. Despite it being a familiar foe, we are still on the whole very bad at handling it. We seldom if ever take training courses on how to manage it and most would feel it inappropriate or a sign of weakness if we raised it with our boss. The truth is, if not dealt with, stress will affect your performance and likely that of those around you. Stress can also cause physical illness. Meditation can help. As an example, we know that breathing deeply increases oxygen flow to the brain and also helps to slow our heart rate. For those of us who are not too thrilled with airplane take off or landings and have used this simple technique, you’ll know it works. Meditation goes a step further and produces a deeper state of relaxation and a clear and calm mind.

Which Organizations Are Leading the Charge?

Some of the more reported innovators in utilizing meditation courses are Google, Apple, AOL, General Mills, Facebook, Hubspot, and Genentech. Some organizations have dedicated studios for such practices. Google has a program called ‘Search Inside Yourself” which is geared toward mastering one’s own attention and creating mental habits. Aetna is also widely regarded as a pioneer in this space after the CEO, Mark T Bertolini, offered free meditation and mindfulness classes to 13,000 employees. According to a New York Times article by David Gelles, “At Aetna, a C.E.O.’s Management by Mantra” (Feb 2015), “More than one-quarter of the company’s work force of 50,000 has participated in at least one class, and those who have report, on average, a 28 percent reduction in their stress levels, a 20 percent improvement in sleep quality and a 19 percent reduction in pain. They also become more effective on the job, gaining an average of 62 minutes per week of productivity each, which Aetna estimates is worth $3,000 per employee per year. Demand for the programs continues to rise; every class is overbooked.”

Indeed, in her article, “The Daily Habit of These Outrageously Successful People” (Sep 2013) for the Huffington Post, Senior Writer, Carolyn Gregoire highlighted the following influential business leaders who said that “meditation has helped them achieve (and sustain) a high level of success”:

  • Rupert Murdoch, Chairman and CEO, News Corp
  • Padmasree Warrior, ex CTO at Cisco Systems and now CEO NextEV USA
  • Tony Schwartz, Founder & CEO, The Energy Project
  • Bill Ford, Executive Chairman, Ford Motor Company
  • Oprah Winfrey, Chairwoman & CEO, Harpo Productions, Inc.
  • Larry Brilliant, CEO, Skoll Global Threats Fund
  • Ray Dalio, Founder & Co-CIO, Bridgewater Associates USA
  • Russell Simmons, Co-Founder, Def Jam Records; Founder of GlobalGrind.com
  • Robert Stiller, CEO, Kuerig Green Mountain Coffee Inc.
  • Arianna Huffington, President & Editor-in-Chief, Huffington Post Media Group

Not-for-profit organizations are also showing us how to integrate meditation into our daily working lives.
Anis Baig, VP Global Talent with a large Healthcare organization based on the US East Coast, volunteers as a Heartfulness Meditation Trainer for the Heartfulness Institute (http://en.heartfulness.org/) and has been practicing meditation for over a decade says: "Heartfulness meditation has become an integral part of my daily routine. It helps me start the day with a purpose and get energized by connecting with my inner-self and getting ready for everything that comes my way as a busy global HR professional. We are working with several corporations on Heartfulness meditation and relaxation programs. The feedback from regular participants is that it has not only reduced their stress, but has created poise in their daily work and brought in a greater sense of empathy when dealing with everyone at work and at home. And from a management point of view, that is an effective engagement tool."

The Impact of Technology

Technology helps us to maximize the effectiveness by which we can communicate and transmit training and development initiatives. Meditation is no different. There are some great companies making a real headway in this space. These days, meditation is easily delivered via platforms which are accessible on any computer or mobile device. For example, Heartfulness Institute provides an app that enables you to interact with meditation trainers located in most of the major cities around the world.

This highlights a very interesting trend that the most forward thinking individuals are taking control of their own access to meditation and are not solely relying on ‘live’ training programs. From an employer point of view, this can relieve cost burdens associated with group training situations.

It’s also worth noting that meditation systems are evolving and becoming much more ‘user-friendly’ for busy leaders in the modern business world. For example, Heartfulness recommends a specific way to meditate in the morning to gain focus, set goals and energize, and then a ‘de-cluttering and rebalancing’ at the end of the business day. This evening activity can also connect to the subconscious which works while we sleep, ensuring the brain effectively processes and prioritizes what’s most important across the full spectrum of an executive’s work and personal life.

We do need, however, to be careful of falling into the trap of using too many avenues, apps or platforms thus increasing the white noise, distraction and taking away from what meditation really is at its core—the ability to center and focus on one thing completely and utterly. To this end we like the desktop trigger Anti-Social which automatically blocks all social network sites for a chosen length of time. Also a good way to ensure you and your team stay focused on the task at hand!

Conclusion

So where are we today? Has meditation percolated throughout global commerce or is it still being championed by only the few? Are the metrics and scientific studies proving an incontrovertible link between meditation and increased productivity and performance in the workplace? Is it even right to make the link, given that meditation’s purpose in its historical teachings was not used for material gain?

Oliver Burkeman makes a fantastic point in his article published in the Guardian, “Meditation sweeps corporate America, but it’s for their health. Not yours” (Apr 2015). While agreeing that there is a great deal of weight behind meditation and its corporate benefits, he highlights that “…the problem is one familiar from corporate attempts to impose organized fun at the office: just because some activity is good in itself, it doesn’t follow that good things will happen when it’s co-opted by the engines of commerce.” Or indeed as he notes, “... meditation at work could become one more thing in which employees feel obliged to participate, so as to curry favor with bosses.” His is a very well-balanced view.

Should we be wary? Are mindfulness mantras a type of corporate control? Cynics may say so. However, let us take another view. Meditation stretches well beyond the office door and truly into the lives of those who practice it. It may be introduced for the first time by an employer, but that could be just the starting point, just the spark that ignites the fire. When an individual truly embraces meditation it can begin to affect their lives in and out of their corporate role, including a vast array of positive benefits with personal relationships and possibly even their outlook on life. Implications that go well beyond the realm of productivity and wellness.

Clearly, we are discovering that meditation has undeniable and very tangible benefits. Having tried it ourselves, we have been impressed, although the more we tried, the more we developed an appreciation of the fact that meditation does take persistence and dedication to master. For this reason, we believe meditation is not something that will suit or be appreciated by everyone who tries it. However, by offering it as an option to employees, we feel that at worst employers will position themselves in a very positive light in the eyes (and hearts) of their employees. And chances are, a good number of them will adopt the techniques and lead happier, healthier and more productive lives and careers.