Companies are developing mindfulness initiatives to lower employee stress levels.

Mindfulness in the workplace

Employee stress is a major problem for many American businesses, damaging workplace culture and skewing balance sheets. In fact, it costs stateside organizations around $300 billion each year, the World Health Organization projected. To counteract this collective increase in employee anxiety, many are implementing mindfulness programs and training initiatives.

Such strategies not only further company goals by facilitating productivity, but also appeal to younger talent looking for more holistic professional experiences.

"There is a longing for a more spacious, quality existence, both inside and outside of work," Soren Gordhamer, founder of the mindfulness conference Wisdom 2.0, told Fast Company. "The next-generation company and employee is looking for quality of life. We are in the middle of a culture shift; we are no longer interested in just getting through our workday and striving toward relief at the end of our careers. It's about more quality and connection within the work-life continuum."  

Wisdom 2.0 attracts business luminaries like Arianna Huffington and Russell Simons and offers programming to support the professional mindfulness movement. However, this trend derives most of its energy from daring tech magnets with leadership willing to test long-standing workplace norms.

Programs that calm
Google is at the forefront of the corporate mindfulness movement, offering leadership training programs that focus on emotional intelligence and self awareness. The company provides physical and virtual spaces for employees looking to develop their soft skill sets, as well. Workers can take part in meditation classes or log into an online community called gPause​, in which staff share everything from book recommendations to personal stress-relieving strategies. Google also hosts "mindful lunches," during which participants eat in silence and leave only when Buddhist prayer bells ring, Wired reported.

Other Silicon Valley dwellers have taken notice and adopted their own mindfulness initiatives. Twitter hosts holistic managerial training sessions that emphasize self-awareness and active listening. Facebook organizes company-wide meditation workshops to de-stress its army of programmers.

More traditional companies have embraced the trend, as well: Fortune 500 organizations such as General Mills, Nike and Target have adopted mindfulness initiatives, The Boston Globe reported. Even bustling hospitals are implementing these programs.

For instance, Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston organizes meditation meetings for staff, offering momentary peace for its hardworking administrators, nurses and surgeons. 

"The feeling of the workplace itself changes," mindfulness pioneer and Boston-based molecular biologist Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., told The Globe. "You feel like you belong, that you're happy at work, that you can get along with people and as problems come up, they're resolvable. It's transforming the culture of the company from the inside out, and from the bottom up."

Workplace meditation programs are becoming more common.Workplace meditation programs are becoming more common.

Critics find fault
Of course, not everyone is a proponent of corporate mindfulness programs. Some say such practices are a waste of time and half-hearted stand-ins for more impactful solutions to workplace stress.

"Instead of focusing on actual stress reduction, with more flexible work hours, more vacation, more collaborative and less hierarchical work structures, the modern workplace is focusing on the questionable solution of mindfulness," Dr. David Brendel, a psychologist, said in an interview with The Globe.

Others claim that mindfulness programs are a form of misguided corporatized mysticism and provide few benefits to employees. Proponents of the trend bristle at this critique and counter that meditation and other forms of mindfulness training help participants develop key cognitive skills that enable them to grapple with ambiguity and think through complex ideas.

"All the woo-woo mystical stuff, that's really retrograde," Kenneth Folk, a San Francisco-based mindfulness expert, told Wired. "This is about training the brain and stirring up the chemical soup inside."

Measuring the impact
In today's data-driven business world, quantification is a key concern for corporate leaders with an eye toward the mindfulness movement. Just how do you measure employee psychological improvement?

Companies with meditation or self-awareness training test the efficacy of their programs by organizing biometric screenings, the Society For Human Resource Management reported. Essential health metrics like blood pressure readings can spell out success or failure. Questionnaire are also useful, allowing employees to provide feedback about how mindfulness initiatives have affected their work life.

"Proponents assert that potential gains associated with mindfulness programs outweigh the risks."

Plus, proponents point out that potential gains associated with mindfulness programs outweigh the risks, as most cost little but can facilitate internal productivity and boost company profits.

"Costs are minimal because there are tremendous resources on the Internet and from popular media with courses from credible sources, including hospitals, medical schools and universities," Deborah Teplow, CEO of the Institute for Wellness Education in Teaneck, New Jersey, told SHRM.

Even paid, off-site programs don't cost much – some are as cheap as $45 per employee.

With the rise of employee-centered workplace culture, mindfulness initiatives are becoming more ubiquitous across multiple sectors, from tech to medicine. Business leaders who have yet to embrace the trend might find benefits in its calming powers and, considering the low cost, it's at least worth a shot.