Last week I came across an interesting article that questioned the effectiveness of mindfulness (or meditation) in the workplace. It asks whether it’s helpful for organisations to have people “accept things as they are”.
It’s certainly a valid concern. After all, business is about innovation, disruption, pushing the boundaries and maintaining the edge over the competition. Leaders can’t afford to have a workforce that’s heavy on the Zen, Monday to Friday.
The researchers, who wrote the article for The New York Times (NYT), stated that the five studies they carried out involving hundreds of people found that “meditation is demotivating”.
I thought this was fascinating, not least of all because people like Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, and media mogul Oprah Winfrey count themselves among avid meditators in the world of business.
Nevertheless, I was interested to check out the claims that meditation was demotivating. Aside from my research that strongly points to benefits of meditation such as helping to cultivate resilience, focus, and a stronger memory, I contacted Buddhist scholar and monk, Ajahn Brahmali, who is based at the Bodhinyana monastery in Perth, Australia, for more information.
I asked what his views were on the idea that mindfulness can be demotivating. While he agreed that there are valid points in the NYT researchers’ arguments, he suggests they might be missing the point of meditation in the long term.
“When done correctly, meditation is about relaxation and letting go of willpower, whereas a work task normally requires exerting the will. So one should expect to a see slump in motivation, especially immediately after the meditation,” he said.
Indeed, the researchers – Kathleen Vohs and Andrew Hafenbrack – describe meditation as being similar to napping. We might wake up feeling refreshed and less harried, but, they write, “Then again, who wakes up from a nap eager to organise some files?”
That’s an important point. Meditation isn’t the same as an energy drink; it doesn’t provide an immediate boost of energy. It’s akin to exercising: it takes time to cultivate the benefits. Ajahn Brahmali explained, “I think the weakness of the study is that it says nothing about when the efficiency of the worker was measured.
“The impression I get, in part based on the quote about napping, is that it was measured straight after meditation. I think this is the wrong measure.
“What one needs to focus on is overall productivity for the day. It may be that effectiveness is the same for the first half an hour after meditation, but what about the rest of the day?
“I suspect the impact of a rested mind will be particularly pronounced at a later stage, while the accumulated tiredness of those who did not rest or meditate will be much greater.”
In Malaysia alone, almost two thirds of workers report some kind of work-related stress over the course of their working lives. In a worldwide context, stress is recognised as a growing burden by organisations such as the World Health Organisation, costing people both physical and psychological issues and seeing national economies losing out to the tune of billions of dollars each year.
On a personal note, I’m a strong advocate of the practice of mindfulness meditation as it’s helped me over the years to effectively manage social anxiety and episodes of depression.
Ajahn Brahmali suggested that the studies described in the NYT article are unlikely to stand the test of time.
More rigorous research is needed in the relatively new field of mindfulness to give a clear indication of its benefits in a work setting.
Even if meditation isn’t someone’s thing, adequate mental rest is vital if people’s mental health is to improve and leaders are to see increases in innovation and productivity.
Ajahn Brahmali added, “How effective would we be if we never slept? There seems to be a lot of anecdotal evidence that the so-called power nap can help work performance. Many people know this from personal experience. It may well be that we don’t wake up ‘eager to organise files’, but clearly our overall productivity is enhanced by resting at appropriate times.”
For me, the takeaway from the debate is that, while there needs to be more research into the efficacy of mindfulness in the workplace, we need to be careful that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater by claiming that meditation lowers levels of motivation.
After all, when we look at the continuing successes of meditators such as Oprah Winfrey, Jack Dorsey, Tina Turner, and Sir Paul McCartney, it doesn’t seem to be encouraging them to simply slow down and accept things as they are. On the contrary, it appears to inspire them to appreciate life more and make the most of their time.