The gift of mindfulness is that it can take many shapes. The curse is that it can become stripped of context, put into an unsupportive environment, and used for profits over people.
These three mistakes can turn a well-intentioned corporate mindfulness program into a vehicle that actually undermines the very health and happiness of the employees it was meant to serve.
Mistake 1) Your Work Only Offers Drop-in Meditations
If your organization wants to bring mindfulness to employees, offering a drop-in meditation or a subscription to an app may seem like a good place to start. It is, after all, a relatively easy lift that can be implemented quickly and cost-effectively.
Certainly, informal drop-in meditation sessions can provide employees many benefits including:
- A much-needed break from sitting at their desk or staring at a screen.
- An opportunity to slow down, relax, and potentially let go of unnecessary mental chatter.
- A chance to deliberately develop positive qualities like kindness, curiosity, and acceptance.
- A chance to connect with coworkers who share similar values and interests.
Yet, if this is the only way employees can engage with mindfulness and meditation, it will never live up to its potential to support employees and your organization.
People will come and go as they please. They will practice when they feel like it and skip it when they don’t. Perhaps some employees will be grateful that meditation exists as an option, but it will always be underutilized.
Anyone who has tried to learn a new skill like meditation knows that practicing haphazardly and reactively is no way to learn. There’s no accountability, no urgency, and ultimately, no progress.
As they say, meditation drop-in’s frequently lead to meditation drop-outs.
One-off meditations aren’t bad per se, but you’re doing employees a disservice by never allowing them to learn in community. People need to make sense of what they just experienced as they step back into the busy flow of their workday.
They need to see how they can bring the fruits of these practices to their work in a way that is personal and intentional.
Don’t make employees connect the dots themselves. Give them the right mix of opportunities to interact with coworkers and integrate these practices within their workday
For instance, you could provide:
- An introductory on-ramp course for people who have never meditated before.
- Opportunities for people to practice in a community so they can learn about mindfulness with and from their colleagues.
- Daily reinforcements to fully develop these practices to the point where people feel comfortable doing them on their own.
- Chances for reflection and discussion after meditating that contextualize the practice and allow it to be a benefit during working hours.
If you are truly invested in your employee’s well-being and believe in mindfulness and meditation, create a culture that actually supports ongoing learning and transformation.
(For a full list of best practices starting a mindfulness program, read Is Mindfulness Right For Your Workplace.)
Mistake 2) Presenting Mindfulness Without Addressing Trauma
Here are three difficult truths to swallow:
- If you aren’t presenting mindfulness practices in an ethical and trauma-sensitive manner, you are potentially causing harm.
- If you don’t have the flexibility for people with different beliefs or values to learn mindfulness, then you’re potentially causing harm.
- If you don’t make space for different types of bodies and personal health histories to practice mindfulness, then you’re potentially causing harm.
Employees need to feel safe to engage with mindfulness on their own terms in a way that is right for their body, history, and beliefs.
The reality is that not everyone feels comfortable tuning-in to their body or breath. For instance, asking people to pay attention to the subtleties of breathing can be triggering if you have breathing difficulties or experienced physical trauma.
Likewise, not everyone feels safe closing their eyes in a room full of people, especially when there is not preexisting rapport or community. (Safety always comes first.)
For some bodies, especially BIPOC, the experience of tuning into feelings and emotions in a room tainted with covert racism is too raw, jarring, and traumatic (more in this in #3).
How Do You Avoid These Pitfalls?
First, you must have an instructor who can teach in a trauma-informed and diversity-aware manner. David Treleaven literally wrote the book called Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness, in which he prescribes the “4 R’s” of trauma-aware practices:
- Realize the widespread impact of trauma, how it’s held in people’s bodies, and understand potential paths for recovery.
- Recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma, especially its triggers during meditation.
- Respond to the unique needs of people by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into the way meditation is presented.
- Resist re-traumatization by providing a safe, stable, and understanding environment for people learning and practicing meditation to avoid overwhelming experiences.
The 4-R’s are accompanied by an ethos of safety, empowerment, trust, and choice.
- Safety is critical to all meditation practices. Without allowing people to feel safe with the instructor, safe with their coworkers, safe in the space, and perhaps most importantly, safe in their own body, these practices will be ineffective or harmful.
- Empower employees by offering choices for how they participate and encouraging their sense of agency and control in their learning.
- Trust people’s own wisdom about what is best for the mind and body, including what types of practices make sense for their life and how to best take care of their bodies.
- Choice is about offering modifications for practices with a variety of anchors that cater to individual differences.
Lastly, you need to adequately inform people about the potential adverse effects of meditation on their body and mind. While full-blown dissociative episodes or panic attacks may be uncommon in shorter practices, it’s important people know what they’re getting themselves into and can take necessary precautions.
Teachers and facilitators must also be equipped to handle the ways in which meditation might scratch deep wounds that are too sensitive to touch (which leads to mistake #3).
Mistake 3) Your Mindfulness Program Is Not Equipped To Explore Injustice
It’s easy to think that if you just offer breathing techniques and calming practices in your office, no harm will be done. It’s even worse when these practices are seen as tools to sedate stressed-out employees into feeling better so they can get back to work faster.
No amount of mindfulness can cure a toxic workplace culture.
If you’re offering meditation, you need to also offer transparency, open discussion, and the possibility for critical feedback as to what’s not working.
Meditation opens a deep and complex doorway for people to honestly look at themselves in the context of their work. This means looking at the ways they may be exposed to unsafe working conditions, exploitative labor practices, sexism, racism, favoritism, and other unfair treatment.
Your organization needs to be prepared to allow this kind of critical meta-awareness to fully bloom. For example. Google’s Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute has done a terrific job making mindfulness and emotional intelligence practical and accessible in the workplace. (Having gone through some of their training, I can vouch for their mission.)
The question is what happens when you search inside yourself and discover a workplace colored by capitalist systems that are tethered to colonialism and white supremacy culture?
What do you do when your mindfulness brings up feelings of racial tensions and microaggressions in the workplace?
How do you non-judgementally hold narratives of dominance and exploitation that are manifesting at your work?
Asking people to mindfully witness and observe their thoughts can be a profoundly liberating experience. It can also shed light on parts of your company that you’d rather not examine.
If employees feel like they are not being heard, not being valued, or not being recognized, then having them sit quietly and reflect upon how their heart feels might bring up discontent, anger, and frustration with your organization.
These issues are often compounded by the fact that mindfulness is often taught from a white, privileged, able-bodied, racial frame. I know because unless I’m very explicit about my positionality as a white male and careful about how I teach, I can cause a lot of harm by offering practices that are ladened with implicit assumptions and judgments that deny the lived hardships that many employees face.
The Way Forward — Use Mindfulness To Empower Employees & Companies To Share A Vision Together
A well-implemented mindfulness program must be part of a much broader vision for inclusion, justice, and equity in the workplace. Consider that by offering mindfulness and meditation you are…
- Asking people to learn a new skill. Don’t make them do that in an isolated container without opportunities for questions, reflection, and integration.
- Asking people to feel deeply. Don’t make them do that without a community of supportive colleagues and teachers who can handle intense feelings and emotions.
- Asking people to become aware of their own thought process. Don’t make them do that without being willing to hold broader conversations about injustice and address the cultural and institutional beliefs that your organization upholds.
If you can avoid these mistakes, then your mindfulness program can invite employees into a story where both the individual and organization are aligned in their values and shared aspirations for greater health and well-being for everyone.