Mindfulness at work: Why businesses should be taking this ‘fad’ seriously

Kathleen Hall

Wednesday 15 October 2014

The technology sector and the secular meditative practice known as ‘mindfulness’ might seem like unlikely bedfellows. After all, technology has made our lives hyper-connected, and in the process has arguably eroded our ability to switch off, whereas mindfulness is all about taking a deep breath and finding inner calm in the moment.

This year, more than 2000 delegates attended the annual Wisdom 2.0 Conference in San Francisco – an event dedicated to encouraging people to “live with deeper wisdom, compassion and awareness in the digital age”. And it seems the uptake of mindfulness is also making its way to Europe, with the first Wisdom 2.0 Europe recently held in Dublin, Ireland.

Neil Seligman, conference attendee and mindfulness coach, believes there are a number of reasons why the tech sector has been leading the way in this meditative practice – which usually involves paying attention to a single point of focus, such as breathing.

“It is a typically forward-thinking [sector], with the ability to engage with new ideas because it is at the forefront of things,” he says.

As well as being home to numerous technology companies, California also has an open-minded hippie culture interested in spiritual practices, according to Seligman. “Wisdom 2.0 is about bringing those two worlds together.”

But mindfulness is no navel-gazing, mystical fad. Various academic research papers have found associated health benefits among employees to have used mindfulness techniques – including reduced anxiety, stress and depression.

Transport for London, for example, put its staff through a series of mindfulness programmes and reported a 71 per cent drop in the number of days off related to stress, anxiety and depression.

Mindfulness in the workplace can also have a direct impact on the bottom line, with a correlation between its usage and increased productivity, as employees are able to face their work in a calmer, more efficient way.

Rohan Gunatillake, creator of mindful and meditation mobile app company Buddhify, says it is exactly this kind of evidence-based reasoning – that can demonstrate the efficacy of mindfulness techniques through data – that appeals to the tech sector in particular.

Because of this, some companies have created dedicated mindfulness zones for employees to take time out, while other larger tech corporates are enrolling staff on mindfulness courses, or flying in meditation gurus from across the world to give talks.

But Seligman says the beauty of mindfulness is that techniques can easily be incorporated into the working day. They can even involve simple exercises such as taking a discreet ‘mindfulness minute’ by concentrating on inhaling and exhaling, or using certain cues – such as the phone ringing – to take a moment and just concentrate on a deep breath. These types of practices are ideal for smaller companies that do not have the resources of the larger Silicon Valley companies.

But Gunatillake believes there has also been a desperate need for an antidote to some of the high-powered practices within many 2.0 startup organisations.

“Sometimes you have to see the problem before you can see the solution,” he says. “The archetypal tech startup culture has previously been very intense. I think it has grown up a lot since [the mid-2000s], but there was this macho programmer culture of staying up all night, drinking caffeine and coding – which is not sustainable.”

Productivity and creativity require calmness of mind, adds Gunatillake. “If you do not have access to that sustainable peace then you will burn out.”

Lawrence Ampofo, mindfulness expert and director of Semantica Research, a data analytics company, says mindfulness helps people escape digital distractions and “hack into the flow” – the state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus.

“It is very popular in places like advertising agencies and software design agencies,” Ampofo says. “Some larger companies are using mindfulness. But a lot of smaller, innovative companies are also using it, as they need people’s minds to be focused on one thing in order to be creative.”

Gunatillake agrees that a number of entrepreneurs and tech startups are adopting mindfulness techniques in Europe. But the majority of his client base (75 per cent) is still based in the North America. “I think we are still early in the process,” he says.

However, given the growing body of research to back up the use of mindfulness, the ever-growing number of digital distractions and the appetite among the tech sector to find new, innovative ways of working, it is a practice that is bound to become increasingly popular.