“Mindful Work”: Drowning social ethics in a sea of neoliberal niceness (book review)Posted on Jun 25, 2015 in Blog
In the closing pages of Mindful Work: How Meditation is Changing Business From the Inside Out, author David Gelles shares a final vignette that (like the rest of the book) is more revealing for what it omits than what it describes. Interviewing Chade-Meng Tan, founder of Google’s wildly successful “Search Inside Yourself” mindful business training program, Gelles asks him why mindfulness is so popular in Silicon Valley today. Meng replies, “The corporate spirit here is to radically change things for the better, to take radical steps for improving the world . . . It’s a very altruistic and idealistic culture.”
Gelles shares Meng’s self-congratulatory explanation without additional context or commentary. Yet it’s well known that the Silicon Valley tech boom has created unprecedented socio-economic inequality in the Bay area, with record numbers of homeless and a hemorrhaging middle and working class. Such facts, however, which raise important questions about Meng’s vision of “radical altruism,” are invisible to the world of Mindful Work. The larger social context in which Silicon Valley’s “radical steps for improving the world” are supposedly occurring is never mentioned, let alone analyzed and discussed.
This isn’t to suggest that the tech industry hasn’t, in fact, made positive contributions to the world in many ways. But Mindful Work provides no criteria by which to measure either the positive or negative social impacts of the business world’s “mindful revolution.” Instead, it zig-zags between presenting bombastic claims without critical commentary (Meng, for example, claims that SIY training “leads to Level 5 leadership. And happiness. And world peace”) and assuring readers that if mindfulness might make bosses just a little bit nicer, and workers just a little bit more able to manage their stress, then it’s all good.
I believe that we can and should set the bar higher, both analytically and pragmatically. The value of mindfulness in the workplace needs to be evaluated in concrete terms that include both individual, interpersonal, organizational, and social dimensions. Personally, I found it to be a poignant, if not depressing sign of the times that Gelles, a New York Times journalist, evidences significantly less social and political awareness than the progressive-minded CEOs of luxury clothing brands Patagonia, PrAna, and Eileen Fisher, who he interviewed for the book. Whatever happened to the Fourth Estate?
Not all that long ago, elite journalists were expected to cultivate a broad social vision, and analyze current events through a lens informed by a commitment to (small-“d”) democratic values. Gelles’ authorial voice is certainly likeable: he comes across as a genuinely nice person who’s enthused about mindfulness because it enables him to be more present with his family at mealtimes despite the relentless demands of his job. His writing, however, evidences not the slightest hint of old-school journalistic, let alone politically progressive values.
Instead, Mindful Work conveys the taken-for-granted neoliberalism of someone who’s been thoroughly socialized into the politics of the post-Reagan and Thatcher eras, in which “there is no such thing as society.” Everything of consequence is assumed to happen at the individual level; consequently, there’s no need to think into the social and organizational contexts in which businesses operate and work actually takes place. “But for all this talk of stress, we rarely examine its root causes,” Gelles writes. “Stress isn’t something imposed on us. It’s something we impose on ourselves.”
Given this framework, the claim that mindfulness is important because it gives us the tools to manage our stress makes perfect sense. As does the silence surrounding the work context in which said mindfulness is being employed. This mindset implicitly endorses the view that the way to reduce stress in any work situation is simply to add mindfulness, rather than assess whether it’s possible to improve working conditions in more concrete and systemic ways.
For example, Gelles happily reports how “at Green Mountain Coffee, based in Waterbury, Vermont, mindfulness has become part of the fabric of the company”:
At Green Mountain, mindfulness training started with the top executives and soon spread to midlevel employees. But Fried and her colleagues realized that much of the workforce was still not being served. The frontline workers who put in 12-hour shifts roasting coffee beans, packing boxes, and shipping them off . . . also need a bit of on-the-job stress relief . . . in a bid to reduce injuries, and perhaps increase mental well-being as well, she made it mandatory that all frontline workers do a series of mindful stretching exercises before beginning their shifts.
While Gelles quotes two workers saying they came to like the “Mindful Stretching” program because they found themselves in less pain at the end of the work day, one has to wonder how they’d feel about being offered 8-hour shifts at a higher wage rate instead. Mindful Work, however, doesn’t bother with questions such as what their pay scale might be, and why they are working 12-hour shifts.
Gelles does, however, report that “while it may be hard to draw a direct line form the mindfulness program to the bottom line, Green Mountain is thriving”:
Though meditation is no guarantee of a rising stock price, Green Mountain’s market capitalization increased fifteen-fold in the five years after it introduced mindfulness . . . And managers like Laura Fried view the company in a new light. ‘Look at this as a whole spectrum of offerings,’ she said. ‘Basic services that we provide to people who are dealing with their morning commute, and people like me who are facing existential issues . . . We are providing them with opportunities to enhance their own experiences at work and at home.’
Two hundred pages later, Gelles reports that Green Mountain’s founder and former CEO, Bob Stiller, who “was once featured on the cover of Forbes as he meditated,” squandered his fortune on “trophy real estate,” such as a $17.5 million apartment in Manhattan, after retiring in 2007 as a billionaire who’d reached “the highest realms of American capitalism.” While Gelles uses Stiller’s story to illustrate the fact that “practicing mindfulness is no antidote to materialism,” he (rather oddly) presents this seemingly frank admission of the limitations of the corporate mindfulness movement as a means of rebutting David Loy and Ron Purser’s widely read “Beyond McMindfulness” article.
Gelles quotes Loy and Purser’s critique that “corporations have jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon because it conveniently shifts the burden onto the individual employees: stress is framed as a personal problem, and mindfulness is offered as just the right medicine to help employees work more efficiently and calmly within toxic environments” verbatim. Yet, rather than seeing the parallels with some of the stories he’s presenting and claims he’s making, Gelles scoffs at this “seductively nefarious vision” of “corporations brainwashing their minions with meditation, turning them into more efficient, profitable drones.”
Rather than acknowledging that he already endorsed the view that stress is a personal problem and trying to defend it as correct, Gelles simply sidesteps the heart of the McMindfulness critique by assuring readers that “rarely, if ever, does exposure to meditation make someone a worse person.”
Mindful Work is so deeply immersed in the neoliberal mindset that despite devoting an entire chapter to rebutting “McMindfulness” as Lefty claptrap, Gelles appears oblivious to the ways in which his book exemplifies many of the issues that Loy and Purser identified. Gelles, for example, approvingly cites research stating that “mindfulness can be a source of employer value proposition and may in the long run provide organizations with a valuable tool to manage high burnout levels of employees within the workplace.” He doesn’t, however, ask why employee burnout levels are so high – let alone investigate what, if anything, might be done to address this other than offering mindfulness programs based on the premise that it’s up to each individual to cope with the stress that they presumably manufacture of their own accord.
Happily, Mindful Work also reports on several companies in which mindfulness is integrated into a broader commitment to developing and implementing socially responsible business practices. The founder and Board chair of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, has struggled “to bring his personal mindfulness into the operations of his business,” which, he recognizes, only goes so far given that the company’s bottom line is selling high-end outdoor clothing. Still, the company has worked hard within the parameters they have to lighten their environmental impact, pioneering the technique of using recycled bottles to make fleece jackets, and facilitating “a robust aftermarket for used Patagonia products.” The company is also fiercely committed to its employees: Patagonia hasn’t fired anyone since 1991, and bucked powerful business trends by refusing to lay anyone off during the Great Recession.
Similarly, PrAna, another high-end active wear company, does more than simply take a company-wide “meditation break” at 3 pm daily. It also works to realize its commitment to socially responsible business practices by taking concrete steps such as increasing its use of organic cotton and other environmentally sound fabrics, and having senior managers openly discuss how best to handle any necessary trade-offs between the company’s financial goals and ethical commitments.
Similarly, Eileen Fisher, a high-end women’s clothing company, combines mindful work breaks and inclusive “Circle Way” company discussions with concrete policies such as distributing at least 10% of annual after-tax profits to staff, sourcing environmentally sustainable fabrics, and increasing salaries and reducing hours for the Chinese workers who produce their fabrics.
Mindful Work apparently went to press before Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini made headlines by raising the wages of the company’s lowest-paid workers to $16 an hour. Gelles does, however, recount the story of how a near-fatal skiing accident eventually caused Bertolini to explore yoga and meditation as a way of getting off pain killers and rebuilding his health. After returning to work and being promoted to CEO, Bertolini instituted yoga and mindfulness programs in the workplace.
Unsurprisingly, Mindful Work highlights the fact that an evaluation of these programs showed participating employees lowering their stress levels in ways that positively impacted the bottom line, dropping their “overall health care costs to the tune of $2,000 per employee per year.” Happily, however, Bertolini — unlike Gelles — was also interested in thinking into the company’s working conditions more broadly.
As NPR reported in April, Bertolini and his team took the time to investigate the “challenges their low-wage workers face”:
(T)hey discovered that to make ends meet many were on public assistance, such as food stamps, or Medicaid for their children. Bertolini says he was taken aback, shocked “that we as a thriving organization, as a successful company, a Fortune 100 company, should have people that were living like that among the ranks of our employees.”
Bertolini was committed to changing that, but he discovered the cost of boosting compensation for his low-paid workers would be significant — about $27 million a year. But he also found that research shows there are costs associated with paying low wages. Low-paid workers quit more often, and the turnover is expensive. There’s also evidence higher-paid employees provide better customer service. Bertolini thought the potential benefits could offset the $27 million cost and improve his company’s profits in the long run.
Skeptics contested this sunny view that it’s possible to raise wages and improve profits at the same time. Bertolini, however, was undeterred, contending that “even if it doesn’t boost profits — and maybe even if it costs the company something — raising wages is still the right thing to do”:
“There definitely is a moral component and, you know, I had plenty of arguments that the spreadsheet wouldn’t pencil out,” he says. “And my view was, in the end analysis, this is just not fair . . . We need to invest in our employees. We need to help restore the middle class, and that should be good for the economy as a whole. And so for us it is as much — probably, for me personally, more — a moral argument than it is a financial one.”
According to NPR, “Bertolini has become an evangelist on this subject, handing out a how-to packet to other CEOs to encourage them to look closely at boosting their low-income workers’ compensation. He says he’s getting positive feedback from many.”
The Real Bottom Line
These are strange days, indeed. When it comes to wages and working conditions, the CEO of Aetna is many times more radical than a New York Times journalist writing a book about mindfulness. Similarly, the top execs of high-end clothing manufacturers Patagonia, PrAna, and Eileen Fisher link their mindfulness programs to ethical commitments and company policies far more demanding than America’s leading mindfulness teachers generally advocate.
If Mark Bertolini can become “an evangelist” on the subject of how to increase wages for low-income workers, then why can’t the “conscious communities” that practice yoga, meditation, and mindfulness do the same? And why can’t elite journalists advocate for more than a little more niceness and tools for individual stress-reduction in today’s radically unequal labor market?
Today’s mindfulness movement has much to offer. Gelles is right to champion the virtues of learning to manage one’s own stress more effectively, as well as fostering a kinder and more considerate workplace. The problem, of course, is that in a time of relentless work speed-ups, ever-increasing inequality, unprecedented environmental devastation, and unraveling democratic values, this simply isn’t enough.
Gelles dismisses such concerns as beside the point, concluding Mindful Work with the hand-waving truism that mindfulness “won’t transform out entire economic system on its own . . . Perfection is more than should be expected from a simple meditative technique.” Of course, that’s true. What’s also true, however, is that over-hyping the “quiet revolution” of corporate mindfulness may end up doing do more harm than good. This is particularly true when it’s praised both for its potential to “reduce stress, making drab days in cubicles more bearable” for office workers, while serving as “a source of employer value proposition” by providing “valuable tools to manage high burnout levels of employees.”
Critics of the contemporary mindfulness movement rightfully contend that teaching tools for quieting the mind and focusing non-judgmentally on the present moment without any accompanying ethical framework is problematic. Even with an ethical framework, however, it’s impossible to harness the power of mindfulness to promote positive changes in business without considering the organizational and social context in which it’s operating. While Mindful Work presents some important examples of how mindfulness, social ethics, and business practices can be combined, it does so in a way that obscures, rather than highlights the essential point that this combination is, in fact, the real bottom line.