There Are Risks to Mindfulness at Work

Mindfulness is close to taking on cult status in the business world. But as with any rapidly growing movement—regardless of its potential benefits—there is good reason here for caution.

Championed for many years by pioneering researchers such as Ellen Langer and Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is a mental orientation and set of strategies for focusing one’s mind on here-and-now experiences, such as abdominal muscle movements during respiration or chirping of birds outside one’s window. It is rooted in ancient Eastern philosophies, such as Taoismand Buddhism. Contemporary empirical research demonstrates its benefits for reducing anxiety and mental stress. A recent study suggested that it might cut the risk of stroke and heart attack as well.

Mindful meditation and other related practices are now widely accepted. The New Republic published an article entitled “How 2014 Became the Year of Mindfulness.” Mindfulness has recently been featured on CBS’ 60 Minutes, and lauded by the Huffington Post. Dan Harris, a well-known ABC News correspondent, published a best-selling book called Ten Percent Happier, which describes his journey to discovering mindful meditation as optimal management for his very publicly shared anxiety disorder. There is increasing interest in how mindfulness can be applied in clinical medicine and psychology, and even large insurance companies are beginning to consider providing coverage for mindfulness strategies for certain patients.

As an executive coach and physician, I often sing the praises of mindfulness approaches and recommend them to clients to manage stress, avoid burnout, enhance leadership capacity, and steady their minds when in the midst of making important business decisions, career transitions, and personal life changes. Drawing on concepts of Eastern philosophies and research evidence from contemporary neuroscience, I help some clients to employ controlled breathing and similar strategies in our sessions and in their everyday lives. In addition, I refer many clients to trusted colleagues who teach them yoga and mindful meditation in greater depth than I can provide in my coaching sessions.

But my growing knowledge of (and enthusiasm for) mindfulness is now tempered by a concern about its potential excesses, as well as the risk that it’s crowding out other equally important models and strategies for managing stress, achieving peak performance, and reaching professional and personal fulfillment. At times, it appears that we are witnessing the development of a “cult of mindfulness” that, if not appropriately recognized and moderated, may result in an unfortunate backlash against it. Here are a couple of my concerns:

The avoidance risk. Some people use mindfulness strategies to avoid critical thinking tasks. I’ve worked with clients who, instead of rationally thinking through a career challenge or ethical dilemma, prefer to disconnect from their challenges and retreat into a meditative mindset. The issue here is that some problems require more thinking, not less. Sometimes stress is a signal that we need to consider our circumstances through greater self-reflective thought, not a “mindful” retreat to focused breathing or other immediate sensory experiences. Mindfulness strategies can prime the mind for sounder rational thinking—but the former clearly should not displace the latter. One of my clients spent so much time meditating and “mindfully” accepting her life “on its own terms” that she failed to confront underperforming workers (and discipline or fire the worst offenders) in her company. After periods of meditating, she struggled to return to focused, task-oriented thinking. She required significant reminders and reassurance from me that embracing Buddhist meditation does not entail tolerating substandard performance from her employees. Mindful meditation should always be used in the service of enhancing, not displacing, people’s rational and analytical thought processes about their careers and personal lives.

The groupthink risk. As mindfulness practices enter mainstream American life, some organizations and companies are admirably encouraging their people to make use of them in the workplace. But I’m aware of situations where this new orientation has gone too far. In one case, the director of a business unit in a financial services corporation required his direct reports to participate several times per week in a 10-15 minute mindfulness session involving controlled breathing and guided imagery. Many participants came to dread the exercise. Some of them felt extremely awkward and uncomfortable, believing that mindfulness practices should be done in private. The very exercise that was supposed to reduce their work-related stress actually had increased it. The practice continued for weeks until several members of the group finally gathered the courage to tell the group leader that they would strongly prefer the daily exercises be optional, with impunity for non-participants. Mindfulness is rooted in a philosophy and psychology of self-efficacy and proactive self-care. Imposing it on people in a top-down manner degrades the practice and the people who might benefit from using it of their own volition.

There is no denying that mindfulness has emerged as a major cultural phenomenon on the contemporary American scene and in the business world in particular. That can be good news for people dealing with stress, burnout, and other realities of the modern workplace. But mindfulness practices need to be incorporated as one among many self-chosen strategies for people aiming to cope with stress, think effectively, make sound decisions, and achieve fulfillment. Mindfulness practices should be used to enhance our rational and ethical thinking processes, not limit or displace them. And mindfulness practices should never be imposed on other people, especially in the workplace. At its very core, mindfulness culture will be a huge step forward for Western cultures if it stays focused on creating opportunities for individuals to discover their own personalized strategies for taming anxieties, managing stress, optimizing work performance, and reaching genuine happiness and fulfillment.

This article originally appeared in The Harvard Business Review