The Mis-Use of Mindfulness

by Annmargaret Nolan

It’s certainly popular among wellness practitioners and coaches, but has Mindfulness been hijacked and positioned as a cure for poor leadership and corporate culture? Annmargaret Nolan explores the dilution of Mindfulness as a valuable intervention, and the attempts to shift the responsibility of stress from the employer to the employed.

There is a growing concern among the leading institutions in mindfulness research and training that the over rapid and somewhat hyped spread of mindfulness in society is at risk of producing a dilution in quality and authenticity, and may even do harm. Mindfulness is not a universal panacea for our challenges, stresses and emotional hardships, rather it is a powerful psychological intervention that when used appropriately can support us in seeing clearly the habits of behaviour that may be blocking our lives and supports us in making changes to these habits.

The danger with mindfulness is that it can be touted as ‘stress-free’ living

Perhaps the biggest misperception with mindfulness is that it brings a constant calmness with little or no annoyance, frustration or stress. What mindfulness does is help us learn to manage and respond to the stress of our lives in a different way. Mindfulness will not provide any kind of immunisation to stress, but it does help us relate to it differently (D’Alton, 2015). Stress is an inevitable part of life and we need a certain degree of stress to function and survive. Rather than being designed for happiness, our minds are designed to survive. Mindfulness can give us a way to respond and relate to stress in a healthier way.

The danger with mindfulness is that it can be touted as “stress-free” living. Our understanding of mindfulness tends to veer towards some zombie-like, sedated, emotionally flat human being (D’Alton, 2015). Right mindfulness helps us to turn up to our lives as they are right now, allowing stress to be there, however responding to it from a place of wisdom and spaciousness rather than from a narrow frame of reference or bubble of subjective self. A willingness to experience what Jon Kabat-Zinn calls “full catastrophic reality” as part of a mindfulness regime are all better ways to deal with the stress in our lives (Lucey, 2016).

Mindfulness is by no means a quick-fix. It requires discipline and commitment. Establishing a daily mindfulness meditation practice or attending regular classes privately or in the workplace is the ideal situation for learning, growth and change. Changes are generally incremental as it takes time and repetition to change the psychological habits of a lifetime and cultivate a more workable relationship with “self”. Within behavioural science, repetition brings expertise. Life gives us regular opportunities to repeat and relearn. Right mindfulness invites one to be kinder and more accepting of oneself now, rather than comparing oneself to a past or possible future self.

Mindfulness can be demanding both psychologically and emotionally. D ‘Alton describes mindfulness as a “wellness intervention” and not to be undertaken at times of acute crisis. Rather participants should be reasonably well and in remission from depression, anxiety or physical illnesses before undertaking a mindfulness programme. Literature suggests that when an individual is in crisis, the focus should be on diet, exercise, sleep and social support. The internal world might be a harsh place to go at this time (Lucey, 2016).

Much research pertains that when in crisis, social connection gets people through rather than mindfulness practice. Individuals should ensure they have some “fuel in the tank” before commencing a mindfulness programme and organisations should be aware that a mindfulness programme is most effective for employees when there is a “steady ship” in the workplace rather than a period of great change.

One of the key criticisms of implementing workplace mindfulness courses is that it doesn’t change the poor practices of toxic leaders or organisational cultures

Within the corporate environment, short-term, quick fix mindfulness programmes have been dubbed humorously as “McMindfulness”. Corporations have jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon because it conveniently shifts the burden onto the individual employee: 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 (Purser and Loy, 2013).

One of the key criticisms of implementing workplace mindfulness courses is that it doesn’t change the poor practices of toxic leaders or organisational cultures, but can instead be applied like a ‘sticking plaster’. The danger of mis-using Mindfulness in corporate contexts is that it is de-contextualised from its social ethical foundations of awakening individuals and organisations and is refashioned into a banal, self-help technique to enhance the “soft skills” needed for career success.

Using mindfulness appropriately within organisations so that it complements good business practice is essential.

Combining Mindfulness with effective wellbeing programs that support good health is ethically sound and makes good business sense. Mindfulness cannot be taught to staff in one day or even a few weeks, there needs to a continued exposure to mindfulness so that it becomes interwoven into the corporate culture from the top down.

Perhaps it is in linking coaching and mindfulness that we can find an answer to successfully introducing mindfulness-based approaches at corporate level. Business coaching is an established organisational modality that is not perceived as a quick fix to work stresses and challenges, rather it is generally viewed as a supportive and dynamic catalyst for change often used by top level executives and senior management. Mindfulness links beautifully with Coaching. It offers the coach a skilful resource to use with clients to support their learning about the mind, thoughts and emotions in an appropriate context within the workplace, therefore mindfulness is not de-contextualised.

Coaching sessions can be viewed as a laboratory to mindfully explore how clients are relating to themselves…

Coaching offers a gateway for mindfulness to be integrated into an organisation’s corporate culture in a rich and meaningful way. Learning opportunities can often present themselves in coaching sessions and the coach can support the client in being mindfully aware of their bodily sensations, thoughts and emotions both in session and then mapping this behaviour into the wider working contexts. Clients can be encouraged to approach coaching sessions in the spirit of openness, curiosity, non-judgement and acceptance. These attitudes carried into the workplace can cultivate creativity and innovation and reduce workplace anxiety and conflicts.

Coaching sessions can be viewed as a laboratory to mindfully explore how clients are relating to themselves, to colleagues and the culture of the workplace. Mindfulness skills can be practised in session or as agreed outside-session practice.  Mindful coaching with clients can greatly reduce their reactivity to stress and improve their performance and capacity to learn and change. Clients can make the shift from reacting from the flight/ fight / freeze response to a more reflective mode of mind which can offer a fertile ground for breakthroughs and sustainable, lasting changes, perhaps even breaking some life-long self destructive and debilitating habits.

From the coach’s perspective, there are many benefits too. It offers them a useful tool to prepare for and close off each session. They can learn to become deeply aware of their own bodily sensations, thoughts and emotions in session and thus, lower their own reactivity so the optimum learning space is contained for the client. They can be aware of being overly attached to outcomes for clients and trust in the process in a richer way approaching each session with a curious beginner’s mind. A regular, personal mindfulness practice can offer coaches a powerful tool for their own self-care.

Mindfulness cannot make us eternally happy, and perhaps some issues with bringing mindfulness into the workplace will always be present. However, when we connect mindfulness and coaching it offers us a potent agent for change, that through a ripple effect can be experienced throughout the organisation and not just by those engaging with coaching.

Mindfulness is so much more than a self-improvement technique. Cultivating mindfulness in an appropriate way with other modalities such as coaching can support individuals and organisations to live and work with increased vitality and focussed intentionality whilst understanding deeply the interconnectedness of the human condition. Mindfulness coupled with effective coaching and wellbeing programmes can finally begin to create organisations “fit to house the human spirit”. (The Mindfulness Initiative).

 7 Recommendations for individuals and organisations to support Right Mindfulness:

  1. Mindfulness is not for relaxation – it can help us relate to stress in a more responsive way and help us to see that the life challenge we may be facing is not our whole lives.
  2. Mindfulness is not about controlling thoughts – we learn how to let thoughts come and go. We decide which thoughts guide our behaviour and realise our thoughts are not facts!
  3. Mindfulness is not about always being happy – we learn to experience the full range of emotions without being swept away by them and so cultivating emotional resilience.
  4. Mindfulness is not only meditation – we can be mindful of walking, eating, responding to emails or having an argument. We can bring the quality of mindfulness to our everyday tasks. Practising mindfulness-based meditation can support us in doing that.
  5. Mindfulness doesn’t make us passive – it helps us to respond from a place of wisdom in a challenge rather than reacting from the fight/ flight/ freeze response and getting undesired consequences.
  6. Practice, practice, practice!!! Sharon Salzberg says “Mindfulness isn’t difficult, we just need to remember to do it”. Contextual cues can help to remind us to wake up during the day e.g. Mindfulness bells app on phone or PC, small notes, things we do frequently like washing hands. Remember to change the contextual cues frequently so they stay fresh in our awareness.
  7. Organisations should not decontextualise Mindfulness – it is difficult if not impossible to learn Mindfulness skills in one company session/ talk. To avoid “McMindfulness” in organisations, mindfulness sessions should be a regular feature and easily accessible i.e. before work begins, lunch times etc. Mindfulness should be interwoven into the company’s culture in parallel with coaching and other wellbeing initiatives to have any meaningful and lasting impact.

Annmargaret Nolan
M.sc., MBI (Mindfulness-Based Interventions), Dip. Leadership and Executive Coaching, Adv. ACT MBI. B.A. (Hons).

Annmargaret specialises in Mindfulness Based Interventions (MBI) and Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT), which is a positive psychology methodology that helps people be more present, discover what they value and get unstuck in their lives. She facilitates various mindfulness trainings including Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) across a variety of contexts including organisational, clinical, educational, community and private practice.

She has a keen interest in facilitating mindfulness to coaches as she has experienced the symbiotic relationship between coaching and mindfulness and how they interweave together to support both coach and client to reduce stress and anxiety and increase creativity, innovation and productivity.