It’s an awkward moment; after explaining that mindfulness techniques in the workplace have moved a long way from their Buddhist meditation roots, the instructor of our small introductory class rings a large set of Indian cymbals. “Traditionally, they’ve been used to ward off evil spirits,” he says. “But I just use them for crowd-control.”
Because of the meditation element, mindfulness has struggled to lose the ‘hippy’ tag. Add in the fact that it’s suddenly gone mainstream and many are trying to denounce it as the latest quackish healthcare fad.
Understandably, therefore, companies offering mindfulness training to the corporate world are instead keen to emphasise its virtues in terms of improving focus, performance and relieving stress in the workplace. They point to the large amount of peer-reviewed clinical research, its proven qualities of combating depression or its take-up by the U.S military – which is about as far from long hair, sandals and Zen as you can get.
“We want to honour the Buddhist roots and the fact that meditation practices are at the core of mindfulness, but we don’t want to detract away from its benefits to corporations and individuals in the workplace,” says Marina Grazier, director of the Mindfulness Exchange, a spin out from the Oxford University Mindfulness Centre, which aims to bring the practice to the corporate world. “We don’t want to muddy the message with religion.”
Mindfulness is the new hot practice in the financial sector, where firms are battling to avoid losing employees to stress and burnout. A spiritual version has also caught on in Silicon Valley, but a more pragmatic approach, which boasts improved resilience and working memory, is being brought into financial services.
Barclays, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, Lloyds Banking Group and Royal Bank of Scotland have all offered it to their employees in recent months. Goldman is particularly keen, no doubt encouraged by board member William George who is a big advocate, with its head of human capital management, Sally Boyle, telling the FT: “In years to come we’ll be talking about mindfulness as we talk about exercise now.”
Louise Chester, former head of telecoms research at UBS and founder of Mindfulness at Work, says she now works with numerous investment banks, five City law firms, including Ashurst, and nine fund management groups, including Russell Investments. Often, she says, it’s not just about making them better prepared for their worklife.
“The feedback we’ve had from some senior fund managers is that they want to be more present with their kids at the weekend, they want to take time noticing things and living in the present, not constantly being keyed into the office and facing a deluge of information,” she says. “We’re teaching them to discriminate information more, remain calmer under pressure and be less reactive.”
Pure rationalists, however, may still have a hard time getting to grips with mindfulness in the workplace, which still contains some emotional and spiritual elements.
Much of the training centres on self-awareness, or self-acceptance, essentially teaching you to focus on the present and not ruminate on past or future events. What’s more, after becoming conscious of your thought processes, the ‘three-minute daily breathing space’ exercise also encourages you to concentrate on your emotions and body sensations in order to become more aware of your state of mind and the tasks at hand you need to tackle.
While the breathing exercises are designed to be undertaken anywhere – including the office – in an upright seated posture, rather than cross-legged on the floor, they inevitably feel like an attempt at meditation, or at least relaxation. This is not the ultimate aim, though.
“We’re teaching skills of self-acceptance, to dispel the inner critic that tells you that you’re not good enough, or you need to work harder, stay later in the office,” says Grazier. “This boosts confidence in the workplace, improves focus and working memory and enables people to become more resilient. You have the confidence to say that you will go home at 7pm, rather than burning the midnight oil, as well as facing, say, client negotiations, without stressing about it.”
Cynics would argue that a large proportion of investment banks’ ‘wellness’ programmes focus on improving resilience to stress and pressure rather than actually reducing the workload, which would have the same effect.
If you’re a junior analyst required to clock at around 90 hours a week, how can you push back on your superiors when they land a pile of work on your desk at 6pm on a Friday? If Saturdays off work are considered a new luxury, as is the case for a lot of analysts, it’s inevitable that stress and exhaustion will creep into your life, often with horrific consequences for your health.
The point, though, is not to relieve your workload, but to help you cope better with the stress it can cause. Chester turned to mindfulness in 1994 at a time when the telecoms sector exploded and the number of companies she covered multiplied. “I was under a lot of pressure, and the increased workload wasn’t helped by being based in the distracting environment of the trading floor. Mindfulness helped me cope and, after succeeding at my financial services career, I wanted to help other people with it. The vast majority of our trainers previously worked in senior jobs.”
Grazier had worked in high-pressure sales jobs at KPMG and IBM for years, and was happy to devote the vast majority of her life to her job during her 20s and 30s before she got an urge to pull back. In the end it was the sudden death of a close friend, who tragically fatally fell down some stairs at a pizza restaurant, that finally sent her over the edge.
“My body just gave up and I burned out,” she says. “It took six months of being seriously depressed before I finally decided to do something different with my life. The problem for most people is that the closer they get to burnout, the less perspective they have. Burning the midnight oil becomes a habit and gradually we drop more and more elements from our personal lives – we lose friends, we stop our hobbies and ultimately can lose our health.”
Reaching burnout, or recovering from a traumatic event is a common theme among finance professionals who turned to mindfulness. Rohan Narse was an M&A banker at Goldman Sachs before a near-death experience in a car accident prompted him to reevaluate his life, quit banking and start a company that runs mindfulness programmes.
"It can be difficult to be authentic in banking - it's a toxic environment based on fear and greed, but some banking chief executives are starting to realize the need to change and to help people live with integrity," he told us previously.
Goldman Sachs says it has now changed the way it manages junior workloads, so senior employees don’t ask for a 50-page report when 15 pages will do the job. JPMorgan has a colour-coded spreadsheet to ensure its analysts and associates aren’t working more than 75 hours a week.
But even if you avoid burnout – a growing problem in investment banking – managing stress is crucial as it can be devastating for your health. Alexandra Michel, a former banker turned management tutor at the University of Pennsylvania, in an oft-cited study into junior banker stress, says health problems usually kick in after around four years in investment banking. Then there’s physical breakdowns, chronic pain, endocrine disorders, weight gain, hair loss, anxiety, depression or generally low energy.
“Mindfulness needs to be included in the wellness programmes to relieve stress, increase focus and help employees flourish,” says Chester. “Really, it’s the third leg of exercise and should become mainstream.”