How Yoga and Meditation at Work Are Boosting the Corporate Bottom Line

Laura Shin
Posted

If you heard that something could:

  • help 80% of the managers at work make better decisions
  • make 89% of them better listeners
  • reduce stress levels among all employees by a third,

you and your bosses would probably be busting through doors, racing through aisles and clearing shelves to stockpile the stuff.

But this isn’t a magic pill that can be bought. This miracle drug is yoga, meditation and mindfulness training, all of which are beginning to infiltrate corporate America and improve the functioning and morale of employees. Plus studies are beginning to show that these practices benefit the corporate bottom line.

Read on to find out how these Eastern practices are becoming part of the culture at multinationals as all-American as General Mills (maker of Cheerios), Target and Google–and how you can apply the practices to improve your work life.

From Buddhism to Boardroom

It may not be a surprise that digitally distracted Silicon Valley has embraced New Age principles. The annual Wisdom 2.0 conference gathers the spiritually minded of Silicon Valley every year to get more mindfulness tips, and Steve Jobs famously was a Zen Buddhist who said the teaching’s principles helped shape Apple’s product design.

Google’s mindfulness program is a free seven-week course called S.I.Y. for “Search Inside Yourself,” which is offered four times a year and has trained 1,000 employees in attention training, self-knowledge, self-mastery and the creation of good mental habits. It always has a waiting list of 30 for the 60-student class.

But mindfulness is spreading from the coasts to the heartland. Human resources firm Aon Hewitt estimates that a quarter of large U.S. employers have stress reduction initiatives. Minneapolis-based Target’s Meditating Merchants program has 500 participants who meet weekly for a lunchtime meditation. And General Mills, also based in Minneapolis, is an unlikely leader in this space.

Mindfulness in the Midwest

General Mills’s Midwestern workforce is predominantly white, and its leafy headquarters look like a typical corporate campus. But as The Financial Times Magazine reports, throughout the week, there are decidedly uncorporate elements to the employees’ workaday lives: namely, regular meditation sessions for executives and team leaders and yoga classes for senior employees. Plus, every building on the General Mills campus has a room outfitted with zafus, which are meditation cushions, and yoga mats, so employees can duck in whenever they need a few minutes of child pose.

These Zen amenities are part of a company-wide program called Mindful Leadership, which has so far taught more than 400 executives at the Fortune 200 company gentle yoga and sitting meditation practices from Buddhism; it has even trained 250 outside executives and entrepreneurs.

During one two-hour extended session at General Mills, about 50 people sporting comfortable clothing (including bright yellow Cheerios gear) sat cross-legged or kneeling on meditation cushions. The leader, Janice Marturano, rang Tibetan prayer bells three times and said, “Take a posture that for you in this moment embodies dignity and strength. Allow the body to rest, to step out of busyness, bringing attention to the sensation of each breath.”

The executives sighed, letting stress fall away (the company’s first mass layoffs had just been announced) and listened to Marturano’s instruction to focus attention on their breath and to sensations in the body. After 30 minutes, the group also engaged in a half hour of gentle yoga poses and then listened to a talk by Marturano on mindfulness … and the layoffs. “When we’re in any kind of transition in our lives it’s so easy to get into the swirl and get lost,” she said. “Use this practice to gain stability in the mind.”

Evidence That Mindfulness Makes for Better Workers

Mindful Leadership began in 2006 when Marturano took 13 General Mills executives on a five-day retreat at a bed-and-breakfast. “There was quite a buzz when that first group went through,” says Beth Gunderson, General Mills’ director of organization effectiveness.

Since then, the program’s anecdotal success led the company to look into its efficacy, and the initial results should make executives across the country sit up and take notice. As the FT reports, “After one of Marturano’s seven-week courses, 83% of participants said they were ‘taking time each day to optimize my personal productivity’–up from 23% before the course. Eighty-two percent said they now make time to eliminate tasks with limited productivity value–up from 32% before the course. And among senior executives who took the course, 80% reported a positive change in their ability to make better decisions, while 89% said they became better listeners.”

Other companies conducting mindfulness programs have also found good results. A study in which Aetna partnered with the Duke University School of Medicine found that one hour of yoga a week lowered employee stress levels by a third and cut health care costs by an average of $2,000 per year.

How to Bring Mindfulness to Your Workplace

The General Mills and Google programs have found so much success that the founders of each are branching out. General Mills’s Marturano has founded the Institute for Mindful Leadership, a non-profit that will train executives in these techniques, and Chade-Meng Tan, the Google S.I.Y. teacher, came out with a book, “Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace),” which was published in 17 markets around the world.

But even if you don’t have a mindfulness program at work, here are some principles you can use to ease your stress:

  • Sit in a comfortable position, with your back straight.
  • Close your eyes and observe the physical sensations in your body.
  • Notice the thoughts that flit through your mind, but don’t react to them.
  • Watch these fleeting sensations, not judging yourself for your thoughts.

In time, developing the habit of detaching from your thoughts and watching them will start to quiet the mind and reduce stress. Studies have shown that meditation reduces the brain’s levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.

Two practices from the Google program will help you prioritize your tasks at work. One asks everyone to name three core values. “It centers you,” one participant told The New York Times. “You can go through life forgetting what they are.” The second is to write nonstop for seven minutes about your vision for your life in five years.

And when it comes to dealing with workplace stress and annoyance, you can also start using a tool nicknamed the Siberian North Railroad but really called S.B.N.R.R. for Stop, Breathe, Notice, Reflect and Respond.

Google director of executive development Richard Fernandez told The Times that after taking the S.I.Y. course, “I’m definitely much more resilient as a leader. I listen more carefully and with less reactivity in high-stakes meetings. I work with a lot of senior executives who can be very demanding, but that doesn’t faze me anymore. It’s almost an emotional and mental bank account. I’ve now got much more of a buffer there.”

We’ll have some of what he’s having.