A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
February 14th, 2014 by William

Structures of Suffering

I’m hesitant at this point to call it a fad, but “Mindfulness” has risen lately to become the topic of many an article on the business web-sites. It’s being flaunted as a way to reduce stress and generally produce a healthier, happier work force. Why is fighting stress important? Well it appears to be one of the major maladies of the working class these days. According to the World Health Organization, the cost of employee stress to American businesses is as high as $300 billion. Mindfulness is being billed as the way for individuals to counter the ill effects of stress, make themselves happier in their jobs, and increase productivity, i.e., it sounds like a win-win for both the individual and their organization.

Mindfulness was popularized in 1979 by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. As the founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society, he created the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program primarily to treat the chronically ill. Though it has its roots in Buddhist meditation, the practice of mindfulness has entered the American mainstream like gangbusters in recent years.

Mindfulness has become quite popular and to its credit many top companies like Apple, Google, Yahoo, Starbucks, Toyota and many more have adopted it and set in place programs for their employees to practice it.

In a nutshell, Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. The following description explains the basic philosophy: “When you are mindful you become keenly aware of yourself and your surroundings, and you simply observe these things as they are. You are aware of your own thoughts and feelings, but you do not react to them in the way that you would if you were on “autopilot.” By not labeling or judging the events and circumstances taking place around you, you are freed from your normal tendency to react to them.”

Being “mindful” means that you concentrate (meditate) on something like your breath, your body, an image, a word, or a feeling, thus mindfulness itself can be understood as the “synchronization” of body and mind. Your body and mind are together in time, space, and experience–you are simply present. Thus, mindfulness means being fully present with whatever it is you’re doing or experiencing in the moment. When your attention drifts off somewhere else or is interrupted (maybe to the sound of an annoying colleague), mindfulness requires that you make note of that distraction and then return your focus to the object of your meditation. Mindfulness techniques are supposedly very effective in calming the mind and producing feelings of relaxation and positive emotion.

Mindfulness is the opposite of being “mindless” or on “automatic pilot.” It’s also the opposite of multitasking because it means being focused on just one thing in the moment. There’s a certain irony here, in that many organizations will preach mindfulness yet expect their employees to multitask to be more efficient. They are in fact mutually exclusive.

So what we have is that “meditation” has been reinvented, so to speak, as mindfulness and now we have “mindfulness” emerging as a new workplace buzzword.

Mindfulness isn’t for everybody, or every situation, as it’s obviously easier to cultivate in certain occupations or organizational contexts, i.e., mindfulness is diametrically opposed to organizational cultures that value working fast, multitasking, and being hyper-busy. It appears great for office workers, but you can’t shut down an assembly line so everyone can take a “mindful” day-dreaming break.

The problem I personally have with the concept is it has an implication that all problems are personal mental problems and if we just step back and be mindful they will all be solved. But of course, we all know that’s not really true because sooner or later we need to wake-up and address the real practical problems we face every day. This is especially true if we find ourselves in a dysfunctional organization.

Another pitfall is that mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them and without admitting that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment, i.e., that we just accept that our situation just plain sucks. When we practice mindfulness we ignore what’s happened (all the abuse) in the past and don’t give a thought to the future (that as soon as the mindfulness break ends the abuse will begin again).

Mindfulness has received a lot of positive press lately, as a way to accept our situation–even if it’s miserable–and be happier. However, there are times and places where being dumb as a brick is the smartest thing you can do. Having done some manual labor myself in my career, I’m skeptical that focused awareness on a dull, hot, and painful job would cause the inherent stress to subside and make the job any more palatable. If you want to truly change your situation, just accepting it isn’t the answer–getting off you duff and finding a new job is the real answer.

There’s also a tendency to view mindfulness as a panacea of all our problems. Although the scientific evidence for mindfulness is compelling, most of the articles I found concentrate on its use outside the work environment, with little attention to the contextual features of “work.” Many studies have used student samples or patient populations seeking treatment for medical or psychological symptoms. Thus, I find the efficacy of mindfulness for employees in a dysfunctional organization still uncertain.

From my own understanding of the concepts and benefits of mindfulness it would certainly appear it’s not really suited for an organization struggling to stay alive. In other words even Jon Kabat-Zinn admits that for mindfulness to work effectively it needs to be a successful business.

Of course you’ll temporarily feel better if you don’t have to face your unwanted thoughts and emotions about your dreadful stressful job. However those feelings are there for a reason−to alert you of problems in your environment and/or your thinking. These are problems that you may or may not be able to fix. Of course you’ll have fewer worries if you stop thinking about your problems, but you’ll have to then perform the mindfulness ritual more often to keep that “high.” This turns the mindfulness sessions into little better than exercises of day-dreaming or, more accurately, navel gazing.

This is because if you’re in a dysfunctional organization the problems are really beyond your control. You can’t mediate your way out of a dysfunctional work culture. In these organizations you’ll face constant interpersonal conflict, communication issues, back-stabbing colleagues, and workaholic and micromanaging bullying bosses, just to name a few.

Since mindfulness is a Buddhist construct, I read an interview with a Buddhist Zen priest who was very critical of the use of mindfulness in the corporate setting–which he referred to as “structures of suffering.” He preached an alternative called, “Right Mindfulness.”

As he explained: “Buddha taught that a person’s actual position in the world and their value is based on their actions, and that people have to take responsibility as individuals for their actions. Fast-forward to what we have today in the West, a terribly individualist ideology. The greatest threat to any of these progressive movements, like mindfulness, is that they can be turned into a commodity that is sold back to us. We are constantly being sold this commodity of individualism.

“Buddha on the other hand would have recognized that we have created systems and structures of suffering and that the suffering is not just about individuals experiencing racism, sexism, and various kinds of oppression; what we have are structures of suffering (corporations) that also have to be addressed.

“The problem and risk is that mindfulness is being seen as a technology, presented as a technique, which is sold to us almost as our panacea. Certainly a lot of it is very good. Mindfulness is now happening in schools and prisons, in settings where it is truly useful. But I worry about it being brought into a corporate context. In those contexts people are being helped to find ease and to thus suffer less within systems that are causing the suffering. Right Mindfulness would be looking at the actual function of that system as well as the freedom that an individual within that system feels. A Right Mindfulness perspective looks at the function of that system. That’s the larger, often neglected view of mindfulness.”

His point is a good one: today mindfulness is being flaunted as a technique for people trapped in organizations (structures of suffering) to escape the suffering. The real issue for people in these type organizations is that they need not to just escape the suffering but engage it, understand the causes, and then “fix” the system so as to remove the suffering. Mindfulness is just a way to escape something that really should be faced head-on.


One Response to “Structures of Suffering”
  1. Christoper Vetrano says

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