Founder of Virgin Atlantic, Richard Branson recently hosted what the airline is calling the world’s first dedicated mediation flight on 11th October, partnering with Smiling Mind, an Australian well-being and mindfulness meditation company.  This is an interesting initiative, but it is not very surprising though. The Tech. Giants of the world such as Google, Intel, IBM, and SAP are all adopting ‘Mindfulness’ based programs for either developing emotional intelligence or for improving wellness in their organization as well as outside. Does that mean that one should follow the mindfulness bandwagon?
Before we explore the applicability of mindfulness in our organizations, let us first understand what mindfulness really is. The most commonly referred to definition that we found in our exploration of the topic was by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a Ph.D., who founded the Centre for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. In his book ‘Full Catastrophe Living’ he defined mindfulness operationally as ‘the awareness that arises by paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally.’
Mindfulness: The awareness that arises by paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally.Jon Kabat-Zinn
Mindfulness practices that are common in the west are generally derived from Buddhist texts and scriptures. The breadth and complexity of mindfulness, as well as its origins in Buddhist psychology, have significantly contributed to the current plurality of definitions and operationalizations.  Mindfulness is a recently coined term, and most of the founders of mindfulness-based programs tend to keep away from the spiritual context. As Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist in his works had proposed that ‘Spirituality is about the enhancement of one’s frame of reference, identity, and ego-self.’ Considering the deep Indian roots to the practices, maintaining a spiritual context may be productive in India.
Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, and many more influential leaders have embraced mindfulness and meditation into their lives, snowballing into almost an emerging cult of mindfulness. There are various apps such as Headspace and Calm, online learning courses on Lynda, Coursera and UCLA’s website, and various institutions, which together can help one start with or support their mindfulness practice. However, even these are not required for one to self-develop awareness of the present moment.
I took up an exploratory research at The Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad under Prof Vishal Gupta, Organizational Behavior to focus on the mindfulness practices at an organizational level in the Indian Corporate context but not at an individual level. Organizations today are increasingly rebuked for lack of empathetic behavior towards internal and external stakeholders. A new survey by Insurance major Cigna points out that millennials in India are most stressed and least able to cope as compared to other developing and developed countries majorly due to work and finances and they see cost as a barrier to seeking professional help. 
In recent times there has been a growing interest in scientific & rational studies pertaining to Mindfulness by scientists, researchers, and academicians. We only point out to a few advantages, which we feel are relevant while developing mindfulness interventions and programs. Mindfulness affects a range of intrapersonal and interpersonal processes like attention, emotion regulation, prosociality, non-attachment, de-centering, and cognitive coping strategy. , , 
Various studies have begun to address how the brain’s vital parts may be shaped by mindfulness and meditations. Neurobiological research shows the effect of mindfulness on the brain, particularly in the structures involved in emotional regulation, stress, and self-awareness, namely the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), the hippocampus, and the insular cortex. 
In their research Ashish Pandey and Ajinkya Navare, both professors at IIT Bombay and Rajesh Chandwani, a professor at IIMA, brought out an important point that ‘Mindfulness training can be designed for practicing managers to nurture compassion.’ Compassion prepares the mind for caring behavior, such as prosocial behavior , which is much expected from managers in the world of business.
Dr. David Brendel in his HBR article  explains that mindfulness practices should be used to enhance our rational and ethical thinking processes, not limit or displace them. Moreover, mindfulness practices should never be imposed on other people, especially in the workplace.
In our research, we got in touch with founders, flag bearers and thought leaders of many mindfulness-based programs in leading organizations such as SIY at Google, [email protected], [email protected], etc. We also used various publicly available data on a few more of these programs to understand them better.
Our exploration led us to the discovery of a few common elements when it comes to adoption of mindfulness programs:
- Most of the well-known programs mentioned above originated from an individual’s strong belief that mindfulness can be used for helping colleagues. Many individuals in a specific unit or office in Indian companies or offices do invite speakers and trainers as an external faculty for training programs on mindfulness. This observation is good news for the individuals who are looking forward to initiating mindfulness-based programs in their organizations!
- Although the programs have been accepted formally by the management, most of them seem to run informally trying to make a more significant presence in the organizational culture. The program has not accelerated much in an organization, which is a world leader in mobile-technologies in India, after the individual leading the SIY based initiative moved.
Organizations such as SAP and IBM have in fact given formal designations such as Global Mindfulness Leader to their employees to help support the program. Most organizations have started recruiting or promoting specialized employees as ‘Chief Happiness Evangelist or Officer.’ Happiest Minds, an Indian Digital Transformation company, has adopted mindfulness practices for all its employees and their logo read ‘The Mindful IT’ company.’
Our conversation with various professionals in India also pointed out to various informal yoga or mindfulness programs that companies do in their specific units based on the employee interest through external trainers.
- The enrollment has been very low in all the programs. For global tech companies such as IBM, Intel, SAP, and Google it has been around 5% to 10%. Very few organizations like Happiest Minds have been able to make a mindfulness-based intervention-based program a compulsory effectiveness program. It may not also be the right thing to do.
There are various initiatives that these organizations are trying such as tying up with Mindfulness-based Apps companies such as Headspace, Silver Oak Health and Smiling Mind for free or subscribed access to their apps for a specific period. Using social media and internal employee portals to bring together the communities interested in mindfulness and using these to reach out to more and more employees.
- The SIY program of Google and The Potential Project seem to be a common link for many of the programs, and it may be worth exploring the direct implementation of one of their programs if a company feels to do so similar to how SAP Global Mindfulness Practice took birth. Or one could start a program at a small level on their own such as Google, IBM, and Intel, and later scale it up.
- The programs stay away from a spiritual context. There is, of course, a need to adapting the message to the audience while still retaining the fundamental aspects of Buddhism. Depending on the organizational culture the mindfulness-based programs either have a central theme in neuroscience and emotional intelligence or wellness. Even Google had to reword their description so that SIY would be accepted initially.
While there is no denying the Buddhist roots to the development of mindfulness practices; however, most leaders of corporate programs in mindfulness whom we interviewed brought in the ancient and religious roots only to bring in a context to the topic but did not use it particularly in their programs or training. However, independent mindfulness consultants and trainers do refer to their affiliation to foundations or school of thoughts such as ‘Art of Living’ by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, and ‘Isha Foundation’ by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, and the fundamentals that are derived from their teachings.
- Mindfulness through meditation is the link which is common in all the programs today. While we also talk about mindfulness, we have hardly talked about meditation as the only way to bring about mindfulness. As David Brendel in his HBR article ‘There are risks to Mindfulness at Work,’ and Adam Grant, an Organizational Psychologist and Wharton Business School Professor, in his article in the New York Times ‘Can we end the Meditation Madness?’ caution that meditation is exploding in popularity. One does not need to meditate to achieve mindfulness either.
After spending the past four decades studying mindfulness without meditation, the Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer has identified plenty of other techniques for raising our conscious awareness of the present. For example, it turns out that you can become more mindful by thinking in conditions instead of absolutes.  Naturally, meditation is not a panacea!
- Buy-in of Senior Leadership is perhaps the most obvious of points. However, it has been one of the keys to success for the mindfulness-based programs. It is not as obvious as it seems though. For example, The CEO of a well-known Pharmaceuticals company credits meditation with helping him feel more connected to his clients as well as employees.  However, a senior leader at their India office mentions that even though the CEO himself is a proponent of mindfulness, but in his view, the organization sees it as a personal activity and hence feels no need to implement mindfulness or meditation-based program.
While implementing or designing their mindfulness-based program in organizations, one could keep in view the above points. There, of course, is a large scope to bring in new methodologies such as design thinking, emotion-sensing technologies, software fuelled by artificial emotional intelligence  and few others in organizational effectiveness when designing a mindfulness-based program or intervention for their organizations.
All in all, this is just the beginning for the mindfulness journey in Indian organizations, and the future looks bright. We need to have more studies in the Indian context and subsequently implement mindfulness-based interventions. It is time we started a mindfulness conversation within our organizations!
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of IIM Ahmedabad. The article was originally published in The Economic Times (ET CIO) dated 19th January 2019.
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