Companies searching for greater productivity; employees searching for stress relief – meditation is increasingly where they look.
In a shiny skyscraper somewhere in the city, a man in a business suit slips off his shoes, loosens his tie and locks himself in his office cupboard. A woman in heels and a pin-striped skirt walks out of her city high rise and ducks into a corner church, glancing around to make sure no one sees her. In another modern office tower, a group of workers gathers in a meeting room to sit in silence for 45 minutes. In a workplace of a different kind, an athlete prepares for a big match by sitting in a corner of the change room, watching the rise of fall of his breath.
They are about to engage in the ancient practice of meditation, which is gaining popularity not only in yoga schools and new-age circles, but in modern workplaces and sporting arenas.
The Department of Water, Austereo and Lotterywest have all run meditation programs as part of their corporate wellbeing packages. Fremantle-based natural skincare company Sodashi gathers all its employees to meditate together once a day.
In the US, companies such as Target and food manufacturer General Mills have embraced the practice. Google runs a seven-week program called, appropriately for the search engine, Search Inside Yourself. It is run four times a year and has a waiting list of employees wanting to sign up every time it is offered.
Even Rupert Murdoch has heard the call. In April 2013, he tweeted, “Trying to learn transcendental meditation. Everyone recommends, not that easy to get started, but said to improve everything!
Meditation – the act of focusing one’s attention on an object such as the breath for a sustained period of time – has been around for millennia. Most religious traditions have a meditative component, but eastern techniques are garnering the most attention from everyone one from large corporations to researchers at major institutions.
Michael Sandford runs Perth-based Meditation for Wellbeing, and has taught mindfulness-based meditation to many government departments and corporations.
“Corporate wellbeing seems to be the thing nowadays, the thing responsible companies do because all the big, major, innovative companies in the US are doing it,” he says.
So how does it work?
“Mindfulness [meditation] trains your awareness to be present in the here and now,” Sandford says.
“You are less dictated to by the old habits of mind, because you are aware as they are arising – you start to see yourself reacting and think, ‘I don’t need to behave this way, it’s not serving me’.”
Sandford says you are able to see your usual way of reacting to thoughts or situations is simply a habit, and not a good one. Meditation allows you to pause before reacting.
“You are able to choose your reaction,” he says.
Sandford is careful to strip any spiritual references out of his teaching, and puts the focus squarely on the scientific evidence of the benefits of meditation.
There have been thousands of studies on these benefits. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts and Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in the US have found meditation may change brain and immune function in positive ways.
Kabat-Zinn founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction technique in the 1970s. It has served as the model for mindfulness-based clinical intervention programs worldwide and has been taught in clinical, corporate, sporting and government settings.
Australian scientist and 2009 Nobel Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine, Dr Elizabeth Blackburn, also found that meditation repairs damage to DNA – specifically to telomeres, the caps at the ends of our chromosomes – and so slows the ageing process.
Neuroscientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard found in research published in 2011 that meditation helps tune out distractions. This leads to increased productivity. And what organisation doesn’t value productivity?
A quieter mind also allows for greater creativity. New ideas are generated, leading to innovative thinking and creative problem solving. The idea is that creativity can’t flourish in a cluttered mind.
Stress relief and increased productivity are the principle motivators behind introducing meditative practices into the workplace.
A 2008 report commissioned by Medibank Private showed that stress-related absenteeism and presenteeism – an employee turning up for work, but due to illness or other conditions, is not fully functioning – cost the Australian economy $14.81 billion a year; and stress-related absenteeism and presenteeism directly cost employers $10.11 billion a year.
At Lotterywest, a meditation program has been part-subsidised by the organisation, with staff contributing a nominal amount.
Tony Pearse, Manager of Business Development Projects, took part in the classes.
“I personally gave it a go and could see, feel, sense the immediate benefits,” he says.
He is now very much an advocate of meditation, noticing after the very first session “a feeling of calmness and peace”. He felt “re-energised”.
At the Cancer Support Association of Western Australia, they walk their talk. The organisation not only recommends their members meditate as an aid to healing, but actively encourages meditation among staff.
Fortnightly management meetings and monthly staff meetings begin with meditation. Each morning starts with a voluntary meditation session.
CEO of Cancer Support WA, Mandy BeckerKnox, says the organisation works with people at a very difficult time in their life.
“It’s very important as staff that we are authentic,” she says.
She has high ambitions for her staff, “I want everyone to be positive, to be happy and to realise their full potential as human beings.” She says it makes her job so much easier when everyone is realising their potential and working beyond what they thought their capacity is.
Ms BeckerKnox thinks a bit of coercion doesn’t go astray in the workplace.
“How do you get staff to meditate? Well, you force them to!”
She says setting out the benefits – “it’s going to increase your productivity, you’re going to feel fantastic, you’re going to communicate better” – would go a long way to encouraging people to practise daily.
“This works for us. And I can see it working equally in any workplace,” she says.
But psychotherapist and meditation teacher Li-Anne Yellachich feels differently. When teaching meditation in Silicon Valley some years ago, she refused to teach if it was forced upon people.
“I didn’t see the point of that,” she says.
She taught when employees chose to participate in the workshops put on by their employer.
When they did choose to attend, people benefitted enormously. It was her student who locked himself in his office cupboard, to hide away from distractions in order to find a peaceful, undisturbed spot for his meditation fix.
“If someone is stressed enough, even if they’re not into this strange meditation kind of stuff, they are a little bit open. They intend to learn something different so they are willing to play around,” Yellachich says.
In a different sort of workplace, professional athletes are also using meditation to create resilience, enhance performance and develop the clarity required to be flexible moment by moment.
Fremantle Dockers assistant coach and former Sydney Swans captain Brett Kirk is a practicing Buddhist and well-known advocate of meditation.
In a YouTube video he credits meditation as giving him the “mental toughness” required to go to the top of his sport, especially as he wasn’t “super-talented”. He says Australian rules football changes very quickly, and decisions need to be made within a second or two; focus needs to be sustained moment by moment, minute by minute, for two hours, so mental toughness is essential.
Kirk says meditation provides clarity of thought, peace of mind and gives him a “steely focus”.
2014 Australian of the Year and former Sydney Swans star Adam Goodes credited meditation with helping him bounce back after a run of bad form several years ago.
Perth-based meditation teacher Michael Sandford says meditation can help in a football match. “You are able to let go – when you’ve made a really bad mistake you can let it go and get on with the game.”
Andrew Poole* had all the traditional trappings of success – an influential and highly paid position at a leading investment bank; a talented and successful wife; happy children attending an elite private school; a house overlooking the harbour in one of Sydney’s exclusive eastern suburbs; holidays spent skiing at Whistler or basking in the Mediterranean sun.
It wasn’t enough. His relationship with his children was increasingly troubled, the stresses of work seemed insurmountable and a sense of deep unhappiness persisted.
His executive assistant suggested meditation and he booked into a Buddhist meditation retreat at Wisemans Ferry on New South Wales’ Hawkesbury River.
While meditation helped to a certain extent, it also gave him the awareness to realise that this unhappiness was more than generalised dissatisfaction or some kind of existential angst. It led him to search elsewhere and, as it turned out, the answer was medication, rather than meditation.
He found that much of his sense of unhappiness stemmed from a chemical imbalance, which was addressed by medication.
The catalyst for meditation, though, was a sense of sadness. His starting point was finding meaning – “how can I be happy?”
He came to discover that happiness can’t be found in the material world, and believes that meditation is one of the tools to find it.
What is meditation?
The Macquarie Dictionary defines meditation as: a practice involving discipline of the mind, in which contemplation of spiritual matters can lead to altered states of consciousness.
Mindfulness meditation – the kind taught by Sandford and Yellachich – is the process of bringing intentional non-judgmental awareness to present moment experience.
Benefits of meditation
Induces relaxation response – the breath and heart rate slow down
Enhances mental clarity
Helps to tune out distractions
Helps to relieve pain
Decreases blood pressure
Promotes creative thinking.
*Not his real name.