The practice of mindfulness has become a blossoming activity in the business world. Presented as a solution for stress and performance pressure, how can the practice of mindfulness fit in with a capitalistic business model? Recent research explores how mindfulness practices have come to be implemented in companies.
The paper, Scientization, instrumentalization, and commodification of mindfulness in a professional services firm, was published in 2019 in the journal Organization. The research was carried out by three researchers: Mira Karjalainen of Helsinki University in Finland, Gazi Islam of Grenoble Ecole de Management and Marie Holm of La Rochelle Business School – Excelia Group.
“We retraced the process through which an idea becomes a management tool. Our goal was to understand how mindfulness programs were implemented in for-profit organizations and thus become a part of the management process,” explains Gazi Islam, a professor at Grenoble Ecole de Management and an expert on organizational behavior.
The study was carried out with an international consulting company that had implemented mindfulness workshops. 32 professionals were interviewed and data was collected between 2015 and 2016.
Mapping the application of mindfulness practices
“Instead of focusing on the impact of mindfulness on performance, we observed variations in how mindfulness is applied in the field. Our goal was to map the variability of these applications. Our conclusion was that mindfulness practices in a capitalist company are one of the links in the power games of an organization,” explains Gazi.
A gap between tradition and business applications
“In traditional mindfulness practices there is a spiritual and philosophical ideal behind the practice. When applying these practices to the business world, there is often a certain dissonance with the traditional ideal. We identified the processes of scientization, instrumentalization and commodification that take place when mindfulness practices are implemented in a business setting,” underlines Gazi.
- The scientization of mindfulness: The use of mindfulness in companies has been made possible through the support of scientific and medical studies. Many neurobiological and psychological studies emphasize the benefits of mindfulness and enable its application in the business world.
- The instrumentalization of mindfulness: Mindfulness is presented as a tool to improve company performance by enhancing creativity, entrepreneurial capacities, the collaborative spirit and efficiency. It’s goals are laid out as very practical and concrete. The contemplative side of meditation is outlined as a practical tool to help employees.
- The commodification of mindfulness: Mindfulness is offered as a “innovative product”. Its practices are “sold” to employees as a tool that creates value much like any other economic object.
Gazi further explains: “By analyzing the implementation of mindfulness programs, we observed that the scientization process supports the instrumentalization and commodification processes as scientific study results offer concrete support to justify the use of mindfulness programs in organizations. This is much like how a product development process and the profits it generates go hand-in-hand.”
“In the field, mindfulness practices have been applied as a quick solution to deal with stress, or a band-aid to manage the symptoms of pressure at work. During exchanges and discussion, managerial processes are rarely discussed. The same goes for the complex relationship between mindfulness and a company’s goals or the potential for mindfulness to be a source of critical reflections about the status quo,” concludes Gazi.
In conclusion, we share a response from Dominique Steiler, head of the Economic Peace, Mindfulness and Well-Being at Work Chair at Grenoble Ecole de Management.
Can the practice of mindfulness in business open a debate about the managerial processes in a company and create an opportunity to improve employee well-being? Is that the goal of mindfulness? What is your analysis?
As explained in the article written by my colleagues, most research work on mindfulness and its effects are drawn from the world of healthcare. The goal of this sector is to increase or decrease certain variables such as stress, fatigue, depression etc. These works of research enable us to identify the impact of mindfulness on such factors.
This same research work was used by management researchers and practitioners in order to extrapolate benefits for companies. As a result, the practice has become a means of improving various parameters that help companies reduce costs and improve performance. This is the process that created the commodification of mindfulness in the business world.
As always, such developments have advantages (e.g., introducing positive practices that help individuals and social relationships) and disadvantages. For example, there has been an instrumentalization of the practice so that has become “in service of performance”. This has also led to the stigmatization of certain people.
But to me, the real question would appear to be: “What does mindfulness really offer and how does it bring something positive to companies?” This is the question our research center is using to re-orient perspectives on the practice of mindfulness.
The answer could be the following: While the practice of mindfulness does impact well-being, its primary intention is to improve a person's ability to enter in contact with the realities of life. And it does so by offering a means to identify what is happening inside oneself (interpretations, judgement, emotions, physical reactions, projections,...) and outside (the external situation). In other words, the practice aims to improve my aptitude to see things as they truly are and to adjust accordingly (which can include improvement in health, well-being and why not performance).
So the primary objective of the practice is not to “feel better” but to open the door to a better understanding of what actually is, in particular our stress and points of tension. If the environment is safe enough to allow for this expression of existing difficulties, then as a secondary effect, some of these difficulties could be overcome or improved upon as a result of the practice. It’s a process that allows me to switch from the position of a victim to one of an independent actor within the organizational process.
For the participant in mindfulness practices, he or she improves the feeling of control over life and greater well-being is the result, and for the company, the employee becomes a precious resource capable of identifying and expressing dysfunctions, and then helping to overcome them.