What’s wrong with providing employees with mindfulness training?

I have very mixed feelings about mindfulness. It’s not mindfulness as such. Being mindful is not a bad thing. Research has shown that being mindful can help people be more resilient and prevent them from overreacting in different situations. This, in turn, has a positive impact on work environments in organizations. If people aren’t shooting from the hip so much, but instead taking a moment to reflect – to being mindful – then it is bound to have a calming impact on situations that might otherwise be conflicted.

No, I don’t have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is when we use mindfulness to fix a symptom instead of solving the actual problem.

I was at a conference last week organized by the European Association for Work and Organizational Psychology. Being a sociologist, this was a new crowd for me. Sociologist and psychologists do have a lot of research interests in common, although the methods used are often different. One thing that struck me was how popular mindfulness research was also at this conference. Although studying the effects of mindfulness can be interesting and intriguing, the problem is that much of the research focuses on the individual and not on the systems and structures in which these individuals are embedded.

But not only are we researching mindfulness like never before, I also constantly see new consulting companies that specialize in mindfulness and that provide programs to help employees learn and practice mindfulness.

Work environments today are incredibly hectic. Focus is more on short-term wins than on long-term development and sustainability. Jobs are insecure and as Richard Sennett observes, past experiences aren’t so important anymore. It’s rather about potential and you’re only as good as your next accomplishment. However, since seriously questioning and changing the system is hard, instead of going to the source if people aren’t coping well in their jobs, we try to fix the symptoms by helping people deal. And the latest fad on that front is mindfulness.

So instead of creating sustainable working cultures where people can thrive and can work to their full potential, we give them tools so they can be better at dealing with the hectic work pace and organizational culture. By teaching them mindfulness we help them cope.

And yes, it’s good to be able to cope. But it’s bad if it means ignoring the actual problem, which in this case is organizational cultures and structures that don’t necessarily work anymore. They just no longer correspond to how a lot of people want and need to live and work.

So by all means, practice mindfulness. It’s good for many things, and something I probably need to do more of too. But let’s not use mindfulness to ignore the real problem at hand. And please, don’t provide mindfulness training to your employees thinking that you’re off the hook. We still have a lot to do when it comes to creating better and more sustainable working models and environments.

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Be whatever you want, sort of

In many ways we live in very exciting times. We really do. There are a lot of scary things going on politically, and at times it feels like everything is up in the air, but it is during times like this that you can really make a change. We have a chance to take a stand and shape the future.

Sociologists like Anthony Giddens and the late Zygmunt Bauman talk about how this is a time unlike any we’ve ever experienced before, partly due to the speed at which everything is happening. And I do agree; for better and worse though because not all of it is good, but not all of it is bad either.

One of the things that has been argued to define this exciting time in which we live, is the fact that tradition really isn’t as important anymore as it used to be. We aren’t bound by certain professions and we don’t have to do things in certain ways; we can reinvent ourselves at the drop of a hat. Not only can we, we are encouraged and pushed to do so too. Ulrich Beck coined a very illustrative expression; he talks about contemporary society as a tightrope society. If you don’t constantly keep your balance and reinvent yourself to stay competitive you might just crash to the ground. Not a very uplifting picture.

But still, even though there undeniably is societal pressure to reinvent and stay competitive, the promise of reinvention is also quite intriguing. If traditions don’t matter so much and you can reinvent yourself as you wish, you can do anything you want. Or can you?

This whole idea of individualization, reinvention, and having a multitude of choices has been criticized. They say that it may be true for a chosen few, but many, if not most, are bound by issues like gender, class, and race. The ones who aren’t, are according to these critics basically white men. Not all white men obviously, but white upper and middle class men. And I have to say, I have seen first hand how women, for example, can be bound and held back by traditional gender roles and norms both in the workplace and at home.

For my current project I have been interviewing men who arguably belong to this privileged group of people who can be whatever they want, and choose from a myriad of possibilities. I’ve been interviewing mostly in the US and Finland, and all but one of my interviewees have actually been white middle class males. Now you may wonder why my data set is so homogeneous. Well, Finland as we all know is somewhat restrictive regarding immigration policies, and the Finnish population just isn’t as culturally and ethnically diverse as in many other countries. In the US, the population is much more culturally diverse, but the fact that almost all my interviewees (so far) are white does say something about the people who get promoted and recruited to top corporate positions, which most of these men opted out of.

However, for people who are free to do and be whatever they want, I have to say that I have been struck by how bound by tradition and expectations my interviewees have been when choosing a profession.

You would think that these men who have opted out of their careers to create and adopt new lifestyles and ways of working, are the epitome of this age of reinvention. Yet many of them didn’t really seem to realize that they had that many options when they started out. In fact, most of them felt they didn’t. Many of them talk about how they chose what to study or what to become, based on what was expected of them, either by their families or by their peers. Again and again I hear stories of men who after high school decide to study business, engineering, or law because growing up that is what the men in their communities did. I’ve also heard stories of how men have based their choice of university or major on what their friends have chosen or what is considered high status and will make them rich and powerful.

Subsequently, for some of these men, entering the job market after university became a bit of a rude awakening. They worked for several years before opting out, but many of them reported not enjoying it or nor feeling that they were in the right environment. They often didn’t like the culture or they just didn’t feel at home, and when they finally did opt out they did so to do something completely different. I have interviewed a man who retrained to become a nurse, a few teachers, and a life coach to name a few. Others have opted into research, writing, community work, or they might have set up their own business where they could work on their own terms.

So for white middle class men who have so many options, they sure seemed to have been bound by traditions, expectations, and norms, at least when they were starting out. Thank goodness they had the courage and conviction to break out of that mold.

Tolerance doesn’t do the trick

Times have changed, thank goodness. Sometimes we take a few steps forward, sometimes a few steps back, but all in all our world is becoming increasingly tolerant. In Finland same sex couples now finally have the legislated right to get married. A bit late in the game I have to say considering how progressive my country has been compared to others when it comes to issues like gender equality, to name one. Although also in that area we sometimes take steps forward and sometimes backward. But the general direction is still, thankfully, forward. In the US, however, we see threats of backsteps on many fronts, and although this is really worrying, not to mention scary, and something many of us are painfully aware of, that is not what I am going to write about today.

I’ve been reading a book about choice, namely The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar. Choice is an interesting thing. It is one of the concepts that defines the very fabric of being in our individualist society. How much choice we really have or whether we just think we have complete freedom of choice is constantly up for debate, but the rhetoric and idea of choice is, either way, central in contemporary society.

Choice gives us a sense of agency, a sense that we have control over our lives and how we live our lives, which according to Ivengar is important for our sense of wellbeing. Although it’s worth mentioning that research has also shown that too many choices can have the opposite effect. It can just be overwhelming and create anxiety over whether or not you’re making the right choice. But still, on a whole, the idea of free choice is something that appeals to most of us.

So how ironic isn’t it then, that so many people are still reluctant to let other people exercise this concept that many consider a fundamental right? I’m thinking about people in the HBTQ community for example. The message they often get is you can choose what you want as long as you make the same choice as everyone else. I hate to break this to you, but that’s not freedom of choice.

But as interesting as this book on choice is to me, there is one thing that Iyengar writes about tolerance that in all it’s simplicity was so profound to me that I had to underline it:

“While tolerance is certainly better than judging every other culture from the fixed point of one’s own, tolerance has severe limitations. Rather than promoting conversation and encouraging critical self-reflection, it often leads to disengagement: “You think your way, I’ll think mine, and we don’t have to interfere with one another.” … We cannot tolerate one another by shutting the doors because our spaces, real or virtual, intersect as never before.”

And isn’t that just the truth. All this talk about tolerance is good to a point, but it’s not enough. Tolerance is ‘you do what you want and I won’t bother you as long as I don’t have to be a part of it.’ Do you see the problem? It’s not going to make people get to know others who are different from them. It’s not going to help integrate people in the community. It’s not going to make sure everyone has the same fundamental rights. In short, it’s not going to help people understand, just tolerate.

Tolerance just won’t do.

 

 

Mindfulness on my mind

I attended an interesting research seminar yesterday on mindfulness in the workplace. I have to admit, I was skeptical. I don’t really believe in the mindfulness and positive psychology hype we’re seeing pretty much everywhere (see The search for happiness or Help that just isn’t helpful). And although mindfulness can be good in many ways, I just don’t believe that it is the answer to everything.

It’s on everyone’s lips everywhere. Workshops get organized; consultancy companies specialized in mindfulness seem to pop up right and left. And although I sort of automatically get put off if everyone is doing or talking about something (I know it’s silly, but it’s true…), curiosity got the better of me. I wanted to know what exactly we’re dealing with here. And, in addition, since I research contemporary society and social change, I figured I really need to find out what this mindfulness craze is all about. Why exactly does it appeal to people so much? And why now?

Well, I have to say, I’m glad I went because I really enjoyed the talk. And the fact that the speaker had us meditate in our seats in the middle of an otherwise busy day was an extra bonus. But what struck me was how many parallels there are between my research on opting out and the speaker’s research on meditation and mindfulness. There are three things in particular: choice, control, and crisis.

He talked about being able to break our automatic behavior and choose our responses. He talked about the ability to control our attention, our reactions, our thoughts, and our feelings. And then he talked about crisis; about his own crisis that lead him to start practicing meditation, and the crises of the people he interviewed for his study. They had all experienced a personal crisis that led them to start meditating.

Now, this isn’t rocket science and you may find it obvious, but for me it was extremely interesting because these are exactly the things that keep coming up in my research on opting out: choice, control, and crisis.

The rhetoric of choice is very strong in our society. In a reality that often feels chaotic and overwhelming, the idea of free choice is an attractive one. It provides us with a sense of agency – a sense of control in a world that feels like it’s spinning out of control. And in a society where individual choice is key, where we believe that we are what we make of ourselves, and where we alone are responsible for that, the idea of choice has become a part of the very fabric of who we are.

But crisis is also interesting. Yes, a crisis will often lead to a re-evaluation of one’s lifestyle, and maybe push someone to opt out or start meditating, but there’s more. Contemporary life is defined by constant crisis. According to Anthony Giddens (author of Runaway World: How Globalization is Reshaping Our Lives) crisis today is no longer simply an interruption, but an on-going state. We live in a risk society, where we are painfully aware of all the risks we face globally, in part due to media broadcasting every catastrophe and every act of violence in full color to all corners of the globe. This is despite the fact that contemporary life in many ways is less risky that it was before, but that is not how we perceive it.

So if mindfulness promises choice and control, maybe it is not so surprising that more and more people are becoming interested in it.

And I have to say, I did enjoy the seminar. I do admit that mindfulness or meditation can be good in some situations. It is just that in this day and age, we sort of go overboard with everything – moderation isn’t exactly our strong suit – and we do this with the idea of mindfulness too. All of a sudden it has become the answer to everything. But it’s not.

So to finish I will just say, too much of the good is just that: too much. Even when it comes to chocolate.

Choice is complicated

The concept of choice has been central in my research, which is expected, since ‘opting’ as in opting out is synonymous with choosing or exercising choice. In other words, when we talk about opting out, we talk about people who choose to do so. Therefore I decided early on not to include people who have had no choice but to leave their careers due to reasons like burnout. I wanted to study why people who at least in principle have the choice to stay decide not to, what it is that drives them, and what it is that they look for instead.

Early on I also realized that there was more to this idea of ‘free choice’ than meets the eye. The reason I saw this was because as I interviewed women, it became more and more clear that opting out – choosing to leave – was a long and often painful process riddled with crises. So either way, it certainly wasn’t an easy choice.

We live in a time of globalization, individualization, consumerism, and constant reinvention, and the rhetoric of choice today is very strong. As traditions become less important (we no longer have to live or do things in a certain way just because that’s the way things have always been done), we are encouraged to choose things like what we want to do and who we want to be professionally, a lifestyle, and what we want to stand for from a myriad of choices. And we’re encouraged to do this again and again. As Anthony Elliott writes in his book Reinvention, “flexibility, adaptability and transformation have become intricately interwoven with the global electronic economy.” We have to keep reinventing ourselves professionally in order to stay competitive, which is enabled and exacerbated by therapy culture and the instant makeover industry. But not only that, reinvention also fulfills another need: “the lure of reinvention is that it is inextricably interwoven with the dream of “something else”.” This I think really hits the nail on its head. In a time when things really are very hectic and it’s hard to keep up, we long for that something else which is always just out of reach.

So choice is evidently an important concept in contemporary society. But not only that, choice also gives us a sense of agency in a time when there is a lot of uncertainty, a sense that we can control and shape our lives. When we opt out, we like to think that it is completely our own choice, and not that there are factors that actually may push us to opt out.

Ten years ago, Linda Hirshman coined the expression ‘choice feminism’, which represents a belief that women can and should choose whether or not they want to have a career, or whether or not they want to take advantage of the opportunities that feminists have spent decades fighting for. According to choice feminism, a woman can choose not to have a career and embrace traditional gender norms and still be a feminist, if she chose it herself.

But for a career woman with small children, there are a lot of other forces at work. Mothering is so intimately linked to femininity that if you fail at your job, you’re just a bad worker; but if you fail at mothering (or don’t prioritize it), you’re a bad woman. Yes, ouch… So if having it all becomes too hard, that is if having two full-time jobs (first at work and then at home after work) or if trying to do it all simultaneously becomes too much to handle, women will more often than not choose mothering over their careers. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t want a career, it just means that we (society) expect women to be superhuman.

Choice is complicated. It’s not always clear what decisions are based on. Sometimes there are coping mechanisms at work (it may just feel better to believe that a decision was based on free choice) and sometimes a narrative is created afterwards to supply a sense of agency and control. The point is, choices (or should I say “choices”) are the result of both individual wants and needs, and societal expectations and social pressures. Not to mention all the internal conflicts that we all grapple with.

So yes, women do get pushed out to a certain degree: they still get discriminated, they get mommy-tracked, and they take care of more than their fair share of household chores and care responsibilities. But again, it isn’t that simple. In addition to push-factors there are also pull-factors. What I have found is that not only have these women been pushed to make a change, they also experience the pull of a life where they can be everything they want to be, and do it in a way that makes it possible. They experience the pull of a life where they feel that they can be themselves, instead of hiding certain parts of themselves (like their femininity or their children…) to get ahead in their careers. Or perhaps they just simply want a life where they can do meaningful work without succumbing.

Now I have just started my interviews of men who have opted out* and it is still too early to tell, but it will be interesting to see how similar or different their opting out journeys are compared to those of the women I’ve interviewed. What are the drivers that push men to opt out? What is it that pulls them in their new lifestyles? And how do they make sense of their choices? It remains to be seen.

* A very big thank you to everyone who contacted me regarding interviews! It has been most helpful! If anyone else knows of any men who have opted out who would be willing to be interviewed, or if you are a man who has opted out, you can still contact me at theoptingoutblog@gmail.com.

Help that just isn’t helpful

I’m not a big shopper, except when it comes to books, and when I travel I really like browsing through local bookstores. I’ll often buy a book, and this might seem strange, but I remember where I bought which book and what the bookstore was like. Like my used copy of The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (I loved that) that I bought in a tiny store with a wonderful ambience in Greenwich Village in New York. This was right after enjoying some divine cupcakes at The Magnolia Bakery. Or Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter (I haven’t read that yet) that I bought in the combined coffee/bookshop on campus at the University of Keele. Needless to say, the shop smelled wonderful. A couple of months ago I was in Stockholm and bought a copy of Psychobabble: Exploding the Myths of the Self-Help Generation by Dr Stephen Briers, which I’m reading at the moment and really enjoying. (This visit unfortunately included neither coffee nor cupcakes.)

I was interested in this book because through my research I have spent a lot of time contemplating what exactly it is about contemporary society that tends to make people feel overwhelmed. Because that is what many people seem to be – overwhelmed. There is something about life today that seems to make people feel generally less secure than they did in previous times. It is not necessarily more dangerous today than before, and if I’m not mistaken, research has in fact shown that it isn’t, but people are more aware of the risks, partly due to the incredibly fast and efficient global sharing of news and information (and disasters) through media and technology. Then there is of course the insecurity of working in financially precarious times, but there is something else as well.

It’s as if with the makeover culture, the TV shows dedicated to self-improvement (some of which is quite extreme), and all the advice that is not only available to us but that we are constantly bombarded with on how to get better at various things, we are being told that there is still so much room for (needed) improvement. The message we’re getting is that we just aren’t good enough the way we are. If we just lost a bit of weight, managed to give up sugar altogether (which I admit is something I’m seriously contemplating but don’t think I’ll ever manage to do, and this is making me feel slightly guilty), became stronger, fitter, more positive, more patient, and more assertive, we would be happy because we would have finally reached our full potential. Not to mention all the instructions on how to dress, behave, network, and organize ourselves at work in order to have that rocket career. But that’s the thing. With all the help and encouragement out there on how to change our lives and live to our full potential, we are also being told that we really have a long way to go. As we are being fed unrealistic expectations, this full potential becomes something that continues to be just out of reach, or rather light years away, in other words simply unachievable.

Have you been to the self-help section in your local bookstore lately? If you have, you will have noticed that it is packed, with self-help books that is. Researchers often use the term ‘therapy culture’ to describe the reality in which we live. But as Christopher Lasch, author of a book called The Culture of Narcissism puts it, this therapy culture promotes a type of cultural hypochondria. Crisis becomes personal and permanent and people dig deeper and deeper to find their core authentic self in order to deal with the ambiguity and ambivalence of contemporary life.

The reason I like the book I’m reading right now so much, is that Briers goes through the main self-help myths, debunking them one at a time. With every chapter that I read, I feel increasingly relieved to be getting confirmation that I can ignore these social pressures to change my behavior while trying to achieve unrealistic and impossible goals. Although all self-help isn’t bad – there are good and insightful books out there – Briers still maintains that on a whole, self-help hasn’t helped. We’re not any better than before, we’re just unhappier with ourselves.

The people who really need help, don’t need self-help, they need professional help, and I sincerely hope they have access to what they need. For the rest of us, instead of asking ourselves why self-help doesn’t help, we should consider that maybe, just maybe, we don’t need help. Maybe we’re fine the way we are, all different, imperfect, and quirky in our own way. Maybe we just need to accept that and get on with it. Life, that is.