Is MBSR the Right Option for the Workplace?

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By Andy Lee

If you wanted to identify the beginning of today’s burgeoning mindfulness movement, it wouldn’t be hard. All arrows would point back to Jon Kabat-Zinn and his development of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, right around 1980. The program was completely originaland in many ways revolutionaryin a way that may be hard to appreciate today, as practically all programs developed since have been built on its groundbreaking paradigm. 

The 8-week program includes not only mindfulness and meditation practices but also body awareness, mindful movement, lovingkindness, and interpersonal relations practices. These topics and more are taught within a ‘container’ that prioritizes self-discovery, healing, and growth before any particular lessons and practices. 

MBSR is also the most-researched mindfulness program, having been the subject of dozens of academic studies. It has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and chronic pain, and to lower blood pressure, improve cognitive functioning, enhance well-being, and strengthen the immune system. 

For all these reasons, it makes sense that MBSR might be the first choice among mindfulness programs for companies to offer to their employees. And it has been taught successfully in certain organizational settings. However, there are also good reasons for companies to think carefully before implementing this program internally.

It is important to understand that MBSR was developed in a hospital setting. Its intended audience was hospital patients with chronic conditions who had been unable to find relief through traditional medical and psychiatric means. From these roots, it has expanded to serve a wide range of audiences. Yet the original design ethos is far removed from the challenges and constraints inherent in today’s workplace.  

Below are some of the qualities of the MBSR program that companies should consider carefully before implementation:

  • Time commitment. The program consists of eight 2.5 hour classes as well as a full-day retreat. In addition, participants are expected to dedicate 45 minutes daily to home practice. This may be seen as prohibitive by many employees, especially as the length of workplace mindfulness ‘classes’ continues to shrink, from 60 minutes to 15 minutes or less. 
  • Teacher training. MBSR teachers are among the best-trained mindfulness teachers to be found. They excel at creating an environment that facilitates healing and growth, as well as skillfully leading discussions and practices. However, there is no expectation that these teachers have any experience working in an organizational setting. This could put them at a disadvantage in understanding the stressors and challenges of organizational life.
  • Confidentiality. One cornerstone of MBSR is the ability to share personal experiences in a completely safe and nonjudgmental environment, if one chooses to do so. However participants in workplace programs often know each other, or even report to each other. This could interfere with participants’ willingness to be open and vulnerable, and thereby limit everyone’s learning.
  • Scalability. As mentioned above, MBSR is time-intensive to take and also to teach. This could pose a challenge if an organization’s goal is to have a large number of employees take the program – for example as part of a culture change initiative.

Still, I believe that there are ways that organizations can skillfully leverage this powerful program for the great benefit of their employees:

  1. Make it an option, not the standard. For your primary offering consider another reputable mindfulness program that is designed with the workplace in mind. Then offer MBSR as an option for those who are interested in a deeper, more holistic experience.
  2. Adapt it. Work with a qualified MBSR or other mindfulness teacher with workplace experience to develop a modified program that better fits your needs.
  3. Make it accessible outside of work. Instead of making it a company course, consider covering the costs for employees to take the program with local or online MBSR teachers (Mindful Leader is among such providers). 

MBSR has had a huge impact on my life, both as a student and as a teacher. I strongly urge anyone with an interest in mindfulness to take it, regardless of your mindfulness experience or other programs that you’ve taken. But for organizations, it’s important to proceed with care, in order to ensure that what you offer will provide the best experience and results for both your company and your employees.

What do you think? How can MBSR be incorporated into the workplace? 

Andy Lee has been teaching mindfulness in organizations since 2011. Before founding Mindful Ethos, Andy was Chief Mindfulness Officer at Aetna where he and his team developed a range of programs to create a deeply rooted culture of mindfulness. He has also held senior talent management positions at Merrill Lynch, Viacom and Capital One. Andy is a certified Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction teacher and holds an MA in Organizational Psychology and a certificate in executive coaching.

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3 comments

Nicely put Andy.

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Volker Ballueder Aug 4, 2020 12:07pm

Thanks for sharing. I love a 6 week course that is developed solely for mindfulness at the workplace, taking elements of the MBSR into consideration but involves less time commit. Balancing time vs. outcome can be tricky.
Thanks for sharing,

Volker

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Chris Altizer Aug 4, 2020 06:51pm

I agree completely with this advice. In a prior life I led Global Talent Development at Pfizer and just missed Andy’s time at Aetna. As a retired and recovering senior HR exec now teaching MBSR, I have seen and experienced both the need for and benefits of mindfulness in the workplace. Beyond the mounting research, 2020 has starkly shown us how necessary mindfulness is at work and in society. Employers are uniquely positioned to provide vehicles to bring this to employees and their families - whether through access to MBSR or other programs or benefits  

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