mindfulness’, the fake ‘wellness’ cult, ‘happiness’ and 'life coaches', and admit to feeling repulsed by most of this therapeutic psychobabble. But my revulsion reached a new low today when I read that Australian ‘wellness’ blogger, Belle Gibson, had lied about having terminal cancer, to sell her blog and book. Belle is a foolish young girl that deserves pity rather than scorn but many proponents of mindfulness, wellness and happiness are playing a similar game. It’s a game I’ve seen time and time again in HR. A book appears, training courses to become ‘practitioners’ pop up, then an army of HR people get out there promising utopian increases in efficiency and productivity on the back of their own self-propelled beliefs. The whole thing becomes a marketing exercise that uses its own hot air to fuel itself.
First an observation. I started to note the same case studies, same quotes and same figures pop up everywhere. Sure enough, behind every HR fad, there’s usually a book. In this case, it’s ‘Mindful Work: How Meditation Is Changing Business from the Inside’ by David Gelles. So I bought it. Well, I bought it but, let’s be clear, I didn’t ‘buy’ it.
His evidence is largely anecdotal, mainly the testimonies of the execs who dabble a little in meditation, like it and want to do a top-down job applying their hobby to their employees. Even when workplace studies are considered they are of such poor design that they’d make you weep.
The key examples are, of course, companies who have the luxury of trying this stuff out. Already, massively successful, cash-rich companies in tech, health insurance and finance. Google, Aetna and Goldman Sachs - yes Goldman Sachs! They used that bunch of thieving rats as an argument for increasing ‘compassion’? Have I entered an Orwellian universe where the crooks define good behaviour? Hedge-fund managers are even quoted. Meditate in order to rape the markets but feel good about yourself at the same time. Give me a break.
Ultimately Gelles doesn’t answer the key question, that many of these companies are in the game of making huge profits, avoiding tax. It’s capitalism, not compassion that drives them. These therapeutic approaches in the workplace are fundamentally about money, not mental health. "Militaries round the globe are using it for their snipers,” says Gelles. Well that’s good to know. Feel calm while you blow someone’s brains out.
Here’s a thought experiment. Let’s suppose you run a factory or hours billable law firm and you’re faced with a recommendation for a ‘Mindfulness’ programme, which was recommended to me as 20 minutes a day. In a 40 hour week you’d have to guarantee a 4.6 % increase in productivity just to break even. Note that in the Gelles book, there is only one solitary example of this being used in a blue collar environment. Are we being asked to believe that factories, shops, rubbish collection, bar staff and dozens of other jobs will see these increases in productivity through meditation? I think not.
When it comes to the evidence, let’s be careful here and ask the usual questions. What is the source? What was the method? There are far too many self-proclaimed, surveymonkey theorists ready to promote something which they already make a living from. As John Higgins (to be fair a supporter of wellness programmes) says, the evidence for the impact of these programmes is never clear, as “those who took advantage of the programs were likely individuals who already highly driven, motivated, and oriented toward self-improvement”. I’d contend that this has far more to do with the on-going obsession HR has with binary, therapeutic and even Silicon Valley narratives, than science.
False binary narrative
While I’m not against attempts to make life less stressful and the use of these techniques on a personal level or where medically diagnosed, mental illness is the target, there is a dangerous line that is crossed with mindfulness, wellness and happiness. That line is their injection into the workplace. While these three mini-movements are different, they are all part of the same broad pathological narrative. The language used betrays the problem.
1. Mindful v mindless
Jay Cross says “Mindful people are more creative and productive than their mindless peers. They feel more content and fulfilled in their lives.” Bold claim but note the juxtaposition of ‘mindful’ with ‘mindless’. Am I really less fulfilled in my life than those who practice Mindfulness? Mindfulness becomes righteousness when it dismisses the rest of us as falling short of its some self-proclaimed cognitive and moral standard. For me, that’s where the line has been crossed.
2. Wellness v unwell (ill)
The same issue arises with wellness, where the assumption is that we are unwell, namely ‘ill’, and need to be made ‘well’ by whatever craze hits the HR conference circuit. Those who don’t take part in dancing to the new company tune are branded as the unwell. Again. I resent this sport of binary benchmarking.
3. Happiness v unhappiness
Lastly, with happiness we have the simplistic ‘unhappy’ versus ‘happy’ assumption. If you’re not being made happy, you are dysfunctional and unhappy. Henry Stewart challenges me by saying “But would we really prefer a workplace where people are unhappy to one where they are happy? Would we really create an unhealthy workplace to a healthy one? Would we prefer a disengaged workforce to an engaged one?”
These are precisely the false binary choices that these movements use to peddle one-sided and therefore myopic solutions. It poses mutually exclusive language to artificially bolster a case for the product (usually consultancy or a training course). By all means make the workplace a better place but these simple, binary oppositions in no way reflect the rich and complex mental states of people at work. These programmes assume simple dualisms and open HR up to ridicule. Treat people well, respect them, make sure they're fairly rewarded, listen to what they have to say, develop their skills but don't cross that line and become their pseudo-therapist.
Another narrative that underlies all three is the therapeutic narrative that goes back to Freud but includes many others, especially Carl Rogers. This narrative lies deeper than the one above, as it draws on a Freudian view of the world that sees almost everyone in need of therapy. It has its origins in Europe but reached its apotheosis in the US and California in particular. Carl Rogers is known as the founder of 'client-centred' therapy and his promotion of counselling. He also had a keen interest in education and his therapy-oriented methods became widely adopted in education and training through coaching and mentoring. His influence can be felt everywhere in the learning world, especially through counselling and therapeutic techniques in education and the workplace.
This narrative refuses to die and has morphed from fairly benign mentoring to more intrusive counselling and now onto mindfulness, wellness and happiness. Descriptive definitions suddenly become prescriptive techniques to be applied to all. Just as the underlying Freudian theory fades (almost nothing has survived) this narrative, the therapeutic narrative, described well by Frank Furedi in Therapy Culture (2004) gets resurrected. This, I believe is a line that should not be crossed. Employees are not patients and the workplace is not an experimental therapy sandbox and HR are not therapists.
Silicon valley narrative
The third narrative behind all of this is the Californian, Silicon Valley narrative. Jay Cross sees Chade as a missionary for compassion and world peace. In fact, he’s a software engineer, turned trainer, who runs meditation classes for, some would say, spoiled Google kids. Unfortunately, he genuinely thinks he’s on a mission for world peace – pictures with the Dalai Lama, Obama and so on. But isn’t it Chade who has lost a sense of proportion here? A software engineer on the Google dollar, telling the rest of us how to live our lives. Beware of geeks bearing gifts.
Let’s take but one kooky example from Google world. A Googler, as reported by Jay Cross, says that “60% of Google engineers suffer from ‘imposter syndrome”. First, I doubt that such a thing exists, and suspect this is no more than the general self-doubt that almost everyone, except sociopaths and psychopaths, have as a normal part of their mental make-up. It is not a clinical disorder and is not mentioned in the ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’. The imposters here are those who pose this false imposter/real dichotomy, then reinforce the need for therapy, to cure the mythical clinical disorder, making us mindful, well or happy. They do this by calling it a ‘syndrome’. This is exactly the sort of pathological interpretation that characterises normal features of the mind, as a ‘disease’. If there’s anything wrong here, it’s the culture of hype and narcissism that exists in these companies. So fixated are they with their own wellbeing that they lose perspective on the problems of inequality that their companies help create. The imposters here are the amateur clinicians and ‘me, me, me’ narcissists at Google.
“I feel smart organizations should do everything they can to help workers be happy, fulfilled, productive corporate citizens” says Jay Cross. This is where I differ. I don’t want to become a ‘corporate citizen’. How about ‘Googlers’ becoming, not corporate citizens but real citizens by forcing their rapacious employer to pay their taxes? This issue is being avoided and I won’t be preached to by global behemoths, who have scant care for anyone, other than their well-paid, mollycoddled employees.
Let’s be clear about the scale of the problem. Rather than being obsessed about their own mental fads, they should see what the billions of unpaid tax could do for people with real mental illness. I’m talking about the mentally ill who are often homeless in most major US cities and lack adequate funding elsewhere in the world. People with real mental illness are marginalized, as are their families, where social isolation and financial difficulties abound. Countries struggle to create healthcare systems that cope with this problem. Think what we could do for these people if the global, Silicon Valley organisations decided to do their moral duty and pay the tax they owe? Digital companies have been the most aggressive in tax evasion, using tax shelters to hide billions from national tax regimes. This is downright evil. So bad are Google that the OECD and UK tax clampdown has been called the ‘Google Tax’. Googlers and others – stop meditating and pay your taxes.
I have no problem with anyone choosing to partake in yoga, reflexology, mindfulness, wellness, laughter therapy, happiness – whatever – but that is a lifestyle choice, not a workplace imperative. This lifestyle stuff is something HR are neither qualified nor suited to manage. One minute they hear a conference talk on the subject, the next they are running the ‘course’ and claiming that it will transform the business. Send them to a conference on clowns, and they’ll recommend we all wear red noses and big shoes.
For a light heareted critique of the 'happiness' craze - check out dailymash.