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Why Workplace Well-Being Programs Don't Work

Text: You've heard of people calling in sick. You may have called in sick a few times yourself. But have you ever thought about calling in well?  It'd go like this: You'd get the boss on the line and say, "Listen, I've been sick ever since I started working here, but today I'm well and I won't be in anymore." Call in well.  Tom Robbins

Here's the study, which is U.K.-based. (Here's one from the U.S.)

As you might be aware, the most common initiatives involve opportunities for individual counseling, training in stress management, and educating about healthy lifestyle. Those are all laudable. But if the systems, structure, behavior, and language of your workplace isn't supportive of well-being, your initiative is a series of Band-aids that don't address the cause of worker burnout or low wellness and well-being. The research agrees . . .

Despite formal recommendations ... and evidence supporting the effectiveness of organisational change and work redesign on improving worker well-being ..., interventions that target the individual worker are most common.

The Real Benefit of Mindfulness in the Workplace

The workplace well-being crisis is a symptom of systemic environmental and behavioral issues, compounded by bad incentives. It doesn't exist because folks aren't doing enough mindfulness (one of the interventions mentioned).

Here's the workplace research I want to see: Do people with solid, ethical, daily mindfulness practices QUIT THEIR JOBS because they realize their workplace was the biggest impediment to their well-being and they've figured out self-care, beginning with boundaries?

Because that's really what happens. 

The more you awaken to your actual lived experience, the stronger you get, and the more you want to create a life aligned with your values. And that spells GOODBYE to unhealthy workplaces. You "call in well." Permanently.

Drive-by interventions (including an hour-long presentation about mindfulness) do nothing UNLESS they're clearly an introduction to what's possible. They need to point out that maintaining your health and well-being is often difficult, daily work, for the rest of your life. When I read a corporate survey that says something like, "mindfulness? again?" That tells me that individual doesn't understand what mindfulness is. And that could be because of how it's presented, but not necessarily.

Even small moments of genuine mindfulness practice can scare someone if they touch on their own suffering or trauma. So they stop, and say they don't "like" mindfulness, or it doesn't "work," because if it "worked," their mind would be "clear" and they would be "relaxed."

This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what mindfulness is, and requires a trained, experienced teacher's response. If you leave someone to their own devices, maybe with an app that encourages short practices, they might stop in a jiffy because they don't know how to deal with what occurs during practice.

What are the Incentives in Your Workplace?

Most workplaces have KPIs that involve measurable items such as calls made, deals won, demos completed, assets under management, or leads generated.

The Return on Investment for mindfulness, which includes awareness, attention training, compassion, and nervous system regulation ("stress management"), is kind of smuggled into who you become when you're more aware of yourself, others, and your environment.

In my course feedback, the most common comment is a version of . . .

This course has made me a better person. A better parent, partner, accountant, teacher, planner.

What does that look like? Can we break that ROI down?

  • TIME. When you increase your attention to the present moment — so you know what you're paying to — you get the gift of time. Show me a person who is paying attention to how they use their time, and I'll show you a person who is in control of their life and doing more of what brings them joy and more of what works for them.

  • HAPPINESS. A wandering mind has been shown to be an unhappy mind. People are happier doing tasks they don't even like than they are when they're not paying attention.

  • CARE. Mindfulness includes compassion and self-compassion training. When you're able to touch your own suffering, you're better positioned to see and respond to the suffering of others with care and compassion.

  • KINDNESS & GENEROSITY. Mindfulness training includes practices that bring attention to the suffering of others and nudge us to do what we can to ease suffering.

  • LISTENING. Forget the guidance to speak no more than 20% of the time. That's a parlor trick. Mindfulness teaches you how to listen deeply and respond skillfully.

If you show up as a kind, generous, attentive, mindful listener, and your work exhausts you mentally and emotionally — and not in a good way — perhaps it's time to call in well.



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