Corporations are using mindfulness to null out the pervasive problem of stress in the business world.
However, those celebrating the mindfulness boom have avoided any serious consideration of why stress is so pervasive in corporations and society. According to New York Times business reporter David Gelles, author of “Mindful Work,” “Stress isn’t something imposed on us. It’s something we impose on ourselves.” The New York Times recently featured an exposé on the toxic, sociopathic work culture at Amazon. A former employee was quoted as saying that he saw nearly everyone he worked with cry at their desk. Would Gelles offer his advice with a straight face to these employees of Amazon, telling them that they have imposed stress on themselves, that they could have chosen not to cry?
For Gelles, the causes of stress are located inside our heads, from our own lack of emotional self-regulation, from our habitual patterns of thinking—and if fMRI images are revealing the neural correlates of stress, then surely our misery must be self-created. We only have ourselves – our own mindlessness – to blame. This is not to deny that experiences of stress and misery are partly due to our habitual reactivity, but Gelles goes too far. His victim-blaming philosophy echoes the corporate mindfulness ethos: shift the burden and locus of psychological stress and structural insecurities onto the individual employee, frame stress as a personal problem, and then offer mindfulness as the panacea. Critical psychologist David Smail referred to this philosophy as “magical voluntarism,” because it blames individuals for their own stress, ignoring the social and economic conditions which may have contributed to it.
A recent Stanford-Harvard study, however, tells a different story. A meta-analysis of 228 studies showed that employee stress is not self-imposed nor due to a lack of mindfulness. On the contrary, major workplace stressors were associated with a lack of health insurance, threats of constant layoffs and job insecurity, lack of discretion and autonomy in decision-making, long work hours, low organizational justice, and unrealistic job demands. Yet, individualized mindfulness programs pay virtually no attention to how stress is shaped by a complex set of interacting power relations, networks of interests, and explanatory narratives. Carl Cederstrom and Andre Spicer argue in “The Wellness Syndrome” that the mindfulness movement exemplifies an ideological shift, which turns an obsessive focus on wellness and happiness into a moral imperative. This “biomorality” urges the individual to find responsibility via the “right” life choices—whether through exercise, food, or meditation—to optimize the self.