Written by Lucy Burton.
The answer to some of the City’s most persistent HR problems might not be as complicated as blind recruitment schemes or work-life balance initiatives, but in a practice founded more than two and a half thousand years ago.
A growing number of banks and law firms are looking at how they can use mindfulness, a type of meditation that originates from Buddhism focusing on paying attention to thoughts and feelings in the present moment, to improve culture, calm stressed graduates or even find fresh faces in an unpredictable, round-the-clock working environment.
The move follows a growing demand among staff for meditation and mindfulness sessions in the workplace, with Goldman Sachs – which runs two 15 minute meditation classes a week – considering creating ‘contemplation’ spaces in its new London office for “personal quiet reflection,” a person close to the plans told FN.
And with popularity soaring, some businesses are now hoping to take the practice from personal reflection – most banks and law firms with in-house gyms now offer some form of meditation – to wider problem solving.
Louise Cox Chester, an investment professional and founder of consultancy Mindfulness at Work, said that some banks are turning to mindfulness workshops for diversity and inclusion training because people “need to be aware of a cognitive bias and recognise that in the moment you have the ability to behave in a different way”. Additionally, CEOs and HR heads are seeking one-on-one training to help them notice their default modes of thinking and behaving, she adds.
Quick to dismiss that mindfulness is about staying calm – “we don’t sit round cross-legged getting people to say Om” – Cox Chester said the firm works with around 25 banks and 15 law firms, as well as several corporates, to help improve areas such as decision making (for those who feel overworked and distracted), culture (to improve communication) and recruitment (to stop firms having a go-to personality type).
James Doty, a clinical professor in the department of neurosurgery at Stanford University and the author of Into the Magic Shop: A neurosurgeon’s true story of the life-changing magic of compassion and mindfulness, said that the unusual concept of using mindfulness to challenge a preferred choice of candidate could help transform the sector for the better.
“Until recently we have not really understood what makes someone a success in a particular job, and the easy way out is to create arbitrary, artificial criteria,” he said. Doty himself was told he would never get into medical school because on the surface he filled none of the criteria.
“I don’t need to repeat the cliche of ruthless people on Wall Street – when people are motivated by money then they will engage in unscrupulous, unethical behaviour, and we have seen that demonstrated over and over again,” he said. “When you change the criteria for which you choose individuals, then that changes everything.”
However, Marina Grazier, the owner of The Mindfulness Exchange, which runs workplace mindfulness courses, said that while this form of meditation is aimed at taking people off auto-pilot – which could in turn help diffuse hiring bias – the subconscious influences driving recruitment choices are so complex that mindfulness alone can’t make you free of them.
But she has noticed that banks and law firms are turning to mindfulness as a way to stop over zealous graduates from burning out, improve working relationships (and in turn, productivity and culture) and help staff deal with stress.
Essentially, to stop people from leaving.
“The banking and legal sectors are most interested in how we improve people’s’ resilience,” she said, noting that she has seen a “step change in interest” across the City since setting up her business five years ago. Several firms in this sector are turning to mindfulness workshops to stop their most junior employees from getting burnout, she adds, using the example of a 28-year-old banker who is doing amazing work – but not in a sustainable way.
“Both her and the bank want her to continue, but not to her detriment – she’s working round the clock, so not getting good quality sleep, which impacts client relationships and relationships with her peers,” Grazier noted, saying that this tension would in turn impact productivity.
Acknowledging that “when we go to work we don’t go to be therapied, we go to do a good job,” Grazier said mindfulness should be part of graduate training and management training for the above reasons. In some large corporations, it’s part of the furniture – Google spearheaded the trend in 2007 by introducing its own course Search Inside Yourself, now a globally recognised program, set up by one of its engineers Chade-Meng Tan, who gained the nickname, the Jolly Good Fellow.
But there are criticisms of encouraging mindfulness in the workplace – namely that big business is turning something which is supposed to be spiritual into a tool for financial gain, and also that it could make some people feel even worse.
Doty said banks need to be careful if they’re thinking of introducing any formal mindfulness program – it is not, he reiterates, a “panacea for every problem someone has”. He noted that there is a current trend to promote mindfulness as a cure-all, adding that businesses should also not ignore compassion – a critical part of the buddhist practice – in their teachings. It is essential that staff get the right message about how to use their newfound focus.
“I think overall it’s needed [in the sector] as long as you understand what mindfulness can or cannot do,” said Doty. “It’s like a medication – there’s a certain group it will benefit, and a small percentage for whom it will have negative side effects.”
There would be also no point introducing a mindfulness program if people are working long hours, have no holidays and are badly paid, said Doty.
After all, if a place is so stressful to work at that staff are constantly in fight and flight response, the odd mindfulness workshop – whether it makes you think in a fresh way or not – isn’t going to convince anyone to stay.