The challenges of mindfulness in the workplace


With the recent increased focus on humanistic and spiritual values at work, the mindfulness movement has become front and centre for many organisations trying to disrupt ways of working. However, traditionally a Buddhist-inspired practice, the interpretation and application of mindfulness in a corporate environment has been varied and debated.

Critics argue that mindfulness in a business context has become merely a “tool of managerial ideology”, over-emphasising organisational benefits such as resilience or productivity, at the expense of more traditional mindfulness focus areas, such as “mindful relating” (the ability to gain greater satisfaction from intimate relationships through mindfulness). So how do organisations navigate the tension between the benefits for the business versus the individual and can they actually get the best of both worlds?

Research conducted by Gazi Islam of Grenoble Ecole de Management Universite and associates from ESCEM in France and the University of Helsinki studied the implications of defining mindfulness for a corporate environment and then embedding that interpretation of mindfulness through corporate mindfulness programs.

Ultimately they found that the notion of mindfulness as an “empty signifier” (essentially, a concept that has no single agreed upon meaning) actually allows greater participation and adoption, but that alignment to business models and tangible business outcomes is necessary for ongoing program investment from the business.


This study aimed to explore the implications of both defining “mindfulness” as a concept in an organisational context and the practical application and embedment of mindfulness programs in corporate environments. The researchers sought to argue that the notion of mindfulness as an empty signifier (characterised by a lack of agreed definition) provided a forum for diverse interpretation by individuals and resulted in an ordering of preferred program characteristics.


The research team interviewed and observed 32 respondents who either taught, participated in or arranged formal corporate mindfulness programs in France, Denmark, Norway and the United Kingdom. The data collected included five mindfulness program training groups (one standardised and four tailor-made).

The interviews focused on the entry of mindfulness in corporate settings more generally, as opposed to a single organisation’s dynamics or the impact of such programs. Respondents were asked about the nature and aspects of their program, how they would position their program within the spectrum of mindfulness programs, and the steps they take to embed their programs within an organisation.


The researchers structured their findings in two core categories – imagining mindfulness (the definition of mindfulness) and enacting mindfulness (the practical application of mindfulness). In each category, they found that participants recognised potential tensions between opposing characteristics, but that these were resolved and rationalised as the mindfulness program continued. The researchers found that stronger preferences in imagining mindfulness to attribute mindfulness to performance and return on investment aligned with the findings in enacting mindfulness, where programs had a stronger focus on action, proactivity, and individuality over collectivity.

  1. Imagining mindfulness – the way in which define the benefits of mindfulness
    • Business performance vs individual well-being: Respondents acknowledged the higher order requirement for the business case for mindfulness programs to be linked to performance and therefore the need to tailor programs to highlight areas such as task efficiency and multi-tasking. However, respondents also stated that performance and well-being are inherently aligned, as increased productivity hinges on participants’ increased wellbeing. They also acknowledged that the relationship was inverse, stating that not only did improved performance lead to an increase in employee satisfaction, but that optimal well-being actually requires individuals to use alternative ways of business that consider social responsibility and other humanistic practices.
    • Human capital investment vs employee fringe benefit cost: The researchers found that mindfulness programs are more often seen as an investment in people than as an employee fringe benefit cost, similar to how training is viewed. There was a shared understanding that “mindfulness was exceptional in its tolerance of ambiguity regarding costs and outcomes”, with respondents expressing satisfaction in the programs not serving a clearly articulated financial purpose (as opposed to an investment in “me”). However, the lack of clarity did lead to skepticism from the business and it was agreed that “ultimately, results would have to be evidenced” for ongoing investment.
  2. Enacting mindfulness – the way in which mindfulness is implemented in an organisation
    • Contemplation vs action: The researchers found that techniques of “slowing down” were seen as necessary, but only in the context of preparing participants to be have active engagement in their environments further in the program. Futhermore, dissatisfaction from participants was linked to perceived “inaction” associated with meditation practices.
    • Withdrawal to proactivity: Similarly, the researchers found that rather than these two characteristics being in direct contrast, they actually appeared to be mutually reinforcing: withdrawal from preoccupation with minute details allows for renewed energy and that leads to increased proactivity.
    • Collective vs individual: It was found that although mindfulness was practiced in groups, the activities were often solitary in nature, and respondents stated that the personal transformation they had undertaken through mindfulness programs was the primary outcome (individual focus), but that this had had a secondary impact on their interactions with their teams.

The authors offered 3 practical implications for organisations in embedding mindfulness programs in their workplace:

  1. Leaving mindfulness open to interpretation can be a feature of mindfulness itself: mindfulness emphasises an ability to be comfortable with ambiguity and to be open to possibilities. By providing participants with the space to experience mindfulness under a broad definition, organisations can not only reiterate this underlying principle, but also allow more people to connect and relate to the mindfulness concept and feel a sense of community and belonging. Furthermore, by allowing participants to individually find meaning for themselves, organisations can also bestow a stronger sense of ownership, which provides an individual impetus and commitment to the program.
  2. Maintaining space for interpretative leeway in the program itself is therefore essential. In order to truly provide an open-space for interpretation and experience, mindfulness programs must provide flexibility and opportunity for participants to explore what mindfulness signifies for them, whilst being guided and educated on the possibilities. Similarly, the program has to be tailored for the demands of employees and the business to support this exploration, taking into account typical work hours, both personal and professional commitments and how this may impact on the individual’s experience.
  3. However, the link between the definition and individual benefits of mindfulness and the business model will eventually need to be articulated. Whilst a broad definition of mindfulness in the workplace can help individuals embrace the practice, having a broad definition where each individual takes their own ‘journey’ can impact the ability to measure outcomes and demonstrate impact on business measures. Organisations should leverage a broad definition initially to understand how their specific organisational context shapes mindfulness for their employees, then be willing to standardise in longer-term implementation to ensure measurement (and therefore ongoing investment) is possible.

For more information about this article contact Kimberley Van Raay. To read this article go to Islam, G., Holm, M., Karjalainen, M., (2017) “Sign of the times: Workplace mindfulness as an empty signifier”, Organization, DOI.

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