The Downsides To Mindfulness Practices At Work

Too much mindfulness and meditation at work can do more harm than good. Here, a critic outlines some problems with the popular practices.

The Downsides To Mindfulness Practices At Work
[Photo: Flickr user Beat Tschanz]

David Brendel is concerned that mindfulness is gaining a cultlike status in the business world.


As a physician, psychiatrist, and executive coach, Brendel doesn’t have anything against mindfulness and meditation techniques. He knows the benefits mindfulness poses for stress levels and life-threatening illnesses. He’s well aware of the growing neuroscience research that demonstrates the positive effects mindfulness has on the brain. He incorporates a lot of cognitive psychology into his own work to help clients transform their mindsets and work on important behavioral changes needed for career success.

The problem he has with mindfulness is that everyone seems to be for it, and Brendel is worried we’re all just blindly following the leader.

“I’ve been struck by the growth of different mindfulness approaches over the years, and I recommend them to many of my clients,” Brendel tells Fast Company. “At the same time, I’ve noticed over the past year or so, [mindfulness] has just sort of exploded in the popular press and popular imagination, and you see almost nothing about it that’s critical, negative, or cautionary.”

Brendel says this kind of “blind acceptance” can prevent people from using the constructive critical eye so desperately needed when thinking about potential risks of a practice that’s gained so much traction, it was called a “revolution” by Time magazine in 2014.

Below are the risks, according to Brendel, of a blanket acceptance of mindfulness in the office:

People Might Avoid Overwhelming Situations And Difficult Conversations

Brendel’s biggest concern with mindfulness is that it can lead to avoidance in thinking through overwhelming situations and having difficult conversations. Instead of pushing through internal barriers to change thoughts and behavioral patterns, people accept them.


“So, instead of carefully, logically, and rationally thinking about difficult issues and coming to very difficult decisions, [some of my clients] were kind of backing up from those scary and overwhelming thoughts that they needed to have or decisions that they needed to make or difficult conversations that they needed to have, and just going into a state of acceptance,” he explains, “and just noticing what’s going on but not actually changing.”

Meditation and mindfulness can lead to analytical thought processes if people use the practices to change their usual way of doing things. But the practices can also lead people to block out the world and accept their lives. If this is the case, mindfulness can have adverse effects on creative breakthroughs since, so often, you need to change the way you think to have “aha” moments.

Required Courses Make People Uncomfortable

As mindfulness becomes more popular in Western cultures, a growing number of corporations offer mindfulness classes, hoping to reduce stress levels and increase overall happiness–and productivity–in their employees. Corporations like Google, Aetna, Goldman Sachs, and BlackRock offer some form of mindfulness seminar or meditation session.

These options can be helpful for many of the overworked, stressed-out employees in our digitally dependent, always-on work culture, but groupthink becomes a problem when it’s required, explains Brendel. He says:


I became aware in a couple of situations that there was this trend in corporations to require mindfulness seminars or experiences or teams getting together and being required by some authority in the group to have 5 to 10 minutes at the beginning of meetings to do meditation or controlled breathing or closing the eyes and relaxing,” he recalls. “While some people, I think, find those kind of offerings very helpful, when there’s either a requirement or just some sort of pressure to do it, people are quite uncomfortable with it. And some [of my clients have said], ‘Look, I like meditating, but I want to do it on my own. I find it awkward to do it with a group of people, especially professional colleagues.’

Imposing mindfulness on your employees for the sake of jumping on the mindfulness bandwagon isn’t going to calm their stress levels; instead, it might lead to anxiety when enforced as a top-down requirement.

Despite the concerns he has about mindfulness, Brendel says he is “open and receptive” to the practices as long as they are done for the right reasons. In fact, he says that he thought about his concerns on a snow day when he “went into a bit of a mindfulness state and became critical of mindfulness.”

He is aware of the benefits a deep state of self-awareness can bring, but also wants to remind us that like all good things, even mindfulness and meditation can be dangerous if we forget our goals–or just no longer want to deal with them because we’re so obsessed with feeling complacent and satisfied in our everyday lives.

About the author

Vivian Giang is a business writer of gender conversations, leadership, entrepreneurship, workplace psychology, and whatever else she finds interesting related to work and play. You can find her on Twitter at @vivian_giang.