A Gentle Harness

A Gentle Harness

“In this context, mindfulness is an ideal tool to induce compliance, with its focus on the individual management of our responses to forces we’re being told are well beyond our control.”

So says Zoe Krupka in her beautifully written and thought provoking article ‘How Corporates Co-Opted the Art of Mindfulness to Make Us Bear the Unbearable’.

Krupka is a teacher of meditation and a PhD candidate with the Faculty of Health Science at LaTrobe University. In this article on The Conversation website she takes aim at the dark side of the current fad for mindfulness in corporate settings. She rails against the use of mindfulness techniques as a way of stifling manifestations of stress rather than addressing them.

“While there can be little doubt that the practice of mindfulness can lead to significant health benefits, its current prominence in corporate culture is nested within a social, cultural and political context where stress is now seen as a failure of the individual to adapt to the productivity demands of the corporation. In other words, if you’re stressed out, you’re not working hard enough on your personal focus strategy. You’re letting the team down.”

And it’s worse for women, apparently:

“The current translations of ancient mindful practices are also highly gendered. In a culture where women are much more likely to be encouraged to apply acceptance, silence, stillness and the relinquishing of resistance to their problems, the trap of mindfulness can be set to stun for those who may be much more in need of speaking up, resisting and taking space in the workplace.”

Les Muselieres pour femmes et autres supplices book by Jean Finot
Image from ‘Les Muselieres Pour Femmes et Autre Supplices’ by Jean Finot

In a time and place where plenty of us are coming to understand the need for diversity of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation etc. in our workplace communities anything that leads to people being held back from “taking space in the workplace” can’t be good.

I’m particularly interested in what makes workplace cultures more humane; not only is this obviously a kinder way of living but it also leads to better staff retention, more productivity and more creativity. Part of the creative process often involves what some call creative fiction; discussion of divergent opinions within a team can lead to breakthroughs. But this can be a little stressful – not necessarily bad but still adrenaline inducing. In my own head I call this kind of stress ‘positive stress’ – not comfortable and not sustainable over long periods but certainly productive in the right time and place and, among the right people, exciting and even fun.

Negative stress is the kind of thing that can be caused and / or exacerbated by bad work conditions and / or poor culture. It is important that the causes of such stress be highlighted and dealt with. Prolonged exposure to this kind of stress can be damaging, physically and emotionally.

Krupka’s concern with the way mindfulness techniques are being embedded in corporate culture is that they are being used to stifle expressions of stress:

“It’ll fix not so much what ails you, but what is ailing those who depend on you… mindfulness has been rebranded as a kind of gentle harness to help us heel to the corporate leg.”

Managers who tidy away any manifestations of stress that threaten to subvert the status quo – either the discontent of those feeling negative stress or the outpourings from those in the grip of positive stress – are selling their organisation short by squelching personality, cauterising tolerance for difference, allowing problems to fester and bad conditions to become entrenched.

As Krupka states in her closing paragraph “Mindfulness is a way of living, not a substitute for taking action.”

Managers need to take action that results in psycho-social space being opened up for honest conversation, rather than imposing a regime that demands silent compliance.

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