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Ineffective "Stress Management" Programs

Caveat Emptor (Buyer Beware)


A challenge for many in leadership is a lack of understanding about the mechanics of stress itself, which contributes to their inability to recognize and respond to it in a healthy manner. Many managers and executives have been conditioned to view stress as something to fight through or minimize – like figuratively taking the bull by its horns, which we all know if it happened literally, we'd likely be on the losing end of the match up. As a result, they may deal with it ineffectively which in turn may have unintended consequences in terms of their behavior and impact upon those they manage, their relationships with all stakeholders, and the broader impact upon the organization itself - as well as with the people in their personal life who often receive the brunt of poorly handled stress.



One of main problems with many of generic workplace stress management programs is that you can't actually reduce or manage stress itself; however, you can learn how to skillfully respond to it with an effective Readiness, Responsiveness and Resiliency program that is 360º in its scope and doesn't simply sidestep issues that people are unable to discuss safely and openly, and therefore the "stress mole" will continue popping up all over the place.


Concurrently, other professionals in the field have also witnessed the myriad of problems with promoting mindfulness as a workplace stress management "panacea." Most notably, in his 2019 book McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality, Ron Purser, Professor of Management at San Francisco State University "debunks the so-called 'mindfulness revolution,' exposing how corporations, schools, governments and the military have coopted it as technique for social control and self-pacification ... Purser busts the myths its salesmen rely on, challenging the narrative that stress is self-imposed and mindfulness is the cure-all."


"Little will change if mindfulness is merely applied as a means of coping with stress...

"The prevailing narrative tells us that society provides the opportunity to improve our lot by developing skills that we sell for fair return in the marketplace. While we have succeeded in satisfying our material needs, many of us live unhappy, lonely lives. Mindfulness as self-help or therapy is effective at managing the stress of modern living, but this does not go to the root of the problem.

"'Social mindfulness’ is a new approach that applies mindfulness to understand the social causes of stress and empower change. Mindfulness-Based Organisational Education (MBOE) combines mindfulness with a sense of relatedness to break the illusion of the separate self. This book explains the workings of the human, embodied social mind and how social mindfulness gives us the power to change the way things work."

- Mark Leonard, author of Social Mindfulness and
director of
Mindfulness Connected.

Realizing the potential of social mindfulness:

This presentation is about how social mindfulness can transform organizations and wider society.

The presentation introduces teaching principles of a new Social Mindfulness program, Mindfulness-Based Organizational Education (MBOE).


Academics across the globe are equally critical of the modern commercialized version of mindfulness which has swept across organizations as a quick fix to workplace culture issues. Professor Richard King, Professor of Buddhist and Asian Studies at the University of Kent, UK explains here the original practice of meditation and how it has become a commodity in Western society. 

Mindfulness and the Buddhist Tradition | Professor Richard King | Think Kent - YouTube 

The "Modern Mindfulness Industry"


When Suzanne Matthiessen was first contracted by a training company to teach mindfulness as a "stress reduction" tool to corporate employees in 2011, her students quickly began confiding to her privately that while the knowledge and practices were very helpful, toxic leadership and an unhealthy workplace culture were exacerbating unending everyday workplace stress. This happened with each organization she was hired to teach mindfulness skills to.


Learning & Growth Mindset 

It became clear to me that stress "management" and "reduction" was being placed squarely upon the shoulders of the employees. Workplace stress was their problem, and when mindfulness training programs were first brought in to organizations, they were being framed as a great wellness initiative benefit that would demonstrate the organization cared about employee wellbeing. However, the Return(s) on Investment being promoted to the C-Suite were to also see the value of mindfulness being marketed as a method to increase employee performance and productivity while reducing health care costs and absenteeism rates. 

When students from different organizations where I was contracted to teach informed me that their managers and supervisors were not required to take the mindfulness training themselves and then afterward model the skills they'd acquired, I knew the promised ROI would not be attainable, let alone sustainable. A number of employees said it felt like they were now under more pressure to meet those productivity expectations, and the way mindfulness was being taught some felt they were failing. At the same time, resentment increased. They felt unable to openly discuss the stresses that arose from unethical, discriminatory and even inhumane leadership behaviors and a variety of deeply ingrained and unhealthy cultural "norms" - and it was then I realized I was putting band-aids over metastasizing cancers.

As a contracted trainer, I was not permitted to openly call these issues out, which led her to deeply reflect upon how the currently popular, Westernized version of the ancient practice and "Life Skill" of mindful awareness has had some serious unintended consequences. The honorable and ethical human behavior components of mindfulness have been de-emphasized in favor of promoting scientific evidence of its effectiveness as a wellness intervention - and in some cases, results of published clinical studies have been shown to be misleading at best. It isn't that mindfulness "doesn't work" - the problem is that treating symptoms alone will never fix the unhealthy leadership and culture problems, and the more looming concern is that unaddressed and/or improperly addressed workplace stress is becoming an organizational risk. Now working independently as a workplace Code of Conduct and behavioral ethics trainer and adviser I still teach mindful awareness skills, but I only work with organizations that are taking complete ownership for the impacts their leadership and culture have upon employee stress.



The above issues with mindfulness becoming a "big thing" is that it (just like just about every new training buzzword you hear) quickly becomes coopted and turned into a profit maker that often sullies its original message and value. Unethical people take a class, read a book and put out a shingle calling themselves and "expert" in the latest buzzword field, and when that trend fades, they move on to the next one.

But don't throw the baby out with the bathwater! We are actually recommending mindfulness as a very importance part of this Toolkit, as well as two other powerhouse workplace stress and change Readiness, Responsiveness and Resiliency skills that have reached the "buzzword" status (and therefore are attracting people out to capitalize on what they see as "the latest trend"): Adaptive Leadership and Psychological Safety. All three of these skillsets are grounded in deep classical principles and understandings of human behavior that if taught properly will never go out of style. 


As ethics professionals, when recommending these vital skills our responsibility is to stay informed regarding training and advising programs that are being conducted by individuals or companies in order to discern whether there are ethical issues like the above taking place. Slick marketing campaigns and highly positioned "branding" doesn't necessarily mean "better." Additionally, if they promise "quick fixes," misinformation /misapplication of the foundational principles of what they represent themselves to be an "expert" in, use any of the principles in a weaponizing manner, change exclusionary fees, and of course, don't walk their talk, the cost of their services will be more than their high ticket price: you'll have poorly educated students who may even feel that these trainings either don't work, or they've been promised an ROI that simply cannot be attained through no fault of their own.

At the same time, "cherry-picking" any training or advising program being considered to utilize only the parts you like and dismissing others that you don't is a disservice to all involved. The fact is that any program that is worthy of an investment of time, money and energy is going to bring up things that some may find uncomfortable, but any trainer or adviser who is happy to tell people only what they want to hear and/or will stay silent regarding disruptive leadership and cultural elephants in the middle of the room is simply enabling a worn-out and even pernicious status quo, and the risks to the organization will remain unchecked.

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