05 Dec 2014 | Tamar Kahn.
Discovery has added a form of meditation to its leadership induction programme.
THE head of human resources at SA’s biggest health and life insurance company, Discovery, sets her alarm clock 20 minutes earlier than she has been used to.
Not to hit the gym or to jog around the block, as might be expected from someone working for a company whose executives run marathons, but to sit still.
Penny Tlhabi is an advocate of “mindfulness”, a form of meditation that gently focuses on paying attention to what is happening in the here and now, moment by moment.
Its proponents consider it a powerful tool for reducing stress, improving concentration and increasing productivity, but critics question whether its application in the workplace is a cynical corruption of Buddhist teachings to boost the bottom line.
Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhist meditation, but a secular approach has gradually become mainstream over the past 40 years through the work of scientists such as Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts’ medical school, who has investigated its value in helping cancer patients’ deal with chronic pain.
It has become an increasingly popular tool for calming the mind, with a proliferation of books, courses, and more recently smart-phone and tablet apps.
There is good scientific evidence for its beneficial effects on stress and anxiety, and it has for the past decade, been prescribed by the UK’s National Health Service for depression. Recently it has caught the imagination of corporations from Silicon Valley to Sandton.
“Mindfulness seeks to create a mental and emotional space where you can focus, reflect and make better decisions. Instead of just reacting quickly to things, you see things more clearly and respond in the most appropriate way,” says Dr Tlhabi, who was introduced to mindfulness at a leadership development programme at Harvard earlier this year.
Discovery recently added mindfulness to its leadership induction programme, in the hope that it will help top managers better meet the demands of their jobs, she says.
“Discovery is a very fast-paced environment, and we expect a lot of our leaders. They work incredibly hard and have long to-do lists.
“The company is getting bigger and the job is not going to get easier,” she says.
It is early days yet, but the introduction to mindfulness has been “very well received, by even the most cynical” staff, she says.
Mindfulness is now taught on many management courses, including the executive MBA at the Graduate School of Business (GSB) at the University of Cape Town, where it is a compulsory part of the two-year, part- time curriculum.
“Initially there is often some resistance and skepticism, but more and more students say they are bringing it into their work,” says psychotherapist Linda Kantor, who has taught the “mindful leadership” course at the GSB for the past five years.
Ms Kantor, who is a director of the Cape Town based Institute for Mindfulness, has also taught mindfulness at firms across a variety of industries ranging from petrochemicals to financial services.
“I start by introducing people to the concept and practices of mindfulness so that on a daily basis they do something to turn their attention to the present moment,” she says, describing how she encourages students to do both formal meditation practices and to simply bring mindfulness techniques into their everyday lives, for example by noticing where their attention is when they do simple tasks such as sending e-mails.
“This is not just about improving productivity: this is about creating leaders that are consciously connected to their emotions.”
While there has been extensive scientific research into the effects of meditation on the brain, there has been far less analysis of its effect on individuals at work.
“Only in the past six or seven years have researchers started to look more closely at mindfulness practices in the workspace: how it affects decision-making, creativity and task performance,” says Ms Kantor.
Dina Oloefsen, who runs a consultancy called Mindful Leadership, agrees that the research on mindfulness and organizations is limited, but she believes it is reasonable to assume that a technique that helps people reduce stress and focus better will benefit firms.
“There is a lot of wastage through people not being mindful. People meet but are not really present: they are distracted, and often on their devices the whole time.
“It’s a logical extrapolation that if you want to lead well you have to be present with your people,” says Ms Oloefsen, whose client base is predominantly in the financial services sector.
Critics argue that teaching mindfulness to prevent teachers and doctors from burning out is easier than reforming stressful work environments such as schools and hospitals.
They have a point, Ms Oloefsen concedes. “The focus tends to be on how to cope with pressure rather than asking why the pressures are there and how to change them,” she says.
“As facilitators we have to be sure mindfulness is not just used as a means to an end.”
“But I’m very confident that the more people are exposed to mindfulness, the better the balance between ego and compassion.”