Why we’re made to feel guilty for work stress

Capitalism has co-opted “being present” so we ignore that it’s actually the structure of work that’s affecting our wellbeing.

I really take issue with the narrative that explains stress as a failure of individuals to take responsibility for their own wellbeing,” Ronald Purser, Professor of Management at San Francisco State University tells me. Purser is the author of a new book, McMindfulness, which critiques capitalist spirituality” – something he believes mindfulness to be a huge part of.

Purser believes that the brand of mindfulness currently being peddled by employers and brands across the world is actually keeping us locked in a world where work is front and centre, and productivity is how we measure our self-worth. By shifting the burden to the individual, mindfulness programs can lead people to interpret the causes of their stress as a lapse of attention, of not being sufficiently mindful,” he says. 

In 2019, mindfulness is everywhere. Journals and colouring books adorn tables in every bookshop you see; Etsy returns over 30,000 results when you type in the word. One feminist website suggests a pair of £7 supermarket headphones might bring you inner peace” whenever you need it (helpfully, they also provide an affiliate link). 

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You can buy mindful clothing from brands promising to inspire you on a journey of awakening and self-love” via a £25 long-sleeve baseball shirt, Mindful® mayonnaise for your lunch (just don’t forget that registered trademark symbol). One company offers a small gold mindfulness pebble” that alleviates anxiety and stress in style”; £385 probably seems like a bargain when you’re being offered inner peace. 

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In the workplace, mindfulness has seen a similar rise in popularity. In his 2015 book The Happiness Industry, sociologist Will Davies notes an increased global focus on happiness” and being mindful”: at the 2014 Davos meeting, he writes, the subjects have penetrated the citadel of global economic management” entirely, becoming measurable entities in and of themselves. 

Companies including Google, Nike, Goldman Sachs and Apple are evangelical about their own mindfulness offerings, and more general wellbeing programs are being rolled out elsewhere, with meditation sessions and free fruit on offer to stressed employees. Meanwhile, mindfulness has made significant headway within the health service. Research suggests it can help with a range of mental health conditions, and whilst it’s been available on the NHS since 2004, recent developments have seen it recommended for children with depression, combined with nature prescriptions” in Scotland and introduced to patients via eight week training programs designed to introduce patients to mindfulness practices. The wildly popular mindfulness app Headspace, valued earlier this year at $1 billion, has even been in talks to bring its services to the NHS

Purser readily acknowledges the benefits of mindfulness; alongside his research on the topic, he’s been a practising Buddhist for over 30 years. But he believes its widespread popularity is a double-edged sword”. Many people seeking relief from stress have found tangible relief with mindfulness, but Purser believes this has also led to a belief that we are [completely] responsible for our own self-care.”

“‘Stand and stare’ if you don’t have time to have a lunch break. A practice which apparently recharges’ you”

Stress is now seen as an ambient and omnipresent fact of life”, Purser says – something entirely unavoidable, something to be navigated rather than eradicated. And along with that mentality comes an implicit acceptance that we as individuals must adapt to it on its own terms”. The environment in which we live and work (ie those that actually cause the stress) is often ignored altogether. 

Their absence is all the more striking when you dig into the articles, books and employer-supplied mindfulness programs providing tips on how to be mindful at work. Use mantras, they suggest. Set intentions, breathe deeply. One article suggests you stand and stare” if you don’t have time to take a lunch break, a practice which apparently recharges” you and allows you to become more productive” for the rest of the day; it also recommends you take a moment to deeply smell your coffee to ground” yourself when stressed. Whilst not explicitly work-related, the Headspace app offers a Mindful Moments” functionality, sending pithy inspirational quotes to your phone several times a day to help you take a more mindful approach to whatever it is you’re doing. 

But what none of these exercises seem to take into account is that it’s the structure of work itself that is making us stressed. Smelling your coffee might be nice, and it might well make you calmer, but it doesn’t – and, crucially, can’t – change an exploitative workplace environment. If you have a bullying boss, don’t have time to take a lunch break, or are so stressed by your workload you’re resorting to a desperate sniff of your coffee cup every ten minutes, you don’t need mindfulness – you need to join a union. 

As Purcer says, with full sarcasm, It’s not a precarious and uncertain economy, it’s not a lack of healthcare, it’s not widespread disparities in wealth and income – no, it’s you.” 

Outside of the workplace, mindfulness also has other worrying impacts. Its increasing ubiquity in the NHS has been beneficial for many, but others feel it’s been unnecessarily foisted upon them in lieu of other, underfunded, services. One service user said that they were prescribed a mindfulness course after a psychotic episode – a combination that is not generally recommended. 

I was under a community mental health team, but they were pretty useless and couldn’t offer much – mindfulness was one of the few things they actually could offer me,” he said. There was a real feeling that, well, better something than nothing!”

He also found it hard to access reliable information about the service, including any further details on whether or not it was appropriate; some clinicians admitted to not knowing enough about the service themselves. 

The thing about mindfulness is that on one hand it’s treated like a powerful cure-all, yet also harmless and incapable of having serious effects,” he said. Surely it can’t be both?”

As a chronically (and diagnosably) anxious person, I too have been seduced by the promise of mindfulness, and for a while, I bookended my days with 15-minute Headspace sessions. But there was something uncomfortable to me about its inclusion in my iPhone’s health app, seeing how many mindful minutes’ I’d had in a particular day next to how many steps I’d walked. What did 11 mindful minutes’ mean, really? What did it say about my state of mind – did it say anything at all? 

Many modern practitioners refer to mindfulness as mind training’. In its secular form, it’s no longer a spiritual practice and often resembles something closer to task on a to-do list instead. Like listening to a podcast about time management or reading an article on how to ask for a pay rise, mindfulness becomes just another step towards ultimate self-improvement: some even refer to it as hacking the brain”. But if the brain is a muscle, there’s only one person responsible if it doesn’t get exercised — you. 

Purser refers to this as the McDonaldization of mindfulness”; mass-producing a technique that is an efficient, quantifiable and marketable commodity”. In these terms – measuring, recording and quantifying exactly how much time you’ve spent meditating – mindfulness becomes a game of sorts, a way to maximise your productivity and profitability. 

It’s the epitome of a narcissistic self-centeredness that instils a neoliberal sense of self as one that must be monitored, disciplined, improved and enhanced,” Purser says. And it’s antithetical to mindfulness’ spiritual roots, he argues. Buddhism, the religion he practices, preachers liberation from selfishness and greed. But when it’s transformed into self-improvement or self-optimisation technique, focused on enhancing the self and the self only, it starts to lose its way. 

None of this is to say that those peddling mindfulness are doing so to be deceitful; many of those selling mindfulness candles or colouring pencils on Etsy or touring corporate offices offering training are presumably doing so because they believe what they’re selling is valuable psychologically as well as financially. And it undeniably has benefits: it can reduce stress, improve focus and many other of the things it promises us. There’s nothing wrong with mindfulness in and of itself – if someone finds respite from their anxiety or depression in it, or it helps them get through the day, that’s obviously a good thing. 

But like feminism before it, which morphed from radical political struggle to bland eulogising about empowerment”, mindfulness is on the cusp of becoming yet another corporate tool. Just as Girl Boss feminism ignored race, class and more in favour of Lean In style individualism, corporate mindfulness refuses its truly radical roots, instructing us to keep blaming ourselves for our lack of presence and calm. But if we look at the world around us, instead of the one inside, we might come closer to understanding where the root of our unhappiness lies. 


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