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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