Cultivating a Healthy Mind at Work

Hacking Culture logo plus the words Stephanie Wagner on Cultivating Healthy Minds at Work
Table of Contents

I had a wonderful time at the recent Summer Solstice Yoga Retreat hosted by the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Attending as both a yoga teacher and a student, from 7am until after 3pm, I found the experience of being outside, surrounded by the beauty of the arboretum, both relaxing and rejuvenating. It felt like an oasis, far removed from the busyness of my daily life. Like all blissful experiences, this one had to end. I don't think I could just spend all my time out there without attracting the attention of the Arboretum security.

There is one place where many of us spend a lot of time, year after year, for much of our lives: work. And even work can help support our well-being. I have a great job at a fabulous company and I have spent many years experimenting with ways to bring those blissful retreat experiences into my everyday life.

It's probably not a shock to you that doing so is hard. Really hard. No matter how well designed, any job can have stressful moments.

Healthy Minds Innovations

Thankfully, many organizations specialize in adding some bliss to our workdays, and one of the leading organizations is a nonprofit headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin called Healthy Minds Innovations (HMI). Thanks to the support of their donors, they provide a free Healthy Minds app to individuals. Additionally, they offer a workplace wellness program called Healthy Minds @Work that goes beyond just teaching mindfulness to help groups of people, such as companies, schools, and military units, "train their minds to be more calm and focused, develop healthier relationships with colleagues, gain perspective in workplace interactions, and bring more meaning to work."

I am a big fan of HMI and I helped bring their Healthy Minds @Work program to Lullabot, where I work. In the few weeks that we've been using the program at Lullabot, it hasn't magically transformed Lullabot into an earthly paradise like Shangri-La. Rather, this voluntary program has helped many of us start to learn about the science of well-being and begin experimenting with techniques to calm our minds, connect with our personal values, and tune into the experiences of the people around us.

Stephanie Wagner on Hacking Culture

After spending a few months using their app and reading about the science behind it, I wanted to know more, so I invited Stephanie Wagner from HMI to come on my podcast, Hacking Culture.

Stephanie and I talked about a variety of topics, such as our shared musical background, "hacking the mind," tools that cultivate and measure well-being, as well as some of the critiques of workplace wellness programs. One of the key themes from this interview was that cultivating your well-being is not an easy, straightforward, process. According to Stephanie, people often have big hopes for meditation:

I think people often come to the practice of meditation and mindfulness because they want some kind of outcome. They want to feel better. They want to be less stressed. But ... it's not like every meditation session delivers on a promise of making you feel awesome. It's just not the case. Meditation experience is very up and down.

The good news is that the Center for Healthy Minds, the research center affiliated with HMI, has translated decades of scientific research into a framework for understanding how human flourishing can be nurtured and to help us navigate these ups and downs. The four pillars of the framework are awareness, connection, insight, and purpose. HMI offers tools and programs, backed by science, to measure and cultivate each of these four pillars.

Before Lullabot signed on with Healthy Minds, I had been leading a weekly meditation group at Lullabot for about eight months. I recorded many of these sessions and published them as episodes of Pretty Good Meditation. The only form of "measurement" was the feedback that I received from people attending the weekly meetings. Adding Healthy Minds gave Lullabot employees deeper analysis of the science of well-being and additional practice options, including four more voices (from HMI) and more options for length of practice, ranging from 5 to 30 minutes. Their well-being toolkit also provides Lullabot employees methods to assess their well-being within each of the four pillars.

Stephanie is a board-certified health and wellness coach with a passion for mindfulness and meditation. She is a trainer and program specialist at HMI who is especially skilled on topics related to workplace well-being, and during our interview Stephanie offered lots of valuable advice for companies and individuals who would like to improve their overall well-being.

Critiques of corporate mindfulness

But hold on a second. You might know that in recent years corporate mindfulness programs have come under increased scrutiny. People such as Ronald Purser (McMindfulness) and Johann Hari (Stolen Focus) argue that these programs use upbeat language and offer a simplistic individual solution to problems that are, in fact, rooted in much deeper societal problems. They call this "cruel optimism" (drawing from Lauren Berlant) because it's nearly impossible to cultivate a healthy mind if you don't feel safe in your home, lack health insurance, feel overworked, never have time to spend with your friends and family, etc.

One piece of evidence they cite is a highly influential paper by researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Business who found that the most significant causes of stress at work are a lack of health insurance, the constant threat of lay-offs, long working hours, lack of autonomy in decision-making, low levels of organizational justice (perceived fairness in the workplace), and unrealistic demands. If an employer has not addressed these concerns, then starting with a mindfulness program that puts the responsibility for managing stress squarely on the individual is clearly problematic.

In my view, Lullabot has an exceptional record of caring for its employees. Here is how Lullabot stacks up with these critiques:

  • Lack of health insurance: nope
  • Constant threat of lay-offs: we maintain a sizeable cash reserve to help reduce this risk
  • Long working hours: we generally book our team no more than 30 hours per week
  • Lack of discretion and autonomy in decision-making: from day one we are told "we trust you"
  • Low level of perceived fairness in the workplace: we're an employee-owned company with a low CEO-to-employee pay ratio
  • Unrealistic demands: our first value is "be human," we work flexible schedules, and team members support each other

Many companies cannot check all of these boxes, and it was only after an extended period of research and reflection that I felt comfortable advocating for a well-being program at Lullabot. In fact, I came to the conclusion that Lullabot does a great job reducing exposure to the most common sources of workplace stress. I am not suggesting that all Lullabot employees are free from worry and are always-happy worker bees. Rather, I believe that Lullabot established a strong foundation on which we could work to improve our collective well-being.

Any organization considering a well-being program should consider how it relates with their existing support structures. As Stephanie told me, a program such as "Healthy Minds isn't the only solution. It should be embedded in a wider infrastructure of supporting well-being." In my interview with Stephanie she offered many other valuable perspectives into workplace well-being programs, added additional thoughts regarding some of these criticisms, and she rendered a more holistic view of well-being.

The entire conversation — which includes a transcript if you would rather read than listen — is available here. If you enjoy the interview, I hope you consider subscribing to the show via RSS, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or however else you like to aggregate your podcasts.