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Corporations Are Trying to Co-opt Mindfulness to Avoid Meeting Workers’ Needs

Toiling under surveillance, Amazon workers watch company videos about mindfulness in “ZenBooths” in the warehouses.

Toiling under surveillance, Amazon workers watch company videos about mindfulness in “ZenBooths” in the warehouses.

It’s 6 a.m. You’re just arriving to your workplace, a 1 million-square-foot warehouse known as an Amazon fulfillment center. As a stower for Amazon, your job is to take the hundreds of items per hour that arrive at your roughly 10-foot-sized station and sort them onto shelves. As you start your shift, the loud sounds of Amazon’s mobile fulfillment robots, which deliver the items to you, reverberate throughout the warehouse. Above, a surveillance camera monitors your activity. You can feel its presence as you try to hit your production quotas for the day, knowing that if you don’t you could be fired automatically.

You do this for 12 hours with just a few breaks. When your shift is over, you drive home, exhausted and sore from the monotony and repetitive physical motions. The tendons in your wrists are aching, you feel anxious and stressed. “They should be paying me more for this,” you’re just about to sigh, when you get a notification from your phone. It’s a reminder to begin your nightly meditation, coming not from a Headspace app, but from an app named “AmaZen,” part of Amazon’s new WorkingWell program designed to address worker’s health issues.

Amazon’s WorkingWell program is just part of a much broader trend taking place throughout the corporate landscape encouraging workers to utilize activities such as yoga, meditation and mindfulness to reduce work-related stress and improve performance. Ron Purser, a Buddhist author and professor of management at San Francisco State University, refers to this phenomenon as “McMindfulness,” a co-opting of Buddhist spiritual traditions by corporations, schools, and even the military and police departments, in order to persuade and manipulate workers into conformity. This a stark departure from meditation as part of a spiritual practice which aims at knowledge of the mind and reality as an end in itself.

“The WorkingWell program at Amazon is a glaring example of the hidden ideology behind these mindfulness programs — that it’s the individual who needs to adapt to toxic, unfair and dangerous working conditions,” Ron Purser told Truthout. “These programs treat stress as a maladaptation of the individual, not as a symptom of structural and systemic issues, whether it’s gross inequities or whether it’s workplace stressors. It’s a neoliberal, privatized view of stress. And that’s why we see corporate mindfulness programs being so lucrative and so market friendly — because basically they take what is a structural problem and reframe it as an individual problem.”

Amazon has stated that the WorkingWell program was initiated to address the soaring rates of workplace injuries that occur inside of the company’s fulfilment centers — particularly musculoskeletal injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome and back pain. The program includes meetings covering health and safety topics, spaces for stretching or meditating, and a meditation app called “AmaZen,” all of which are promoted as producing better health outcomes.

The WorkingWell program features “ZenBooths” located in warehouses, where workers can watch company videos about mindfulness while a fan whirrs overhead. These coffin-size booths — which skeptics refer to as crying rooms, screaming chambers, Porta-panic rooms, or even just plain old Porta Potties where employees can urinate into bags — are portrayed as ephemeral escapes from otherwise woeful working conditions.

It’s not so much that any of these tools are bad in and of themselves — meditation and mindfulness have been shown to reduce stress in other contexts. The problem is that nothing in the WorkingWell program actually addresses the root causes driving the 14,000 serious workplace injuries that took place at Amazon facilities in 2019 or the high levels of stress that come with long shifts, demanding work conditions and intensive surveillance.

“It’s sort of like lipstick on a pig, or a Band-Aid over a gaping wound,” Beth Gutelius, research director at the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told Truthout. “If you listen to workers, the root cause of their psychological stress is the pace of work, it’s the feeling of an algorithm sitting on your shoulder constantly and surveilling your every movement.”

The extensive monitoring that takes place in Amazon’s warehouses compels workers to keep up with their robot co-workers — machines that are not impeded by actual human constraints such as, say, having to use the bathroom. They even utilize complex surveillance systems to track warehouse workers’ “time off task” — the amount of time they are not directly working, which is sometimes calculated down to the seconds.

“The pace of work in these warehouses is relentless,” Gutelius said. “They push workers to such an extent that they end up having to risk their bodies and all these health and safety hazards in order to keep up with the pace of work that’s been set by the software, by the algorithms.”

Of course, these kinds of inhumane workplace conditions are nothing new — workers both here in the U.S. and also globally have been subjected to dangerous and soul-sucking work conditions, stretching back through history. What is new, however, are the particular tactics deployed by employers and managers to keep these workforces in line — in effect using a distorted version of “mindfulness” as a way to launder Gilded Age-era dystopian working conditions.

“Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries we’ve seen management consultants and trainers — the handmaidens of corporations — try to find ways to persuade and manipulate employees, to tap into their inner lives, so that they’re in conformity with corporate directives,” Purser said. “McMindfulness is just the latest version of this. It’s a highly instrumentalized technique that can be exploited to serve as a way of suppressing dissent or deflecting it from the organizational stressors — the problems that go beyond the fault of the individual.”

Amazon’s WorkingWell program checks all the boxes when it comes to McMindfulness, but it’s hardly the only program that has co-opted and decontextualized certain elements of Buddhist practice to benefit the owners of capital. Early last year, Starbucks baristas began complaining about how shift cuts and understaffing were leaving them overworked, underpaid and ineligible for health benefits. After the workers created a petition demanding that the coffee giant do something about its “lack of labor” and “sinking morale,” Starbucks finally responded by announcing that the company would provide free access to the meditation app Headspace.

And it’s not just in the corporate sector — police departments have begun utilizing meditation as a tactic to improve “performance” in an inherently violent field. For example, in 2019, the Minneapolis Police Department began requiring police officers to attend mindfulness workshops as part of implicit-bias and de-escalation trainings. Mindfulness is even being used by the U.S. military to help soldiers “gain focus and reduce distraction” as they engage in imperialist state violence.

“Once mindfulness is decontextualized and reduced to an instrumentalized technique, it can then be applied in any context without any critical question for the ends that it serves,” Purser said. “So then you can use mindfulness in the U.S. military, the U.S. Marines can use it to optimize warrior performance, or a hedge fund manager can use it to get a mental edge — whatever it may be.”

This strategic decontextualization and instrumentalization of mindfulness is one of the most nefarious aspects of “McMindfulness,” according to Purser.

“Mindfulness has been turned into an instrumentalized technique that’s completely decontextualized from any sort of social and moral grounding,” Purser said. “By selectively uprooting it from its grounding in ancient religious traditions, the West culturally appropriated mindfulness for clinical applications and for bringing into corporations, public schools, the government.”

Of course, corporate mindfulness programs like WorkingWell are not just co-opting and weaponizing mindfulness as a sort of empty gesture — there’s a profit incentive to these programs as well. In a 2002 report titled “What Your Disaffected Workers Cost,” Gallop estimated that the lower productivity of actively disengaged workers penalizes U.S. economic performance by about $300 billion. Further, The American Psychological Association estimates that more than $500 billion is lost because of workplace stress. With numbers like that, it’s not hard to imagine why companies like Amazon and Starbucks are interested in creating a pacified, docile workforce: It benefits the bottom line.

If companies like Amazon truly cared for their employees’ well-being, there are a number of much more effective solutions they could be exploring. It has been documented through hundreds of studies that the most significant contributions to workplace stress are lack of health insurance, threats of layoffs, job insecurity, a lack of autonomy, long work hours, unrealistic job demands and bad bosses.

“None of those are psychological, individualistic problems — those are problems with corporate culture policy,” Purser said. “Mindfulness programs just cannot address these structural problems — they require more of a systems approach, a holistic approach to diagnosing these stresses and actually doing something about it.”

Of course, mindfulness and meditation are powerful tools linked to positive health outcomes. But like any tools, when uprooted and stripped of any moral or ethical context, they can be used in misguided and dangerous ways. Should Starbucks employees get free access to Headspace? Sure. Will the “AmaZen” app be useful to certain employees? Probably. But neither of these programs will address the root causes of poor mental and physical health outcomes for workers.

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