Focus your attention to the way you walk, Peter Bostelmann instructs curious attendees of his workshop in a picturesque alpine forest in Alpbach, Austria. As if in a slow-motion film, each participant lifts one leg, stretches it, and takes a step. Some will later remember becoming aware of how their muscles felt, or noticing every bug and snail in the grass, or learning to shut down annoyance at the background noise, as people still can’t resist chatting during this retreat. Bostelmann’s towering figure, clad in jeans and a cap, is leading them uphill – closer to the mountain peak and to their today’s goal to discover focus in a distracting world.
The participants are there to discover – or rediscover – mindfulness. Yet what’s special about the gathering is that this is not an ordinary stand-alone mountain retreat. Bostelmann works for SAP, a Germany-based multinational business-to-business software company, and taking care of all things mindfulness is his full-time job. SAP is the world’s 12th largest tech company, and it clearly shows that mindfulness at work has spread beyond the start-up world.
Peter Bostelmann took to mindfulness when, living in the US Bay Area, he started feeling overwhelmed with the lack of work-life balance. Initially a ‘closeted’ mindfulness practitioner, he eventually realised that what seemed like an exotic hobby appears to be a coping strategy for many a colleague in the corporate world. Together, they made a business case within the company, ran a pilot experiment, and rolled it out to its many branches around the world.
“In our case this took 1,5-2 years,” he told Eve. Yet today his job title is director of SAP Global Mindfulness Practice. “It’s very important to integrate mindfulness practice into the organisation culture, find ways between dedicated practice and integrated practice. We do dedicated practices like journaling, mindful walking, mindful breathing, and then we do integrated practices: one minute to arrive [before starting work], three breaths, and other micro practices that you can do during your workday. This is what we do with the SAP Global Mindfulness Practice team,” he explains.
Mindfulness practitioner Peter Bostelmann. Photo credit: Mindful Austria / öbam & vfam – die achtsamkeitsverbände
In various international sources, Google is credited as being among the corporate pioneers of mindfulness at work, when a team of experts in mindfulness, neuroscience and emotional intelligence, under leadership of Chade-Meng Tan, developed an internal course for staff in 2007. In 2012, the year when Peter Bostelmann discovered mindfulness and still kept it to himself, enthusiastic Googlers founded the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute as an independent nonprofit organisation, teaching corporate teams to reduce stress, strengthen focus, boost performance, and improve team relationships.
As a Business Insider reporter summarised, the programme offers a “much-needed opportunity to stop running, chewing, and cursing, and really notice what was happening.” Some experts, however, warn that this is not for everyone: when focusing on their sensations or meditating, some people experience panic attacks, flashbacks, or anxiety. It is also not a silver bullet against unfeasible workload. Still, enthusiasts say it is simply mental training – with benefits and risks comparable to those of physical exercise.
We live in times of ‘infobesity’ and starvation of time, says Julia Hobsbawm, editor at Thrive Global, also speaking at Alpbach. In these ‘revolutionary’ times prioritising social health is not even about happiness – it’s a matter of productivity, she believes.
To this day, Tan’s guide to corporate mindfulness is an international bestseller, followed by many other publications like the influential “Mindful work” by New York Times author David Gelles, who already had many examples to draw on in the corporate world. The term, attributed to a 19th century British colonial magistrate who attempted to translate the Buddhist concept of sati and popularised by biologist Jon Kabat-Zinn to de-mystify meditation, suits the attempt of practitioners like Bostelmann to offer a science-based, secular training concept targeting the tech world, which is not only prone to questioning, but also highly multicultural. “Speak business language, create a business case. As I said, for us employee engagement and creativity are important, absenteeism too. Employee wellbeing [means] employees are less absent,” he told Eve. From the Silicon Valley to the Middle East, none of the offices that tried mindfulness found it problematic, and other international companies are lining up to study mindfulness under the leadership of SAP’s team.
The programme boils down to three elements: the neuroscience that explains the concept, the experience of feeling its effect in one’s body, and opportunities to share feedback in groups. “It’s basically contemporary adult learning experience,” Peter Bostelmann tells. “With pilots, with evidence, you’ll get feedback from people within the organisation. It will help you have more data points to talk to potential sponsors,” he details his recipe. When his initiative’s waiting list expanded to a few thousand people, he and his team knew that tech workers are hungry for it.
Today’s workers are looking for clues to structure their lives, which are not only demanding, but also increasingly flexible. When an employee can take their laptop to the beach, where does work stop and life begin? Speaking in a panel of some of Austria’s largest companies’ CEOs’, Alexis von Hoensboech of Austrian Airlines said that the realisation that employers want a productive rather than a burned out employee comes sooner or later: it’s about “how fast you learn in professional life to set limits and structure the day.”
“The flexibility requires a capacity to regulate yourself, otherwise you can feel overwhelmed. You have to be able to say, I did my job today, I will now shut down the laptop – that’s a key skill for the employees,” Peter Bostelmann concludes, as his group disperses in a mountain valley. Some of them remember their phones, tucked away for the mindfulness session, and start taking photos of the picturesque location. Are they savouring the moment or already thinking about their Instagram feed?
The author’s trip to Alpbach was financed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.