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The long-term value of deep thinking in troubled times

By Rhymer Rigby
Published: July 30 2009 23:11 | Last updated: July 30 2009 23:11

At its Massachusetts head office, Reebok, as befits a large sports manufacturer, has a huge gym. But Ron Bartkiewicz, a health promotion manager, says the group does not just take care of employees’ bodies – it looks after their mental well-being, too.

"One of the things we offer is meditation," he explains. "It helps strengthen the mind, reduce stress and focus."

Mr Bartkiewicz himself meditates every day. “I used to hear about it and was never really quite sure,” he says. “But if you take the time to learn, it’s amazing. Even if you only have a minute, or you’re somewhere like the supermarket, it helps you to relax and improves your concentration.”

Over at Medtronic, a medical device maker, they host quarterly meditation sessions. Jon Jagielski, supplier quality manager, says these typically last 90 minutes. "The practitioner puts on relaxing music and shows you a variety of techniques," he explains. "You need to focus on something. It can be anything you want. I focused on visualising my breathing and the idea that I was filling up with air. The challenge is to maintain that focus; you acknowledge the outside distractions but you let them pass."

Mr Jagielski says he meditates three times a week. "It helps you to get perspective and organise your thoughts," he says.

Richard Geller of MedWorks, the meditation training company that runs Reebok and Medtronic’s classes, says: "There’s a need to reduce stress in the workplace and meditation is the best technique I know. You can do it any time, any place and anywhere – even for a second. It’s also very cheap: the return on investment is phenomenal."

Mr Geller says the problem with the modern working world is that the "fight or flight" response that evolved to help us assess life-or-death situations is used all the time.

Meditating, even for a moment, he says, allows you to recognise that this is happening and step back from the situation and take a long view.

It also allows workers to focus, rather than becoming distracted. "All this may sound simple, but it requires a lot of practice to get good at it. It really does make you mentally stronger," he adds.

Inner Space, a London-based meditation centre, also works with a variety of companies. "Some are small, but it tends to be mostly big multinationals as they have larger numbers of stressed people," says Arti Lal, a co-ordinator for the organ¬isation.

Ms Lal says meditation can last from a minute to an hour and that it’s about resting your mind and "creating a bit of space for yourself and your thoughts". When people do it at lunchtime, they find their afternoons are more productive. “We even teach people to meditate while they commute."

What’s more, she adds, meditation has never been more popular. "A few years ago, meditation was a bit of a fad and we thought people might drop it because of the recession," she says. "But there’s much greater demand – it does help you keep a good, positive frame of mind."

Google also offers meditation. "It helps clarity of vision," the company says. "In the workplace it gives our employees the time and headspace to unwind in the midst of their busy days. If people feel refreshed, and can take part in something like this with a group of like-minded people, then who knows what innovation this might lead to?"

Twitter’s recently leaked office plans include a meditation room and Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport has a meditation centre.

Businesses mindful of the downturn, and unwilling to spend on non-essentials, might be interested that Inner Space’s courses cost nothing "Even if we were to go into Goldman Sachs, it would be free," says Ms Lal.

Cary Cooper, professor of organisation psychology at Lancaster University, says that as much as anything the idea is about making a little bit of time for ourselves in the modern, always-on, open-plan workplace. "I’m not sure you even have to [call it] ‘meditating’ – it’s just taking 10 minutes out to put yourself in a peaceful space," he says. "If you can’t do this because you work in an open-plan office, go out and find a bench in a park and sit down".

"People live frenetic lives. Think about how much disposable time we have to ourselves – to take just half an hour to de-stress and relax can be incredibly powerful. Rather than fill their timetables, managers need to take time out to put themselves in a calming environment...They’re just not used to taking time out to think."

For those who want a bit more than meditation in the office, Maitreyabandhu, a teacher at the London Buddhist Centre, suggests a retreat that may last several days. "We see a number of business people who go on retreat regularly," he says, but adds that the kind of deep thinking that a retreat promotes "can cause some people to question their whole careers".

Still, says Mr Geller, it’s not just those with too little time on their hands and too much distraction who need meditation; those at the other end of the spectrum need it, too. "I also work as a volunteer teaching meditation at the county jail here in Boston. Stress is everywhere," he says.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009