Mindfulness arrives in the workplace

  • Article by: MIKE HUGHLETT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 24, 2013 - 6:29 AM

It’s 8:30 a.m. in one of General Mills’ myriad conference rooms, and yet another meeting is about to begin. But there will be no talk about Cheerios or Betty Crocker cake mixes.

“We’ll start by recognizing the sound of the bells, ” Sandy Behnken says as six co-workers settle in around a table, eyes closed.

Three dulcet tones follow, and a half-hour meditation session begins. “We come into this moment with the intention of practicing mindfulness,” Behnken says.

Golden Valley-based General Mills is a pioneer in bringing “mindfulness,” or meditation, to the workplace, and the practice is becoming increasingly popular across corporate America, from Silicon Valley to Wall Street. In Minnesota, Target, the Mayo Clinic and Thrivent Financial for Lutherans have some sort of meditation offering for employees.

Programs differ, ranging from multiday retreats to half-hour workplace sessions. But the aim is basically the same: to hone employees’ focus, freeing them — as much as possible, at least — from the mind’s endless static. The idea is that this will make them more productive and maybe even happier.

“The human mind wanders for half to two-thirds of the day,” said Amit Sood, a doctor at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester and head of its extensive mindfulness programs. “Mindfulness is a state of mind where people are calm and relaxed, and they are in the present moment and in a state of nonjudgmental acceptance.”

Whether you think that’s a path to contentment or new-age pablum, mindfulness is not necessarily easy.

Look into your own mind. Are you focusing on the present at work? Sales are up, but profits are down and the car’s brakes are shot — and hey, do I look fat in these pants? The thought parade goes on.

“Part of the training of mindfulness is to stop, but stopping is like hitting a brick wall, ” said Janice Marturano, head of the Institute for Mindful Leadership and a former General Mills executive who launched the company’s program.

Marturano was a senior leader in General Mills’ law department when she discovered mindfulness. In the early 2000s, she was working on General Mills’ mega-buyout of crosstown rival Pillsbury. “The deal from hell,” she said. “It ended up being far more complex and took much longer to do than expected.”

While Marturano was working on it, her mother and father died.

“I’m not a new-agey person,” she said. “I’m Italian and from New Jersey and I went to law school in New York and wanted to be involved in corporate deals.” But something seemed lost, something seemed missing.

So, she went on an executive retreat, six days at an Arizona resort to learn the meditation techniques of Jon Kabat-Zinn, now a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts’ medical school. He dubbed his approach “mindfulness.”

For Marturano, it was an awakening.

While she would eventually became a certified mindfulness teacher through U-Mass, at first she was a “closet meditator,” telling no one at General Mills. Then she began to spread the word. Mindfulness could be a tool for the company’s leaders — and eventually all employees — to clarify their thinking, increasing personal fulfillment and workplace productivity.

General Mills gave her the green light to set up a program in 2006. Marturano retired in 2011 to take the corporate meditation message further with the Institute for Mindful Leadership, a New Jersey-based nonprofit she created in 2010 that provides training to companies and their employees. She still does some training at General Mills.

The company’s mindfulness program is voluntary, and it has trained 500 employees and 90 senior leaders. Its offerings vary. There’s a four-day retreat for officers, directors and senior managers; two-day training for new managers; and a two-hour class for seven consecutive weeks, which is open to all employees. Then there are weekly meditation sessions such as the one Behnken led last Tuesday.

She’s a 22-year General Mills veteran who works in “continuous improvement,” which looks for ways to eliminate waste and improve corporate efficiency. She undertook mindfulness training about four years ago and is now a regular meditation practitioner. “We talk about the brain as a muscle,” she said, “and this is how you exercise your brain.”

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