Close your eyes, take three deep breaths and bring yourself into the moment, mindfulness teacher Peter Weng instructed the room.
For a couple of minutes I felt surprisingly calm, which is a rare state of mind when you're seated in the Hard Rock theater illuminated by smartphone screens, in the middle of Times Square, already three coffees into the working week.
Mindfulness, the meditative practice (rooted in Eastern philosophy) of being in the moment, is being adopted across the American corporate landscape. Companies like GSK, Google and General Mills have integrated the practice into their corporate cultures as a mechanism for reducing stress and increasing focus. This in turn, advocates argue, creates a more productive workplace with fewer absentees and happier employees.
For an industry like advertising, which is billed as fast-paced and challenging — but also known for punishing hours, tight deadlines and all-nighters — could the practice of mindfulness help create healthier, happier, stress-free workplaces? Or are the values of mindfulness, which involve slowing down and pausing for thought, at odds with the nature of the work?
At a recent off-site meeting, MEC North America started proceedings with half an hour of breathing and stretching exercises, explained MEC's global chief talent officer Marie-Claire Barker in a session at Advertising Week in New York today.
Since stress is more harmful to employees' health than second-hand smoke, employers should be doing more to tackle it. "We are educated about harms of smoking, but we sit back and let workplace stress carry on every day," she said.
"Other industries are dealing with workplace stress in a more assertive way," she said. "There is a true business need to address workplace stress."
A business case relevant to advertising is that mindfulness is reputed to increase creativity. As technology generates constant distraction, it can be hard for creatives to find the head space they need to come up with ideas. "Being able to disengage from stress allows space and being able to focus," said Weng, who is VP of sales and marketing at Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, a nonprofit that teaches mindfulness to corporations, born from Google's pioneering program. "It also allows you to come up with innovative to solve workplace problems."
For example, mindfulness equips people with the ability to pause before a responding to work issues. Another theory is that by reducing stress, mindfulness increases empathy in the workplace.
Any discerning corporation looking to implement mindfulness in the workplace will also be looking for the ROI, of course. But the practise of mindfulness should be considered one tool in a spectrum of solutions to reduce office stress, such as flexible working plans and manager training, Julie Rahill, an associate for consultancy Mercer's health and wellbeing practice.
Mindfulness should be considered a preventative health measure, like a flu vaccine, she said. "We try to position mindfulness in same way — the skill you develop allows you to deal with a stressful situation."
When it comes to mindfulness and the advertising industry, the business case is pretty simple — advertising relies on people and if mindfulness can help them be happy an healthy inside and outside of work then it's a no brainer — assuming, of course, that the practice actually works for individuals. Tanya Odom, global consultant and leadership coach, said many industries need to assess the impact of stress in the workplace.
"We need to ask ourselves, 'Is this working?' Is it healthy, sustainable and helping us deliver the best product? Are we making the best commercial when that they didn't sleep?" she said.
"We need to look at what are our priorities are, and if people are our priorities, we need to do things differently," she said.