I Don’t Need Mindfulness. But the Guy Next to Me Sure as Hell Does.

By: Joe Burton
guy walking outdoors on the highline

I had the pleasure of speaking at Mainstream, a conference hosted by Eventful Group, in Denver a few weeks ago. Mainstream brings together the world’s leaders in maintenance, reliability, and safety in industries like oil, gas and power.

I was asked to speak on “Leadership and Stress.” As a driven perfectionist, it’s a topic I know well. And as a leader running public companies, I’ve driven my fair share of stress.

Mindfulness in the Workplace: A Skeptic’s Perspective

I half accepted the invite for the challenge. Hmm, speaking to an Oil & Gas crowd about the role of mindfulness in the workplace. Queue the judging mind. Surely, the starting point for this crowd would be “mindfulness training is a bunch of hippie bullsh*t.”

Yup. Check. Confirmed. But that eased as we found we have a lot in common. I come from a blue-collar family. It was a tough beginning. Alcohol and drug abuse were rampant in my family. I lost two siblings along the way. From an early age, I learned to ignore stress and do whatever I needed to in order to succeed. Humor and tenacity were my weapons.

That was a great approach. Until it wasn’t. Like this crowd, I worked nonstop to chase promotions, stock, and bonuses en route to success. But when I hit 40, my body started breaking down. My back went out; I developed asthma and insomnia. Two years ago, mindfulness turned out to be a game changer for me. But, I had the same starting point as this crowd: mindfulness meditation training was definitely not for me. Until it was.

The Science of Mindfulness

I had to jump three hurdles before trying mindfulness. The first was data. I wanted the science. Second, I wasn’t looking for a new religion. Third, who else was doing it? Even at 46, I still wanna be with the cool kids. I saw the science, some 3,500 studies in the past five years alone. I saw the secularism. And I saw the top performance driven cultures were already embracing it (from athletes to universities to Fortune 500 CEOs). Check. Check. And check.

At Mainstream, the crowd appreciated that mindfulness has also gone mainstream. Thank you Neuroscience, Mark Bertolini, Arianna, Lebron, Congressman Ryan, and the list goes on. Hearing that the last two Super Bowl champs use mindfulness training really got the crowd. And hearing that, Tom Brady needed a little less breath when meditating got a cheap laugh (sorry, Boston fans).

During the evening social, I was struck by everyone’s openness. Here were 350 execs dedicated to the safety and reliability of the industrial plants and machinery that largely keep our nation running. Their mission is to serve customers and protect their employees. They operate in high-stress industries where, if something goes wrong, communities are impacted and employees could be seriously injured or worse. I was honored to be there.

If you find it easy to joke about these folks being fat, rich and happy, I can tell you most are not. These are cool people, just like us, pushing the ball uphill in public companies. They work hard to live life and succeed in highly competitive industries.

And they were open about the elephant in the room. Despite the focus on reliance and reliability of “assets”, there was an open recognition they didn’t take care of their own stress. It was a given.

How to Get Started with Mindfulness

This group isn’t going to slow down, so our key message was simple. Reliance and reliability start with the individual. It doesn’t matter how much you spend on the plant & equipment if the individual doesn’t show up calm, focused and in the right mind.

A CEO from Houston summed it up over beers. “We could all use this. It’s a stressful business. No one will admit they’re stressed or that they need mindfulness or attention training. But when they’re working on equipment where lives are on the line, they’ll sure as hell want the guy next to them to have it.”

Sounds like mindfulness needs to go mainstream.

About the Author

Headshot of Joe Burton

Retired Founder and CEO of Whil and former President of Headspace

Joe is an entrepreneur in the digital wellness space, retired Founder and CEO of Whil and former President of Headspace, and spent fifteen years as a global COO in public companies. He’s an alumnus of Harvard Business School and a regular contributor to Forbes, Business Insider and The Huffington Post. He’s worked in over 50 countries and travels the world speaking on topics including disruption, culture, resiliency and mindfulness.

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