Like a lot of folks, I’ve always struggled with my meditative practice. When I do it, I do it with intensity: The most at peace I’ve ever been in my life was after the seventh day of my first 10-day vipassana sit. But I don’t meditate every day.
Then, a few months ago, I met the amazing executive CeCe Morken on a group call that my Go Forward To Work research team was hosting with the World 50 community of business leaders around employee engagement during the pandemic. Her insights on how mindfulness helps her associates rang true to me, and when I found out she was president and COO of Headspace, the popular meditation app, I thought, “Of course, who else would be so progressive?” I had to know more.
Wouldn’t you know it, Headspace starts every all-hands meeting with a meditation. “It’s helpful for everyone who’s presenting. Deep breathing makes you more relaxed and you do a better job,” says Morken, who left a top job at Intuit in Dallas in the middle of the pandemic to join the Headspace team in Santa Monica.
She still hasn’t spent much time in the office, save for an early fireside chat with her team, before the lockdowns hit. “Taking on all the employees in a company remotely from day one is unique,” she tells me over a recent Zoom chat. “But I’ve learned we can be effective in a remote environment.”
Headspace is on fire right now, considered an essential mental health utility for millions of people facing stress on all sides. The company’s partnership requests, bulk deals in which organizations pay for all their employees’ use of the app, are up six fold since mid-March. More than 1,100 companies now provide Headspace as a benefit to their employees.
“If you’re taking care of the wholeness of the person, especially the mind, you’re improving everything that you brought them on board to do.” – Morken
The benefit to the business, says Morken, is not always what you think. Many companies come to Headspace to lower their healthcare costs, correctly assuming that better mental health leads to better overall health. But it turns out, that’s not even the greatest bonus. “The biggest benefit is in employee sentiment and engagement. Our level of anxiety and the demands on our resilience affects my attitude at work, how productive I am, how much time I might miss, and how I talk about my employer,” says Morken. “If you’re taking care of the wholeness of the person, especially the mind, you’re improving everything that you brought them on board to do.” It improves people’s voices externally, which helps in building a company’s reputation and attracting great talent.
Adobe, which provides employees with free access to Headspace, knew it scored a success when they saw the high adoption rates, noting that it outperformed many of their other wellness initiatives. “Many people already knew what Headspace was,” said Sara Torres, Adobe’s Global Wellbeing Strategist, “and they were excited to download it . . . It’s been our shiny penny.”
Farmers Insurance began offering Headspace as a pilot after some examiners experienced increased anxiety in responding to victims of the 2019 Paradise fires in California who had lost everything. When COVID hit, they quickly jumped to offering it company-wide. Since January, about half of their employees have downloaded the app and that coincided with an uptick in their employee Net Promoter Score, which measures employee loyalty and satisfaction.
“I think it's important for us to know that when we think about mental health and employee wellbeing, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. But for those of whom this tool works for, it works really well for them,” says Head of Property Claims Tim Felks. “The feedback that we got was that people were very excited and appreciative of having Headspace.”
Meditation in the workplace may have its skeptics, but the sheer level of shared mental stress brought on by the pandemic and recession has broken down taboos around mental health. “It’s becoming part of the normal conversation, and when leaders and CEOs talk about the stress that they’re dealing with and the things that they’re doing to help deal with that stress, it makes it okay for other employees to talk about it,” Morken says.
Gary Foster, Chief Scientific Officer at WW, adds that increasing awareness about mental health and mindfulness “without judgement” is key to helping people move forward in their overall wellness journey. WW now includes Headspace in its membership offerings as part of its ongoing effort to broaden from weight management to overall well-being, tracking things like fitness, stress, food and sleep.
The science around mindfulness is still evolving, but it points to benefits beyond alleviating stress. “When you’re better tuned in to yourself, you can be better tuned in to people around you. People in meetings will feel better if you’re more focused. You’re also likely to make clearer decisions because you’re not thinking about the email that you just got,” says Morken’s colleague, Megan Jones Bell, the firm’s Chief Strategy and Science Officer.
So far, Morken is focused on being present, and taking care of her organization’s well-being. Morken and her leadership team have introduced weekly alternating no-meeting Fridays and “Mind Days,” essentially a day of self-care. Nine out of ten employees say they have improved focus and delivery, and 90% of managers say their team morale is up since the policy started. Says Morken, “The reason that we have stress and anxiety is we either worry about what we just did, or we worry about what’s to come. Set those aside and focus on right now.”
With research by Devorah Lev-Tov
This column appeared in Forbes on Sept. 16, 2020