Insomnia blighted Richard Sharp’s life. He might sleep for a restful six hours — or just two. Sometimes he would stay awake all night.
That changed two years ago when he downloaded Headspace, a meditation app that promises to increase focus and productivity, as well as sleep. It was provided free by his employer, Aviva, the insurer. “I hadn’t heard of it before. I’ve always been quite cynical about stuff like this. When you’re younger you think, ‘I don’t need all this to make myself feel better.’”
The app’s sleepcast, a guided meditation, was “more effective” than he expected. Mr Sharp is almost always asleep before it finishes. Out of a UK workforce of 16,000, about 2,000 Aviva employees use the app regularly (three to four times a week), predominantly to wind down and to help them sleep.
With the swipe of a mobile phone, employees can access a digital version of the kind of mindfulness courses that have been offered at big companies including General Mills and Google.
Mindfulness is based on Buddhist principles, helping people to clear their minds of unwanted thoughts and feelings, encouraging awareness of breathing and focus. As the consumer market for mindfulness and meditation apps has grown increasingly competitive, so they are pursuing the corporate market.
Meanwhile, companies’ interest in meditation tech has risen in tandem with growing awareness of the importance of mental health and its impact on the bottom line. Research by Deloitte in January estimated that for every £1 spent on supporting employees’ mental health, companies claw back £5 by cutting absenteeism, presenteeism and staff turnover. Yet critics charge that these are relatively cheap ways for companies to look good, rather than address systemic workforce issues.
According to App Annie, consumers across the world last year spent 130 per cent more money on health and fitness apps than in 2017, with Calm and Headspace taking the number one and two spots in the top ten mindfulness apps, which also included Reflectly, Meditopia and Breethe.
More than 600 companies offer free or subsidised Headspace to their workforce, including Adobe, General Electric and Unilever. Calm, named Apple’s app of the year in 2017, has become the first mental health “unicorn”.
Alex Will, Calm’s chief strategy officer, says that employers’ interest is “absolutely heating up [and it is] not impossible” that the business market could overtake the consumer side. In response, Calm has created content around business topics, such as difficult conversations with colleagues, prioritising time, or meditation in work.
Headspace, co-founded by Andy Puddicombe, a Buddhist monk, declined to share the proportion of revenues from corporate subscriptions except to say Headspace for Work, its employer programme, is its “fastest growing opportunity”. The bulk of that business is in white collar sectors, typically tech and financial services, but it is starting to be bought by employers in retail and manufacturing.
Megan Jones Bell, chief science officer at Headspace, says that staff who get the app through their employer use it as much as consumers who pay up to $70 a year to access it — about 30 per cent of users use the app regularly every month.
Ravi Kudesia, assistant professor of human resource management, Fox School of Business at Temple University in Philadelphia, says that apps might have some benefits over workplace meditation sessions: they are relatively cheap to disseminate across the workforce and thereby democratic. Apps may also offer some guarantee of quality and consistency. “As interest in mindfulness has grown, every two-bit management consultant is now offering mindfulness services — despite many lacking the deep practice necessary to really have any expertise in mindfulness.”
On the flipside, the group nature of classes has merit. “In the modern workplace, we seldom do anything even remotely intimate with co-workers, and especially people above or below us in terms of hierarchical position. To sit in a room with others, close your eyes, wrestle with distraction and unruly and uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, these are all things that can bring people in a room closer.”
The context of such benefits is key. David D’Souza, membership director at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says that not enough organisations take a rounded approach to wellbeing. “The temptation for many organisations is to buy something to fix the problem but human beings are more complicated than that.”
Michael Whitmore, research leader at the Rand corporation, points out that many organisations buy products and services in a piecemeal way. “They don’t know the target needs of their workplace. They just buy things because they liked it themselves without understanding what their staff need.”
The intrinsic motivation for people to use self development tools for wellbeing or health is key, says Corina Sas, professor of human-computer interaction and digital health at Lancaster University. “So people who experience discomfort usually become motivated to explore ways to address it, mindfulness being one of them. Once the benefits of the practice are experienced, they are committed to continue.”
All the benefits in the world will not change a toxic workplace. Mr Sharp reflects that when he was in a high-pressure sales role, if an employer had offered an app it might have just made him cynical. “It’s not a magical fix for people,” he says.
At worst, apps can be public relations tools to make the company look good. Jeffrey Pfeffer, author of Dying for a Paycheck, which highlights the toxicity and stress of modern workplaces, has pointed out that “job control and social support” are more influential on employee health than wellness programmes.
Ronald Purser, author of McMindfulness, is sceptical about the wellness industry, pointing out “you can never be too well, that’s why it’s a massive growth industry”. He says that the appeal of apps is that they offer “a quick recharge for employees so they can jump back into business as usual. Mindfulness is not a DIY endeavour. [Companies] are outsourcing the burden on to employees. They are a superficial commercial fix to structural issues.”
Ms Jones Bell agrees that meditation apps are not cure-alls, but she says they can provide some respite, citing trials that found using Headpsace for 10 days resulted in an 11 per cent decrease in stress and 16 per cent increase in happiness.
While using apps regularly can help with stress, Kathleen Vohs, professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota, who has looked into mindfulness, would not recommend that employers encourage it as a productivity tool. “If they want their employees not to be so stressed, then mindfulness can help — but that doesn’t mean that they will be more productive as a result. When you focus on the present, that’s inconsistent with working toward a goal, goals being future states of the world that you want to bring about.” Nonetheless, she says mindfulness can help people regain mental focus, which should help them with work tasks.
Prof Kudesia says that mindfulness can be difficult to apply to work situations. “A lot of the meditation instructions emphasise ‘non-judgment’ of the things that you see, think, and feel. But organisations pay people precisely for their judgment. So we get people trying to apply meditation instructions to post-meditation life: not a great recipe for success.”
For Mr Sharp, the benefits have been compelling. “I look back to the time when I didn’t sleep and wonder how I functioned.”
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