Confessions of a benefits manager: Candid experiences mindfulness


This isn’t something I ever thought I’d say: Big Bad Boss is going soft. He went to a benefits conference recently, and came back talking about mindfulness. Really? Personally, I am all for that; if we could just get the Higher Beings, our executive management team, to mellow out a bit this could even be a nice place to work. But I can’t see it really; they are about as enlightened as a room of particularly ill-disciplined toddlers.

I know the conference was about wellness, because I wanted to go to it myself. It sounded great fun with on-site massages and free gym kit on offer. Not the sort of thing I’d expect Big Bad Boss to go for, but he did. He must have run out of cycling shorts. Sadly, I had to stay behind and man the phones. While I was slogging away at a succession of spreadsheets, he was being plied with non-alcoholic smoothies and nabbing freebies. No surprise then he’s been talked into hiring Smarmy Consulting to start a new wellness programme. But mindfulness. Here? I can only assume it was the cheapest way to tick the ‘wellness’ box. What a shame no one talked him into an on-site gym.

Meditation sessions

They can’t be sending our usual Smarmy contact Oily Oliver. He’s a nice enough guy, but so stressed I don’t see him leading meditation sessions. Nor could it be Anxious Andy, who is so jittery he’d put your nerves on edge before you start. No, it seems they will send in their special mindfulness lady.

Elena arrives in yoga pants and a waft of patchouli. She is very attractive, and I wonder if she was the one who talked Big Bad Boss into this whole business. This could get interesting. Sure enough, he fawns over her and sends me (me!) to get her a cup of herbal tea. I am certainly not feeling any calmer at this point. Elena starts the class by just sitting there in silence looking at us with a gentle smile on her face. Much as I enjoy any pause in my busy day, as the silence draws on and on, I become increasingly uncomfortable. I can see that everyone else is cringing too. What is she doing? Why doesn’t she say something? I suspect this silent treatment is something they teach you at enlightenment college because all guru types seem to do it.

Positive work environment

Finally, when we are beginning to wonder how she can possibly make a living at this, she starts. In a soft purring voice, as if she is talking to a fearful pet, she announces that effective leadership in our company can create a positive work environment. Tell us something we don’t know.

She goes on to say that, by noticing our thinking, we can realise that between stimulus and response there is an opportunity for choice. That’s all very well, but I suspect the Higher Beings will choose to be bullies in any case. In fact, I notice none of them have actually turned up for the training. Apart from Big Bad Boss who clearly has his own reasons for being here, the other Higher Beings have all found more important things to do. Like golf or entertaining.

Enlightened Elena then says she wants us to get out of our heads into our bodies. There is another uncomfortable silence. Only Big Bad Boss looks enthusiastic. She says we can do this by practising mindful walking. We have to push all the chairs to the middle, leaving a little track around the edge of the room. Then, she shows us a special ‘mindful’ walk, which you start by sticking one leg out with the heel striking the floor and then slowly transfer weight onto it in order to stick out the other leg. And I mean s-l-o-w-l-y.

We follow her round the room in a strange slow-motion conga. I try not to giggle. I know I look silly, but not as nearly daft as Big Bad Boss who, tall and gangly, bears a strong resemblance to John Cleese even before you add a silly walk. I disguise a leaked chuckle by clearing my throat. I can see the benefits of mindfulness already. I only have to think of this moment whenever I feel down and I will perk up considerably.

Focus on the present

Elena goes on to speak to us about focusing on the present moment. Whenever we do a task we should involve all of our senses, and keep our thoughts firmly on the matter in hand, gently guiding our mind back when we get distracted. She closes with a guided meditation that has us all so relaxed I notice that Big Bad Boss falls asleep. He wakes with a little snort and rushes over to thank Elena and gets us to give her a round of applause. The whole thing is quite surreal. We don’t applaud Smarmy when it gives us pension training. Perhaps this really will be the beginning of a new era in gentle management.

Later, back at my desk, I notice Lazy Susan taking a piece of paper, peering at it intently and running her hand over it before hole-punching and putting it into a lever arch file. Achingly slowly she starts again with another sheet. Mindful filing it may be, but jolly inefficient. I can’t bear to watch. An unnatural peace settles on the office. People drift about smiling. Lazy Susan offers to make me a cup of tea. Even Big Bad Boss looks unusually relaxed. That is, until he gets a missive from the Higher Beings. He storms out of his room, shouting that I need to send a summary of the healthcare costs upstairs, pronto. No pleasantries. No visible concern for a positive work environment. Not even a slither of a gap between stimulus and response. Money well spent then.

Next time…Candid changes the pension rules.