Employers are sinking their teeth into meditation apps like Calm and Headspace for work-place stress and employee happiness. But while the likes of Andy Puddicombe [Headspace co-founder and Buddhist monk] might suggest that Headspace and similar apps are the best solution for the workplace, there are serious limitations to these apps.

Companies’ interest in meditation technology is skyrocketing right now. Companies are drawn to the increased retention rate and higher happiness levels that is associate with Calm, Headspace and other meditation apps.

More than six hundred companies offer free or subsidised subscriptions to Headspace, among them being Adobe. They’re drawn to the suggested return on investment. Research by Deloitte showed that for every £1 put towards employee’s mental health, companies see a £5 return due to decreased absenteeism and staff turnover.

More and more companies are becoming interested in mindfulness tech, and especially apps, which offer a quick way to help employee’s with stress at work. Speaking to the Financial Times, Calm CSO Alex Will said that companies’ enthusiasm for meditation apps is “absolutely heating up [and it is] not impossible [for the business market to become more lucrative than the consumer market]”. Headspace founder and former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe echoes similar sentiments.

The rate at which employee’s use mindfulness apps is hardly impressive, however, Headspace Chief Science Officer Megan Jones Bell told the FT that 30% of users use the app regularly every month. But quite what is considered “regularly” is not stated. Once a month? Twice? If the stats were impressive, they would be openly expressed.

And what of the benefits that these apps offer? I previously wrote about the serious limitations of guided meditations. Guided meditations are simply nowhere near as effective as traditional meditations with an actual meditation teacher. They are simply cheaper and quicker. While there are more than 100 scientifically proven benefits of meditation, there is relatively little scientific research into the effects of guided meditations (with the exception of some research specifically funded by the app creator). If you ask around the serious meditation community why apps and guided meditations exist, you will almost universally be told that they are a simple way for companies to profit from an exercise that has until now always been free.

Speaking about the benefits of meditation apps for work, Ravi Kudesia, assistant professor of human resource management, Fox School of Business at Temple University in Philadelphia, says simply that they are cheap and easy to spread around the workforce. Speaking about group meditation sessions, in comparison to apps, he says, “[At work we rarely] do anything 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.” This is something solely lacking from mindfulness apps.

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The main benefits of apps like Headspace at work are cost-effectiveness and scalability

Many companies use mindfulness apps as a way to improve the atmosphere at work. However, simply listening to a few guided meditations is not going to change a toxic environment. Research suggests that social support and job security are far more important for employee wellbeing than apps [1]. Of course, providing social support and job security is much more of a challenge than simply telling employees to download a mindfulness app and hoping for the best.

Indeed, many companies show little interest in genuinely benefits employee’s wellbeing and instead see apps like Headspace and Calm as a quick and easy way to show that they care in order to garner positive PR. Ronald Purser, author of McMindfulness calls the use of apps like Calm and Headspace at work a “superficial commercial fix to structural issues.”

A randomised controlled trial published by Springer found inadequacies in mindfulness apps like Headspace [2]. The authors state, “Face-to-face delivery of mindfulness instruction likely provides a superior social environment for new mindfulness practitioners (Segal et al. 2013)but it should not be forgotten that apps provide wide reach, immediate access, superior scalability, and generally are avail-able at lower cost than many alternatives (Price et al. 2014).… Mobile mindfulness apps could have potential as an adjunct-to-treatment or may serve as a suitable homework component in therapy to facilitate the treatment of patients (Kladnitski et al. 2018; Price et al. 2014) with anxiety and depressive symptoms.” This research suggests that mindfulness apps like Calm and Headspace are suitable only as adjuncts. However, because of their cheapness and scalability, companies are using mindfulness apps as though they were a cure-all.

The simple reality of the fact is that mindfulness apps are a poor replacement for actual cultural changes, in-person meditation lessons, and job security. Companies may leap on Calm, Headspace and other mindfulness apps for a cheap way to build some good PR, these apps are actually just cheap band-aid solutions, and a woefully inadequate replacement for genuine changes in the workplace.

The next time your employer suggests you download a mindfulness app, you might like to ask whether they could instead make genuine changes in social support, workplace environment, and job security, instead of just handing you a quick band-aid solution.

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Written by Paul Harrison

Paul Harrison is a qualified meditation teacher and writer with more than 15 years experience in meditation and mindfulness. He studied meditation in Oxford, UK, and Hamilton Ontario Canada, and earned his degree at Staffordshire University. Paul has helped thousands of people to discover their true potential through mindfulness, yoga and meditation.