Wellness and self-care are currently in vogue, and anyone who has kept up with the times will tell you the most popular trend is mindfulness. This ancient Buddhist practice, which incorporates a state of mind allowing one to focus on the present moment and view incoming thoughts in a nonjudgmental manner, has risen in popularity within the last decade thanks to numerous apps capitalizing on its accessibility. Given its popularity amongst Silicon Valley start ups, mindfulness is no longer reserved for one’s leisure or therapy sessions. Though mindfulness has its benefits—as someone who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, it is great at tamping down intrusive thoughts, rerouting negative thinking, and decreasing stress—there is a specious nature in many workplaces, especially in white-collar professions, that have coopted these meditation techniques. Like all movements embraced by corporate America, mindfulness is particularly attractive since it promotes employee wellbeing all the while maintaining the status quo. Rather than companies laying the blame on the bullying manager, the lack of fair pay and company benefits, or a hostile environment for exacerbating anxiety and lowering morale, the responsibility in dealing with these issues is placed on the individual wielding the least amount of power; in such scenario, the low-level worker who is justifiably upset simply needs to decompress and not dwell on negativity.
Many workplaces would (and do) benefit in promoting mindfulness—however, this should not be a feeble attempt at absolving responsibility for the poor treatment of workers. Certain jobs are inherently stressful; emergency room nurses, public defenders, teachers, air traffic control specialists, and social workers are several professions where a demanding, high stress environment is in the job description. Unsurprisingly, rank and file employees in these professions are already unionized or unionizing, since outside of passing legislation or reforms, the only means of fighting a difficult workplace is organizing to demand a better one. Managers and executives at large corporations are aware of this and use this knowledge to their advantage in an effort to hoard profits and maintain power dynamics. It is cheaper for a company to hire a yoga instructor or mindfulness guru to host weekly sessions than it is to allow its employees to organize and demand better benefits and working conditions. It also gives human resources an opportunity to pat themselves on the back for promoting employee wellbeing as they coddle and enable abusive management.
Viewed from this lens, it appears employers promote mindfulness in an effort to foster complacency and obedience rather than relaxation. Although it is unhealthy to have certain emotions fester, it is human to be upset about a less than desirable situation. The modern workplace would have one think otherwise, where employees are constantly pressured to put aside ill feelings and present to the world the best version of themselves; if not, one bad day could mean losing one’s job and health insurance at will. While not an endorsement of acting unprofessionally, given the meager pay and lack of democracy, resentment, apathy, and anger naturally run high in American offices. When used strategically, anger is perhaps the most powerful emotion since it enables people to take action against the persons and institutions creating such grievances. Mass social movements are built on people utilizing their anger to organize for a better and more equitable world, and as witnessed during the last year, these movements are not just reserved for history books. The pandemic has heralded new demands for greater freedom and equality in the workplace, largely in response to the poor treatment of essential workers and low-level employees. Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama are set to vote on whether to form a union—a first for the e-commerce giant. In early January, Google employees announced the formation of the Alphabet Workers Union. The Black Lives Matter protests have given greater voice to racial equity in corporate offices and a disavowal of the standard lip service paid to diversity and inclusion. While labor politics is never rosy and organizing fellow employees is a courageous act, the willingness of employees to collectively demand greater rights during a pandemic showcases the severity of economic conditions in the United States.
A few things are certain: it is okay to be angry. It is natural to feel anxious when one is working in a toxic workplace and sees no means of escape. It is normal to lose productivity and feel frustrated when one is micromanaged and under constant surveillance. Although the questionable positive psychology promoted via human resources departments may say otherwise, low morale in the workplace is rarely an individual problem and cannot be solved with weekly classes on breathing and being more present. If anything, this only deepens resentment given the demoralizing nature of being told by someone in a position of power an injustice one is experiencing is illegitimate. Instead of attempting to null one’s anger during a lunch hour meditation session, one should embrace it. After all, it is likely others are feeling aggrieved as well, and there is nothing management fears more than a large number of workers organizing together to challenge their authority and leadership skills.
To everyone feeling frustrated on the job: Stay present and stay angry.