Business leaders harness the power of mindfulness

By Corey Plante


Tom Coburn is a locally-raised Christian and college dropout.

It’s not exactly the flattering one-liner profile you’d expect of an uber-mindful wunderkind ranked in Forbes magazine’s 30 under 30 2015 list in Marketing & Advertising, yet it’s entirely true. Coburn left Boston College early to work on a start-up that won he and some friends a business competition. Coburn attributes some of his personal success creating the company called Jebbit — a post-click management and advertising platform — to a daily regimen of meditation and mindfulness.

Now, some of Jebbit’s biggest clients include the likes of Keurig, Reebok, New England Revolution, Microsoft, and Zipcar.

Headshot - Tom Coburn
Tom Coburn, CEO and co-founder of Jebbit

“I try to get in anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes of meditation a day,” Coburn said. “I would say that meditation and mindfulness has positively impacted my business. When you’re running a start-up there are so many emotions and ups and downs that it’s very easy to get burnt out. The whole idea of mindfulness is about not getting too attached and being able to see the bigger picture; I really try to apply that to what we’re doing.”

Coburn took a course during his time as a Biology-Theology double major at Boston College called “Meditation, Service and Social Action” in which he learned a different meditation technique each week. “The class made us think about how people can use meditation and mindfulness to do good in the world. That kind of meditation was very rooted in how to not get burnt out in a world where there might be so much bad going on.”

The experience set him on a path that led him and his team to drop out of BC after winning a business plan competition and gaining investor funding to get their company up and running.

Plum Village
Plum Village Meditations by Thich Nhat Hanh

Coburn studies mindfulness by reading various books on the subject and suggests similar practices to his employees. Every Tuesday night, he hosts an open team meeting at the offices. Jebbit provides dinner during a no-phones, no-laptops forum for open discussion that often starts with an optional 10-minute meditation.

“I’m always trying out new apps. Headspace is one that I’ve used that seems pretty popular, but I’m a fan of one published by Thich Nhat Hanh called Plum Village.”

Click here to view some of the top Mindfulness apps out there.

Ten years ago, the image of a business professional ditching shoes and plopping down on a yoga mat for some breathing exercises would have seemed outlandish, but now, at a time when mindfulness principles are praised for far more than mere stress reduction, business leaders like Coburn are exploring ways to harness the power of mindfulness to benefit their business.

Julie Fraser founded Present Source, a mindfulness-focused organization aimed towards assisting business in mindful programming. “In certain company cultures,” Julie explained, “not being plugged in means you’re slacking. But a lot of companies are waking up to the need for mindfulness. Even just having a few mindful people leading meetings can help to improve the quality of the culture.”

Gena Bean, founder of Mindful Boston, who works with Fraser connecting her to clients, said, “I’m getting a lot of companies calling up, wanting some kind of mindfulness training. It’s hard to keep up with the demand.”

Because of the rising popularity of New Age methods of exercise and relaxation — namely yoga and meditation – mindfulness in the workplace is being popularized.

Rick Heller, a mindfulness leader with the Humanist Hub at Harvard, said, “The most practical uses for many people around here are in dealing with road rage and not exploding in frustrating situations, but also in the workplace. Dealing with difficult coworkers or stressful deadlines get a bit easier when you meditate regularly.”

Local yogi Rebecca Pacheco also explains it: 

Many companies, both big and small, are attracted by the idea of spreading mindfulness amongst employees for this very reason.

Gia Stull owns and operates Ten Thousand Villages in Cambridge, a fair trade shop that plays host to monthly meditations organized by Mindful Boston. “Mindfulness helps me to be a better manager in all aspects of my responsibilities,” Stull said. “Mindfulness helps me to remember to breathe, slow down and remember that I am fully able to make decisions and execute those decisions without dwelling on whether I made the “right” one.” Mindfulness has proven a great way for Stull and her employees to manage stress and maintain focus.

These kinds of practices have proven so beneficial, in fact, that even companies like Google have hired engineer Chade Meng-Tan as the company’s “Jolly Good Fellow” with the explicit goal of looking after the company’s overall well-being and contentment.

Even locally, at Google Cambridge, mindfulness is pursued. Jenn Zawadzkas, a massage therapist and mindfulness facilitator works full-time ensuring that the emotional and spiritual well-being of employees is preserved.

Other larger tech companies, like Constant Contact, recently implemented a wellness program at its Boston branch, led by Ethan Bagley, who kick-started the program within the past year.

Hear more from local experts: 

Dr. David Brendel (featured prominently in the adjacent audio piece), is a life coach and psychologist who specializes in executive coaching. He published an article for the “Harvard Business Review” detailing his concerns about the potential negative impact of the mindfulness craze in businesses: groupthink and risk avoidance. If used improperly, forced mindfulness in the workplace can cause rather than relieve stress, and some might even use meditation to disconnect rather than assertively address some workplace concerns.

Brendel isn’t the only skeptic amongst professionals when it comes to meditation. In a quote for the New York Times, Willoughby Britton, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University studying the potential negative side effects of meditation said, “The public enthusiasm for complementary health practices — and meditation in particular — is outpacing the scientific research. Widespread implementation is premature.”

The swell of enthusiasm, no doubt boosted by outspoken celebrity meditators like Oprah Winfrey or Paul McCartney, and broad application of mindfulness, is a bit zealous for Britton.

A report released on Feb 4 by the American Psychological Association found that for 64 percent of Americans, money was a significant source of stress; 60 percent cited work was a significant source. The oldest and most-researched scientific findings regarding meditation and mindfulness show that if it’s most effective at anything, it’s reducing stress.

Brendel supports to a great extent all the benefits of mindfulness, but also cautions: “Mindfulness is certainly not inherently destructive but nonetheless there is the risk that people can use it to avoid and disconnect and leave important rational thinking processes or difficult conversations aside and let things play out more passively.”

Even ancient wisdom can have its negative implications, if misused and mistreated, but to many, any pursuit of mindfulness is worth it.

Samples of research into meditation’s impact on workplace competency: 



Workplace competency

Research findings

Dane, E. (2010) Paying attention to mindfulness and its effects on task performance in the workplace. Journal of Management 37(4), 997-1018 Task Performance: Attention Research into mindfulness in a work context suggests that mindfulness widens your attentional breadth, allowing you to be aware of multiple things simultaneously.
Davidson, R.J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., et al. (2003) Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, 564-570 Approach mode of mind: Positive outlook, staff engagement, reducing stress Volunteers at a biotech company investigated the effects of mindfulness training on prefrontal activation. The study showed significant increases in LPFC activation (LPFC associated with approach mode of mind) in the meditators compared with the non-meditators. They also found significant increases in immunity. The course resulted in participants feeling more positive, more energetic, more engaged in their work and less stressed.
Hunter J and McCormick D Mindfulness in the Workplace: An Exploratory Study.  Paper presented at the meeting of the 2008 Academy of Management Annual Meeting. Anaheim, CA. Well-being Overall well-being Research into mindfulness in the workplace by Jeremy Hunter and Don McCormick suggests that practicing mindfulness helps managers reduce stress, reduce blood pressure, and improve overall well-being.
Jha AP, Stanley EA, Kiyonaga A, Wong L, Gelfand L (2010) Examining the protective effects of mindfulness training on working memory capacity and affective experience, Emotion, Vol 10(1), 54-64 Self-management: emotion regulation;Task performance: Improved Working memory 8 weeks of mindfulness-based mind fitness training for 31 military staff associated with higher levels of positive affect and overall well-being, coupled with lower levels of negative affect and rumination, as well as decreased emotional reactivity. Mindfulness training may improve affective experience via improved regulatory control over affective mental content(Study based on work with a cohort of US Marines).
Mental Health Foundation (2010) Mindfulness Report (London: Mental Health Foundation) Interpersonal relationships, Well-being: Reduced sickness & absence Among participants in a mindfulness-based program offered to workers at Transport For London, 80 percent of participants said their relationships had improved. Absences for all health conditions were also halved.
Walach, H., Nord, E., Zier, C., Dietz-Waschkowski, B., Kersig, S., and Schu, H. (2007) Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction as a Method for Personnel Development: A Pilot Evaluation. American Psychological Association, 14 (2)188-198 Interpersonal skills, Resilience: working in a high pressure environment German call center staff were offered 8 weeks of MBSR training. Mindfulness can help people develop more consistent positive feelings for the client. It also helped encourage positive coping strategies.
Goodman, M. J. & Schorling, J. B. (2012) A mindfulness course decreases burnout and improves well-being among healthcare providers. The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, 43(2), 119-28 Resilience, Reduced burnout 93 physicians and healthcare providers were assessed. Maslach Burnout Inventory & Emotional Exhaustion scores improved significantly from before to after the mindfulness course. Mental well-being measured by the SF12v2 also improved significantly.
Beckman, H. B., Wendland, M., Mooney, C., Krasner, M. S., et al. (2012) The impact of a program in mindful communication on primary care physicians. Academic Medicine, 87(6), 1-5. Self-management: Emotion regulation, Resilience, Interpersonal relationships: Empathy, Self-awareness Primary care physicians who completed a mindfulness intervention demonstrated reduced psychological distress and burnout while improving empathy. Participants reported that mindfulness training improved their ability to be attentive and listen deeply to patients’ concerns, respond to patients more effectively, and develop adaptive reserve. Mindfulness also increased their self-awareness.
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About Corey Plante 4 Articles

Corey Plante is a soon-to-be graduate of Emerson College’s master's degree program in Journalism. He has experience in reporting, broadcast journalism, video editing, and producing radio stories (among other fields), with a special emphasis on creating multimedia content for the web. Entertainment journalism is his passion, with general arts and culture being a close second.

He founded Snippet Studios, an entertainment blog website soon after graduating in 2011 with co-conspirator Liam McCartney.

Corey hopes to one day become a magazine editor, documentary filmmaker, and all-around web entertainment journalist, although hopefully not all at once.