The Buddha and the Bureaucrat

When I read that employees at Justice Canada were going to have access to training in mindfulness, you could probably hear my “woot woot” on the floors above and below.


Mindfulness has changed my life.
It’s made me happier at home and more productive at work.
It has decreased my stress and anxiety by, like, a billion percent, and it’s given me the space I need in my life to be more compassionate with myself and others.

In a nutshell, it helps me make good on the values and ethics of the public service, especially:

People Values: Demonstrating respect, fairness and courtesy in their dealings with both citizens and fellow public servants.

So even if I am getting the gears from a client or citizen, I can be compassionate, present, calm and able to help, instead of just reacting or being defensive.

Mindfulness is a proactive approach to stress reduction. And once you know how to practice it, you just keep getting better. It doesn’t require ongoing training. And, you don’t have to be a Buddhist to practice it.

It works like this: instead of waiting until the proverbial s*it hits the fan, with clients or citizens or whomever you deal with, you practice staying calm, focused and present right now.

Then, when you really need to stay calm, focused and present, it’s that much easier, because you can fall back on your practice.

It’s like working out any muscle in your body, creating muscle memory, except it is your brain and not your biceps. You learn to be the “watcher of your thoughts” before reacting to them. It’s valuable stuff. And, it’s especially key when you deal with the public.

Then, almost as quickly as this Justice Canada training was announced, it was cancelled.

Look, as a comms person, I understand the optics of it all. Public servants are already well compensated for their stresses. People don’t want to hear about it. We make great money and have excellent benefits. I get it.

But, my argument is this:
The public service needs to set the gold standard example of how to treat its workers. Instead of people getting up in arms about the benefits we get, I’d like to see them demand the same.

Maybe that’s a bit pie in the sky, but it’s also in the code on values and ethics: People values should reinforce the wider range of Public Service values. Those who are treated with fairness and civility will be motivated to display these values in their own conduct.

So, I’m sad that this innovative approach is on-hold, indefinitely. I think it could have helped a lot of folks.
I guess in the meantime, I’ll have to settle for following the buddha on Twitter.

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I like this argument:

But, my argument is this:
The public service needs to set the gold standard example of how to treat its workers. Instead of people getting up in arms about the benefits we get, I’d like to see them demand the same.

To me, it ties into equal rights and fairness in employment, government should set the gold standard

Alicia Mazzara

This is a tough situation — like you said, the optics are not so great when government workers already get good benefits and may have a bad reputation for being lazy, etc. On the other hand, it’s short sighted to deny workers a benefit that would improve their performance and interactions with the public. If we want excellence in public service, then we should seek to create an environment that attracts excellent candidates. In the meantime, perhaps a mindfulness program could be pursued on a smaller scale? Maybe you could get a group of interested employees together to split the cost for an instructor that would come in during lunch once a week. At my previous job, employees self-organized yoga classes this way and it was very successful.

Lee-Anne Peluk

Thanks for the comments! Stephanie — to answer your question, it’s not exactly an activity per se, but more like a way of being. A practice. I really like Jon Kabat Zinn’s approach to it … he actually has a PHD in Molecular Biology from MIT, where he focused on mind/body healing.

Terri Jones

Geat post, in fact, lack of people values drove me to change agencies because I was just tired of fighting. Perhaps the program will be reinstated or perhaps a voluntary, employee-led effort might take hold if it was available?

Carol Davison

Like Andrew and Steve I believe that government should set the standard for how to treat employees. The problem is people see training as an expense and not an investment. If they realized that those companies with the highest return on investment send employees to the greatest number of training hours (60 for current and 121 for new employees) they would spend more time and money. The other problem is that employees need training in EEO, Safety, Competency, Leadership, etc and any specific topic can fall off that list pretty quickly. It could also be that people fear that an eastern philosophy is being paid for and taught with their tax dollars. Do you have those type of problems in Canada?

Andrew Krzmarzick

So I’m going to spice up the conversation a bit. 😉

What if the government were to bring in a course that taught Christian (and other interested) employees how to pray? Wondering if taxpayers would find that be acceptable?

What if a class on prayer for Muslims or Jews were announced?

Since the mindfulness course sounds like it was overtly Buddhist in nature, it presents an opportunity to explore the relative appropriateness of offering tax-payer-funded, religion-based courses to public sector employees…

Lee-Anne Peluk

Ooooh, I like the intention to spice up the conversation 🙂

Big difference though, between mindfulness and the organized religion practices you described.

Mindfulness does not involve or require any faith at all … nor does Mindfulness involve any worship or impose any system of beliefs or statement of doctrine, nor any code of conduct, nor any prescribed forms of ritual or religious observances.

Mindfulness is simply the practice of the presence of the awareness of the action of the present moment … that is, the practice of paying attention, in the present, purposefully and receptively, choicelessly and non-judgmentally, to whatever arises in the present moment …
So … Mindfulness is not an overtly Buddhist practice at all.
I might be Buddhist. But mostly I don’t know.
I just like a good headline 🙂

Hope OKeeffe

Is there a reason why these programs cannot be made available on a fee basis for employees? In my agency, chair massages are available twice a week in the health center — but we pay for them. So are yoga, fitness, tai chi, weight watchers, and dance, some run by volunteers some paid. And there are employee-led Bible classes and language tables as well. This seems like a reasonable compromise — no taxpayer complaints if the agency makes them available and encourages them, but the employee pays.

Stephanie Slade

Yeah. I’m about as Catholic as they come and even I don’t think the public would (or, really, should) go for religious training paid for by Uncle Sam. Bringing in various offerings that the employee could pay for, as Hope suggested, sounds more workable.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Lee-Anne: There are definitely parallels to mindfulness in the other religions, though the other three that I mentioned would be more focused on thinking about the application of religious texts on one’s life. I do know that, in Jesuit meditation, one is asked in every moment to “practice on the presence of G-d.” And St. Paul in one of his writings urges believers to “take captive every thought” in order to be ‘mindful’ of their life’s calling.

Thanks for bringing this rich conversation to GovLoop.

Lee-Anne Peluk

just to be clear: mindfulness is not a religion.

appreciate your views, but believe this is not a conversation about religion.

I see now just how misleading the headline is …

this is a conversation about innovation in the public sector. about trying new ideas.

about innovation for the reduction of stress. and how the government can and should set the gold standard in terms of how it treats its workers. and how economy of scale is good for the bottom line of any budget.

Kevin Lanahan

Great post, Lee-Anne.

I’d love to learn to be mindful when people are talking about me. I do OK when they are talking to me. It is a wonderful way of being present to the other person, whether a co-worker or a member of the public. I just experienced some doctors do this with their patients, and it made all the difference in the world in reducing the patient anxiety.

Lori Reichert

I was immediately captured by this blog. Who would have thought the Canadian federal government, in any department would consider the value of “mindfulness?” I am pleased to know of this and hope that this on-hold staus changes soon. Mindfulness practise is an excellent way to remember to breathe and enjoy the fullness of each moment in life. For me it has greatly increased my intentionality in my life at work and is trinkling into my habits at home. Being present – Ahhh, have a great day everyone.

Daniel Honker

Great point from Lee-Ann. Mindfulness, and many of the other practices of Buddhism, aren’t “religious” as we tend to define the word. They’re practices, and IMHO they have more to do with positive psychology than our concept of faith. I think that’s a common misunderstanding in our culture

Dick Field

As a perennial, but admittedly errant, student of Zen, I find it is not necessary to have any kind of group activity to find and experience “mindfulness” or the other benefits of a Zen way of being. In fact, it may be more successfully cultivated otherwise, for it is essentially not of religions, institutions, and the like – but of the free individual perspective. For anyone curious, find some quiet time at home and do some reading. For westerners, a good start is Charlotte J. Beck. I cut my Zen eye teeth on Alan Watts, also lending a western perspective.

Paul Alberti

Thought I would freshen up this blog. I have been trying to get a mindfulness program started in my office, it has met with the usual “Mindfulness – really!?” So I emailed some articles on mindful leadership to the head of our HR Office with no response. I talked to the head of our leadership program, very interested but no resources. I referenced Michael Carroll’s book “The Mindful Leader” in a recent Govloop leadership blog – waiting for comments on that one.
I emailed the Wisdom 2.0 group about hosting a Wisdom 2.0 conference in DC or the immediate area – paying for airfare to CA, hotel & a conference is not in my budget right now, nor would my agency send me – not in my line of business. I did get a reply that there are “plans being made to expand the conference venue – keep in touch”.
This seems like one of those great ideas that cannot get past the corporate immune system. Has anyone else had any success promoting mindfulness in their offices or leadership programs?

Paul Alberti

Just got a notice about Buddhafest in DC ( Rep Tim Ryan is speaking with Tara Brach – “The Alchemy of transformation: Awakening our Hearts, Healing our World” if anyone is interested. Imagine, a Representative in Congress that actively promotes Mindfulness!