Doing vs. Being: How One Agency Is Embracing Mindfulness at Work

Jen Patterson on her work with employees at the community

In an industry where overwork and stress run rampant and often lead to mental health problems, some agencies are taking steps to give employees more resources to find balance.

Among them is the community, the global creative shop with offices in Miami, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, New York. and San Francisco. The community recently hired Jen Patterson as head of mindfulness, a new position in which she will be a mental health resource for staffers and help the agency as a whole create better boundaries and balance in its operations.

This is actually Patterson's second stint at the agency. A strategist by trade, she was head of planning at the community for four years in the early 2000s. She later worked at Deutsch and was chief strategy officer ay Wunderman Seattle for two years before getting into executive coaching in 2017.

Patterson will be available for appointments with anyone in the community globally. Her approach is based on reframing limiting beliefs and using mindfulness and meditation as tools to create balance.

"Change comes from within, and we knew we needed to think differently," says Joaquin Molla, the agency's co-founder and chief creative officer. "We wanted to give everyone at the agency the right tools and decided a head of mindfulness was what we needed. But as always, what matters is the person. The right person makes the title. And we knew Jen was that person. Her sensibility to understand, her ability to listen, and her knowledge make her the right person for all of us to open up to. Starting at the core of who we are. Helping each of us find the right balance. Jen's adding a new layer of support at the most important level. She knows us, likes us, and wants each of us to shine as individuals and as a community."

"My goal comes down to showing people different ways of being," says Patterson. "We spend a lot of hours at work. But often the way we work takes away the energy we need to be fully present in important areas of our lives—with our partners or children, or in our creative pursuits. My coaching is all about getting you out of your head into your heart and body through mindfulness and mediation. It's about showing people how to create boundaries and balance in a time when those are especially hard to find." 

We spoke to Jen further about her approach and plans for the position.

Muse: Tell us how your background in planning led to a career in coaching.

Jen Patterson: Planning is about smarts and coaching is about hearts but the mechanic is similar. Planning is all about finding that aha moment—the place where the emotion sits within the conversation between a brand and a consumer. My favorite thing as a planner was just saying to someone "Talk at me for 15 minutes" about a brand or product. Within that was always the answer for a brief. Coaching is very much the same, except my job is to set someone up to hear their own aha. I try to clear the way for people to connect with their heart and body over their mind. We are such a cerebral culture, but our thinking is clouded by "education" from the dominant paradigm about what's possible or what's available to us. But our hearts and bodies are still connected to something essential.

What's your overall philosophy or approach to mindfulness in a corporate/work setting?

My main anchor is the pause. In our culture we are trained to be in constant motion forward, especially at work. We have a productivity addiction that disparages anything that feels like rest or stillness. But we can't have spring without winter. Mindfulness is the antidote. It allows for a pause. It allows us to ask the questions of "What's really the goal here, what's really important?" It allows for empathy and meaning to be first, and what we're doing to be in support of it rather than working against it.

How will you engage employees to make meaningful change?

I really see my job as a language teacher. I'm trying to give people a new language—and with that, a new framework. I like working through real examples of where people feel themselves caught, constrained, less than. I can see how people come in for their first session and walk out somewhere totally different. My job is to point out all the ways that the corner they find themselves in is a taught belief system, and to show them all the space that is actually there. I have individual sessions and a few cohorts of group coaching for working moms, a segment that is probably the hardest hit by the pandemic in terms of support. I am doing agency-wide meditation and teachings, which I see as a way of seeding interest for the 1:1 coaching. I also coach the leadership team once a week—as I told them when I took the job, "the fish rots from the head"—the value system starts with them so change has to happen at all levels, all moving towards the same place, the same practices, and the same language.

Have you seen mental health challenges increase during Covid, and has that affected the way you think about mindfulness?

I see Covid as a magnifying glass to all the ailments that were already there. Working moms were already undersupported. People were already feeling burnt out or disconnected from their work. When these things aren't so loud, it's easy to power through and get by. But when the pressure mounts, these calls within us become impossible to ignore. The challenge is, we're taught that the answer is to move forward in these logical, real-world ways—get a new job, find a new babysitter. But we inevitably take our patterns—our limiting belief systems—with us. What coaching and mindfulness is about is getting to the why's behind the feelings and to see our possibilities from a wider, more expansive lens. We aren't taught to cast the net wide and ask for all the things from our work. We're told over and over again that this is a place of tradeoffs and constraints. But why? Why not assert that the place many of us spend the most time can support our spirits, not just our bank accounts? If anything, the spiritual pursuit has just gotten more important at work.

Where are we as a culture in properly addressing mental health and balance at work, and how could we be better?

It's no coincidence that these mental health issues are happening at the same time as questions of racial equity, gender equity, neurodiversity. The pace and culture that dominates corporate America is not inclusive. Fundamentally, even in some of the best companies, there is a user-product relationship at work that we all feel forced to subscribe to. That's why we take the Saturday phone call instead of saying we're with our kids. I think there is a paradigm shift happening. Productivity will become second to intentionality. Doing will become second to being. Right now, we fear that financial gain will suffer by raising the vibration of the workplace. But even that is a learned, zero-sum perspective. When we're able to believe that care of all people serves us, it will be so.

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Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd is editor in chief of the Clio Awards, editor of Muse by Clio, and host of the podcast Tagline. Previously, he was creative editor at Adweek.

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