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Amazon’s “Mindful Practice Rooms” Backfire

It turns out the human soul needs far more than a telephone booth with a computer

Amazon posted a video this week featuring a “mindful practice room” – a new company initiative to give employees a mental and emotional break during their work day. The room is just one component of their WorkingWell program, which is intended to ease worker stress by providing them with tools and training for better physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

The video did not go over as hoped, however, and Amazon took it down.

The Guardian called the rooms “coffin-like booths”, Gizmodo called it “a dystopian solution” to long work hours and harsh conditions, and Twitter users went to town with their own sarcastic tweets and memes.

The now-deleted video featured Amazon worker Leila Brown, creator of the “ZenBooth”, which she described as “an interactive kiosk where you can navigate through a library of mental health and mindful practices to recharge the internal battery.”

Here’s how it works: In the middle of an Amazon warehouse floor an employee can find a phone-booth-sized box, in which sits a computer screen, readily available to provide videos and tutorials about mental and emotional health. Small, potted plants and a fan are neatly arranged on shelves. The booth is also equipped with a skylight, “meant to imitate a bright, blue sky.”

Screenshot of the “ZenBooth” from Amazon’s video

The video has received pushback from publications on opposite sides of political and cultural spectrums, from the provocative Vice to the more traditional voice of The American Conservative.

On the one hand, there are those pointing to reports of Amazon’s terrible working conditions and a general lack of care for workers and employees. These critics tend to be skeptical of capitalism, if not completely anti-capitalist, and they point to Amazon as a prime (no pun intended) example of capitalism’s failures. To them, a “ZenBooth” is far below the standards they are requesting, such as more breaks in their work day, healthcare, better wages, and the opportunity to unionize.

Jessa Crispin at The Guardian explains the frustration felt by many at this effort:

It sounds compassionate, doesn’t it? Don’t you wish, when you’re struggling, for someone in charge to notice the difficult time you are having and work to make you feel safe and calm again? But let’s not kid ourselves: this is about large corporations forcing their workers to adapt to the terrible working conditions they have intentionally imposed – things like 10-hour working days and paying workers about half of what they would have been paid at a similar job decades ago – and could remedy, if the corporations wanted to, in an instant.

Jess Crispin, “Stressed-out Amazon workers can now access ‘mindfulness’ training. Gee, thanks” at The Guardian

On the other hand, some are critiquing not Amazon’s business practices, but the pseudo-spirituality of “mindfulness.” In their view, a violation of the human soul is just as lamentable as a violation of workers’ rights.

Grayson Quay at The American Conservative writes that a “ZenBooth” is a far cry from what a human being actually craves:

Amazon’s appeal to a watered-down Zen Buddhist spirituality is the most disturbing aspect of this dystopian misadventure. It’s the ultimate “triumph of the therapeutic,” of the idea that religion is primarily about personal comfort and being nice. The ascetic tradition of authentic Zen has no place here. This DIY spiritual path was meant to liberate the individual from oppressive clerical hierarchies and outdated cosmic dramas. Instead, it has been weaponized against the individual’s very personhood.

Grayson Quay, “‘AmaZen’ Is The Religion For Our Time” at The American Conservative

Interestingly enough, there is some overlap between the two sides. Matthew Gault writes at Vice in a similar vein to Quay. Alongside scolding Amazon’s business practices, Gault also turns to the human soul:

Brown is giving away the game by using the language of machines. A worker is not a robot with a battery that needs to be charged. A worker is a human who needs things Amazon simply does not provide its workers.

Matthew Gault, “Amazon Introduces Tiny ‘ZenBooths’ for Stressed-Out Warehouse Workers” at Vice

Economic differences aside, both critics are angry about the suggestion that the solution to human stress is a small box with a computer to calm any and all psychological distress. It appears there is agreement on one thing: Amazon’s “ZenBooth” somehow misses the mark on what it means to be human, and what the human soul needs in order to truly find peace and respite.

Since 2019, Amazon has invested over $300 million into initiatives to make their workplaces safer on the whole. Their goal is to cut work-related injuries by 50% by the end of 2025.

You may also wish to read:

Is Mindfulness Losing Its ‘Shine’ These Days?” Maybe, but that’s because it has often been misused. Rightly understood, it’s a blessing. Mindfulness won’t make you rich or famous or successful or well-liked. It’s not about solving problems; it’s about a state of being where we become more in touch with the whole of reality, not just our own concerns or goals. (Denyse O’Leary)

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Amazon’s “Mindful Practice Rooms” Backfire