Mindfulness in the workplace. Is it effective and what are the challenges?

Mindfulness in the workplace. Is it effective and what are the challenges?

In an increasingly knowledge-based economy, economic value relies on skills and motivation of individuals – “human capital.” A large part of the workforce, however, seems to be suffering from strain. Mental health issues are now the leading cause of sick leave in the UK, accounting for 70 million sick days, more than half of the 130 million total every year.

Depression, for example, is affecting as many as one in five people throughout their life. The technological evolution promoted the availability of information and accelerated innovation. In return, a typical office worker will be able to concentrate on a task for about 11 minutes before being interrupted and those continuous distractions are associated with a 20% decrease in performance.

Most organisations are aware of the importance of their human capital and care about the wellbeing and development of their employees. Sparked by research reporting salutary effects of mindfulness, organisations turn to mindfulness programmes to tackle issues around employee health within increasingly demanding workplaces. Dot-com companies like Google and Yahoo were amongst the first to embrace mindfulness training and other organisations like Capital One, Nuffield Health, British Telecom and the UK Parliament are following suit.

They hope that an investment in mindfulness might benefit both the company and the employee. There is the notion that mindfulness may be conducive to flourishing, may boost performance, improve team work and customer relations. But the excitement about mindfulness in the workplace “has outstripped the research evidence” (Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG), 2015, p.39). While the number of studies published in peer reviewed journals more than tripled within the last five years, this blogpost aims to address some of the gaps that remain. The blogpost builds upon the summary of the role of mindfulness in the workplace as previously outlined in the Mindful Nation UK Report (MAPPG, 2015).

Mindfulness can improve self-regulation

Studies outside the workplace have shown that mindfulness is linked to and has the capacity to improve skills such as regulating attention and behaviour.

Attention is a fundamental skill. Yet research suggests people are thinking about something other than what they are doing for almost half of their waking hours (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010). However, attention regulation can be improved. Even short mindfulness training can help to stabilise attention (Zeidan et al. , 2010) and over time, meditation practice can improve the ability to disengage from mind wandering (Hasenkamp & Barsalou, 2012). This might prove extremely helpful in coping with inner and outer distractions in modern workplaces.  In fact, being able to focus the attention for a longer time period seems to be rewarding in itself: It is linked to feelings of happiness and to improvements in fluid intelligence; the ability to think outside the box (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010; Mrazek et al., 2013).

Attentional control has also been implicated in improved behaviour regulation, for example health behaviours such as drinking habits or physical exercise. In mindfulness interventions participants are encouraged to notice automatic responses to stress and to regain an element of choice. This might be extremely helpful in responding to challenging work situations in a better way. For instance pilot studies showed that following a mindfulness training, disability support staff implemented fewer restrictive interventions (Brooker et al., 2014) and teachers improved in observer rated class-room management (Flook et al., 2014). In both cases, greater behaviour regulation lead to improvements in professional performance.

What is the evidence base for mindfulness in the workplace?

Workplace mindfulness research remains embryonic and more systematic research has to be undertaken before preliminary conclusions may be drawn. A forthcoming systematic review identified a total of 145 mindfulness studies with a specific focus on the workplace (Lomas et al., 2016). The research quality of the studies varied greatly and only about a third of the studies employed strong research designs such as randomised controlled trials. That said, some well-designed trials have been published that show that mindfulness in the workplace is a promising area of investigation:

Netterstrom et al. (2013) recruited 198 employed patients on sick leave (82% women) and randomly divided them into three groups: an intervention group receiving an 8-week mindfulness intervention and additionally 8 workplace-specific psychotherapy sessions, a treatment as usual group receiving standard 12 psychotherapy sessions and a waitlist control group. Compared to the waitlist control group, both the intervention and treatment as usual group showed significantly greater improvement in stress symptoms. After treatment, a significantly higher rate of participants in the mindfulness group returned to work (67%) compared to 36% in the treatment as usual and 24% in the waitlist control group.

Roeser et al. (2013)  randomised 113 public school teachers (89% women) into a waitlist control and an 8-week mindfulness intervention. The mindfulness group showed significantly greater improvements in self-compassion and mindfulness post-intervention and these changes also mediated the effects on reductions in stress and burnout at 3-month follow-up.  Teachers in the mindfulness condition also showed greater improvements in a test of focused attention and working memory capacity that paralleled subjective increases in self-reported mindfulness over time. Interestingly, no intervention effects on physiological indicators of stress such as blood pressure and salivary cortisol were detected.

In another study, 152 middle-level managers (57% women) in a corporate setting were randomly assigned to an 8-week mindfulness intervention or an active control condition involving cognitive-behavioural theory and principles (Shonin, Van Gordon, Dunn, Singh, & Griffiths, 2014). They demonstrated strong and sustainable intervention effects on work-related stress, job satisfaction, psychological distress and employer-rated job performance. They also concluded that mindfulness may be linked to more effective work styles.

These illustrative studies with a clear intention, using randomised designs suggests the promise of mindfulness interventions in enhancing well-being and human capital in a range of settings.

What are the gaps in the research?  

Interestingly, the forthcoming systematic review suggests there is a predominance of female participants working in non-corporate settings. This might be because public health and public service organisations employ a higher percentage of women. To complement this, more studies in corporate setting are needed.

At the moment, the types of interventions offered are largely unregulated. Interventions range from trainings firmly rooted in contemplative traditions delivered by contemplative practitioners, to business consultants with little personal mindfulness practice, to digital products. This diversity has within it both the seeds for an explosion of creative development of the field but also the seeds of implosion. There’s an urgent need to establish good practice standards for this field both in terms of teaching mindfulness in workplace settings but also in training others to teach mindfulness.

Addressing mental health issues in the workplace has rightly been the predominant focus of research. Additionally, the impact of mindfulness in the workplace on performance and collaboration would be an interesting area of investigation, as well as highlighting potential negative effects of workplace mindfulness. Moreover, few studies have looked at leadership and the impact of mindfulness interventions on leaders. Finally, a more systematic comparison between different types of interventions (e.g. short-term vs long-term, app-based vs group-based) is needed.

To achieve this, the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group proposed several recommendations in the Mindful Nation Report. For example, they suggested the development of specific mindfulness interventions for workplaces such as the public sector. They also encouraged national research institutions to support systematic research into the feasibility and impact of mindfulness training in professional settings.

What are the issues around offering mindfulness in workplaces?

Typical to research in economics, attempts to calculate the return of investment have been made. For example, in a recent controlled trial, researchers observed a 20% increase in productivity in employees randomised to a short online mindfulness training (Aikens et al., 2014). They even estimated employer savings per year due to reduced burnout of about $22,000 per employee based on an average wage of $100,000.

While this is certainly interesting, it also mirrors a potential issue with offering mindfulness in workplaces. “Corporations tend to look for quick fixes. It is important that we communicate that mindfulness is not a magic pill but that it requires time and patience to cultivate.” stated workplace mindfulness trainer Chris Tamdjidi at a masterclass at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre. On a similar note, organisations might turn to cost-effective mindfulness intervention instead of investing in healthier working conditions. Will Davies, author of the Happiness Industry: “Rather than removing the source of stress, whether that’s unfeasible workloads, poor management or low morale, some employers encourage their staff to meditate: a quick fix that’s much cheaper, at least in the short term.”

However, mindfulness interventions in dysfunctional organisations might cause unexpected effects. Mindfulness may initiate greater awareness and deeper understanding of workplace conditions. This may actually lead to workers being more aware of unhealthy working conditions. In a pilot study, call centre agents in Germany reported becoming more aware of “problematic situations in the workplace conducive to stress” (Walach et al., 2007, p. 197) and as a consequence became more engaged in changing working conditions or considered leaving. In this way, mindfulness is a prerequisite for making more wholesome and informed choices.

Beyond productivity – becoming human

There has been a controversial discussion about productivity and mindfulness: Does it lead to getting more done or do people even tend to work less? It is not surprising that mindfulness and meditation were first embraced by the new economy as a tool for self-improvement which has then in turn invented means for tracking and sharing those improvements. However, by noticing stressors in personal life and by developing greater self-compassion, a person might see more clearly how endlessly pushing to self-improve may be part of the problem. “I was so used to being told, here are five things you need to improve. I approached meditation in the same way but then realised, it’s about me as a human being.” a company manager told Chris Tamdjidi.

In essence, mindfulness is more than a mere productivity tool, it is a different quality of relating to the world. While it may well enhance performance and improve resilience, it is equally likely to heighten employees’ awareness of mismanagement and bad working conditions. While it may increase an organisation’s human capital, mindfulness may also address “the most pressing problems of society at their very root – at the level of the human mind and heart.” (Jon Kabat Zinn quoted in MAPPG, p. 10)

Silke Rupprecht



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Oxford Mindfulness Centre

The Oxford Mindfulness Centre (OMC) is an internationally recognised centre of excellence at the University of Oxford, and has been at the forefront of research and development in the field of mindfulness. The OMC works to advance the understanding of evidence-based mindfulness through research, publication, training and dissemination. Our world leading research investigates the mechanisms, efficacy, effectiveness, cost effectiveness and implementation of mindfulness. We offer a wide range of training, education, and clinical services, all taught by leading experts and teachers in the field, who are training the next generation of MBCT researchers, teachers and trainers. We actively engage in collaborative partnership to shape the field and influence policy nationally and internationally. Through the charitable work of the OMC, we are improving the accessibility of MBCT for those most in need.

Image: Kevin Dooley