According to the UK Health and Safety Executive, work-related stress results in a loss to the UK of 10 million working days each year and similar statistics are reported for the US. Dr William Van Gordon from the Centre for Psychological Research at University of Derby discusses mindfulness as a solution to stress-related illness which results in time off work.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness derives from Buddhist meditation and involves being aware of the present moment. During the last decade, mindfulness has become popular in the West, especially as a means of helping people remain calm and cope with the stresses and strains of modern living.
If we are ruminating about the past or day-dreaming about the future, it’s probable that we are missing what is happening here and now. Mindfulness involves living in the present moment because this is the only place where we can truly experience and embrace life. In essence, mindfulness is about observing ourselves participating in the present moment. It is about observing ourselves breathing, thinking while smiling as we endeavor to make the most of our short time on this earth.
Mindfulness as a treatment
In a paper commissioned by the British Medical Journal, I concluded there is sufficient scientific evidence to support the use of mindfulness for treating stress, depression and chronic pain. The healing potential of mindfulness is also acknowledged in the treatment guidelines of organisations such as the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, the American Psychiatric Association and the Australian and New Zealand Royal College of Psychiatrists. In line with these recommendations, debate has now started to focus on whether there is a role for mindfulness in the corporate workplace, including for improving job performance among employees.
The appeal for mindfulness among corporations is obvious: employees that work with greater awareness are likely to work more effectively. Another appeal of mindfulness is that employees in better health and who derive satisfaction from their work are less likely to search for new employment or take sick-leave due to work-related accidents, illness or stress.
In the UK and US, mindfulness has been introduced to employees by corporations such as General Mills, Apple, Target, Sony Corporation, Google, Carlsberg, Ikea, Nike, Procter & Gamble, AOL, Goldman Sachs, Monsanto, and Transport for London. The growing popularity of mindfulness among UK and US employers is unsurprising because according to the UK Health and Safety Executive, work-related stress results in a loss to the UK of 10 million working days each year. Similar statistics are reported for the US where each year, approximately 20% of employees take time off work due to a stress-related illness.
Can mindfulness affect the bottom line?
But is there scientific evidence to indicate that corporations who introduce mindfulness to employees can improve their bottom line or operational performance? A programme of research that I am leading has involved introducing a mindfulness intervention known as Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) to employees ranging from workers on sick leave to senior executives of blue-chip companies.
The intervention is normally delivered to groups and features a series of lectures, guided mindfulness and compassion meditation exercises, group work and discussion, and an individual component where participants can talk with the mindfulness instructor on a one-to-one basis.
Findings from a randomised controlled trial involving 152 middle-level office-based managers showed that the intervention led to a 20% improvement in job performance as rated by employees’ direct line manager, and a 50% improvement in job satisfaction as rated by employees. Another study involving middle-level managers demonstrated that after the mindfulness training, managers experienced an increased ability to remain calm under pressure as well as greater decision-making competency.
One middle manager who participated in the study said: “When I was able just to stop and be with myself, everything became completely relaxed. You sit back and observe – you start to see new angles and opportunities.” Another manager said: “Being present and without ego means you’re less caught up in the nonsense. I just get right to the point and I stay there … you work better and you feel better.”
Another study that I conducted using MAT, published in 2017, involved 73 employees from a range of employment backgrounds including office-workers, customer-facing hospitality workers, factory managers, and senior managers. In addition to improved levels of psychological wellbeing and job satisfaction, the study demonstrated that MAT led to an increase in work productivity, as demonstrated by an average reduction in working time of four hours per week but without a decline in job performance.
Studies I’ve conducted using MAT have also shown that it can increase a person’s willingness to work, as well as their sense of citizenship and community engagement. A further study using MAT involved a senior director of a blue-chip technology company whose client account-handling satisfaction ratings increased by 20% following the mindfulness training. The senior director made the decision to offer mindfulness training to all his employees and stated: “Meditation centres the mind and helps you see more angles…but it also helps you see the human in people.”
The above studies using MAT were conducted under research conditions and should hopefully provide an independent perspective in terms of the potential for mindfulness to improve work-effectiveness. However, there also exist similar positive reports from corporations such as General Mills that is reported to have delivered mindfulness training to over 400 employees. Approximately 80% of these employees reported taking time each day to optimise their personal productivity following mindfulness training compared to 23% before the intervention. The same company found that 80% of senior executives that participated in mindfulness training reported improvements in decision-making competency.
Are mindfulness teachers up to scratch?
Scientific and anecdotal reports concerning the beneficial properties of ancient Buddhist meditation practices continue to emerge and there appears to be a role for mindfulness for improving wellbeing and effectiveness at work. However, the main challenge is not whether mindfulness is effective as a behavioural intervention, but whether there is a sufficient number of individuals that have the necessary meditation experience to teach mindfulness in a manner that is tailored to modern business and healthcare practices while honouring the essence of authentic mindfulness practice as it was taught by the Buddha some 2,500 years ago.