Can Mindfulness Improve Workplace Well-Being?
A comprehensive literature review shows the benefits of mindfulness at work.
Posted March 15, 2019
Major organizations from all sectors—like Google, the U.S. Marines, Harvard University, and many more—are investing heavily in mindfulness training. Why is there so much interest? To develop a strong, science-based answer to this question, we conducted a rigorous review of all the published scientific literature related to mindfulness in the workplace.
Spoiler alert: Mindfulness appears to have many significant benefits that span many aspects of workplace functioning, including well-being, performance, and relationships. These benefits arise from changing how people function on a minute-by-minute basis in fundamental ways. Further, we believe these impacts are often not specific to a single context, but instead occur in many contexts. The reason is that mindfulness affects such basic aspects of functioning, including our brains and bodies. For this reason, its impacts should be general. Finally, these benefits are generally accessible through simple and inexpensive practices such as meditation.
So, what do people mean by mindfulness? This is the quality of being really present in one’s momentary experience, accepting the moment as it is, rather than doing what we usually do, which is getting caught up in our thoughts and feelings. We have all had the experience of talking to someone while thinking of unrelated things, like an email we forgot to send. Yet, everyone has some degree of mindfulness, and we can generally increase our level of mindfulness through practices like meditation that involve focusing intently in the present moment.
Many of mindfulness’ major impacts come from changing how we attend to experience (See Figure 1). Mindfulness helps us keep our attention in the present moment, direct our attention where we want it to go, and potentially even to increase the number of things we can track at one time. In today’s frenetic world, enhancing our power to focus is a serious upgrade.
When we attend differently, we begin to think, feel, and act differently too. Mindful individuals enjoy a remarkably broad array of benefits. They may be more creative, have greater insights, and hold more information in their mind at one time. Rather than being emotionally reactive, they tend to have negative feelings less regularly, and these dissipate more rapidly for mindful individuals. A huge body of literature shows that mindful people act more intentionally and find it easier to avoid problematic behaviors like risky gambling, reduce unhealthy behaviors like smoking and eating poorly, and maintain a greater awareness of their self-motivations.
Intriguingly, focusing differently seems to change how the brain and body work. Meditation physically transforms the brain, generally in ways that support better information processing and self-control. Mindfulness also can alter biochemical stress responses, and even lead to slower aging of our brains and cells—which could extend careers longer.
Studies are beginning to show that these changes can have real benefits for individuals at work, including their well-being, performance, and relationships. Mindful individuals show superior engagement and authenticity, with lower stress, burnout, and emotional labor (e.g., faking emotions on the job, like a waiter smiling at a rude customer). Growing evidence links mindfulness to performing better on a variety of tasks. This can include negotiating more effectively, being less susceptible to making bad decisions, and not doing destructive behaviors like being a toxic boss or retaliating against colleagues. More mindful nuclear power plant operators reported that under certain conditions they engaged in more safety-focused behaviors (imagine the polar opposite of Homer Simpson).
Mindfulness helps people manage relationships at work better, too. Leaders who report being higher in mindfulness show a greater ability to satisfy the psychological needs of their subordinates, which then bolsters the subordinates’ performance and well-being. Being more mindful might support diversity and inclusion by lowering implicit bias on the basis of race or age. Perhaps the most rigorous study of how mindfulness impacts workplace relationships came from the medical sector, where researchers analyzed hundreds of patient-clinician interactions. With more mindful clinicians, patients gave higher ratings, and researchers noted more patient-focused conversation.
What does this model suggest for your mindfulness practice at work? Let’s face it, it is difficult to create lasting improvements in the way we feel and function at work. Organizations spend billions of dollars every year on training that often has little impact. One of the reasons it is difficult to change the quality of how we operate is that such changes need to be driven by deeply embedded aspects of the way we attend to the moment, think, feel, and act. These parts of our human functioning are “under the hood” and difficult to access.
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This model suggests that mindfulness—a fairly simple practice—can positively alter the more difficult-to-reach aspects of ourselves. While not a cure-all by any stretch, it is hard to imagine many other practices that can improve so many domains of human functioning simultaneously.
LinkedIn Image Credit: fizkes/Shutterstock
Good, D. J., Lyddy, C. J., Glomb, T. M., Bono, J. E., Brown, K. W., Duffy, M. K., Baer, R.A., Brewer, J.S., & Lazar, S. W. (2016). Contemplating mindfulness at work: An integrative review. Journal of management, 42(1), 114-142.