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When Workplace Mindfulness Training Is Worse Than Nothing

Offering a token gesture of help can be seen as worse than offering nothing.

Key points

  • Workplace mindfulness training can be a cost-effective way to improve worker well-being.
  • People may respond with anger and cynicism to token gestures of help.
  • Small offers of help can be seen as insulting and worse than offering nothing at all.

For many workers, the previous two years have been hard. People are feeling burned out and dissatisfied with their jobs. The pandemic has created one challenge after another, ranging from Zoom fatigue and toilet paper shortages to health crises and existential loneliness. It makes sense that many people feel burned out and frustrated.

Employers want to help workers cope with stress, but the steps that organizations take are sometimes worse than doing nothing at all. Organizations often rely on solutions that are small, easy-to-implement, and cost-effective. Consider, for example, the rapidly growing industry of workplace mindfulness training. Ideally, organizations can offer mindfulness training programs to help workers to regulate their emotions and manage stress during difficult periods. Since the start of the pandemic, many organizations have offered webinars and access to apps to help employees cope with the stress of lockdown measures and the transition to remote work.

Putting aside the question of whether workplace mindfulness training actually helps (maybe, but we shouldn’t be too confident because there may be unpublished studies that failed to find benefits; Bartlett et a., 2019), when organizations do offer mindfulness training, workers often respond with cynicism and anger. Critics of mindfulness see the approach as a token gesture, offering too little help in addressing serious structural problems (like work pressure and toxic workplace culture). From a critic’s perspective, mindfulness training makes issues (like burnout and work-family conflict) problems for individual workers to solve themselves. Individual workers are, in other words, ultimately responsible for their own well-being and productivity.

Why do people react negatively to mindfulness training and other (seemingly) well-intentioned offers of help? In theory, it should be good when organizations make any effort to help improve worker well-being. Isn’t an imperfect solution better than no solution at all? Research from behavioral economics in the area of ultimatum bargaining suggests that people react negatively when they perceive an offer of help as being unfairly small. Giving a little help can be seen as worse than giving no help at all.

Unfair Offers

According to the traditional view of rational decision-making, when it comes to money, more is better and something is better than nothing. People should prefer $200 instead of $100 and $1 instead of $0. But things become more complicated in social situations. When there are other people involved, people also care about the fairness of what they receive. When fairness is involved, more is not always better.

Research on the two-person ultimatum game (Güth & Kocher, 2014) illustrates the importance of fairness. In the ultimate game, one player (the proposer) receives a sum of money ($10) and proposes how that money should be shared. The other player (the responder) can either accept or reject the proposal. If the responder accepts, the game ends and both players receive the proposed outcomes. If the responder rejects, then both players get nothing. Rejection, in the ultimatum game, is the nuclear option.

A responder who only cares about money should be happy to accept any proposal that results in a payout. Accepting a small offer should be better than rejecting it (and ending up with nothing at all). But this isn’t what happens in real life. Almost all responders are willing to accept fair (50/50) proposals. But responders also care about fairness, and they will reject unfair proposals. Most people would rather have nothing at all than accept an unfair offer (for example, almost no people are willing to accept an 80/20 or a 90/10 split).

In the ultimatum game, people feel insulted and angry when they receive unfairly small offers. This might help to explain why workers react negatively to token gestures of help, like mindfulness training. If you feel like you deserve more from your organization (whether it’s better wages or less work pressure), then small offers of help can feel like a slap in the face.

Thinking Twice About Mindfulness

Research on the ultimatum game has potential lessons for both organizations and workers. For organizations, trying to appease serious concerns with token gestures can backfire (and be worse than doing nothing at all). When organizations offer unfairly small offers of help, there is a risk that workers will reject the offers of help and respond with spiteful behavior.

If you aren’t able to make a substantial offer of help, maybe it’s better to do nothing at all.


Bartlett, L., Martin, A., Neil, A. L., Memish, K., Otahal, P., Kilpatrick, M., & Sanderson, K. (2019). A systematic review and meta-analysis of workplace mindfulness training randomized controlled trials. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 24, 108-126.

Güth, W., & Kocher, M. G. (2014). More than thirty years of ultimatum bargaining experiments: Motives, variations, and a survey of the recent literature. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 108, 396-409.

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