How Mindfulness Could Improve Your Business

by Dr. Aaron Halliday

For thousands of years followers of Buddhism believe that practicing mindfulness, or maintaining a calm awareness of one's body, mind, emotions, and natural tendencies, would result in the accumulation of wisdom. Somewhat removed from these religious origins, popular culture and modern fitness trend have caused the practice and conceptualization of mindfulness to evolve and be refined in such a way that it’s more likely to conjure to mind images of yoga halls or the meditation rooms of Apple or Google well before thoughts of ancient philosophy or scripture. The term ‘mindfulness’ has been conceptually defined by positive and organizational psychologists as a psychological state focusing individuals on events taking place in the present moment, thereby cultivating a full, direct, non-judgmental, and active awareness of experienced life. Consistently and actively engaging in practices of yoga and meditation for as little as 20 minutes a day has been demonstrated to produce long-term changes in one’s personality, making them a more mindful person day to day. What’s more, is that a large body of evidence (scientific and practical) indicates that this tiny bit of every day meditation and the personality changes it brings produces an enormous range of benefits to individual health, well-being, and functioning that have real effects on an organization’s bottom-line. But given that mindfulness practices are older than the scientific method there is a great deal more of philosophy and an abundance of pseudoscience floating around about this topic. So, I wanted to take a moment to answer a few important questions that individuals and organizations may have regarding mindfulness:

(1) What does the evidence-based research tell us with certainty?

(2) What are we not yet certain about with regards to mindfulness?


(3) How can organizations harness the power of mindfulness using the best-informed practices offered by research?

What does the evidence-based research tell us with certainty?

Stress and Physical and Mental Health:

Experiences of adversity are a natural part of the human condition and we all experience stress in our daily and working lives. However, mindfulness-based interventions have been demonstrated to be 36% more effective than conventional "treatment as usual" groups in the treatment of individuals on sick leave due to work-related stress. This is to say that mindfulness-based treatments are effective in treating work-related stress and allows individuals to return to work more quickly than typically employed treatment methods. Evidence also indicates that mindful meditation and relaxation techniques are effective in facilitating healthy coping strategies and reducing one's overall negative responses to stress. This indicates that promoting mindfulness in an organization may also be effectively used as a preventative inoculant in highly stressful occupations to prepare individuals to deal with the stressful realities associated with their particular career. Recent summary reviews of the scientific evidence overwhelmingly support mindfulness as an effective preventative practice to reduce the effects of stress. Moreover, this research has demonstrated that both long-term (often clinical) and short-term mindfulness-based interventions (designed specifically for applications in the workplace) are incredibly successful in producing long-term reductions in levels of psychological and work-related stress.

There is also a veritable mountain of meta-analytic evidence (reviews of large bodies of academic literature) supporting the many health-related benefits of mindfulness and mindfulness-based interventions coming from medical and psychological science and neuroscience. Individual studies demonstrate mindfulness to be effective in not only treating but also preventing mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance misuse and gambling, anger management issues, and physical health problems such as insomnia, dietary problems, inflammatory bowel disease, management of chronic pain and more.

Let me quickly dispel any illusions of mindfulness being limited to domain of personal and clinical health. There is a culmination of scientific evidence suggesting that including mindfulness in your business strategy and employee development practice is a sound long-term business strategy, prudent fiscal management, and good corporate social responsibility (impacting social health) grounded in practical and financial wisdom and foresight. Poor mental health stemming from work-related adversity is a costly problem for organizations and is a notable contributor to losses in productivity. In Europe, mental illness has been demonstrated to be responsible for 25% of disability claims and is a leading cause of both absenteeism and presenteeism (coming to work when you are better off not) and disengagement (the act of showing up physically, but checking out mentally). Substantial costs are also incurred due to physical and mental illness incurred by distress. For example, one recent study of the costs associated with work-related stress impacting the population of France over the period of one year demonstrated work-related stress and associated illnesses to have been responsible for between 2300 to 3600 deaths and to have been responsible for between 14 and 24% of the total spending dedicated to their social security occupational illnesses and work injuries branch. Such substantial costs are shared between governments, individuals, and organizations. Mental illness is currently cited as a leading cause of workplace incapacity and is estimated to be responsible for 14.3 billion dollars in annual spending in Canada alone. In the United Kingdom, mental health and work-related stress have been estimated to cost the economy nearly 26 billion Great British Pounds and 70 million lost working days per year. And in America, the average organization can be expected to pay an average of 20 percent of all healthcare premiums and supplementary healthcare costs totalling an average of approximately $10,000 per employee. With such massive costs incurred by stress and illness even minor improvements may yield substantial financial savings. This highlights the promotion of public health and wellness through demonstrated effective interventions and practices (such as mindfulness) as a priority for society and good business sense for any organization.

More Direct Implications for the Workplace

Meta-analysis has also revealed that mindfulness and mindfulness-based interventions including transcendental meditation produced significant improvement in individual work style. This finding may be surprising given that one's work style is conceptualized as an unchanging aspect of one’s personal character, commonly demonstrated by one’s pattern of behaviour across situations. However, mindfulness has consistently been demonstrated to reduce negative emotions, such as trait anxiety, which may be problematic in the workplace. As work style assessment has become common practice in organizations in selection and advancement of personnel, this may indicate that mindfulness may be an effective means of developing employees that are otherwise optimally suited to an organization or position but may have characteristics that may limit their success. All organizations could benefit from a workforce with low levels of trait anxiety and stress facilitated by mindfulness practices.

Although there is less organizational literature written on the topic of mindfulness, individual studies indicate that there are many additional benefits to be had from employing mindfulness-based interventions in an organizational context. Beyond the indirect cost savings associated with health and reductions in stress, mindfulness has also been associated with job performance, even beyond that which is attributable to work engagement. Additional studies have also demonstrated mindfulness to be associated with many other organizational factors (including, but not limited to, leadership effectiveness, employee well-being, job satisfaction, psychological need satisfaction, task performance, engagement in organizational citizenship behaviours, and reductions in emotional exhaustion, deviance, and turnover intentions), the breadth of which is too broad to cover in adequate detail in this discussion. However, the bulk of the organizational literature is new, it is rapidly growing and just as promising as the evidence behind personal health and clinical applications. From what little information has been produced, it seems mindfulness may have to offer a great deal to organizations and their members, giving early adopters a competitive advantage.

What Do We Not Know about Mindfulness and Mindfulness Practice?

Although we know that mindfulness practices and interventions are effective in producing a wide range of benefits, little is known as to exactly how mindfulness produces these outcomes. A great deal of philosophy and pseudoscience has been written about the metaphysical effects of mindfulness to balance or align your chakras or energies producing the many positive effects of mindfulness. However, to date we simply don’t know the exact reason or reasons why mindfulness-based interventions, meditation, and yoga do the things they do. Some believe that mindfulness and acceptance-based approaches exert their effects by helping people to change their relationship and understanding of the content of their personal experiences. For example, some believe that mindfulness exerts its effects by allowing individuals to alter their perceptions of events to perceiving them as thoughts about events rather than considering them to be absolute truths. However, a meta-analysis performed by Sedlmeier and colleagues (2012) investigating the effects of mindful meditation on psychological variables in nonclinical groups of adult meditators (below) revealed that findings across 163 studies found the effects of mindfulness could not be explained by mere relaxation or cognitive restructuring effects alone. The study concluded that there was a noted absence of theory proposed in the research leaving us with little understanding as to why and how mindfulness meditation works. This may be cause for quite a bit of distrust or concern by many individuals and organizations interested in engaging in mindfulness-based programs as there isn’t yet any isolated defining feature of quality mindfulness programs that can be recommended grounded in scientific evidence that may clearly distinguish effective treatments and programs from those that are bunk. It seems, these days, that there are a seemingly infinite number of mindfulness-based interventions and programs to choose from. However, to date, there is little we can speak to with confidence regarding the precise differences in efficacy of each of these different approaches and why each approach is (deferentially) effective. Psychologists (Shapiro, Virgil and others) and I, are working on bringing some light to this particular area of mindfulness research. What we have collectively found is that mindfulness allows us to decenter and re-perceive our experiences allowing us to reframe our perceptions and interactions with the world. However, much more work has to be done to confirm or refute these hypotheses.

Until more research is done to understand the theoretical underpinnings and mechanisms that make mindfulness so effective each program should be carefully vetted for its track record for efficacy. I suggest anyone looking to adopt such a program their organization do some research in advance, look for those with an established track record grounded in solid research evidence (with the data or technical expertise to back it up). If the individual or organization tasked with implementing the program is not a trained expert in the field, taking some time to consult an educated expert or third party in the field of behavioural science or organizational behaviour who studies mindfulness specifically before implementing the program may be worth your time. In truth, the fact that nobody precisely knows why mindfulness yields the effects it does may be cause for scholars, practitioners, and organizations to all come together in hopes of mutual benefit through research and practical applications of mindfulness through effective program development and evaluation.

How May Organizations Harness the Power of Mindfulness?

The Ease and Efficacy of Employing Mindfulness

It appears that mindfulness is a skill that is easily learned and transferred. Even those with intellectual disabilities have demonstrated the capability to learn mindfulness skills. Impressively, brief versions of mindfulness-based stress reduction programs developed specifically for the workplace have been found to be no less effective in reducing distress than commonly employed 8-week clinical versions. Organizations and practitioners would be wise to note this in their consideration of what program they would like to adopt. This may be one instance where longer and more expensive interventions do not necessarily mean longer-lasting and better results. Organizations may be able to see return on investment at lower cost with a greater focus on quality, content, and expertise rather than program length or duration. This in mind, I would advise extremely long duration programs be considered with scrutiny and recommend that any claims of superiority of one program another be investigated for supporting evidence.

Beware of Attrition and Participant Engagement

Anyone considering employing a mindfulness-based program or intervention should keep in mind that a great deal of the science and practice literature explain that, for best results, the participants must actively engage in the sessions and complete program. Scientific reviews indicate that participant completion rates range from 48 to 98 percent (an average of 73 percent). Although this figure seems low, it is comparable to the attrition rates commonly found in other self-help and minimal contact therapies. Keep in mind, that there is a noted time lag between learning and engaging in mindfulness and experiencing resultant benefits. Participants in any mindfulness program should be encouraged to be patient and remain actively engaged in the program, as the results are not (and should not be expected to be) immediate. Evidence does indicate that participant engagement in mindfulness programs are substantially correlated to the expected outcomes. Although no research has been conducted about the methods by which participant buy-in may be fostered in mindfulness programs, evidence suggests that such features as program flexibility, readily available support, and well-trained, supportive staff have been effective in encouraging such buy-in in other unrelated programs. Again, this highlights the benefits of the self-help component whereby participants may participate on their own time and engage with supportive individuals through internet-mediated communication. Organizations and practitioners may consider requesting that those who choose to quit any organization implemented in-person mindfulness-based programs alternatively try a documented, efficacious, self-help intervention program that may be more accommodating to their schedules or individual learning curve.

Mindfulness Programs are Good Management

The recent global resurgence in mindfulness practices (such as yoga, guided meditation, and mindful living) and research has been fruitful. Improvements in physical and mental health and general well-being are increasingly evident according to most meta-analytic reviews investigating the scholarly literature regarding mindfulness. Mindfulness seems to have a great deal of utility in an organizational setting as well, reducing work-related stress, improving performance, engagement, leadership, and happiness. Indirect research findings also illustrate that, by alleviating work-related stress and improving overall health and well-being of their members, organizations employing mindfulness programs are likely to reduce costs while subsequently improving awareness, alertness, and productivity of their workforce. There are likely many more applications for mindfulness and mindfulness-based interventions than have been formally explored in research thus far and we do not yet know how or why mindfulness produces the many benefits that are apparent in today’s scientific literature. However, it is evident, even as a newcomer to the fields of organizational psychology, occupational health and safety, and management, that mindfulness may be utilized to rapidly reap benefits for both organizations and their individual members given consistent engagement and completion of the intervention or program. In today’s competitive working world, such win-win scenarios are becoming increasingly rare and should be approached with an open-minded, awareness, letting the research evidence, a trained advising third party, and the evident organizational effects guide future adoption into mainstream practice. With all the potential benefits and the minimal costs involved in implementing effective short-term programs I ask organizations to consider why they aren’t already implementing their own mindfulness programs. If you aren’t yet convinced, just try it yourself: actively meditate for just 20 minutes a day using the audio link below. Many studies indicate that many people start seeing benefits after the first two weeks and seem to improve with more engagement in the session and longer duration of the program.

For those who wish to learn more, straight from the source

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