How can a soft skill such as mindfulness be an effective tool in reducing employee stress and increasing productivity in large and small businesses? Today, there is a tremendous amount of supporting research from Harvard, UCLA, Stanford, UW–Madison, and other institutions showing that mindfulness can change the brain for the better.
In fact, mindfulness practice can be likened to going to the gym to build mental muscle. Research shows that participants going through a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program show changes in brain wave activity on EEGs, as well as increases in gray matter density on MRIs in brain areas that involve working memory, learning, attentional performance, empathy, and positive affect.
MBSR is an eight-week program teaching mindfulness and gentle yoga originally developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts. Currently, MBSR, and mindfulness in general, is taught at more than 250 hospitals around the country, supporting people with stress, anxiety, ADHD, depression, chronic pain, and much more.
Over the last several years, mindfulness programs have also found their way into business with research showing positive effects on task performance, resilience, wellbeing, productivity, and leadership. Such programs are also shown to decrease perceived stress and the intention of employees to leave an organization.
The workplace can be a distracting, fast-paced, multitasking world in which we are rarely aware of how our minds work or the stories we tell ourselves. Mindfulness is a form of focused mental training where we learn to pay attention to immediate experience rather than being distracted by what went on in the past or what we need to do in the future. It also encourages acceptance of that experience—a form of nonjudgmental awareness—that promotes openness and objectivity. This can result in the development of resiliency and hardiness in the face of stress.
Stress is often not so much about an event itself, but about what we are telling ourselves about that event. Research on stress clearly shows that too much pressure can adversely affect performance. You walk into your office and see a stack of work that is so mountainous that papers have cascaded off your desk onto the floor. If your mental chatter says, "This is overwhelming. I'm never going to get home tonight. I have to get all this done today,” it is likely you will show a significant stress response, with an increased heart rate and butterflies in your stomach.
The upshot is likely to be poor performance and decreased work efficiency. However, if your internal chatter is more along the lines of, "This is really a lot of work. I probably can't get this all done, but I'll do what I can and that's okay," you are likely to stay focused, relaxed, and you will perform better.
In reality, we are rarely aware of our mental chatter and what it does to us. If you are not convinced, try a simple exercise. Set a timer for five minutes, turn it on, and count to ten. When you get to ten, start again at one. Is it easy to stay on task or do you get distracted? Stay curious and watch where your mind takes you. You may be surprised at how difficult this simple exercise can be. Focused mindfulness training results in greater awareness of your constant internal dialogue and provides concrete tools for the development of increased mental fitness, focus, and well-being.
A Mini-MBSR Program
A potential deterrent to using MBSR at work is the time commitment it requires. A typical MBSR program requires approximately 30 hours of teacher-led training, in addition to 30-45 minutes of home-based practice daily. In order to make mindfulness feasible in the workplace, we’ve created an abbreviated program, which can be delivered in person or online.
This program, which was studied at The Dow Chemical Company in 2012 and covered in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, includes live teaching sessions delivered via webinar, combined with online educational resources. This modified mindfulness program saw significant results measured against key research objectives, including employee mindfulness, perceived stress, resiliency, vigor, and work engagement. In addition, all measures were shown to be sustained or improved at a six-month follow-up.
Key performance improvements included:
- 30 percent reduction in perceived stress
- 50 percent decrease in number of high stress episodes
- 13 percent increase in resiliency
- 15 percent increase in work engagement and vigor
- 50 percent decrease in employee burnout
- Significant improvement in dietary choices.
These changes resulted in a bonus, both literally and figuratively. The decrease in employee burnout days represented a 20 percent potential increase in worker productivity. At the current average salary for the participating employees, if sustained over time, this increase would be a potential savings of $22,580 per employee per year.
Another measure of success came in the form of participants’ stories. One of my favorites is the story of a lab manager who faced repeated breakdowns of a vital piece of equipment. The equipment broke down over a holiday and was repaired. However, it soon failed a second time, once again shutting down the lab.
The manager, who was a participant in the Dow study, tells it this way: “I realized, because of my mindfulness training, that the equipment breakdown was just my experience in the moment. I was able to stay calm and objective when the equipment broke again, rather than getting upset or angry. When the repairman came to fix it, he was shocked because no one was yelling at him about the breakdown. It was a much better experience for everyone.”
Another Dow participant stated, “One thing I found most helpful at work was the practice of recognition and structured focus. While I may not have had the opportunity to try all the exercises, I could still recognize potential stress and focus on things that were within my influence. Being able to recognize and ignore the negative influences beyond my control has made me more productive; I can focus on the correct priorities. I also noticed that my interpersonal encounters have improved. Could this possibly be an outcome of increased acceptance in general or a diminishing of ‘automatic’ prejudgment?”
Another participant said, “Mindfulness training taught me to focus, be centered, to bring my mind into the present, not the past, and not to worry about the future. In addition, the practice of recognizing I had ‘ANTS’ in my head (automatic negative thoughts) allowed me to control them, push them aside, and make room for more happiness.”
When I saw the strong results of our Dow study, I thought that a Chief Mindfulness Officer should be a required addition to every C-suite. Our research suggests the increase in employee mindfulness was responsible for the positive changes noted in our study. From a business standpoint, these changes are potentially significant not only to human performance, but to the bottom line of every business.
Why Not Try It?
The business literature shows that vigor and work engagement are associated with increased job performance, as well as increased job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and lowered intention to leave. Research also shows that resiliency, or the ability to bounce back from difficult situations and experiences, positively affects job performance, organizational commitment, and organizational citizenship behavior.
There is a clear case for an organization-wide mindfulness initiative with the potential to influence corporate culture and well-being. I believe resistance to introducing mindfulness training is largely due to the newness of the concept as well as the perception that mindfulness and resiliency are “soft.”
In addition, the ROI of mindfulness training is difficult to measure, because it is hard to determine the financial impact of an enhanced workplace culture, improved employee wellbeing, or increased human performance. However, Aetna, which uses employee mindfulness programs, estimates that employees trained in mindfulness gain an average of 62 minutes per week of productivity each, worth an estimated $3,000 per employee per year.
I have found significant interest in an automated mindfulness and resiliency program for hourly workers, including those on the factory floor. Employers have also shown a desire for programs that target safety issues. Mindfulness skills may improve safety by improving employee focus and keeping the mind from wandering.
Mindfulness training tends to be most effective in individuals who choose it as opposed to those who are forced into a program. It is also very efficacious in high-stress, low-resiliency work situations such as one might find in a hospital ER or ICU. Indeed, mindfulness training has a significant impact on one’s personal life and career. This is good for organizations as it is always the whole person who shows up to work, and mindful resiliency has the potential to strengthen the whole person.
To make the case for mindfulness training at work, I believe it is crucial that leaders have a basic knowledge of how mindfulness, resiliency, and vigor impact human health and performance. I believe that leaders are best served either individually or in small groups with mindfulness-based executive coaching. Aided by better understanding, leaders can then decide how to impart these concepts throughout an organization.