Mindfulness in the workplace: The state of the evidence

Tim photo 1Next Tuesday 18 April the Centre will be sharing the fourth in our series looking at the evidence on wellbeing and work. Last week, we published learning at work, a briefing on different wellbeing training approaches and their impact in a range of workplaces. In this blog Tim Lomas, a lecturer in positive psychology at the University of East London, takes an in-depth look at the evidence one training identified in our review: mindfulness.

It is nearly 40 years since Jon Kabat-Zinn created his pioneering Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme for chronic pain, and it would probably not be overstating the case to say that mindfulness has since become culturally ubiquitous in many countries.

Based on the Buddhist notion of sati, mindfulness has a potent twofold meaning, referring to:

  • a form of non-judgemental present moment awareness that can be beneficial to wellbeing
  • meditation practices designed to help people cultivate this state.

Such was the success of MBSR that it began to be used in relation to other clinical populations and issues, and soon gave rise to other mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs), such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy designed to prevent relapse to depression. Since then, its use truly started to proliferate, used across a wealth of contexts, from schools to prisons to workplaces.

My colleagues and I looked specifically at the workplace in a new systematic review of empirical studies of mindfulness in occupational settings. Casting our net widely, we were not only interested in Randomised Control Trials (RCTs), but any peer-reviewed paper that reported on data in relation to mindfulness, including correlational and qualitative studies.

Our aim was also broad: in addition to exploring the impact of mindfulness on standard mental health metrics, like measures of stress, we also sought data on any outcome relating to wellbeing, for example, job satisfaction and performance.

An initial search yielded 721 potentially relevant papers. On closer inspection, this was winnowed down to 153 papers that met our inclusion criteria. These included 112 intervention studies – i.e. featuring participants completing an MBI – including 48 RCTs, and 41 non-intervention studies. These involved a total of 12,571 participants.

The studies covered a range of occupations, although over half, about 82, involved healthcare-related occupations. Overall, the quality of these papers was not optimal, with many failing to adequately report key details, such as the details of the MBI. What’s more, there was a great range of differences among the studies, both with respect to the MBIs used and the outcomes assessed. This made comparison difficult.

However, despite these issues, there were enough high quality trials to allow some tentative conclusions to be drawn.

Firstly, mindfulness was associated with good mental health outcomes, particularly with respect to anxiety, stress, and distress, although the results were more equivocal for burnout and depression. In addition, it was associated with a range of other metrics pertaining to wellbeing, including physical health, relationships, emotional intelligence, and resilience, as well as various aspects of job performance.

That said, it is worth noting that mindfulness may not suit or benefit everyone, and indeed may be counterproductive for some people at certain times (e.g., research has found that people dealing with particular mental health issues may have difficulty introspecting in the way encouraged by the practice, and could feel worse as a result). As such, if offering it in occupational settings, the evidence suggests that this should be done carefully, sensitively, non-prescriptively, and through skilled and experienced teachers.

In that respect, organisations interested in implementing MBIs should check the latest guidance offered by leading institutions such as the Oxford Mindfulness Centre. Despite such caveats, there is a growing evidence base to suggest that mindfulness can have real value in occupational settings, enhancing wellbeing and performance across a wide range of domains.

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