Workplace Mindfulness: Does the Science Stack Up Yet?

06/10/2015 17:01 BST | Updated 04/10/2016 10:12 BST

Mindfulness training programmes are en vogue in forward-looking workplaces. Advocates often refer sceptics to the impressive evidence base around mindfulness: literally thousands of scientific papers have been published on mindfulness.

However, there are three problems with this.

  1. Only a small proportion of this science actually looks at mindfulness training or mindfulness-based interventions.
  2. Fewer articles yet examine mindfulness in relation to any outcomes that stretch beyond immediate health and well-being factors.
  3. Hardly any scientific studies at all examine mindfulness in a real work context.

To be sure, it's fair to assume that the heightened well-being and performance-enhancing effects of mindfulness can translate into positive change for organisations. But the scientific evidence base on workplace mindfulness is still very much a work in progress.

For now, let's curb our enthusiasm somewhat and patch the gaps I outline below in detail.

Only then can we genuinely conclude that the science on workplace mindfulness stacks up.

Problem #1: Too much descriptive research, too few interventions

Most published research linking mindfulness with workplace outcomes is observational - in other words, describing the beneficial effects of "naturally occurring" mindfulness in individuals, and any correlated benefits for themselves and others.

Even more problematic is that most of these studies rely on self-reported data. That is, data whereby people rate themselves, for example how mindful they are.

Self-reports are a notoriously flawed source of evidence (that's why we rely on witnesses to provide testimony in Court).

However, the reason why so many people are interested in mindfulness today is because they want more of it in their work lives.

Their interest in change for themselves and for others is far greater than their appetite for academic observations about statistical correlations of "trait-like" mindfulness that some happen to possess, and others don't.

Such research doesn't really tell us much about what kind of mindfulness training programmes in workplaces can generate these effects.

Problem #2: Too much emphasis on effectiveness, too little on sustainability

The good news about mindfulness: the more we cultivate it, the better we feel and the more our brains become sharper.

It's not just about meditation either.

For Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, mindfulness is a cognitive style, and Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT) scholars prescribe a host of cognitive exercises to increase mindfulness. Many more evidence-based approaches exist, with ample replicated evidence to boot.

The bad news: if you don't use the mindfulness 'muscle' you're developing through practice, you lose it.

The muscle analogy is a good one; the mental fitness that mindfulness brings wanes just like our arms and legs become spindly again when we stop exercising.

This is problematic for two reasons.

First, mindfulness training is primarily a behaviour change intervention. Its goal is to help us practice new behaviours.

And just because we know a behaviour is good for us doesn't mean we do it (otherwise we'd all work out every day).

Second, hardly any scientific studies actually examine what happens after a mindfulness training programme has finished. And the scientific evidence available suggests that the effectiveness of mindfulness trainings can drop off dramatically over time.

Exploratory research conducted by my student Sandra Krisberga, in collaboration with Louise Chester's training consultancy Mindfulness at Work, suggests that two main external factors can sustain mindfulness practice beyond short training courses: a social support network and diversity in technology-enabled exercises.

We need much more scientific research to really understand how we can make mindfulness training stick inside workplaces.

Problem #3: Too little focus on context, hardly any field research

Mindfulness is all about our relationship with the world we live in, and the context we encounter from moment to moment.

Yet the overwhelming majority of publicly cited science that connects mindfulness with workplace-relevant outcomes has been conducted in research laboratories with students or with online participants, where contextual factors can be controlled for - or in plain English, ignored.

It would be naïve to assume that the organisational context didn't matter when a mindfulness programme is introduced.

Yet there is shockingly little field research that has examined how a mindfulness intervention has impacted individuals and their interactions with other people at work. I know of no peer-reviewed and published (and hence probably both valid and reliable) science that has investigated how cultural or leadership factors can help or hinder this impact.

This is a big problem, because let's be honest, the current buzz about mindfulness at work is precisely because workers and leaders believe that mindfulness has the potential to make a big dent into a mindless organisational culture.

This article is an appeal.

Because the science on workplace mindfulness doesn't stack up yet, many of us mindfulness advocates have more work to do.

I am appealing to my fellow mindfulness researchers. Let's generate more science-based knowledge and patch the research gaps I've identified. Academic incentives are stacked against this; short term, cross-sectional lab research is much easier to get published.

I am also appealing to mindfulness practitioners and teachers. Put some of your enthusiasm for mindfulness into partnerships with researchers; reach out and co-create studies that genuinely fix the current shortcomings in scientific knowledge.

And finally, I am appealing to organisational leaders. Open up your workplaces for mindfulness interventions that stand a chance to address the yearning from many in our society for new, sustainable solutions to an ever-more frantic world of work.