Evidence-Based Mindfulness: Looking Beyond Scholars and Gurus

Earlier this year, I've started teaching mindfulness skills to hundreds of senior government executives as part of a large-scale project leadership development programme commissioned by the UK Cabinet Office.

Over the last few years, I've introduced thousands of executives and postgraduate students to mindfulness at work.

Earlier this year, I've started teaching mindfulness skills to hundreds of senior government executives as part of a large-scale project leadership development programme commissioned by the UK Cabinet Office.

None of the participants in my mindfulness courses have self-selected into these sessions, and very few of them had any prior experience with mindfulness, let alone any burning interest to practice mindfulness in a Cranfield University classroom.

The first question many of them put to me is, what's the evidence for this stuff?

It's a good question.

In response, I could simply tell them about the Mindfulness research I have conducted or have read about. I could tell them about success stories and pitfalls I have seen or heard about in rolling out large-scale Mindfulness training programmes in organisations. I could even tell them how mindfulness has transformed my life.

To be sure, all of this is evidence.

Evidence that has the potential to help my executive students make the right decision about what Mindfulness means for their particular organisation, and how to translate this knowledge into action.

But here's the big but.

Most discussions about the evidence for workplace mindfulness are uni-dimensional. Or, in plain English: too simplistic.

None of the evidence I mention above should be used in isolation, nor should it become 'best practice' without critically looking at how valid and applicable it is for diverse workplace settings.

There is a useful framework for structuring the evidence for workplace mindfulness in a more comprehensive way.

I call it evidence-based mindfulness.

I use this framework often when I present on the evidence for mindfulness at work, for example at the MindandMatter2015 conference.

What is evidence-based mindfulness?

Evidence-based mindfulness is evidence-based management applied to mindfulness. Evidence-based management has become popular among organisational leaders in the last few decades. This is because many managers have started to question the quality of evidence that underlies famous CEO success stories or so-called 'best practice' promoted by consultancies and conventional wisdom.

More and more leaders of organisations and institutions demand a more critical evaluation of the evidence on the table, assess how universally applicable it actually is, and in this way get to the 'best possible' evidence for the situation at hand and their own organisation.

How is this relevant to the mindfulness at work space?

Applying evidence-based management to the mindfulness evidence base means practicing mindfulness: hearing different perspectives, staying open-minded in the process, and refraining from making a decision too quickly.

Evidence-based mindfulness in action

Here's how I differentiate and then synthesise the different sources of evidence for mindfulness at work.

The "guru": The judgment of mindfulness expert practitioners

For example, it is absolutely necessary to consider the expertise of seasoned mindfulness teachers who have ample experience of training senior board members in mindfulness for many years. But it is not sufficient.

The biggest threat here: Validity, or the inner logic of what the guru says.

How do we know that it's actually the mindfulness techniques that generate beneficial outcomes, and not simply people enjoying that someone is talking with, and listening to them? Heard of the Hawthorne Effect? For an indication of how problematic this is, click here.

The "end user": The experiences of receivers of mindfulness

Also needed: hearing about the experiences of those at the receiving end of mindfulness trainings, and of organisational leaders integrating mindfulness into their workplaces. But this is not sufficient either.

The biggest threat here: Reliability; making specific benefits about workplace mindfulness sustainable.

What happens to these benefits over time? Workplace mindfulness interventions are primarily change initiatives. And change is hard to sustain. For an indication of how problematic this is, click here.

The "scholar": The findings of academic mindfulness researchers

Scientific evidence on mindfulness and its effects that has been evaluated by peer academics is necessary. But not sufficient to help real people make real decisions.

The biggest threat here: Generalisability, or being able to transport specific and often narrow findings into the complex real world.

Much academic research that people refer to when they discuss workplace mindfulness has been conducted in academic laboratories or using random online populations.

My conclusion, and my practical advice for everyone asking me about the evidence about mindfulness at work:

Let's refuse to simplify the evidence on workplace mindfulness.

Let's look at all the different perspectives we can see.

Let's stay open, especially when we hear something that's different to our worldview.

Let's be prepared to change our mind.

Let's keep in mind that context and other people often matter more than we think.

Only then can we make truly evidence-based, wise choices about mindfulness in our own workplaces.

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