Is mindfulness a help or just hype?

17 Jul 2018

Is mindfulness a help or just hype?

Is deploying mindfulness in the workplace really beneficial or is it, as some argue, fraught with conflicting evidence?

Some major global organisations argue mindfulness has had a profound and positive effect on employees, from the boardroom to the shop floor. So, why isn’t every business using it?

The answer is more complex than you might think. Often, the debate focuses on the existing research evidence gathered over recent years. Much of that evidence is, well, inconclusive.

Believe the hype?

Writing in the October 2017 Scientific American, Brett Statka argued:

“Many psychologists, neuroscientists and meditation experts are afraid that hype [about mindfulness] is outpacing the science."

In an article in Perspectives on Psychological Science, 15 prominent psychologists and cognitive scientists caution that despite its popularity and supposed benefits, scientific data on mindfulness is woefully lacking. Many of the studies on mindfulness and meditation, the authors wrote, are poorly designed, and compromised by inconsistent definitions of what mindfulness actually is. Often, they are void of a control group to rule out the placebo effect.

First thoughts

Most scientists, practitioners and users do agree that mindfulness is rooted in Buddhist thought and theory.

It was later taken up in the 1970s by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts. Kabat-Zinn, a cognitive scientist who founded the university’s Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, was advocating its astounding efficacy in dealing with a number of problems.

It was Kabat-Zinn who came up with “mindfulness-based stress reduction” as a way to deal with conditions that were seen as otherwise difficult to treat. “By the early 2000s,” adds Statka, “the concept of mindfulness had ballooned in popularity.”

Now, as the world gets tougher, more stressful, more connected and more manic, anything that helps calm us down must be good, right?

Trials and tribulations

Despite its growing popularity, the critics still persisted. American Psychologist reported that only around 9% of research into mindfulness-based interventions had been tested in clinical trials that included a control group. The journal went on to say that multiple large placebo-controlled meta-analyses concluded that mindfulness practices have often produced unimpressive results.

A 2014 review of 47 meditation trials, collectively including more than 3,500 participants, found no evidence for benefits related to enhancing attention, curtailing substance abuse, aiding sleep or controlling weight. Despite these findings, the rise and rise of mindfulness continues.

Are some organisations carrying on regardless, whatever the formal science concludes?

Minding the business

Mindfulness meditation is being deployed as part of employee development in a number of high-profile Fortune 500 companies. For example, Google, Apple and Nike.

This is good news for those involved in the US$1.1 billion mindfulness and meditation industry. This makes up 7.4% of the overall $15.1 billion alternative care market in the US.

The world wellness economy is estimated to be worth $3.7 trillion. That’s approximately 5% of global economic output, almost half the size of all global health expenditures. 

Calming effect

In 2017, Wired reported on the experiences of “Google employee number 1072, software engineer Chade-Meng Tan”.  Ten years earlier, Tan launched ‘Search Inside Yourself’, a seven-week mindfulness meditation course for Google employees. “At first, his colleagues were reluctant,” said the Wired report. “They questioned what, if anything, a mystical, new-age, candlelit, deep-chanting practice could do for them.

“But, it wasn’t long before Tan’s colleagues learned that a mindfulness practice that helps you to be truly present with yourself and others had the power to change the way they worked and lived. Soon, Googlers who went through Tan’s class were raving about its benefits. They felt calmer, clear-headed and more focused.”

Pain reliever

Not all the respected scientific journals are in the ‘inconclusive’ camp. According to a 2011 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, just four days of mindfulness meditation halved pain perception in participants compared to those who did not practise it. It presents compelling evidence for meditation’s ability to improve the quality of life for those suffering from pain.

Perhaps the fact that even some governments have adopted mindfulness within their health systems proves it’s more than just a fad. According to a paper published in 2017 by the UK Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group, “a culture of mindfulness in the workplace could certainly be a step in the right direction to improve employee wellbeing.

“The potential benefits of practising mindfulness at work exercises could include improved resilience, fewer absences due to sickness, the cultivation of positive workplace relationships and better collaboration between colleagues … mindfulness is a technique that’s even recommended by the UK’s National Health Service to improve mental wellbeing.”

In the moment

Jacqueline Foley, Chief Marketing Officer at Odgers Berndtson Canada, agrees:

“Today’s leaders are facing unprecedented change,” she says. “They are often stressed and distracted, making it difficult to focus and be in the moment with others. I think mindfulness enables you to be more compassionate because you are taking the time to listen to and check in with people. Then, in turn, people feel more heard, and they feel more respected.”

The general conclusion is that for people who are first trained by a properly qualified practitioner and then do it as a daily practice, mindfulness can potentially be a useful leadership tool. Even if the scientists are still debating its scientific veracity. 

“You make the time and fit it into your schedule,” Foley concludes. “For me, honestly, it’s been transformational. I am calmer and more thoughtful which I believe makes me a better colleague and team leader. It’s a practice anyone can take on and benefit from, and I think that is why it has really taken off. I’m just sorry it took me so long to finally do it.”

This article is from the latest ‘Well Working’ edition of the Odgers Berndtson magazine, OBSERVE.

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