When do mindfulness programs make (no) sense in organizations?

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In our complex world being mindful is considered “in vogue”. Companies are increasingly concerned with giving their employees an understanding of mindfulness – programs are springing up like mushrooms. But what does science actually say about mindfulness in companies?

It’s on everyone’s lips, but what is mindfulness actually? Science agrees that it is the state in which the individual is attentive and aware of what is taking place in the present. The conscious perception of these external and internal stimuli further helps to avoid unconscious and judging attitudes and to more actively control the associated reaction (Sutcliffe, Vogus, & Dane, 2016). Achieving the state of mindfulness – according to meta-analyses, this is possible for everyone through the regular application of mindfulness related techniques such as meditation or mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) (Dane, 2011; Chiesa & Serretti, 2009).

Against the backdrop of an increasingly complex working environment and the associated demands on employees, companies are increasingly establishing mindfulness related techniques and programs for their employees.

Initial studies show that the effects of such interventions on the individual are manifold and affect various areas such as attention, cognition, emotion, behavior and physiology (Glomb et al., 2011; Jamieson & Tuckey, 2017). Studies confirm that mindful behavior has a positive effect on mental and physical health, concentration, memory, stress management and prosocial behavior in interpersonal relationships (Good, et al., 2015; Vogus & Sutcliffe, 2012).

But does the implementation of mindfulness related programs always make sense?

Taking a closer look at current studies it becomes clear, that the simple establishment of such programs can also be viewed critically.

It turns out that although there are countless scientific papers on mindfulness, mindfulness research at the organizational level is a rather new discipline. The effectiveness of mindfulness with regard to organizational aspects is sometimes even proved as heterogeneous in studies (Jamieson & Tuckey, 2017).

For example, if known mindfulness programs (e.g.: MBSR) are, due to cost reasons, only partly implemented or not tested for their effectiveness, negative effects such as job dissatisfaction and increased stress levels become apparent (Jamieson & Tuckey, 2017). Companies should also be aware of the fact that positive effects of mindfulness (greater awareness and a deeper understanding of working conditions in the workplace) can have unexpected effects in an overall dysfunctional working environment. Initial studies of call center agents in Germany reported that these became more aware of “problematic stress situations at the workplace” and therefore increasingly dealt with or considered changing working conditions (Walach, et al., 2007).

Accordingly, when implementing mindfulness related programs, companies should not forget that mindfulness on the individual is only one side of the coin. In order to have a long-lasting impact, in addition to individual mindfulness, explicit attention should be paid to shaping the organizational framework in such a way that the positive effects of mindfulness can also be established in the long run (Sutcliffe, Vogus, & Dane, 2016). Decision and communication routines for example ensure that “attentive” impressions of employees are shared.

Before companies decide to make mindfulness an issue, or even more, to establish such programs, it is advisable to ask the following questions (Good, et al., 2015: Jamieson & Tuckey, 2017):

  • What is the aim of the program?
  • Who should the program address?
  • Who runs the program?
  • To what extent does this fit the company, our culture and existing structures?
  • How can we also support the individual mindfulness of the organization?

To sum up it becomes clear that although the positive effects of mindfulness have been sufficiently researched, the direct transferability to the organizational context must be further proven and shows, under certain conditions, critical aspects. It is therefore advisable for companies to deal with the topic of mindfulness in detail, to define goals, to create communication channels and to adapt company structures – because this is precisely where success factors for lasting positive effects of mindfulness-based programs lie.

Finally, the question arises whether mindfulness-based interventions are the appropriate measures to counter the countless stress factors in everyday working life. Through the implementation of programs companies seem to treat symptoms rather than the underlying causes. Against the background of the questionable transferability of the positive effects of mindfulness to the work context, it may therefore be more appropriate to question the organizational framework conditions first – because even the best mindfulness technique cannot be sustainably successful if the working environment and culture of the company don’t fit.

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