There is little evidence that corporate mindfulness training improves business results.
The outsize growth of mindfulness training in workplace settings over the past few years is perturbing and unjustified, given the dearth of clear and convincing evidence that such programs propel business growth. In fact, in many instances, applying mindfulness strategies at work may be counterproductive—even if credentialed experts deliver the training.
Mindfulness can be defined as nonjudgmental awareness of one’s subjective experience in the present moment. Programs to promote it may include training on how to direct your full attention to breathing, listening to sounds or watching the world around you. Not surprisingly, many business leaders are skeptical that these lessons can enhance workplace productivity and profitability.
There is research evidence that mindfulness activities, such as meditation and yoga, have general health benefits. Such practices can help people to pause, appreciate their immediate experience, relax their bodies, and reduce their anxiety and stress. Since mindfulness strategies can improve quality of life, it’s unsurprising that they have endured for centuries.
But that doesn’t justify widespread mindfulness training in workplaces, where evidence of business gain is preliminary at best. One study suggested that learning mindfulness meditation exercises “may effect positive change in the multitasking practices of computer-based knowledge workers.” But, like most studies of its kind, it didn’t examine or confirm any resulting bottom-line benefits. There is also scant empirical data indicating that mindfulness practices improve other essential business skills, such as critical reasoning.
Some people may even misuse the techniques to disconnect from challenging work responsibilities, rather than disciplining themselves to think rigorously, plan carefully and execute tasks effectively. I’ve observed in my practice that some clients tend to enter a kind of disconnected state with mindfulness work.
Undeterred enthusiasm for mindfulness has elevated it in some settings to cult-like status, which creates a risk of groupthink and social conformity. I’ve encountered several corporate situations in which team leaders have facilitated mandatory meetings that began with mindfulness meditation sessions. Some attendees reported to me that they felt coerced into participating, with fear of negative judgment if they didn’t behave as “team players.” If offered in workplaces at all, mindfulness experiences should always be voluntary and trainers should respect personal preferences.
Stress management programs that include some mindfulness training are preferable to those focused only on meditation or related techniques. Mindfulness practices may play a synergistic role as part of a general model that also emphasizes developing a “growth mindset,” medical wellness and a mission-driven attitude. Company leaders should think beyond the business trend of the moment and take a multifaceted approach to reducing employee stress—by fostering positive work cultures with strong social connectedness and considering flexible work hours, more vacation time, enhanced employee assistance programs, manager training and executive coaching.
We should regard mindfulness as only one possible component of a comprehensive stress management and wellness model. A balanced view of the risks, benefits and complexities of mindfulness training can empower us to consider implementing it in a careful, focused, and effective manner.
This article originally appeared in SHRM