Can Meditation Improve Work-related Stress and Job Performance?
Along with some research colleagues, we recently conducted a randomised controlled trial to investigate the effects of meditation on work related-wellbeing and job performance in office managers. In today’s post, we provide a brief overview of some of the main findings of our study and discuss whether meditation/mindfulness has a role in the workplace setting. The full findings of the study have recently been published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction (IJMHA) – see below for the full reference.
According to the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE), work-related stress accounts for 40% of all work-related illness and approximately 20% of British adults are stressed as a result of their work. The HSE also estimates that between mid-2011 and mid-2012, 10.4 million working days were lost in Great Britain due to work-related stress, which in conjunction with other work-related mental health issues, costs the British economy billions of pounds every year. Work related stress can have serious negative consequences for both employees and the organisations they work for. Some examples are mental illness, somatic illness, work-related injury, mortality, reduced productivity, absenteeism, presenteeism (where people turn up for work when they are not really well enough to do so), high staff turn-over, unsafe driving, and employee compensation claims.
Due to its potential to improve both work-related wellbeing and job performance, employers and employees are becoming increasingly interested in meditation. However, despite the growth of interest into the applications of meditation in the workplace, there still remains a paucity of methodologically-robust studies. To overcome this problem, we conducted a randomised controlled trial whereby office managers (152 in total) received either an eight-week meditation intervention (known as Meditation Awareness Training – ‘MAT’ for short) or a control intervention (that did not involve any meditation).
In order to be included in the study, participants had to be in full-time employment (working more than 30 hours per week) and have management responsibility for at least one salaried direct report (excluding secretaries or personal assistants). They also had to report to a line manager and meet various other eligibility criteria (e.g., be office-based for at least 50% of working hours, over 18 years of age, not undergoing psychotherapy or meditation training, etc.).
As we have discussed in other posts on this blog, the MAT intervention that managers received is an eight-week secular intervention that follows a more traditional and comprehensive approach to meditation. Existent mindfulness-based therapies tend to teach mindfulness ‘out of context’ and in isolation of the factors that are traditionally deemed to underlie effective mindfulness training (e.g., right intention, right effort, right livelihood, right view etc. – see our recent post on the Scientific Study of the Noble Eightfold Path for a discussion of how all of these practices link together and support each other). Although mindfulness is an integral component of MAT, it is not the exclusive focus. Indeed, in addition to mindfulness, MAT incorporates meditation techniques that are specifically intended to engender: (i) citizenship, (ii) perceptive clarity, (iii) ethical and compassionate awareness, (iv) meditative insight (e.g., into subtle concepts such as non-self and impermanence), (v) patience, (vi) generosity (e.g., of one’s time and energy), and (vii) perspective. These practices are taught via seminars and/or workshops and are integrated into a graded-series of guided meditations. Participants attend eight x 90-minute workshops and receive a CD of guided meditations to facilitate daily self-practice. Weekly sessions comprise three distinct phases: (i) a taught/presentation component (approximately 35 minutes), (ii) a facilitated group-discussion component (approximately 25 minutes), and (iii) a guided meditation and/or mindfulness exercise (approximately 20 minutes). A short break (5-10 minutes) is always scheduled immediately prior to the guided meditation. On a four-weekly basis, each participant is invited to attend a one-to-one support session (of 50-minute duration) with the program facilitator. The support sessions provide an opportunity to discuss individual progress or problems with the meditation training.
Following completion of the eight-week MAT intervention, and compared to non-meditating control group participants, managers that received MAT demonstrated significant and sizeable improvements in levels of (i) work-related stress (HSE Management Standards Work-Related Stress Indicator Tool [HSE, n.d.]), (ii) job satisfaction (Abridged Job in General Scale [Russel et al., 2004], (iii) psychological distress (Depression, Anxiety, and Stress Scale [Lovibond & Lovibond, 1995]), and (iv) employer-rated job performance (Role-Based Performance Scale [Welbourne, Johnson, & Erez, 1998]):
As we discussed in our published IJMHA paper, these findings have a number of important implications for the ongoing integration of meditative approaches into workplace settings. Existing psychological models of work-related stress tend to be based on an ‘exposure-environmental’ model of work stress. In other words, work-related stress is deemed to be a function of the extent to which employees are exposed to sub-optimal working conditions (e.g., inadequate support systems, inflexible working hours, conflicting demands, overly-taxing and/or unrealistic deadlines, low-work autonomy, etc.). In effect, this manner of conceptualising work-related stress emphasizes the importance of the employee’s ‘external’ work environment (i.e., as opposed to their ‘internal’ psychological environment). However, in our study, although the intervention exclusively involved training participants in how to practice meditation and did not make any changes to their external working conditions, the meditating managers began to derive much more satisfaction from their work and began to see the workplace as a more enjoyable place to be. Thus, findings from our study indicate that rather than make changes to the external work environment, a more effective means of reducing work-related stress (and improving job performance) might be to focus on changing employee’s ‘internal’ (i.e., psychological) environment.
Of course, we are not saying that organisations should not seek to improve the working conditions that they provide for their employees. However, by using meditation to facilitate a perceptual-shift in how they respond and relate to sensory and psychological stimuli, it seems that employees are better able to objectify their cognitive processes and to apprehend them as passing phenomena. This manner of transferring the locus of control for stress from external work conditions to internal attentional resources can be analogized as the difference between covering the entire outdoors with leather (i.e., in order to make walking outside more comfortable), versus simply adorning the feet with a leather sole. We conclude that certain meditation-based interventions might be cost-effective approaches for improving work-related stress (and job performance) due to them not actually requiring any (‘externally-orientated’) modifications to human resource management systems and practices.
Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon
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