Is mindfulness in the workplace counterproductive?

Mindfulness meditation negatively effects motivation and may be counterproductive in a workplace environment, according to a recent study.

The study, by Andrew Hafenbrack, an assistant professor of the Catholic University of Portugal’s school of business and economics, and Kathleen Vohs, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson school of management, concluded that mindfulness meditation may provide mental-health benefits, such as detaching from stressors in daily life, but it may also impact a person’s desire to complete tasks. The report’s authors did find, however, that the actual performance of tasks is unaffected by mindfulness practice.

“In short, mindfulness seems to exert disparate and sometimes conflicting effects on what people want to do versus how well they can perform,” the authors wrote in their paper.

Read: Mindfulness training reduces workplace bullying, harassment: UBC study

In an opinion piece the pair penned for The New York Times about the study, they noted that mindfulness, on its face, may appear counterproductive in a workplace environment.

“A central technique of mindfulness meditation, after all, is to accept things as they are,” they wrote. “Yet companies want their employees to be motivated. And the very notion of motivation — striving to obtain a more desirable future — implies some degree of discontentment with the present, which seems at odds with a psychological exercise that instills equanimity and a sense of calm.”

Daniel Skarlicki, a professor of organizational behaviour at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder school of business, notes his own research has found that mindfulness in a workplace setting can have a significant impact on reducing stress, as well as improving resilience, the ability to focus, creativity and compassion. “We’ve run full mindfulness-based stress reduction over an eight-week period and we’ve found significant effects and the results are with a control group, so we know these effects matter,” he says.

“We also find that when people who have been trained in mindfulness they actually will go above and beyond the call of duty,” he adds.

Read: Allstate targets employee mindfulness, finances in January well-being programs

Looking at the disadvantages of mindfulness can help people see themselves more clearly, notes Skarlicki. “And so, if they are working on a tedious task all day long, they may start wondering, ‘What am I doing this for? What’s the purpose of this?’ I think organizations are very draconian in that if we can simply lull people into unconscious numbness their worries about their life can go away, but we know that’s a very incomplete and unhealthy perspective of workplaces.”

Skarlicki argues that mindfulness is a resource that allows participants to accept the present without judgement. “When you are continuously worrying, you’re obviously not able to perform very well in the moment because you’re distracted. So your resources get depleted from all of that stress and worry. And mindfulness actually acts as a waking up.”

When organizations introduce mindfulness it’s a signal to employees that they matter and management cares about them, he adds.

Paula Allen, vice-president of research and integrative solutions at Morneau Shepell Ltd., also believes mindfulness is a positive exercise. “I think what it does is it helps people focus and there’s so many other points of research that says when people are distracted, like when they’re multitasking, when their mind is racing, they’re not as productive as they potentially could be,” she says. 

Read: Why you should hire a mindfulness coach

However, Allen suggests mindfulness can be counterproductive when it’s used as an escape.

“We’re not wanting people to escape. We’re wanting people to make sure that their mind is in a focused and calm place, that they feel a sense of control, they don’t have overwhelming anxiety and they’re able to tap into their problem-solving resources without overtaxing themselves in terms of energy and over-arousal,” she says.

“All of that is good, but if you use that technique constantly as a way to shield yourself away from the reality of life, then it’s definitely something that would be negative.”