Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Benefits of mindfulness at work

Last week, we attended the EAWOP Congress, the 16th Congress of the European Association of Work and Organizational Psychology. During the congress, an Innovation Award was given to Ute Hülseger from Maastricht University for her work on the role of mindfulness for employee health and well-being. We attended her keynote speech.

Ute Hülseger and her colleagues Hugo J. E. M. Alberts, Alina Feinholdt, and Jonas W. B. Lang from Maastricht University in the Netherlands were interested in the effect mindfulness had on emotional exhaustion and job satisfaction.

Being mindful involves being aware of inner experiences without judging them and focusing on the present. Some people are more mindful than others by nature, but mindfulness can be trained by meditation practice.

One idea is that mindfulness reduces emotional exhaustion at work because it makes individuals perceive events in a receptive, non-judgmental and more objective way. As stress mainly stems from our judging the event and not so much from the event itself, mindfulness might thus reduce the levels of perceived stress. Another idea is that it enhances job satisfaction because it promotes self-determined behaviours by reducing habitual and automated functioning. Thus, it allows individuals to be in touch with their basic needs and values and realise them in their work.

The researchers also wanted to look at another mechanism often seen at work: surface acting, i.e. expressing an emotion (usually a positive one) that is different from the emotion one feels (usually a negative one). Thus, employees often fake an emotional state. For example, salespersons have to stay friendly when faced with an angry customer who offends them. Surface acting is positively related to emotional exhaustion and negatively related to job satisfaction.

Ute Hülseger and her colleagues conducted two diary studies in which they had participants report their mindfulness, levels of surface acting, job satisfaction and emotional exhaustion. The second study additionally comprised mindfulness training for study participants. The key findings were (1) that mindfulness at work increases job satisfaction and decreases emotional exhaustion and (2) that an increase in mindfulness leads to less surface acting, higher levels of job satisfaction and lower levels of emotional exhaustion.

The original article was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology and there is an outline of the two studies on the Occupational Digest blog.

After the talk, there was time for questions from the audience. Someone pointed out that the effects of mindfulness seemed to be overly positive and asked whether there were also downsides of increased levels of mindfulness. Ute Hülseger replied that to her knowledge, there were none when looking at the results from an employee’s point of view. However, when taking the employer’s perspective, there are some potential downsides of mindfulness because with an increasing level of mindfulness, apparently some employees decide to quit their jobs!

However, the beneficial effects of mindfulness might overrule its negative side effects. We have written something on this before, for example in our posts “Track your happiness” or “How meditation can improve the quality of life”. And if you want to learn how to be mindful, there are more than enough programmes out there. For example, in January we reported on Andy Puddicombe’s website “Headspace” where you can find many little tools that can help you improve your mindfulness without requiring a lot of time or effort. Go ahead and try it out!

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