Managing people

Mindfulness: lower stress and improve engagement 

Want to drop your stress levels and boost your engagement on the job? Energising your capacity for mindfulness could be just what your employees need.

 30 November 2021

A study aiming to understand the links between mindfulness, perceived stress and work engagement indicated that mindfulness is a potentially protective and modifiable personal resource – a capacity we can learn to use to benefit our mental health.

Effect of an online mindfulness course

The study explored the effect of a six-week online mindfulness training course on more than 16,000 English-speaking adults from 130 different countries that filled in online surveys before and after completing the course.

What is 'mindfulness'?

Mindfulness means intentionally paying attention to recent experiences with an open and non-judging attitude. It has been described both as a skill and as a 'way of being'. 

Mindfulness development occurs through attention and attitude training. Training attention takes place formally through regular meditation practice and informally by deliberately paying attention to the internal and external experiences of the present moment in day-to-day life. 

Evidence of the benefits of mindfulness

Regular and sustained mindfulness practice improves individuals' control over their attention. Increasing awareness of internal and external experiences appears to reduce people's automatic reactions regarding their feelings, physiological states, and behaviour. Mindfulness encourages you to pay full attention to moment-by-moment experiences rather than becoming caught in worry or rumination.

Mindfulness practices are also to develop acceptance, openness, curiosity, compassion and a non-judgemental attitude.

Previous studies have shown a range of benefits for health and performance outcomes, including lower perceived stress, less depression and anxiety, and positive health perceptions and subjective wellbeing. One study suggested the alleviation of heart health problems linked to elevated stress.

However, most of the studies involved a few people in quite specific contexts, so it wasn't possible to generalise the general population's health and performance. For this reason, research on a more significant number of people would be broadly representative of the population. 

Impact of mindfulness training on work engagement

Mindfulness training has demonstrated improvements in mental health, resilience, cognitive functioning, social behaviours detrimentally affected by high-stress levels, and work engagement. Work engagement – vigour, dedication and absorption in work tasks – is of particular interest to employers because it links personal wellbeing factors with work performance. Such training is being adopted in many health-related, educational and corporate settings.

Mindfulness is usually taught in individual or class-based face-to-face formats, involving didactic and reflective interactions between the course participants and the teacher. This direct and personal interaction allows for questions and real-time discussion to reinforce learning and address difficulties the participants may have when practising and applying mindfulness skills. 

However, this type of learning has not been readily accessible for many people, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, so a pressing need was to develop online delivery options.

The present study – carried out by researchers from the University of Tasmania's Wicking Dementia Research and Education Centre and the Menzies Institute for Medical Research, together with Monash University's Faculty of Medicine and the Centre for Consciousness and Contemplative Studies – was undertaken to assess the links between mindfulness, work engagement and perceived stress in a huge sample of people given online training. 

It also investigated the extent to which mindfulness influences engagement directly or indirectly (via lowering stress). 

The findings were that increases in mindfulness were associated with substantial self-reported reductions in perceived stress, as well as improvements in work engagement. Statistically significant improvements were observed on all three dimensions of work engagement, with change in vigour the most pronounced effect.

Limitations to the study

The findings may inflate the positive impact of mindfulness training due to a high attrition rate of before and after surveys. The people who didn't experience benefits could have dropped out of the study, leaving individuals with positive effects biasing the results.

The authors also describe a number of other potential sources of bias that limit the persuasiveness of their findings.

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