Managing people

Mindfulness – does it reduce stress? 

Success in dealing with stress is the focus of a recent study looking into whether workplace mindfulness-based programs reduce stress and enhance well-being at work. 

29 September 2021

The researchers found that while such programs can enable people to deal more skilfully with stressful events and improve their well-being, a supportive environment is necessary to reap the benefits. 

Supporting employees’ mental health 

The study – ‘Mindfulness-based programmes to reduce stress and enhance wellbeing at work: a realist review’ – is a new addition to research on mental health and how to promote it. 

Mental health problems are a leading cause of absenteeism from work and early retirement in all industrialised countries. This has far-reaching consequences – not only for the individual concerned and for that person’s employer, but economies and societies as a whole. 

The number of working days lost to stress, anxiety, and depression is increasing, as is the loss due to serious mental illness. Burnout appears to be particularly prevalent in the caring professions such as healthcare and child welfare. 

Because of this, organisations are increasingly investing in mental health programs for their workers to reduce the risk of stress. Evidence suggests that these programs can be effective, especially if they are used as preventative strategies and address subthreshold conditions. 

Over the last decade, mindfulness-based programs (MBPs) have caught the interest of leaders, employers, and policy-makers worldwide. A view is emerging that mindfulness can have widespread effects on human functioning and behaviour, impacting mental health, wellbeing, physical health, self-regulation, and interpersonal behaviour. 

However, the evidence to date presents a mixed picture, with a great variety of approaches to mindfulness and varied outcomes, as well as a lack of clarity about what exactly might make these programs successful – or not. The suggestion is that workplace MBPs might work less well than is believed or, more likely, only in certain settings, for certain individuals and under certain circumstances. 

The present study was therefore undertaken to understand how and why workplace MBPs work or don’t work. 

Reviewing the evidence 

The study was carried out over 13 months from January 2018. It went through the phases of identifying existing theories of how workplace MBPs are supposed to work, searching for evidence by appraising previous research on workplace MBPs, extracting findings and analysing and synthesising data. 

The theory is that through mindfulness, participants learn to regulate their attention, emotions, and behaviour and relate to their experience with acceptance and compassion, which leads to reduced perceptions of stress and enhanced wellbeing. These outcomes are brought about by an individual’s reasoning and reactions (mechanisms) to the activities/resources provided by the workplace MBP. However, the activation of the mechanisms will only be triggered under certain circumstances. 

In total, the researchers examined 75 studies to develop their realist program theory of workplace MBPs. Most studies reported significant improvements, but many of the results were likely to have suffered from one form of bias or another, making them less credible and persuasive.  

Does mindfulness work? 

Significant health-related benefits of workplace MBPs ranged from reductions in perceived stress, anxiety, depression, medical symptoms and burnout to increased vigour, wellbeing, quality of life, relaxation, positive emotional states, self-esteem, compassion and improved sleep quality/duration.  

Two randomised controlled trials reported no significant changes after the program. The analysis revealed that changes in health-related outcomes were in some cases significantly attributable to changes in mindfulness, while in other cases, findings were inconsistent. 

The researchers concluded that simply offering an MBP to professionals to reduce stress and enhance wellbeing does not suffice. A supportive working environment must exist for the program’s benefits to be reaped.  

Based on their findings, the researchers developed four key recommendations that should be considered when designing and implementing workplace MBPs. These recommendations are generic enough to be applied, with minor local adaptions, across different healthcare settings, other sectors, target groups and program types. 

Make mindfulness compatible with participants’ and organisational goals, values and practices. 

Provide protected time and space for individuals to engage in self-care activities. 

Create an environment where individuals feel safe to share and learn. 

Offer a short program with brief coping techniques if the above recommendations cannot be met or can only be partially met. 

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