The Cost of Mindfulness at Work
Authored by Darren Good
Based on a forthcoming article in Journal of Applied Psychology
Defined in basic terms as being present, mindfulness has gone mainstream. Experts and self-proclaimed gurus suggest mindfulness as a way to improve just about every conceivable human issue, from stress and anxiety to smoking cessation and weight loss, to home and workplace conflict. It is also estimated that around 75% of large organizations now offer some form of mindfulness training to their employees. Taken together, an ancient set of Eastern practices has become a modern-day multibillion dollar Western industry.
Unlike many other fad-du-jour, mindfulness is supported by a remarkably robust catalogue of research that provides near universal support for its positive relationship to improved individual functioning. In fact, of the 5000+ peer reviewed studies performed in the past decade, across a range of disciplines, not a single rigorous field study points to any downsides. But is it really the case that mindfulness is helpful all the time?
When mindful you are more aware of what you are thinking, feeling and doing, which is usually a good thing. Yet there may be instances at work when facing an experience more fully could be unpleasant; such as, when being inauthentic. We all must fake emotions from time to time at work in order to satisfy organizational norms and expectations, an activity known as surface acting. For example, surface acting occurs when an employee ‘puts on a smile’ while being belittled by an irate customer – a willful act that requires effort and. is usually unenjoyable. It should not come as a surprise that persistent surface acting reduces employees’ wellbeing and performance over time. If given the choice, many people may choose to turn away from staring directly at their inauthenticity. Perhaps this is a time in which mindfulness may not be as helpful?
To test this assumption, we surveyed employees with matched direct supervisor performance metrics over a 3-month period. What we found was that when employees engaged in high levels of surface
acting, being more mindful predicted lower job performance as rated by their direct supervisor. Given the novelty of these findings, we replicated them across six unique samples of employees from sectors ranging from financial services and sales to management consulting, as well as emergency hospital workers and social workers, totaling to 1,672 employees. These results should serve as a note of caution
to so many who view mindfulness as a cure-all. As the majority of large organizations are investing in mindfulness, they may benefit from some deeper consideration of its impacts.
In particular, these findings suggest that for roles that demand heavy surface acting (e.g. Sales, Customer Service, Healthcare), mindfulness by itself could have some unintended consequences. Perhaps there are other “necessary evils’ at work (e.g. delivering painful news of medical or financial concern or conducting layoffs etc.) in which being mindful may also pose an issue. The prevailing belief before this study was that mindfulness would help these individuals better manage such difficult situations, when in fact we now must ask the question; at what cost?