Why are employers increasingly interested in mindfulness? Specifically, why have companies like Aetna, Apple, Google, and General Mills implemented mindfulness training for their employees? With over 4,000 scientific papers published on mindfulness (half of them in the past three years), evidence is emerging that links mindfulness to better workplace functioning: increased productivity, more efficient teamwork, fewer errors, better communication, and fewer sick days.

But what exactly is mindfulness? And why is this surge of mindfulness research influencing management strategies, team-building practices and organizational structure? This latter question will be the focus of subsequent blogs, comprising a five-part series on mindfulness in the workplace. This first blog covers the basics, reviewing the scientific evidence that supports mindfulness.

[Image credit: Fotolia]
[Image credit: Fotolia]

So let’s start with a definition. Simply put, mindfulness is present moment awareness: noticing sensations, thoughts, emotions, and urges to act – all those tiny parts of our experience as they occur in this very moment. Practicing mindfulness involves training the mind to systematically return attention to our current experience from the stance of a curious observer.

The benefits of mindfulness, reviewed below, require more than a “decision to be mindful” – they involve learning and practicing skills that our typical environment erodes. As with any new habit or skill, mindfulness exercises may be challenging, are best learned with a skilled instructor, and must be practiced regularly to be enhanced and sustained. Mindfulness is simple, but not easy.

Brain studies

1. Attention Mindfulness is thought to exert its benefits primarily through improved attention. Experiments have shown that those who practice mindfulness are less distractible, and better able to concentrate on what is important, while ignoring what is not. Brain wave activity suggests they more easily disengage from external distractions. Perhaps our largest source of distractions is our own thoughts and ideas, and mindfulness has been shown to reduce wandering thoughts. In separate studies, individuals who completed mindfulness training remained vigilant to tasks longer, were better able to discern what to focus on while filtering out less important things, and showed reduced brain activity in neural networks that indicate mind wandering.

2. Cognition. Mindfulness has been shown to increase working memory, the brain’s RAM that acts in the short-term to hold and process information. Mindfulness has also been shown to improve cognitive flexibility, which refers to the ability to consider different viewpoints and think “outside-the-box.” One study found that after mindfulness training, participants were more likely to search for new perspectives when stuck on a problem. Brain scans suggested this cognitive flexibility was due to greater attentional control. The attentional and other cognitive effects together improve our ability to learn and to innovate.

3. Brain changes. Practicing mindfulness not only improves attention, working memory, and how flexibly we think, but exciting research suggests it actually changes the structure of the brain. In one study, long-term mindfulness practitioners were found to have increased cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which controls learning and memory, as well as in larger prefrontal areas of the brain that help regulate emotion. Another study showed that just eight weeks of mindfulness training resulted in decreased volume of the amygdala, the brain center primarily responsible for fear, anxiety and acute, intense stress — and these changes matched participants’ self-report of stress levels.

Mood and behavior research

1. Emotion. Emotions occur in response to how we subconsciously evaluate stimuli, and these appraisals propagate and shape downstream emotional reactions. Mindfulness has been shown to limit the lifecycle of emotional reactions, reducing the time to reach peak emotional arousal and return to baseline. Similarly, mindfulness reduces the intensity of reactions to negative emotional stimuli; when mindful individuals are stressed in the laboratory, they react less intensely to stressors. Finally, mindfulness affects emotional tone; a recent meta-analysis showed that mindfulness training is associated with less negative and more positive emotions.

2. Behavior. Mindfulness influences behavior primarily through self-regulation and increased awareness of automatic behaviors. This is seen in mindfulness research on addiction. Mindfulness practices teach the brain a new pattern of responding to urges by creating a gap between a stimulus, like a craving or thought (“I want a cigarette”), and the habitual response (“I’ll smoke”). This allows a space for noticing other tiny parts of experience, and self-regulating (“My body is telling me it needs stimulation; I’ll take a walk”). Mindfulness practice can actually create neural changes that allow for this shift.

Medical findings

1. Clinical biomarkers. Mindfulness practice has been shown to improve clinical measures like blood pressure, heart rate, stress hormones, and aspects of metabolism. Mindfulness influences neurobiological mechanisms involved in stress regulation. After mindfulness training, stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline have shown a dampened response to stressors and threats, with faster recovery to baseline levels. Mindfulness practices are commonly linked to heart health, with a recent study showing a 20-point lower reduction in systolic blood pressure in patients who took a mindfulness-based stress reduction course, compared to a control group.

2. Immune function and Inflammation. Because of its ability to reduce stress, mindfulness also has a profound effect on the immune system. After an eight-week mindfulness program, participants in one study had increased antibody production after administration of a flu vaccine, indicating an enhanced immune response. Research has also linked mindfulness and enhanced activity of immune cell-associated telomerase, an enzyme that promotes the longevity of cells. Finally, another study showed a decrease in stress-induced interleukin-6, a pro-inflammatory marker that suppresses the immune system and is increased in chronic stress and depression. The bottom line? Mindfulness is associated with less inflammation and a better functioning immune system.

3. Pain and chronic disease. Chronic pain characterizes many diseases states, and pain reduction was one of the first reported outcomes of mindfulness practice. A recent study of primary care patients training in mindfulness showed improvements in level of pain disability, psychological distress, engagement in life activities, willingness to tolerate pain, and subjective rating of current pain.

Pain levels have also been reduced in cancer patients practicing mindfulness, and the benefits for cancer go beyond pain management. In fact, mindfulness-trained cancer patients have shown improvements in immune function, prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels, and autonomic nervous system activity. But it doesn’t stop at cancer; mindfulness has been studied in many chronic disease states, including diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, lupus, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, depression, and anxiety disorders.

So how do all these findings affect the workplace? Future blog topics will show you exactly that. Next time we will discuss how mindfulness influences work performance like achieving goals, staying motivated, and performing reliably and consistently.

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