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Mindfulness: Not a Swiss Army knife

Mindfulness: Not a Swiss Army knife


Mindfulness – if you look it up on Google, you will get 103 million hits. More than 60 thousand non-specialist books have been written on the subject. But what do we really know about it? What effects have actually been proven, what role can mindfulness play on the work floor and what are the pitfalls? These are the questions touched upon by Ute Hülsheger, professor of Occupational Health Psychology since last Friday, in her inaugural speech.

“What you see a lot of in those books is a reference to a single small-scale experiment or to anecdotal evidence, which is then used to draw far-reaching conclusions,” says Hülsheger. In saying so she doesn't mean that mindfulness doesn't have a positive effect. That has been scientifically proven, usually in a clinical setting. But that doesn't make it a Swiss Army knife that can be used in every situation, as Hülsheger states in her speech. Very little research has been carried out into mindfulness on the work floor.

Hülsheger did actually do that. Together with colleagues, she learned that employees who had a more mindful nature were less likely to commit what is referred to as workplace incivility. Unkind behaviour: gossiping, shutting someone out, or making nasty remarks. Not only did more mindfully inclined test subjects do this less often, if they had done so, they would feel more guilty about it in the evening.

Another study showed that managers who meditated every day for four weeks, paid more attention to their subordinates and treated them more fairly. It wasn't only the leaders who noticed this, employees could also see the difference. At the same time, this did not have an effect on how satisfied they were about their work.

These studies show a tentative positive result, but Hülsheger wants to know a lot more. How long, for example, should someone meditate to achieve an optimal effect? “According to the official method, it should be approximately 45 minutes a day. In our research, we have people meditate for 10-15 minutes, to lower the threshold. How much difference does that half an hour make?” And how can you make sure that people keep it up. “In order to maintain the effect, people must continue to train.”

She also wants to push for better research. “I want to do more research in which there is a control group that also receives treatment. That enables you to discover whether the possible effect is really because of the mindfulness or just because training is being given.”

The American professor of Management Ronald Purser, who has been meditating for years, recently wrote a book in an attempt to do away with the hype around mindfulness: McMindfulness – How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality. Hülsheger mentions his points of criticism in her speech. He is especially worried about the privatisation of stress. By having employees take mindfulness training, employers are putting the problem on them. Those who suffer from stress, are not mindful enough. It's their own fault, they should have practiced more.

Hülsheger shares his worries on this matter. “Stress is always a combination of the person and his or her character and the working conditions. You can't separate the one from the other. If the workload is too high, mindfulness training by itself is not going to change that.” You also have to take into account that not all employees can carry out their work in a mindful way. “Take people who work in the service industry. They are interrupted continuously, it is inherent to their job. What helps them is to regularly take a break and to use those breaks wisely. For example, by going out for a while instead of checking your phone. Employers can give advice of this kind.”

Purser also wonders whether someone could do bad things mindfully. Hülsheger: “That is an interesting question. The idea is that mindfulness makes people calmer. They react less emotionally and impulsively. They are not quickly angered or frustrated. Purser and like-minded people then say: they might also be inclined to feel less guilty. I don't believe that. I believe that mindfulness actually strengthens moral thinking, because you are more aware of your surroundings and the people around you. But we don't know for sure, hardly any research has been carried out on this topic, while it is an important question.”

There are also people who are afraid that mindfulness would turn employees into obedient robots. They accept poor working conditions, because they have learned not to worry about things. Hülsheger doesn't agree with this. “We often see that people know better what they want because of mindfulness, what they feel is important and they base their decisions on that. The aim of mindfulness is that you learn to set aside the automatic, unhelpful thoughts that we all have.” So worrying, but not critical thought.



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