Mindfulness at Work: A Little Bit Goes a Long Way

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Wharton's Lindsey Cameron discusses her research on the impact of practicing mindfulness at work.

Workplace wellness is expanding beyond annual blood pressure checks to include the benefits of meditation, yoga and other exercises designed to manage stress and center the mind. But do such practices, known as mindfulness, really work? New research from Wharton management professor Lindsey Cameron finds that including just a few minutes of mindfulness in each day makes employees more helpful and productive. Her paper, titled “Helping Others by Being in the Present Moment: Mindfulness and Prosocial Behavior at Work,” was co-authored with Andrew C. Hafenbrack of the University of Washington, Gretchen M. Spreitzer of the University of Michigan, Chen Zhang of Tsinghua University, Laura J. Noval of Imperial College London, and Samah Shaffakat of Liverpool John Moores University. The paper was published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. Cameron spoke about the study with Knowledge@Wharton. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: We’re hearing a lot these days about mindfulness. What is it, and why are businesses so interested in this?

Lindsey Cameron: Mindfulness is really about calming down and being in touch with what is happening in the present moment. Take a moment right now and close your eyes. What are you feeling? What are the sensations against your skin? What is the taste that’s in your mouth? What are your feelings? Maybe you have a growl in your stomach because you’re a little bit hungry. This is mindfulness. It’s basically tuning into what is already here.

It might have been almost 10 or 12 years ago that I was serving in Iraq, and you can imagine there was a lot of commotion around me, particularly when I went to sleep at night. Mindfulness is one of the practices I found that really calmed me and helped keep me centered in the present moment. That’s just from the personal benefits of mindfulness. There are many other sorts of organizational performance benefits at work. If you’re part of the Buddhist tradition, meditation is one of the pathways towards enlightenment. We used secular meditation materials, though, and our participants were probably not Buddhist.

Knowledge@Wharton: Google is one of the companies that we know about having meditation programs, yoga programs. In this particular study, you didn’t look at long-term programs but focused on short-term benefits. Could you describe that for us?

“We did find that mindfulness made people more helpful at work.”

Cameron: Google has the Search Inside Yourself program. Jon Kabat-Zinn is well known for his MBSR program — Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. The thing with many of those programs is that they’re quite long and intensive. They meet maybe once a week for eight weeks or 12 weeks. One of the things this study looks at is can mindfulness almost be like an injection? Can it be a short-term boost that can give you some of these personal, interpersonal benefits that I was mentioning before?

Knowledge@Wharton: You studied this through a series of experiments. Tell us about the companies you worked with and what types of experiments you conducted.

Cameron: Our very first company was a rather large insurance company. We worked with a lot of different employees, and many of them were frontline workers. I think it was 11 cities across the United States, and it was a five-day intervention where they meditated somewhere between seven and 10 minutes a day. Then we looked at how they interacted with other people at work because many of them were in these frontline positions.

The big question we’re looking at is how does mindfulness [impact] interpersonal relationships? That was Study 1, and other studies went deeper. We had another study at an IT consulting company in India where it was a round robin design. We had co-workers report on how [their teammates’] helpfulness was during the day after a mindfulness intervention in the morning. Of course, these were all RCTs or random controlled experiments, where there are two groups, and individuals in the groups don’t know if they are in the intervention or control group.

So, we had two big field experiments and then went into the lab after that for the next series of experiments, because experiments in the lab allow you to test mechanisms much more closely. It’s not just that mindfulness makes people more helpful at work, but why does mindfulness make you more helpful? And do certain types of mindfulness practices have different effects compared to other ones?

First, from the higher-level picture, we did find that mindfulness made people more helpful at work. They were more generous in the amount of time and the amount of money they would give to their co-workers. Money to co-workers means that there was a donation because somebody was sick at work and you’re contributing to their fund.

Then in terms of mechanisms, we found that perspective-taking — being able to look at someone else’s perspective — was one of the reasons that mindfulness helped people become more effective. Empathy — the ability to feel what other people are feeling — also made people more helpful at work.

We looked also at the difference between mindfulness meditation and loving kindness meditation. Mindfulness meditation in this case was when you’re focusing on your breath. Loving kindness is when you’re imagining giving goodwill or loving kindness to other people. We found that both of them were equally effective.

“Mindfulness works, and you don’t have to invest in an intensive eight-week intervention to be able to get the benefits.”

Knowledge@Wharton: What are the key takeaways here for businesses?

Cameron: The key takeaways are that mindfulness works, and that you don’t have to invest in an intensive eight-week intervention to be able to get the benefits from that because we all know that workplace life is deeply relational. You’re with co-workers. You’re with supervisors. We spend more time at work than we actually do with our family, and sometimes there can be frictions. People are working in teams, so mindfulness can act like a buffer to improve relational coordination and functioning. And we’re showing this with really short doses of mindfulness — seven to eight minutes. Even with a one-time intervention, you’re getting smoother, pleasant, more helpful workers. That’s one of the key benefits.

Knowledge@Wharton: Businesses are showing a greater realization that if employees are more helpful, they’re also more productive. What’s going on here? Why do they want us to meditate now when maybe they wouldn’t have 10 years ago?

Cameron: I think it’s just a greater trend that we’re seeing in the world at large, where people are starting to wake up or become aware that efficiency and money are not the only things that matter. Humans matter, as well. I think this is just one of the many things that we’ve seen over the past 10 to 15 years that [involve looking] at work from a more relational, holistic way, as we’re bringing the whole self to work.

Knowledge@Wharton: What are the key takeaways here for individuals? If I’m at a workplace that doesn’t offer something like this, can I use a meditation app on my phone or just take a few minutes every day to close my eyes and take some cleansing breaths?

“We found that perspective-taking — being able to look at someone else’s perspective — was one of the reasons that mindfulness helped people become more effective.”

Cameron: Yes. There are so many apps out there — Insight Timer, Headspace — that you can use to set aside time to do your mindfulness practice. But one thing that we did in one of the studies was to have people chose an activity that they did every day. For the people who were working at a call center, their activity was when they answered the phone, and just taking three deep breaths. Take three breaths with me right now — you’ve just meditated. Now you can be more mindful and go about your day. It doesn’t actually have to be a formal practice where you’re sitting. It can be just as simple as bringing attention and awareness to a routine activity in your everyday life.

Knowledge@Wharton: Was there one particular result in the study that was the most surprising to you?

Cameron: The most surprising one is that there isn’t a difference between breath-based mindfulness meditation and the loving kindness one. If you’re familiar with Buddhist contemplative traditions, these are two different paths. One says that one is a path to enlightenment, and one is a sort of different path. And psychologists have called loving kindness — but not mindfulness — a prosocial form of meditation.

But what we found in this study is that there are no differences between the two different types of mindfulness, that they both led to people being more helpful at work. That lets workers have more choice to try a practice that resonates with them more clearly or more strongly. And you’re still going to have the benefits from the practice.

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