OK, mindfulness reduces stress and improves health. But does it actually improve performance at work?


March 16, 2016

Ruth Q. Wolever, PhD

Chief Scientific Officer, eMindful Inc.

A common question I hear as a researcher, and one we hear at eMindful as a provider of mindfulness programs, is, “How does mindfulness affect workplace performance?” That is, does it affect whether employees deliver quality results, consistently meet deadlines, keep customers happy, and avoid costly mistakes.

The benefits of mindfulness we posted last time – improved attention, less stress, and better health to name a few – have clear implications for productivity and workplace performance.

Although this is a new area of investigation, research has shown:

There also appears to be a link between mindfulness and safety performance. In a study of control room operators at a nuclear power plant, mindfulness was associated with safety performance in complex tasks; this finding was replicated in a follow-up study.

So now that evidence is starting to accumulate, how might mindfulness be enhancing how employees work? Researchers see several possibilities, each discussed briefly below.

Performance levels

Recall from our previous blog post that mindfulness exerts its benefits primarily through improved attention, including being less distractible, better able to concentrate, and less susceptible to mind wandering. It may come as no surprise, then, that mindfulness yields overall performance improvements. A study of MBA students showed that more mindful individuals had higher GPAs.

These benefits have clear implications for employers, where fluid intelligence (the capacity to solve novel problems and think “outside the box”), overall positivity, and diminished stress responses have been shown to enhance performance. Each of these has been linked to mindfulness in experimental settings. And the mechanisms by which these effects work can be traced back to actual changes in the brain.

Performance variability

Separate from employees’ performance relative to peers is their own performance variability. Even great performers aren’t 100% consistent. We all have times when we’re “off.” Mindfulness training can help.

Mindfulness appears to help stabilize attention and regulate emotion and behavior. These may be important in reducing performance troughs and increasing consistency.

Performance buffering

Modern workplaces are full of interruptions that hijack our attention and threaten productivity.  Studies estimate that even miniscule disruptions (like an instant message) add about 27% more time to the original task, not counting the disruption.  Mindfulness may “buffer” performance from these disruptions by helping employees stay focused and ignore irrelevant or less important cues.

Nurses in one study faced up to 14 interruptions per hour. In a separate study, each interruption was associated with a 12.7% increase in medication errors, and that error rate tripled after the nurse was interrupted six times.

Interruptions require time to re-orient to the task at hand.  And interruptions tend to leave a “residue” of attention still thinking about the disruption instead of the present task. Interestingly, one experiment showed that five minutes of mindfulness practice can reduce this residue. By disengaging from thoughts and emotions about the interruptions, mindful employees are able to return their full attention to the intended task.

Performance motivation & goals

Mindfulness research has shed light into motivation, for example whether an extrinsic reward such as money actually motivates employees. Brain imaging research shows that mindfulness trainees are less susceptible to monetary incentives compared to matched controls, without affecting their task performance.

By improving attention and awareness of one’s own internal cues (particularly body sensations, emotions and thoughts), mindfulness training alters the perception of moment-to-moment experience, making everyday activities feel important, valued and enjoyable. In the workplace, this may help employees engage in activities with a sense of eagerness, choice and willingness, otherwise known as autonomous motivation.

Compared to action that is extrinsically motivated, autonomously motivated action tends to be more satisfying, persists longer, and leads to greater success.

So to summarize, mindfulness may enhance workplace performance by:

  • boosting performance levels through improved attention and cognition
  • reducing personal variation or performance “troughs”
  • making employees less susceptible to the impact of distractions and interruptions
  • shifting motivation from extrinsic to autonomous sources, which has greater likelihood of success.

Ruth Q. Wolever, PhD is Director of Health Coaching: Practice, Research & Education, at Vanderbilt University’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine and Associate Professor, Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation and Department of Psychiatry at Vanderbilt’s Schools of Medicine and Nursing.