August 29, 2021

Where Mindfulness Falls Short


Where Mindfulness Falls Short

By Christopher Lyddy, Darren J. Good, Mark C. Bolino, Phillip S. Thompson & John Paul Stephens

Over the last several decades, mindfulness has gone mainstream. To be mindful means to be fully present in the moment, and it is a quality that can be enhanced through activities that help us focus more intently on our physical and emotional states in the here and now.

Mindfulness practices such as meditation and breathing exercises can be applied to anything from reducing stress to quitting smoking, and they’ve become so popular that more than half of large corporations offer some form of mindfulness training to their employees.

For the most part, this popularity is justified. Unlike many managerial fads, mindfulness is supported by a large body of scientific evidence. Research has clearly shown that mindfulness training programs can improve how we focus, think, feel and act in the moment, as well as our longer-term health, relationships and performance at work.

Despite these benefits, our research found that in certain situations mindfulness can come at a cost. Specifically, we were interested in taking a closer look at how mindfulness influences performance in a real-world customer-service work environment. Many service roles are known to be particularly stressful, and a lot could be gained by finding ways to improve mental health for employees in these positions.

To that end, we surveyed almost, employees in a variety of roles and industries including banking, health care, sales and consulting, assessing individuals’ mindfulness and self-control with questions focused on whether people tended to be more attentive or more rushed while performing work activities, and the extent to which they were able to resist distractions. We also asked them to describe how often they faked emotions on the job, hypothesizing that the action could limit the benefits of being mindful. We found that for employees whose jobs frequently required them to display inauthentic emotions, greater levels of mindfulness consistently led to lower self-control and poorer performance.

Why is that? By guiding us toward a more intentional state of being, mindfulness can make us more aware of unpleasant feelings that we have been ignoring. For example, mindfulness can help smokers cut back by helping them to notice that cigarettes taste bad. That’s a net positive since mindfulness can help individuals achieve their larger goal of quitting—but it does mean that at the moment, cigarettes are likely to taste worse since mindfulness increases awareness of negative sensations.

Similarly, mindfulness while completing unpleasant work tasks increases our awareness of our negative emotions. While we can do our best to craft a job that brings us a sense of purpose, there will always be components of work that don’t feel great. And in those situations, being mindful can raise our awareness of the parts of our jobs we don’t like without really helping us fix them.

Specifically, the employees we surveyed were in roles that required a form of emotional labour known as surface acting—that is, hiding their true feelings to do what the job requires. This skill is critical for many customer-facing roles: In many situations, faking a smile is the right choice. But displaying inauthentic emotions takes work, and it often feels bad. Because of this, many people adopt a more mindless approach while completing these tasks as a natural coping mechanism. If they become more mindful, the unpleasant feelings that they have been suppressing come to the fore.

Of course, our findings should not be misconstrued to suggest that organizations should avoid mindfulness training. Despite the challenges illustrated in our study, prior research shows that being mindful still offers a number of important benefits. To get the most value of mindfulness, however, leaders should consider the following factors:

. Targeting: Our research suggests that mindfulness is likely to be most helpful for employees who face relatively low demands for surface acting, but it may be less beneficial for those who must employ the technique routinely such as servers or salespeople. These employees may still be able to benefit from mindfulness training in some situations, but a one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to be successful. Instead, organizations should carefully consider the best way to target different types of employees.

. Timing: Many organizations have begun offering mindfulness breaks throughout the day. While often effective, these interventions may be unhelpful to employees whose roles demand them to engage in surface acting throughout the day. In those cases, a mindfulness break at the end of the day may be more effective, essentially offering a recovery exercise, instead of a real-time reminder of work stresses.

. Distraction: Since mindfulness can undermine performance in situations that require high levels of surface acting, being less mindful may sometimes be helpful. One way to decrease mindfulness is through distraction techniques, which intentionally direct the mind away from unpleasant emotions. Such techniques are often suggested by clinicians to help people cope with anxiety and panic attacks. When integrating mindfulness into the workplace, it might be helpful to offer distractions such as fidget toys, doodle pads or simple puzzles in order to support employees whose roles at times require potentially unpleasant surface acting.

. Deep acting: Surface acting tends to be unpleasant because it takes a lot of work to display emotions that are inconsistent with your actual feelings. In contrast, studies have shown that deep acting—that is, the practice of actually changing how you feel to match the needs of your organization—can be an effective strategy for displaying the required emotions without negatively impacting job satisfaction and well-being. For example, nurses tasked with unpleasant and tiring work might focus on their patients’ experience and imagine the pain and fear their patients may be feeling, inspiring compassion instead of frustration. Rather than faking a smile, this approach can help employees to feel genuinely more positive emotions. For workers whose roles frequently require this sort of emotional labour, mindfulness programs may be more effective if coupled with training programs focused on encouraging deep acting.

Mindfulness is an important tool in the managerial toolbox—but it’s no panacea. While some level of awareness is essential to ensure you’re making good decisions, excessive awareness of your strongest negative emotions can be crippling. Organizations cannot afford to be mindless about their approach to mindfulness. Rather, they must proactively consider both pros and cons and tailor any interventions to the specific needs and job requirements of their employees.

Christopher Lyddy is an assistant professor of management at the Providence College School of Business. Darren J. Good is an associate professor of applied behavioural science at Pepperdine Graziadio Business School. Mark C. Bolino is a professor at the University of Oklahoma’s Price College of Business. Phillip S. Thompson is an assistant professor of management and organizational behaviour at Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business. John Paul Stephens is an associate professor of organizational behaviour at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University.

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