Where mindfulness falls short
oday, more than half of all large companies offer their employees some form of mindfulness training — a broad set of practices and techniques focusing on increasing awareness of the here and now. But new research suggests that these programs don’t always improve people’s wellbeing or their job performance. Specifically, for employees whose roles require them to act inauthentically (such as salespeople, waiters, or customer service representatives who often have to smile through unpleasant interactions with customers), becoming more mindful of their emotions in the moment can actually have a negative effect on their mental health. Based on these findings, the authors offer four strategies to help organizations successfully implement mindfulness programs at work while limiting these negative side effects. Ultimately, the authors argue that mindfulness is an important tool in the managerial toolbox, but it is not a cure-all, and it must be applied thoughtfully to be effective.close<br>TweetPostShareSaveBuy CopiesPrintOver 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 a broad set of activities that help us focus more intently on our physical and emotional states in the here and now. Mindfulness practices such as meditation, breathing exercises, and other techniques can be applied to anything from reducing stress and anxiety to quitting smoking, losing weight, and resolving conflict — and today, they’ve become so popular that more than half of large corporations offer some form of mindfulness training to their employees.<br>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 supporting our longer-term wellbeing, attitudes, relationships, and performance at work.<br>But despite these benefits, our recent 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 (as opposed to a lab setting or therapist’s office, where much of the existing research has taken place). Many service roles are known to be particularly stressful, and while the onus is on employers to provide as positive a working environment as possible, a lot could be gained by finding ways to improve mental health for employees in these taxing positions.<br>To that end, we surveyed almost 1,700 employees in a variety of roles and industries, including banking, health care, finance, sales, and consulting. We assessed employees’ mindfulness and self-control with questions focused on whether they tended to be more attentive or more rushed while performing work activities, and the extent to which they were able to resist temptations and distractions. We also asked them to describe how often they faked emotions on the job, since we hypothesized that the unpleasant experience of faking emotions could limit the benefits of being mindful. We then asked supervisors to independently rate each employee’s job performance, and found that for employees whose jobs frequently required them to display inauthentic emotions, greater levels of mindfulness consistently led to lower self-control and lower overall performance.<br>Why is that? Mindfulness can help us to be more effective and act more intentionally, but becoming more aware of unpleasant feelings that we had been ignoring can also be uncomfortable and even harmful. For example, mindfulness can help smokers cut back by helping them to notice that cigarettes taste bad. That’s a net positive in most cases, since it helps them achieve their larger goal of quitting — but it does mean that in the moment, cigarettes are likely to taste worse to them (since mindfulness increases awareness of negative sensations).<br>The same logic seems to apply to distasteful feelings at work: 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 to fix them.<br>Specifically, the employees we surveyed were in roles that required a form of emotional labor known as <i>surface acting</i> — that is, hiding their true feelings to do what the job requires. This is not a new phenomenon. One famous ethnography, for instance, looked into the lives of Disneyland ride operators in 1991, and found that despite their seemingly joyful employer, these employees often became as robotic as their rides, smiles plastered on their faces regardless of how they felt inside. Similarly, a salesperson may need to remain calm and agreeable in the face of an irate customer, even if they personally find the customer offensive.<br>Surface acting is critical for many customer-facing roles (and to a lesser extent, any role that requires interaction with internal or external stakeholders). 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 had been suppressing (perhaps subconsciously) come to the fore. This in turn reduces job satisfaction and performance, as the mental resources needed for work get sapped by a newfound awareness of their own inauthenticity and negative emotions.<br>Of course, our findings should not be misconstrued to suggest that organizations should always avoid mindfulness training for employees whose roles require extensive surface acting. Despite the challenges illustrated in our study, prior research shows that being mindful still offers a number of important benefits. But to get the most value of mindfulness while minimizing its costs, leaders should consider the following strategic questions before implementing mindfulness interventions:<br>1. TargetingOur 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 — and even harmful — for employees who must routinely surface act to perform effectively (such as waiters or salespeople). These employees may still be able to benefit from mindfulness training in some situations, but a one-size-fits all approach for employees in a variety of roles is unlikely to be successful. Instead, organizations should carefully consider the best way to target different types of programs to different employees.<br>2. TimingMany organizations have begun offering mindfulness breaks throughout the day. While often effective, these interventions may be unhelpful if they make employees more aware of their surface acting, such as for customer service representatives whose roles demand this sort of work throughout the day. To help employees reap the benefits of mindfulness without hampering productivity and job satisfaction, a mindfulness break at the end of the day may be more effective (essentially offering more of a recovery exercise, instead of a real-time reminder of work stresses). Considering the optimal timing for mindfulness interventions based on employees’ unique workflows can make these programs more impactful.<br>3. DistractionSince mindfulness can undermine performance in situations that require high levels of surface acting, being less mindful in these contexts may be at least temporarily helpful. And one way to decrease mindfulness is through distraction: techniques that intentionally direct the mind away from unpleasant emotions in the moment. These sorts of techniques are often suggested by clinicians to help people cope with a range of unpleasant experiences, such as anxiety or panic attacks. They are never recommended as a permanent fix and should always be accompanied by a longer-term approach to addressing the root causes of the stress, but they may be effective as a temporary way to create distance between the individual and the painful feeling. As such, when integrating mindfulness into the workplace, it might be helpful to also offer healthy distractions such as fidget toys, doodle pads, or simple puzzles, in order to support employees whose roles at times require potentially unpleasant surface acting.<br>4. Deep ActingSurface 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 <i>deep acting</i> — 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 wellbeing. 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 genuinely feel (and thus genuinely demonstrate) more positive emotions. For workers whose roles frequently require this sort of emotional labor, mindfulness programs may be more effective if coupled with training programs focused on encouraging deep acting.<br>Mindfulness is an important tool in the managerial toolbox — but it’s no panacea. Prior research has shown that integrating mindfulness at work is often more complicated than it may appear at first glance, and our newest study demonstrates that mindfulness can in fact decrease job performance. Moreover, while this study focused on the impact of mindfulness for employees whose jobs require high levels of surface acting, these roles are in fact just one of many ways in which organizations may demand “necessary evils” of their employees. Whether you’re tasked with delivering the bad news that sales are down, recommending a painful medical procedure, or conducting layoffs, being more mindful is likely to make doing what must be done feel more unpleasant and difficult.<br>Of course, some level of awareness is essential to ensure you’re making good decisions — and if you’re constantly unhappy and stressed at work, it may be time to start considering an alternative career path. But at the same time, excessive awareness of your strongest negative emotions can be crippling. There are no easy answers, but one thing is clear: Organizations cannot afford to be mindless about their approach to integrating mindfulness. Rather, to make the most of mindfulness training, they must proactively consider both the pros and cons, and they must be sure to tailor any interventions to the specific needs and job requirements of their employees.