Mindfulness: Substance or smokescreen?

Mindfulness is everywhere – but does the practice stand up to medical scrutiny?

Mindfulness has arrived. This practice has exploded into the corporate world and fast become mainstream in companies that consider themselves progressive. But does the trend have substance?

Mindfulness is a technique derived from Buddhism, repackaged for our frenetic modern world. It is the process of paying attention to thoughts and feelings ‘in the moment’ in a non–judgmental way. While anchoring their attention using a pattern of breathing participants are encouraged to notice but not judge or action their thoughts, rather acknowledging them neutrally and moving on. The so-called ‘see-touch-go’.

It seems this technique has its knees under the boardroom table; being actively propagated as the antidote to many of the excesses of modern corporate life. Do its credentials bear close scrutiny?

Scanning the evidence

Until recently research into mindfulness could merely report subjective anecdotal changes such as reduced stress and anxiety. However, within the ever-expanding discipline of neuroscience evidence is accruing at the neuroanatomical level that mindfulness induces changes in the brain. Sara Lazar, research neuroscientist with a team at Massachusetts General Hospital, has objectively shown using MRI scanning that mindfulness-based meditation has effects on functional neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to ‘re-wire’ and change over time). After several weeks of regular mindfulness participants had more grey matter in the frontal cortex, which is associated with attention, memory and decision-making. While we have long been aware of the benefits of regular physical exercise, the evidence seems to propose similar gains for mental workouts.

However, with an ever-accelerating pace in the workplace and our perceived need to remain connected and responsive 24/7, any intervention that creates space is bound to produce positive results. Can we fully differentiate the effects of mindfulness from the effect of simply creating breathing room in a frenetic workplace? Is it conceivable that a similar beneficial effect might be associated with regular walking or listening to a piece of music?

Mind the gap

Despite all these positive indicators the alacrity with which mindfulness is being adopted across industry over recent years leaves me uneasy for a number of reasons.

Firstly, despite the recent neuroscientific evidence there is still some way to go in understanding the actual benefits and limitations of the practice. Many meta-analyses of trial data have highlighted deficiencies in trial design. It is difficult to tease out pearl from placebo in this regard.

Next, significant care needs to be taken to ensure the appropriateness of mindfulness as research indicates negative responses in certain groups. Miguel Farias, reader in cognitive and biological psychology at Coventry University, is conducting research into the potentially negative effects of mindfulness-based meditations. His research follows reports that, in a small number of instances, extensive periods of meditation may have precipitated the onset of significant mental illness, including psychosis. It is plausible, in a minority of cases, that making the equivalent of a solitary deep-sea dive into one’s subconscious could be hazardous and even precipitate feelings of depersonalisation.

Thirdly, evidence of actual performance improvement (rather than self-reported impact on stress and personal resilience) remains sketchy. One of the difficulties in accurately evaluating the in-work benefits of mindfulness is that its effects are subjective.

Lastly, and perhaps most crucially, there remains a risk that this becomes a ‘quick fix’ that fails to address other aspects of individual and cultural health that are more performance-critical. I have seen the techniques of mindfulness rapidly adopted by organisations while at the same time ignoring factors that lead to a deep cultural sickness that undermines health and performance. Unless corporates are willing to tackle these they risk falling for tokenism.

A no-brainer?

Enlightened organisations who wish to embrace mindfulness must ensure that overall organisational culture and health facilitates performance excellence. As in medicine, a holistic approach is needed that addresses the bigger picture. Companies should be promoting healthy work patterns across the board.

Sarah Hattam is a GP from West Yorkshire who has an interest in the application of health to improve performance in the workplace