The US Department of Homeland Security is the latest organization turning to mindfulness training to help its employees. According to public documents from earlier this year, the department is seeking a contractor to teach a variety of courses, from two-hour introductions to eight-week classes, to help “enhance psychological health and resilience,” as well as develop compassion and leadership skills.
Mindfulness training has swept the workplace in the past few years, and it certainly has its uses — but its focus is far too narrow and it places too much burden on the individual, experts say. To truly build resilience, look to improve the systems that employees are working in, instead of hoping that 20 minutes of loving-kindness meditation a day will do the trick.
“While [monks] practiced mindfulness for decades, someone had to grow the crops and harvest the rice to cook to feed them.”
Much of the capacity that humans have for overcoming adversity comes from connections to other people and interactions with them, says Ann Masten, a University of Minnesota researcher who studies resilience and trauma. The condition of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, for example, is a complex and long-lasting catastrophe that mindfulness can’t solve. The real help needs to come from building infrastructure and bringing food, water, and medical care. On a more personal level, “the resilience of an adult does not just include what the adult is personally walking around with, but also the relationships and connections they have to others,” says Masten.
Think of your life like a seesaw, says Michael Ungar, director of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University in Canada. If you have a lot of stress on one side and you try to balance that out with mindfulness, those techniques are simply not strong enough to pull your life back into balance. “You’ve seen those studies about the miraculous benefits of meditation for Buddhist monks, right?” he says. “Have you ever noticed that people who talk about those monks never mention that while they practice mindfulness for decades, someone had to grow the crops and harvest the rice to cook to feed them?”
Mindfulness practices are good in low-risk situations, but they’re often not enough when the going gets tough. Additionally, “mindfulness” research often lumps together different types of mindfulness, and one recent study suggest that the benefits vary greatly depending on the style — so practicing a type known for increasing focus won’t make you more empathetic, for example. (The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment, so it’s unclear exactly what type of mindfulness they’re teaching.)
This isn’t to say that the studies on mindfulness aren’t solid. Mindfulness does help people focus their attention and regulate emotion, says Mark Greenberg, a professor of human development and psychology at Pennsylvania State University. Greenberg published a paper in the Journal of Educational Psychology that looked at the effects of a mindfulness-based stress-management program on a randomized group of 224 teachers in the Bronx. The ones who received stress training that included mindfulness were happier, and also better teachers. Still, no long-term studies show that the positive benefits of mindfulness last, and so more research is needed, according to Greenberg.
For employers, focusing solely on mindfulness “is putting all the responsibility on employees,” Ungar says. “If you want people to be more resilient, mindfulness is fine, but you want to create conditions that help the employee have a better day.”
So what does help? Simply treating employees better is one option. Basic safety is also important, as is creating a culture where people can fix their mistakes without being punitive. Routine, structures, and predictability on the job are key, according to Ungar, because it helps facilitate other things that make people resilient. “If somebody knows they can plan their life and make time for the things that matter, it really eases up the stress,” says Ungar. So is allowing sufficient time off for maternity and paternity leave, and time off to maintain family relationships and doing family matters.
One other option is help employees feel pride in the work they do; give them opportunities to exercise autonomy and make their own decisions. Help them make work friends, even with something as simple as celebrating birthdays. And if they don’t find purpose through work — not everyone can have a job they love — predictability can help by letting them find time to join other activities that they enjoy and find purpose in, according to Ungar. “These are the types things that guarantee that when someone dies or there’s a major screw up, [employees] won’t quit and they’ll pull together, because they have resources from their community,” he says.
These are all changes in built-in systems that don’t require a lot of extra effort on the employee’s part, whereas employees who are taught mindfulness skills still have to remember to meditate. So there are ways to enrich the workplace and help employees — but they’re a more complex overhaul than paying for eight weeks of classes.