Can mindfulness at work reduce accidents and improve safety?
Consistent investigative research has shown that the human factors contributing to poor safety and accidents at work are:
- Distraction: which leads to inattention or attention to the wrong things or missing the most important information,
- Fatigue: with consequences of impaired judgment, slower reflexes, and inattention to details or instructions,
- Stress: leading to impaired performance and distraction
- Complacency: which can be exacerbated by fatigue or stress
There has been increased attention in New Zealand to the high rate of injuries and accidents in our workplaces. While this issue is an ongoing concern, there is also a strong commitment in New Zealand at this time to improving safety and reducing accidents at work. In addition to the revised legislation currently before parliament many employers are also taking the initiative to investigate new strategies to achieve improvements in employee safety.
The practice of mindfulness at work is one such approach. A strong body of research evidence has demonstrated numerous health and wellbeing benefits from the practice of mindfulness, and other benefits that are likely to be helpful in workplaces. One of these possible benefits is improved safety.
This article reviews what mindfulness is, how it works, some of the benefits from regular practice, and explores the research which suggests mindfulness could in fact reduce accidents and improve safety”?
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the skill of bringing our attention and awareness to experiences and events in the present moment, and observing these without judgment or evaluation.
This process of paying attention to what is happening in the moment can be applied to both internal experiences (for example thoughts, and body sensations) as well as external (physical and social) environments.
Driving to work being mindful could include observing that the traffic is heavy, but noticing and being aware of this without the mental commentary- “This is a pain, I’m going to be late, and that’s going to ruin my day”. Instead staying mindful could include both being aware of your frustration with the situation and then turning your attention to the road ahead.
A number of factors contribute to a mindful state:
Awareness: bringing full awareness to the present moment
Attention: keeping complete attention on the present moment
Intentional: deliberately or consciously bringing this attention
Non-judgmental: this is a very important factor – setting aside or not following any mental commentary or judgments
Curiosity: adopting a curious approach to what is noticed
Openness: noticing new information or staying open to new experiences
A useful concept is to think of mindfulness as the opposite of autopilot – when we go through our day or complete tasks without paying attention to what we are doing, are easily distracted or not “on task”, and are likely to have regular “chatter” in our minds that may not be helpful.
How does mindfulness work?
Knowledge and understanding about how mindfulness works has been informed by biomedicine and neuroscience research.
The scientific study of mindfulness has shown very clearly what is happening in the body and brain when people practice mindfulness, as well as some of the immediate and longer term benefits.
Let’s have a brief look at what this research has found:
Particular areas of the brain are benefited by mindfulness practice
One area of the brain where there is a positive impact from mindfulness practice is the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC)
The ACC is a structure located deep inside the forehead, behind the brain’s frontal lobe. The ACC is primarily associated with self-regulation and cognitive control. It helps us suppress knee jerk responses; alerting us when we’re faced with competing demands. Consequently, the ACC helps us to decide whether to shift our attention and switch tasks knowingly, deliberately and with intention. The ACC is also associated with learning from past experiences, which helps support optimal decision-making. Some scientists think the ACC may be particularly important in the face of uncertain and fast-changing conditions.
Conversely, When the ACC is “offline”, or not working optimally you might see a person easily distracted from a task and failing to pay attention to the most important information around them.
As such a well functioning ACC is likely to be an essential asset, for example, on a busy building site, where team members are working alongside each other on different operations under hazardous conditions. This functionality will is equally important for nurses operating on a busy ward, called away to attend to one patient potentially interrupting the administration of medication to another patient. As such when it comes to safety the function of the ACC is likely to be very important.
Studies have also found improved functioning in the insula with the practice of mindfulness. The insula is activated when we are conscious of ourselves, including having awareness to our physical body. Consequently when researchers exposed meditators and non-meditators to unpleasant physical conditions, meditators had greater activity in their insula – or in effect were more aware of this experience. What could this mean for back injuries on repetitive strains in the workplace? Perhaps we could effect a great use of micropauses, thus reducing injuries by increasing our in the moment awareness to early discomfort.
Another part of the brain where there is a positive impact from mindfulness practice is the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of our brain that puts the body into flight or fight mode when we feel in danger or under threat. This is an important survival response when we do need to react urgently and quickly but not so useful if we need to be in a calm state.
Mindfulness practice has been associated with decreased grey matter volume in the amygdala – effectively the amygdala shrinks over time with practice.
Conversely as the amygdala shrinks a further very important part of the brain – the pre frontal cortex – thickens. This change in brain structure over time is called “functional connectivity” – as the connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker, other connections get stronger.
Aptly named, as it’s located in the front part of our brain, the pre frontal cortex manages what is called “executive functioning”. Essentially all the higher level brain activities such as creative thinking, strategic planning and complex decision-making. Thickening in the frontal cortex improves these big picture cognitive functions such as emotional control and perspective taking.
Can mindfulness at work reduce accidents and improve safety
The functionality of the hippocampus has also been shown to benefit from mindfulness. The hippocampus is our main learning and memory centre. Mindfulness increases the volume and density of the hippocampus and therefore the brain’s working memory, effectively giving us more “space” for noticing and responding to our environments. With more space we can respond more effectively to challenging or changing situations.
Transitory states during mindfulness practice can become lasting traits
A very powerful and exciting finding from mindfulness research is that the states or transitory experiences that people experience during mindfulness practice can eventually become effortless traits over time. Essentially this means that new neural pathways that are being formed by practice and the functions of these pathways then become automatic over time. Why is this helpful? Automatic pathways require less energy and effort, which means again that more brain function can be directed to the task at hand.
Mindfulness works via a clear process to lead to improved self-regulation
Scientists investigating exactly how mindfulness works have suggested that the benefits of mindfulness occur via particular cognitive (mental) processes and a specific neurobiological process. These “mechanisms of action” are improved:
- Attention regulation
- Body awareness
- Emotion regulation
- Change in perspective on the self
In summary then mindfulness practice helps us pay attention to the most important information in our environment and our bodies, as well as manage emotions more effectively. These benefits enhance the “big-picture” perspective taking we reviewed before which allow better self-management.
From this information about how mindfulness works what do we know also about the benefits of mindfulness?
The general benefits of mindfulness
A strong body of scientific research, conducted with diverse groups of people has demonstrated very clearly that people who practice mindfulness experience greater physical and psychological wellbeing, and less stress reactivity.
Some of the specific benefits that have been found include:
- Lowered cortisol response to stress
- Improvements in immune function response
- Reduced experience of pain
- Improved emotion regulation
- Less emotional exhaustion
Cognitive or mental benefits
- Greater cognitive flexibility
- Reduced error rates
- Faster reaction times
- Increased ability to manage distractions
- Less rumination
- Improved quality of sleep
- Improved task performance
From these general benefits some of the scientists who research mindfulness have investigated particular benefits for employees from mindfulness practice.
Benefits of mindfulness for employees
While to date no specific research has demonstrated a direct relationship between mindfulness and improved safety or fewer accidents, the above research on the general benefits of mindfulness and the likely improvements for employee functioning provide some optimism that mindfulness practice is likely to have a positive impact. Integrating the findings outlined above with those of Theresa Glomb, Professor of Organizational Behavior in the Carlson School of Management, further builds the case for mindfulness as an effective strategy for reducing accidents and improving safety.
|Factors likely to increase the chance of accidents and reduce safety||Demonstrated neurological effects of mindfulness practice||Possible performance and safety outcomes for workers who practice mindfulness|
|Distraction||Improved ACC function
Improved frontal lobe function
|Increased awareness to competing demands on attention
Increased ability to manage impulses
Greater persistence Increased goal directed behaviour
Increased task performance
|Stress||Reduced amygdala functioning and reduced size of the amygdala||Reduced stress
Reduced emotional reactivity
Better problem solving
|Fatigue||Improved insula functioning
Reduced amgydala functioning
Increased prefrontal lobe
Increased connectivity between frontal lobe and hippocampus
|Greater awareness to fatigue
More capacity for learning and development
Greater ability to handle multiple demands
Greater ability to problem solve and see the bigger picture
|Complacency||More accurate forecasting||Improved awareness
Less biased decision making
As demonstrated from the review of the above research these are all factors, which can be improved by the practice of mindfulness.
Specific benefits from mindfulness such as improved working memory are also likely to be very useful for employees in managing “too much information”. Mindfulness will help them pay attention to the most important information, weigh up options and choose the best strategy for responding, as well as managing their own cognitive and emotional responses during this process.
Given there is strong research evidence that mindfulness is an effective strategy for people to manage themselves well, and is likely to be helpful for employees to improve their functioning, how might you go about introducing mindfulness in your organisation?
Introducing mindfulness in your organisation
We recommend that the first step is to choose what metrics your organisation will track to measure the effectiveness of introducing mindfulness, as well as the impact on safety and accident rates. Using your existing metrics such as health and safety data, and other key performance data is a good place to start. Assessing any change in these metrics following the introduction of mindfulness, and at subsequent follow up time points then make it possible for your organisation to evaluate its impact and effectiveness. If organisation wide initiatives are difficult, start with specific teams or across a particular business unit. Demonstrating effectiveness and ROI with a specific initiative then creates a strong business case for a broader application.
A second recommendation is to use appropriately qualified and experienced mindfulness practitioners to teach mindfulness skills to your employees. Ask about their experience teaching mindfulness to similar groups of employees or in comparable types of organisations and do check qualifications and references.
It is important also to recruit your organisational leaders to participate in the training, and to support their staff in the ongoing practice of the mindfulness skills.
The importance of supporting frameworks to enable practice sounds obvious as a recommendation. However, the skills themselves will be of limited benefit unless employees are encouraged to practice and opportunities to practice are provided during their work shifts. These opportunities don’t need to be for long time periods, but they do need to be protected to ensure they are not swamped by other more immediately demanding tasks.