Does workplace meditation actually work?

While the trend towards mindfulness is a pleasant idea, it might not actually be solving anything.

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  • Roughly 22% of companies offer mindfulness training programs to their employees... but it doesn't appear to be paying off.
  • Meditation itself can truly improve overall health and wellbeing. Yet that that doesn't translate to increased performance.
  • Financial desire and the stresses of the regular office may be more of a motivator than achieving mindfulness.

It makes sense that the idea of harnessing one's mental potential, developing a monk-like focus, and dealing with the stresses of the day with calm equanimity would appeal to business owners and workers. The CEOs of Salesforce, Tupperware, and other corporations claim to meditate daily. Roughly 22% of companies offer mindfulness training programs to their employees. One would expect a burst of Zen-powered productivity from such training, but mindfulness in the workplace may not be quite as desirable is it seems.

Mindfulness, the key feature of most, if not all, meditation practices, is a non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, a specific and self-regulated method of paying attention. This sounds like it would be fantastic for a business—who wouldn't want a worker focused squarely on the task at hand? In contrast, a recent study demonstrated that mindfulness practices may impair workers' motivation to complete a given task.

The study carried out a series of five experiments, each designed to replicate the kind of work one would be doing in an office. One experiment had participants editing the cover letters of a potential job-seeker. Another had them copy the terms and conditions of a software program, while another had participants brainstorm as many creative uses for a brick as possible. Unless you work for a brick factory, these aren't exactly the kind of tasks you would be performing at work. However, they flex the same mental muscles as many tasks in the business world require: creativity, accuracy, and attention to detail.

Prior to performing these tasks, some participants listened to an audio clip guiding them through a mindfulness exercise, while others listened to a clip designed to encourage inattentive mind-wandering. Consistently, the mindful participants reported feeling less motivated to perform the task than the distracted participants, even when they had been offered a financial reward. So, what is it about a non-judgmental awareness of the present moment that kills motivation?

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One explanation is that mindfulness, by definition, shifts one's perspective from the future to the present. A future-oriented perspective is associated with arousal—used here to refer to the state of being physiologically and emotionally alert and at attention. Essentially, people become energized when considering the future. Psychologists have found that anticipating the performance of tasks like an upcoming negotiation, singing, or public speaking increased arousal in subjects.

This is to be expected. Most people would feel a nervous energy if they were asked to sing or speak in public. Beyond nervous anticipation, there's also evidence that practical, future-oriented thoughts are associated with higher levels of arousal in general. When there is a greater focus placed on the present, this additional energy is absent, impairing motivation.

There's also the well-known association between the ideas of meditation and moderation. Monks aren't really known for their expensive taste, and empirical evidence suggests that mindfulness practices decrease financial desire. The participants in this study may have been less motivated to perform the given tasks because they didn't desire the financial compensation.

This paints a somewhat grim picture of the workplace. Should employers stoke their workers' fears about the future and encourage greed in order to run a company efficiently? A prior report indicated that being in a bad mood can boost performance; maybe bosses should begin belittling their employees more.

While the results of this study may be generalizable to the workplace, it's important to remember that the participants were working on tedious tasks that didn't have any significance for them. If that describes your job to a tee, then maybe your boss won't want you meditating before the workday. The fact of the matter, though, is that many workers find their jobs to be satisfying to some degree. In a large organization, even tedious work may be more tolerable when placed in the context of the company's success. What's more, mindfulness has been tied to a number of positive outcomes, like higher job satisfaction and sleep quality. Unless you feel overly concerned for your employer's bottom line, setting some time aside each day to practice mindfulness will undoubtedly improve your quality of life.

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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