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Mindfulness Can Beat Tech Stress at Work


Editor’s note: Doctors get burned out, too. Read the Medscape Physician Burnout & Depression Report 2024: ‘We Have Much Work to Do’

March 8, 2024—Texts. Emails. Video meetings. Texts to remind you of upcoming video meetings.

And on and on it goes, until what technology experts and psychologists call the digital dark side of technology — stress, anxiety, a feeling of being overloaded — wipes you out, jeopardizing your mental and physical health.

However, preventing that burned out feeling is possible, experts say,  by practicing mindfulness, an age-old approach focused on being aware of your feelings in the moment without judgment or interpretation. Mindful breathing, for instance, focuses on paying attention to your breath as you inhale and exhale. With a mindfulness approach, workers can leverage technology so they are more productive, less stressed, and more in control.

Mindfulness Over Digital Confidence?

In a new study,  researchers looked at participants’ mindfulness as well as their confidence with technology to determine if either, or both, buffered the dark sides of the digital workplace. These dark sides include stress, overload, anxiety, fear of missing out (FOMO), and addiction, said Elizabeth Marsh, a PhD student at the University of Nottingham in England and a mindfulness teacher who led the study.

At the start, Marsh briefly described mindfulness to the participants but didn’t teach it to them. Many were already familiar with the practice. The researchers surveyed 142 workers, ages 18 to 54, 84% of them women, about their level of mindfulness in the digital workplace and their confidence in technology. 

They asked, too, about their levels of stress, overload, anxiety, FOMO (such as when working from home), and addiction. In addition to the survey, they did more in-depth interviews with 14 of the workers. Most worked 25 to 40 hours a week, with 25 workers logging more than 40. Only 5% said they were not stressed, with more than 73% reporting mild or moderate stress and more than 21% reporting extreme or very extreme stress.

Mindfulness was more effective than confidence in technology to protect against all the dark side effects, she said. But “confidence in technology was particularly helpful when people felt anxious and had fear of missing out [such as during remote work].’’

She wouldn’t go so far as to say mindfulness won out over being technologically confident. “But we can definitely say it’s really important,” she said. 

They also found, as suspected, that technology’s dark side effects took a toll on both physical and mental health, with digital stress and other dark side effects linked to higher burnout and poorer health.

Expert Perspectives

The growth of mindfulness in the Western world is traced back to Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, who set up a mindfulness-based program at the University of Massachusetts in 1979. Since then, many U.S. companies have launched mindfulness programs in the workplace. However, most are focused on coping mechanisms after the fact, trying to remedy the effects of technology overload, said Michael Foster, founder and chairman of the Institute for Organizational Science and Mindfulness, which advocates for science-based mindfulness and mental health in the workplace.

The new study, he said, “starts with untwisting the various mental and emotional challenges at work so that they can be addressed through intentionally aimed neural training [with mindfulness.]”  

According to Foster, who wasn’t involved in the British study, “workplace wellness is completely reactive and way behind the science.”

Companies should see this new study as proof that mindfulness training can shift the organization to a more proactive stance and give leaders and workers the mental and emotional skills to “more effectively and successfully navigate the digital workplace.” 

Mindfulness programs in the workplace can reduce health care costs and increase productivity by double digits, according to Foster’s organization.

Mindfulness in Action

Participants in the British study shared some of their mindfulness techniques during the interviews. One cited taking a few deep breaths when the work gets overwhelming and pausing before continuing.

Checking in with oneself throughout the workday, another said, is important, actually asking yourself, “Am I mentally OK?” “How am I feeling physically?”

Others decided they needed more boundaries around technology, reducing the amount of engagement time when working from home. Others would turn off notifications at times or unplug totally in the evening.

Google’s Mindfulness Guru

The new research echoes previous evidence about the value of mindfulness, said Mirabai Bush, a mindfulness expert and senior fellow at the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, a global community advocating for contemplative practices such as mindfulness. What’s unique about the recent study, she said, is it combines mindfulness with the concept of digital confidence and the finding that mindfulness protects against more of technology’s side effects. 

That, she said,  “raises up its potential and importance in the workplace. No one seems to know what to do with this digital stress.” 

In 2007, Bush was co-developer of Google’s mindfulness program, called Search Inside Yourself.  It has become an independent educational institute, teaching mindfulness to government workers and nonprofit organizations. During the launch at Google, Bush taught mindfulness to young engineers who, as she put it, had spent the greater part of their working lives looking at screens, with little face-to-face interaction. Persuading engineers to talk about feelings and taking a breath was a challenge but doable, she found.  

In the early course, she said, “we talked about mindful email.” It includes: “Write out the email. Take three breaths. Look again. Imagine how the person who was going to receive it will feel emotionally and intelligently.” Ask: Is it the wrong message? 

One engineer needed to convince a worker to do something and aimed for a tone that was asking but not demanding. He wrote and rewrote an email mindfully, then reported back: “I did something radical. I picked up the phone.” He realized the tone of an email would make his request sound demanding, no matter how many times he rewrote it. 

Mindfulness Communities

Four years ago, Megan Whitney set up a mindfulness community at Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks, pantries, and local meal programs. Workers from 200 food banks can access the online program, said Whitney, a senior manager at the organization who is also certified to teach mindfulness. One practice, called “minutes to arrive,” invites everyone to set a timer for 1 minute before a meeting and just breathe, eyes open or closed.

“Food bank work is highly stressful,” Whitney said. One user told her: “It can feel lonely in the nonprofit world. People don’t understand what I do as a food banker.” The community helps her feel connected, she said.

Other Mindfulness Research

“Practicing mindfulness can help digital users to become more aware of their habitual and unconscious responses to digital interaction –for example, doom scrolling, task switching, and habitual phone checking — and take decisive action to protect their well-being,” said David Harley, PhD, principal lecturer in psychology at the University of Brighton in the U.K. who wrote a book based on his research of using mindfulness in a digital world.

He does take exception to one measure used in the new study, which looked at “trait mindfulness,” which he said indicates that the mindfulness has to be a characteristic the person already has. Instead of looking for people who practice mindfulness, employers should provide the training, he said.

Do-It-Yourself Workplace Mindfulness

Workers at companies without formal mindfulness programs can learn and practice it on their own. Here are some suggestions from the experts:

  • Anchor yourself in your immediate bodily experience, Harley said. “Pay attention to how your body feels while engaged in digital interactions.”
  • Reducing your digital distractions can help. “Close down all devices, windows, and apps other than the one you are currently working with and turn off all notifications,” Harley said.
  • “Come back to your breath,” Harley said, explaining that being aware of how you are breathing is valuable, even for a moment.
  • Silence the phone or turn down notifications for the different apps, Marsh suggested.
  • Learning basic mindfulness is straightforward, Bush said. “Sit down, close your eyes, watch your breath.”  While self-teaching is possible, “it’s good to learn from a teacher in the beginning.” Many online resources guide users through the practice of mindfulness.

The research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council-Midlands Graduate School. 



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