Friday, 22 March 2013

Forcing a smile at work? Mindfulness can help

Mindfulness is a way of operating that involves paying attention to events in a nonjudgmental way, and psychological research is corroborating its benefits, reported for millennia in other fields of knowledge.  A new paper by Ute Hülsheger and her colleagues takes a neat angle by focusing on one mechanism through which mindfulness might act: reducing reliance on an unproductive emotion regulation strategy, surface acting. As we've discussed before, surface acting involves adjusting or controlling your emotional expression in response to a felt emotion. When you put on a smile and force a calm voice in response to a querulous customer, that's surface acting. It's a common strategy, but research shows it to be psychologically draining, leading to emotional exhaustion and burnout.

Hülsheger's team predicted that mindfulness would decrease the need to surface act, by depersonalising the negative elements of the experience and interrupting automatic thought processes that lead first to undesired physiological responses and then trigger counterreactions (such as surface acting). To investigate this, they recruited 219 Dutch and Dutch-language Belgians into a diary study in which they were asked to record their experiences after work and prior to going to bed on five consecutive days.

After work, participants recorded their daily levels of mindfulness - sample items "Today I found myself doing things without paying attention", and their daily extent of surface acting - "Today I pretended to have emotions that I did not really have". Job satisfaction and emotional exhaustion, the outcome measures of interest, were taken separately before bed to avoid common method bias, where participants' ratings of some items contaminate ratings of others recorded in the same sitting.

The study used a fairly sophisticated statistical method called multilevel structural equation modelling. Effectively this means that the data on daily mindfulness can be distinguished into what is consistent for the individual, their 'mean mindfulness', and daily variations from this mean. The team found that both mean and daily mindfulness was associated with lower surface acting, and this in turn with less emotional exhaustion and more job satisfaction.

It could be that the causality runs in reverse to what Hülsheger's team proposed; perhaps we're simply more mindful on days we happen to do without surface acting. To investigate this a second study introduced experimental conditions, with 64 participants receiving ten days of mindfulness training and a further 42 doing without. The training was self-managed with instruction from written and audio materials, and involved common mindfulness techniques such as body scanning to encourage bodily awareness, as well as guided meditations.

The team found that the mindfulness group had significantly higher daily mindfulness ratings, as you would expect, and members of this group experienced less exhaustion and higher job satisfaction. The data suggested that for job satisfaction this effect was again mediated by the reduced surface acting seen in the mindfulness group. However this mediation wasn't observed for emotional exhaustion, possibly on account of lower power due to the smaller samples used.

The paper contributes to the growing body of research on the impact of mindfulness on workplace variables, and I find it a helpful one in refining our understanding. Mindfulness is used to refer to a range of phenomena - a trainable activity, a behavioural tendency, and a particular state - all of which are together examined in these studies. This is helpful in joining the dots and suggesting that the different phenomena do appear to be pointing at the same thing. This helps us build a picture: we are all more or less predisposed to mindful awareness, with our actual access to this state fluctuating day-by-day (around 38% of the variance was within-person) and influenced by even a short period of training.

ResearchBlogging.orgHülsheger, U., Alberts, H., Feinholdt, A., & Lang, J. (2013). Benefits of mindfulness at work: The role of mindfulness in emotion regulation, emotional exhaustion, and job satisfaction. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98 (2), 310-325 DOI: 10.1037/a0031313

Further reading:

Brown, KW, Ryan, RM, Creswell, JD (2007). Mindfulness: Theoretical Foundations and Evidence for its Salutary Effects. Psychological Inquiry, 18 (4) DOI:10.1080/10478400701598298 
pdf freely available here

1 comment:

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