Study on Mindfulness Meditation in the Workplace

A new study soon to be published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes is summarized in an op-ed in The New York Times:

Briefly, the study’s authors conclude that mindfulness meditation in the workplace decreases productivity.

I would have to read the entire study before I would render an analysis, but based on my over 25 years in academia, I would venture that there are any number of flaws in the experiment and the interpretation of evidence by the researchers. Just a hunch, but I bet a different study conducted using different activities and questions would reveal different findings.


It might be flawed, but if the results stand up to further study, I would say they are not entirely surprising, nor unwelcome. It should come as no shock that prolonged meditation tends to unravel the samsaric value system, and the reinforcing cycles of craving and fear upon which modern economic productivity is based.


If less motivated is code word for less stressed out over deadlines and perfectionism, then sure, it’s a good thing.


I just spent some time reading a number of reader comments about the essay in The New York Times. Many of the comments are far more insightful than the op-ed piece itself.


I think mindfulness (Sati) in isolation from Noble Eightfold Path could be de-motivating or even could lead to a unwholesome mental state.

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Even if it is combined with the Noble Eightfold Path, that combination will only be motivating insofar as it motivates one to achieve certain spiritual goals. It won’t necessarily motivate you to maximize your output at a shoe factory or book shipment facility, or earn larger bonuses and commissions selling insurance. What pushes people to be more productive in a material economic sense is mostly greed and aversion.


I fully agree with this statement, but would like to add that, in my case, the need for praise and maintaining other people’s perceptions of my work ethic are also strong motivators. I should say were strong motivators, because now that my meditation practice has reached its current level, I tend to see that quality manifesting. At that point I can refocus on mindfulness of the body, which in turn has the effect of slowing me down and remembering that the whole process is simply a convention of earning a living. Giving maximum effort will only lead to more stress, as continually performing at a high level brings the expectation that that high level will always be maintained.


This is complete misunderstanding of Buddha’s teaching. There is no two life as such spiritual life and the non-spiritual life. You practice start outside the cushion. What you do in the cushion is the training. If you understand and follow the NEFP you will be very productive in every sense.

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The people under study were recruited from services like Amazon Mechanical Turk. This study wasn’t done “in the workplace”, it was done by random people who were paid a one time fee.

Quote about one of the experiments in the study:

One hundred and one Amazon Mechanical Turk workers whose location was set to the United States took part in exchange for $1.35 each

Here are the tasks they did, which according to the New York times are “similar to everyday workplace jobs: editing business memos, entering text into a computer and so on.”

  1. Word anagram puzzle
  2. Edit cover letter
  3. Write about what they had been doing in the past month
  4. Read news stories on Google News
  5. Copy text from ‘legal terms and conditions of a software application’

From the study:

Our aim was to mimic tasks that might be done in the workplace in order to enhance external validity. More than 67% of U.S. employees report being not engaged in their jobs, according to Gallup polls over the past 15 years (Mann & Harter, 2016), hinting at the tedium of workplace duties.

Another explanation for these findings might be that when you’re doing something boring and meaningless, being aware of that makes you less motivated.

Like, why not just reduce the soul-crushing tedium of many jobs instead, if you want motivated workers?

It seems to me that the NY times article seriously overstates the generalization of this study; i.e. the article makes it sound likely that the findings would be true in a real workplace, but this is not certain.

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What if you are a soldier? Will you be a more productive soldier once you begin following the precepts?

The Buddha was raised to be a member of the warrior class. But he abandoned that life. He abandoned family life too, and warned people again developing attachments to dear ones. He reduced his wardrobe to a robe, and reduced his hairstyle to baldness. He owned no fixed home. He recommended eating only the amount needed for sustenance, while spending the rest of one’s time either in meditation or restrained talk about the dhamma with spiritual friends. He encountered highly productive Brahmim plantation householders, and criticized their way of life.

The Buddha thought most of what people spend their time making, acquiring and pursuing were illusory goals, born of our confusions. And yet these cravings are what drive most of the system of material production forward. People want to be more productive in that system because they want more things, higher profits, a better car, a better house, prettier and sexier sexual partners, lots of esteem from fellow-cravers, titles and advancement. People who have a hunger for these things have what their worldly bosses call “fire in the belly.” But that fire is the fire of greed, hatred and delusion that the follower of he path is actually trying to put out. As one awakens, those pursuits seem increasingly pointless and dissipating.

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Yes, that seems like a bad study.

I don’t think it’s the study that’s bad, it’s the NYT article that makes it sound like the study is delivering much more than it does.

The study is a good reason for researchers to test if the same hypotheses hold in a real workplace, and then people can start drawing conclusions.

I think this is true, but there’s also people who work hard because they are motivated to help or make life better for other people.

Doctors, nurses, charities, firefighters, police, civil servants, scientists etc.; people who are primarily motivated by ‘making the world a better place’ but need an income too.

There are even things like social entrepreneurship, where people start businesses in order to tackle societal issues, make the economy more sustainable etc.

It makes sense to me that, for example, a Buddhist lay-person could make his/her work a powerful source of joy if it was creating a lot of skillful happiness for other people.


I’m at the office a couple of hours before anybody else gets there, so that I can do computer and network maintenance without interrupting anybody. I usually do a short sit of the keep-returning-to-stillness sort before I start, and keep a set of cushions in my office for the purpose.

There have been times when I had something “really important” that I absolutely had to get done as quickly as possible, and skipped the sit for several days. I can definitely tell the difference-- if I’ve done my little session, I’m less reactive and better focused. I don’t do it to achieve that result, but that’s usually what happens anyway, so I’ll take it.