It’s 11am on a Tuesday and I’ve hit a wall. Tasks are piling up, emails go unanswered, and I’m already behind on my self-imposed deadlines for the week. But instead of fleeing to the kitchen for coffee, or simply panicking—the usual responses to stress—I pick up my phone and open a mindfulness app called Calm. And I’m not the only one who’s doing this.
In response to the mental health strain that comes with working from home during a pandemic, more of us are turning to apps in an effort to ease anxiety.
According to a report from app store intelligence firm, Sensor Tower, the 10 most popular mental wellness apps received almost 10 million downloads in April 2020—up 24% from January.
Calm, Headspace, Meditopia, and Breethe claim their guided meditations help users tackle stress, stay focused, and even sleep better—improvements that could all contribute to a happier and more productive professional life.
But do they really work?
How mindfulness can help you at work
Mindfulness meditations can help you at work in a few ways. First they help tackle stress— useful, since about 80% of employees experience workplace stress in the US alone.
Studies show that regular meditation reduces the production of cortisol, a hormone produced as part of the human body’s fight-or-flight response.
“With regular mindfulness meditation, people find themselves less stressed, more committed to their job, and with a greater sense of satisfaction,” explains Sankalp Chaturvedi, a professor of organizational behavior and leadership at Imperial College Business School, who has been studying mindfulness for 15 years.
Practicing mindfulness at work can also help you focus. According to a 2018 study, regular meditation improves attention span and alertness.
This is because mindfulness lets us practice staying in the moment, helping prevent the mind from drifting away from tasks. And the further up the corporate ladder you climb, the benefits of mindfulness only grow.
“In multiple studies across different countries, we found that leader mindfulness has a positive impact on employee performance and stress,” says Sankalp.
In other words, mindful leaders are often better leaders. They remain calm and really pay attention to their team members, allowing them to make measured decisions and better understand employee needs.
Finally, as little as 10 minutes of mindfulness practice can boost creativity, according to a study conducted by Dirk Deichmann (right), associate professor at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University.
“We found that when managers meditate before a brainstorming session, they come up with more diverse ideas,” Dirk explains. “We believe that’s because people are more open-minded after a meditation—they’ve been pulled out of their tunnel vision.
“I was interested in trying something that would be easy to implement, we were surprised by how effective that short meditation was.”
Although Dirk found that the creativity benefits diminished with persistent meditation, stress reduction was maintained.
Do mindfulness apps work?
The research shows that even brief mindfulness meditations not only reduce workplace stress, but also improve your focus, creativity, leadership, and sense of job satisfaction.
But can the same benefits be delivered through an app? Provided users make time to really focus on the guided meditations these apps offer, the answer seems to be a resounding yes.
When I first downloaded Calm, I was slightly skeptical that listening to a soothing voice gliding over new age music could do anything other than give me a vague impression of being in a spa.
However, after completing just a couple of sessions I realized there was something to it. Focusing on my breathing and letting thoughts drift past non-judgmentally left me feeling grounded and relaxed.
"Training mindfulness with an app may help to make a difference in dealing with daily stressors,” reflects Suzanne van Gils (right), associate professor of communication and culture at BI Norwegian Business School.
"Mindfulness is trainable, and some studies have shown the positive effects of mindfulness apps such as Headspace."
Sankalp from Imperial College adds that although apps are no substitute for a professionally taught mindfulness course, they are a big help—and a great entry point to the practice.
With coronavirus closing off other stress reduction activities like socializing and travelling, now is the perfect time to try meditation.
“We need to find ways to mentally relax. That’s the pressure point, and that’s the challenge that mindfulness apps are helping to solve,” he says.
Sankalp Chaturvedi is professor of organizational behavior at Imperial College Business School in London
The limitations of mindfulness apps
Despite all the benefits of practicing mindfulness, downloading an app is no quick fix for mental wellness at work.
“Work circumstances have a substantial influence on people’s work stress, so Apps are not the ultimate cure for all situations," says Suzanne.
Another downside is the lack of opportunity for interaction presented by these apps, believes Na Fu, associate professor of human resources at Trinity Business School.
Na’s team at Trinity practices mindfulness as a group every week, listening to a qualified instructor live. This provides opportunities to engage with the meditation more deeply by discussing it with peers, all while socializing at a time when many people feel isolated by coronavirus restrictions.
However, even programs like this have commitment issues. Staff who enjoy the practice often drop out in favor of an extra 30 minutes at their desk.
The same is true for mindfulness apps. For busy professionals, it can be hard to consistently prioritize meditation. Sitting and using Calm for 10-or-15 minutes during the workday brought up some uncomfortable feelings of guilt before I started to see the benefits.
“I think mindfulness is a brilliant individual practice, but if organizations want to run it, they need to think about how they can make time, and what they’re trying to achieve,” Na reflects.
Companies that want to invest in employee mental health must also think of mindfulness as one component of a broader wellness plan.
According to Na’s research, the best strategies for improving mental wellness at work are clear, empathetic communication between leadership and staff, along with employee recognition.
In the world of remote working, these considerations are more important than ever.
“People are anxious about the future of their job, and how we’ll get out of the pandemic,” says Na (right). “I think a lot of organizations could make them feel more secure by communicating their decisions transparently.”
As these decisions are made, and the world gradually recovers from coronavirus, Imperial's Sankalp believes that mindfulness will be a powerful tool.
“Even as vaccines roll out, and restrictions ease, the mental health impact of coronavirus will linger long-term,” he says. “As governments push for online solutions in order to help more people, mindfulness can be tremendously useful.”
Though turning to your smartphone and an app during your lunch break for 15 minutes of calm may not be for everyone, the practice certainly has a convert in me. I won’t be giving up Calm any time soon.
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