By Linda F. Martin, CSP, PG, CHMM, SMS, CIH and Jan K. Wachter, D.Sc., CSP, CIH, CQE, CRE
This article first appeared in the August, 2018 edition of Professional Safety: Journal of the American Society of Safety Professionals. Republished here with permission from the author. Find more here: https://www.assp.org/publications/professional-safety
Mindfulness & Working in the Present Moment
Research on mindfulness in the workplace has mostly focused on the objective of trying to improve levels of work-related well-being (Van Gordon, Shonin, Zangeneh, et al., 2014). Companies such as Dow Chemical, Aetna, General Mills, Google, Nike, Ford and Apple have been using mindfulness initiatives such as meditation, yoga, breath control, stretching and the distribution of positive messages via e-mail and slide presentations to help employees reduce stress, improve mental and emotional resiliency, promote creativity, increase productivity and become more engaged with their work and each other (Mindful Spring, 2018; OnlineMBA, 2017; Pinsker, 2015).
However, these mindfulness initiatives have been mostly aimed at executive and management level employees. Efforts on increasing mindfulness for line workers have been largely ignored.
According to Hafenbrack (2017), “mindfulness meditation is a practice [that] cultivates mindfulness, a state of consciousness in which people have present [emphasis added] awareness and nonjudgmental acceptance of internal and external experience. This idea is sourced from traditional definitions of mindfulness (Brown & Ryan, 2003; Dane, 2011; Kabat-Zinn, 1994) that have its primary focus on attention patterns tied to the present rather than on the past or the future.
However, in accomplishing safe work and preventing errors or incidents, workers must exhibit mindfulness relative to the past, present and future simultaneously, and this requires a multipronged approach.
Focus on past and future events is generally accomplished through training, sharing lessons learned and creating job hazard analyses (JHAs) and their review with each task iteration. Because mindfulness techniques have the capability to induce an enhanced awareness of task detail and capacity for action (Joyner & Lardner, 2008; Weick, Sutcliffe & Obstfeld, 1999), incorporating more passive mindfulness techniques, such as anchoring the attention in the present moment, breathing exercises, mindful focus exercises and brief daily guided meditations, may positively influence how line workers manage their work in the present moment. Workers manage the present moment by addressing competing internal thoughts, controlling emotions and responding to the external environment during task performance.
Several studies have recently been undertaken to assess the effects of mindfulness in promoting performance-related behaviors (Dane, 2011; Dane & Brummel, 2014; Glomb, Duffy, Bono, et al., 2011; Hulsheger, Feinholdt & Nubold, 2015; Joyner & Lardner, 2008; Reb, Narayanan & Chaturvedi, 2014; van Vugt & Jha, 2011). Joyner and Lardner (2008) found that employing mindfulness training in the workplace has applications in improving task reliability and in promoting the contemplation of immediate dangers prior to the start of work tasks. Glomb, et al. (2011), found that mindfulness is associated with both a focused attention on the present and an increased breadth of awareness that allows employees to better receive signals during task performance, to put these signals into proper context and to make informed decisions on correct ways to proceed. Additionally, full attention to the present moment is directly tied to a mental state that suppresses conceptual elaboration or emotional reactivity (van Vugt & Jha, 2011). This more thoughtful and appropriate reactivity to the present moment and the ability to adapt without internal conflict may result in more confident employees who behave well under stress and uncertainty.
If incorporating mindfulness training can serve to increase workers’ mindful uneasiness (see “Mindfulness Definitions” sidebar) and attentional control (e.g., employees maintaining attention to tasks), it is expected that safety rules and procedures can be better identified, recalled and followed under this relaxed yet focused state and overall job performance can be improved. Because reliability is an important factor in the pursuit of quality and safety, it stands to reason that by incorporating mindfulness activities in the workplace, incidents and their associated costs can be reduced. Mindfulness training would then be especially useful in workplaces and industries that are dynamic or demand acute attention to detail in support of preventing errors or incidents.
For example, Leung, Liang and Yu (2016) propose that construction workers are subjected to excessive stress due to the demanding and dynamic nature of the work. This stress results in higher incident rates and lower job performance. Mindfulness techniques can therefore be used as ways to induce adaptive coping and improve both safety and overall job performance. In this respect, the construction industry and its exposure of workers to tasks with high incident and fatality rates (e.g., work at heights, electrical work, operation of heavy equipment, use of power tools) may be a strong beneficiary of mindfulness training techniques.
Further, if mindfulness indeed lowers stress and anxiety, enhances focus and improves attentional performance, tasks that require an instinctual, focused response, such as implementation of an emergency action plan, may also greatly benefit from mindfulness training.
Mindfulness Within a Safety Management System Context
In recent years, organizations have been increasingly using safety management systems (SMS) to more effectively detect and correct hazards, control and reduce risk, and better utilize information for measurement and continuous improvement purposes. Wachter and Yorio (2013a) suggest using a hybrid HP and SMS model as an enhanced approach to SMS. The approach posits that workers should be the center of processes, procedures, facilities, methods and practices (Figure 1) and, thus, are the first and perhaps best line of defense in detecting and reacting to errors or flaws in SMS. In this approach, worker mindfulness has a place front and center in implementing an effective defensive SMS strategy and in achieving SMS improvements (e.g., being mindful to improvement opportunities with methods, practices, processes and procedures) (Figure 2, p. 8). A mindful accountability of this fact/duty with workers can prepare a strong base for SMS sustainability and effectiveness.
If workers feel psychologically safe (i.e., empowered to make suggestions for improvement, report and correct hazards, and respond to uncertainty and changes in their work environment by adjusting the SMS without fear of reprisal), then mindfulness initiatives may have a significant place as antecedents in this continual improvement process. Likewise, because there is evidence to support a connection between increased states of mindfulness and self-regulation, resilience, better social relationships and improved task performance (Good, Lyddy, Glomb, et al., 2016), mindfulness training initiatives should have a positive effect on safety performance.
Mindfulness vs. a Behavior-Based Safety Context
Mindfulness initiatives should not be confused with traditional behavior-based safety (BBS) initiatives. Traditional BBS initiatives rely on workers observing other workers’ behaviors. In BBS theory, consequences control behaviors and observers’ supportive or constructive feedback to those being observed acts as consequences potential reinforcing safe behaviors (supportive feedback) and not reinforcing unsafe behaviors (constructive feedback). In addition, workers use peer pressure on other workers to exhibit safe behaviors to attain organizational or department-level BBS goals and possible recognition and awards.
Mindfulness initiatives, on the other hand, attempt to do several things to reduce human error, such as enhance worker focus, reduce stress, promote caution and hone workers’ abilities to identify, acknowledge and deal with uncertainties in the workplace. It is more than using BBS-like psychology to change behaviors as an end result (consequences). Mindfulness changes how behavioral triggers (e.g., organizational and individual error precursors) are handled. Mindfulness attempts to arm workers with strategies to deal with potential error both offensively (e.g., workers approaching tasks with mindful uneasiness, focus and lower stress levels) and defensively (e.g., workers dealing appropriately with error precursor conditions once identified).
Thus, mindfulness training may be more powerful than BBS training since the former potentially changes the characteristics of workers as they deal with uncertainty and the less-than-optimal work environment, while BBS training supports the reflection of a certain inventory of safe behaviors that may not be comprehensive or specific enough to safely accomplish tasks, especially under changing or unique circumstances.
Traditional mindfulness training techniques are rooted in programs that were first created for improving overall physical and mental health: mindfulness-based
stress reduction and mindfulness- based cognitive therapy. However, these programs typically last up to 8 weeks of formal classes with the addition of self-regulated daily practice. Pragmatically, mindfulness training for line workers must be adapted to accommodate the organization’s need not to extensively interrupt or have detrimental effects on production, service or accomplishment of work tasks. Mindfulness initiatives, such as meditation, mindfulness classes or yoga in an executive office atmosphere, can be 60 to 90 minutes over a lunch period or before and after work. Mindfulness training for job sites or line workers likely must be even more compressed (e.g., 10 minutes or less, but occurring multiple times each day).
In a working environment where organizations live by metrics (e.g., cost, productivity, safety), the use of mindfulness training and the generation of specific mindfulness programs and apps targeted toward line workers will need to be evaluated. Cost benefits due to the reduction in incidents and errors over time must be compared with costs of mindfulness training and program implementation (e.g., time consumed, training costs, productivity disruptions). However, the real benefits of mindfulness training that should be embraced by senior managers may be reflected in more contented, engaged, happier and less stressed employees, effects that may be difficult to directly quantify with traditional metrics. As noted, adaption of traditional time-intensive mindfulness training programs to line workers should be performed. Targeted smartphone apps may be the answer. The generation of these apps has advantages of portability and accessibility and can be adapted to integrate key components of mindfulness training (e.g., guided meditations, breathing exercises, body scans) along with company and task-specific objectives and situations.
Studies are planned to take place over the next few years at Indiana University of Pennsylvania to test the effectiveness of mindfulness training on line employees in a highly dynamic work environment such as construction where mindfulness-based training does not appear to have yet been tested as an interventional technique for safety performance improvement. These planned empirical studies using the mindfulness training construct with line workers in dynamic work environments may hold the key to understanding how revolutionary this tool can be to employers, workers and safety professionals from a safety perspective. It is hoped and even likely that the concept of mindfulness and mindfulness training will eventually be as important in the practice of safety as it has been in other disciplines.
Following are several definitions related to the human performance/ safety management systems approach to workplace mindfulness.
- Mindfulness: Paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally.
- Psychological safety: A shared belief that the worker is safe for interpersonal risk taking.
- Mindful accountability: Acknowledgment by the worker that s/he is the center of the safety management system.
- Mindful adaptivity: Workers are focused and alert and can adapt to unanticipated hazards and changes.
- Mindful uneasiness: Workers approach their work tasks with thoughtful caution.
Implementing Workplace Mindfulness Training
The authors propose that mindfulness training must involve three important elements to be effective:
- attention to the present moment;
- attention to internal and external influences;
- attention without judgment.
By paying attention to the present moment, workers can detach themselves from automaticity, disrupt unsafe patterns and create focus on identifying areas for improving task performance. Use of traditional guided mindfulness techniques (Figure 3) that can be adapted to fit into normal work activities include shortened, informal daily exercises aimed at cultivating an accepting and nonjudgmental attitude to the present moment experiences:
- focus on body sensations (called body scan techniques);
- breathing space exercises (breath awareness for prescribed lengths of time);
- focus on daily routine activities with mindful awareness (e.g., eating, walking);
- adapted “loving kindness” exercises (initial focus on the breath/self, then direction of positive feelings toward others including difficult persons);
- specialized guided daily meditation modules at the beginning or throughout the work day.
Bio: Linda F. Martin, CSP, PG, CHMM, SMS, CIH, is a doctoral student in the Department of Safety Sciences at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She is corporate safety director at Bay Crane, an adjunct faculty member at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and a faculty member at Columbia Southern University. She holds a B.S. in Geology, an M.B.A. and an M.S. in Occupational Safety Management. Martin is the 2018 President of the Board of Directors for the Board of Certified Safety Professionals and a BCSP Ambassador. She is a professional member of ASSP’s Granite State Chapter.
Bio: Jan K. Wachter, D.Sc., CSP, CIH, CQE, CRE, is a professor and Ph.D. coordinator in the Department of Safety Sciences at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He holds a B.S. in Biology, an M.S. in Environmental Health, an M.B.A. and a D.Sc. in Hygiene from University of Pittsburgh. Prior to his academic career, Wachter was employed by Fortune 100 companies and the federal government as an environmental safety and health administrator and researcher. He is a professional member of ASSP’s Western Pennsylvania Chapter.