Meditation in workplaces and schools

Mindfulness and meditation in the workplace: An acceptance and commitment therapy approach

Frank W. Bond, Paul E. Flaxman, and Joda Lloyd

Introduction

There is a wide-ranging and growing body of evidence that mental health and behavioral effectiveness are influenced more by how people interact with their thoughts and feelings than by their form (e.g., how negative they are) or frequency. Research has demonstrated this key finding in a wide range of areas. For example, in chronic pain, psychosocial disability is predicted more by the experiential avoidance of pain than by the degree of pain (McCracken 1998). A number of therapeutic approaches have been developed that share this key insight: Distress tolerance (e.g., Brown et al. 2002; Schmidt et al. 2007), thought suppression (e.g., Wenzlaff and Wegner 2000), and mindfulness (Baer 2003). It is also central to a number of the newer contextual cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) approaches to treatment, such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT; Segal et al. 2002), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT; Linehan 1993), metacognitive therapy (Wells 2011), and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT; Hayes et al. 1999).

The purpose of this chapter is to describe how ACT conceptualizes mindfulness and tries to enhance it in the pursuit of promoting mental health and behavioral effectiveness (e.g., productivity at work). To this end, we discuss ACT’s key construct of psychological flexibility, which involves mindfulness, and how it has led to a somewhat different approach not only to conceptualizing mindfulness, but also to how we try to enhance it in the workplace. In so doing, we hope to show that whilst formal meditation practice is valued in ACT, it is only one strategy that is used to promote mindfulness, as well as psychological flexibility more generally.

ACT hypothesizes that psychological flexibility[1] is a primary determinant of mental health and behavioral effectiveness. It refers to the ability to fully contact the present moment and the thoughts, feelings, memories, and physiological sensations it contains without needless defense or avoidance and, depending upon what the situation affords, persisting or changing behavior in the pursuit of goals and values (Hayes et al. 2006).

A key implication of this concept—and hence its name—is that, in any given situation, people need to be flexible as to the extent to which they base their actions on their internal events (e.g., thoughts, feelings, memories, and physiological sensations) or the contingencies of reinforcement (or punishment) that are present in that situation. ACT maintains, and research suggests, that people are more psychologically healthy and perform more effectively when they base their actions on their own values and goals (Bond et al. 2011). Thus, if a person values being a caring friend, she may broach a difficult topic, even if doing so is anxiety provoking; in another situation, however, she might refrain from mentioning something, even if she strongly feels like doing so, in order to pursue her personally meaningful goal of being a caring friend. In short, when people are psychologically flexible, they base their behavior, in any given situation, more on their values and goals and less on their ever-changeable internal events or current situational contingencies (Bond et al. 2011).

An implication of acting flexibly is that people will experience, at times, unwanted psychological events (e.g., anxiety) whilst pursuing their values- based goals. Thus, a great deal of ACT theory and practice emphasizes the use of mindfulness strategies for experiencing these events, so that they have less of a negative impact on individuals’ psychological health and their ability to pursue their values-based goals. When people are mindful of their psychological events, they deliberately observe them on a moment-to- moment basis, in a non-elaborative, open, curious, and non-judgmental manner (Brown and Ryan 2003; Kabat-Zinn 1990; Linehan 1993; Marlatt and Kristeller 1999). Thus, psychological flexibility emphasizes both committed action toward meaningful goals and mindfulness. It is this combination of mutually enhancing processes that is likely to account for the many mental health and performance benefits associated with this individual characteristic (see Bond et al. 2011, 2013; in prep.; and Hayes et al. 2006 for reviews).

  • [1] For historical reasons, psychological flexibility has also been referred to as psychologicalacceptance, and psychological inflexibility has been referred to as experiential avoidance.Bond et al. (2011) discuss these reasons.
 
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