With funding from University of California Risk Services and in collaboration with UC Irvine Environmental Health & Safety (EH&S), the Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute conducted a pilot study exploring the potential for mindfulness to improve health and safety in the workplace.
Mindfulness is defined as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., founding executive director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. In 1979, he developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), an evidence-based program that teaches secular, mindful meditation.
MBSR is now offered in over 250 medical centers, hospitals, and clinics around the world, and is the most widely studied mindfulness-based intervention. Research in medicine, psychology, healthcare, education, business, law, and the military demonstrates significant benefits, including physical and emotional improvements (Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt & Walach, 2004; Hoffman, Sawyer, Witt, & Oh, 2010), reduced stress (Chiesa & Seretti, 2009) and improved attention (Jha & Baime, 2007). Neuroscience research is examining the impact on brain structure and function, including a Harvard study (Holzel et al. 2011) showing measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress.
At UC Irvine, campus injury investigation metrics reveal that over 30 percent of the primary associated root cause of employee injuries (e.g., needlesticks/sharps, trips and falls) is that individuals are “inattentive or distracted.” Distraction is also a contributing factor to hospital medication errors.
Despite the impact of inattention and distraction on injuries and errors, traditional safety training programs rarely address these issues. Instead, they teach technical safety skills. In rare instances when attention is addressed, it is typically in the form of warning employees to “pay attention” to a hazard. However, being told to “pay attention” is not the same as teaching people how to pay attention, the primary aim of MBSR.
The Mindful Health & Safety study, which investigated whether mindfulness impacts the health and safety of employees, addressed methodological weaknesses in the mindfulness literature (e.g. lack of randomization, suboptimal or no controls, and sole use of self-report measures). For this pilot study, nurses were identified as the target research group, due to their large numbers and high rates of injuries.
Subjects were randomly assigned to either: 1) the experimental Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program (focused on meditative practices, including gentle yoga), or 2) an active control, Health Education program (focused on exercise, nutrition, and stress reduction). Both 8-week courses consisted of 2-hour weekly sessions, one 6-hour retreat, and 30-minutes of daily homework. Participating nurses were compensated with a maximum of 22 continuing education units, commensurate with attendance.