Monotonous tasks may be made easier using mindfulness.

Mindfulness at work: why it matters

25 July 2022

The article at a glance

More mindful employees perceive their job as less boring and are less likely to quit, says a study co-authored by Jochen Menges of Cambridge Judge Business School.

More mindful employees perceive their job as less boring and are less likely to quit, says a study co-authored by Jochen Menges of Cambridge Judge Business School.

How mindfulness impacts quality of work

Jochen Menges.
Dr Jochen Menges

In monotonous jobs, “mindful” employees are more satisfied with their job, less likely to quit, and think that their job is less boring than do workers who are less mindful, says a recent study on mindfulness at work.  

The paper finds further that mindfulness boosts the quality but not the quantity of work performed, what the study refers to as a “double-edged sword” for task performance in monotonous jobs. 

The research is based on 174 blue-collar workers at a Mexican company who perform highly repetitive tasks at one of many maquiladoras that offer simple processing and assembly services near the Mexico-US border under a special tax-free agreement. 

The study published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, the journal of the British Psychological Society, integrates research on task monotony with mindfulness theory to find that mindfulness is “positively related to job satisfaction and negatively to turnover intentions, partly mediated through boredom.” 

“Monotonous jobs are held by millions of people around the world,” says study co-author Jochen Menges, who teaches at both the University of Zürich and Cambridge Judge Business School. “More research needs to be done about those jobs. For example, mindfulness research has so far focused mostly on white-collar workers. Our research now seeks to redress the balance in favour of blue-collar workers. We find that more mindful employees perceive their monotonous job as less boring and have higher job satisfaction, and are thus less likely to leave.” 

A gap in mindfulness research for blue-collar workers

During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, magazines and newspapers published many articles recommending how to deal with boredom caused by remote work. Among other measures, mindfulness – defined as receptive attention and awareness of what is happening in the present moment – has been recommended as a potential remedy, largely in response to a great surge of organisational interest in the concept in recent years.  

However, while boredom in relation to remote work may be a temporary nuisance for white-collar workers, many workers in the manufacturing, service, and agricultural sectors around the world face boredom daily because of monotonous jobs that require the completion of repetitive tasks.  

A closer look at existing research and organisations that are adopting mindfulness suggests that workplace mindfulness has been examined and implemented largely in the context of white-collar jobs, where there are relatively high levels of variety and human interaction. In contrast, monotonous work environments have received little attention in the mindfulness literature, despite their prevalence across many industries and regions.  

The origins of mindfulness

Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhist spiritual practices but has been studied in psychology since the 1980s. It concerns how individuals relate to themselves and to reality.  

In a state of mindfulness, individuals focus their attention on and become aware of what is happening in the present moment; this attention and awareness are characterised as being open and receptive. Receptive attention and awareness can be brought to bear on external stimuli, but also on internal stimuli such as bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions. 

Mindfulness has been conceptualised at different, interrelated levels. At the organisational level, it refers to the collective attention that “enables managers and employees to minimise errors, remain vigilant, and respond effectively to unexpected events”, the study says. In this connection, interest has mostly been given to how mindful attention facilitates reliability and learning from failure in high-reliability organisations where negative events may have severe consequences.  

The benefits of mindfulness training in the workplace

For many organisations, ensuring a high-quality work output in repetitive work conditions is a great challenge. Mindfulness may help employees experience a sense of mastery in highly repetitive job conditions by buffering from the negative impact of boredom, the study finds. 

Therefore, if quality work is more important than quantity, organisations should recognise and support employee mindfulness: incorporating mindfulness training into the workplace could be a promising way to increase work quality and lower turnover in monotonous jobs. 

Training programmes are already successfully being applied in the organisational context, thus providing organisations that rely on monotonous tasks with a feasible way to reduce employees’ error rates and improve their attitudes towards their jobs, as well as helping them to feel less bored. 

However, this is not to suggest that mindfulness or mindfulness training is a panacea for the many problems associated with monotonous work tasks. Much needs to change about these jobs – from how they are designed to how they are paid. 

The research thus points to the ethical framework of mindfulness, which suggests that mindfulness training should be founded on ethical intentions and practices that respect participants’ lives. That framework also considers participants as an integral part of ethical mindfulness, rather than just recipients who, through the training, increase productivity for their organisation.  

By understanding how mindfulness matters not just for white-collar jobs, but also for blue-collar jobs, the study offers insights into the work that the millions of employees in monotonous jobs do every day.  

The study, entitled “It’s so boring – or is it? Examining the role of mindfulness for work performance and attitudes in monotonous jobs”, is co-authored by Andreas Wihler of the University of Exeter; Ute Regina Hülsheger of Maastricht University; Jochen Reb of Singapore Management University; Jochen Menges of the University of Zurich and Cambridge Judge Business School.