Mindfulness in the workplace has both positive and negative consequences, according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. The researchers found that employees with greater mindfulness were less likely to engage in surface acting on the job, but more likely to experience self-control depletion when they did. This loss of self-control was negatively associated with job performance.
It has been widely touted that mindfulness — the ability to be aware and present in the moment — is beneficial for both employees and organizations. Studies have indeed suggested that mindfulness boosts self-control, which then enhances employee well-being, performance, and relationships. But study authors Christopher J. Lyddy and his colleagues suggest that mindfulness at work may have its drawbacks.
The authors explain that some employees engage in “surface acting” on the job, a behavior that involves putting on fake emotions and suppressing one’s true feelings. Surface acting is associated with a range of negative outcomes such as lower job satisfaction and higher emotional strain. It is also associated with depleted self-control since acting out fake emotions requires psychological effort and extensive self-control.
While studies have suggested that mindful employees are less likely to engage in this type of surface acting, Lyddy and colleagues suggest that those who do will experience worse self-control depletion. This is because people who are mindful are more in tune with their emotions and experiences and more likely to be aware that their actions are not in line with their genuine feelings.
An initial study was conducted using data from two different samples of employees from property management and management consulting organizations in the United States. The researchers found that employees who engaged in more surface acting (e.g., “I hide my true feelings about a situation.”) experienced greater self-control depletion (e.g., “I feel like my willpower is gone.”). In line with their hypothesis, this effect was stronger among employees with greater trait mindfulness.
A next study was conducted using data from four samples of employees pooled from hospitals, financial services organizations, and leadership consulting organizations in the U.S. Data was collected from employees and their supervisors, at three different time points spaced six weeks apart. Consistent with the first study, employees who engaged in more surface acting experienced greater self-control depletion, and this was especially true among mindful employees.
Further analysis revealed that surface acting had a detrimental effect on various aspects of employee performance via self-control depletion. And again, this effect was stronger among employees with greater trait mindfulness. These aspects of employee performance included helping colleagues with their workloads and adhering to informal rules of the organization.
Overall, the studies suggest that mindful employees are less likely to put on fake emotions on the job, a finding consistent with past research. But for the first time, it was found that when mindful employees do turn to surface acting, they suffer more self-control depletion, which has a negative impact on their job performance.
“Although mindfulness has been extensively theorized to buffer individuals against aversive experiences,” Lyddy and colleagues write, “our findings suggest that mindfulness can also amplify negative responses to aversive experiences.”
The researchers note that laboratory studies will be needed to provide insight into causality. They additionally recommend that future studies investigate the underlying processes that explain why mindfulness can sometimes protect against negative reactions and sometimes intensify them.
The study, “The Costs of Mindfulness at Work: The Moderating Role of Mindfulness in Surface Acting, Self-Control Depletion, and Performance Outcomes”, was authored by Christopher J. Lyddy, Darren J. Good, Mark C. Bolino, Phillip S. Thompson, and John Paul Stephens.