Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people found mindfulness practices effective at helping to alleviate the boredom associated with remote working. So, could jobs that are normally considered tedious, such as working on an assembly line or providing delivery services, also be improved with mindfulness?
Professor Jochen Reb at Singapore Management University is part of an international team of researchers trying to understand how we can combat work-induced boredom.
Read their original research: http://doi.org/10.1111/joop.12370
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In this episode we will delve into the research around the role that mindfulness can have on people’s task performance when they are doing monotonous work.
We all get bored at work from time-to-time, but some jobs are more monotonous than others. That’s why an international team of researchers have been trying to understand how we can reduce work-induced boredom for people doing monotonous jobs, such as working on an assembly line or providing delivery services.
The team tested an idea that mindfulness – a receptive attention to, and awareness of, what is happening in the present moment – could reduce boredom in employees doing monotonous work.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, we have become much more aware of how bored people can get while remote working. This has led to an increase in research into how we can deal with boredom caused by remote work. Through this, mindfulness has been found to be an effective way to reduce the boredom.
Mindfulness originated as a Buddhist practice, but has since become widespread across different cultures in a secularized form. It concerns focusing attention on, and becoming aware of, what is happening in the present moment. Attention can be focused on external stimuli, such as what is going on around you, but also internal stimuli, such as bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions. There are differences between individuals’ levels of mindfulness, due to genetic differences, environmental influences, or personal practice.
The finding that mindfulness reduces boredom in remote working could improve job performance in white collar job roles within the developed world. Silicon Valley, for example, is now a hotbed for mindfulness-at-work practices. While this research into mindfulness at work may be useful for the white-collar workers in the developed world, it is also important to consider blue-collar workers in manufacturing, service, and agricultural sectors. Many blue-collar jobs involve repetitive tasks, and this repetitiveness is considered to be the defining feature of monotonous jobs. Monotony can cause boredom, and yet monotonous work environments have received relatively little attention by researchers, despite the prevalence of this type of work around the world.
What is well-known is that job performance and job attitudes in employees are negatively affected when carrying out monotonous work. So, it is important to understand monotonous workplace boredom, and how it can be reduced.
This was the quest an international research team consisting of Professor Andreas Wihler from the University of Exeter, Professor Ute Huelsheger from Maastricht University, Professor Jochen Reb from Singapore Management University and Professor Jochen Menges from the University of Zurich. The team conducted their research with a hundred and ninety-two employees of a Mexican company offering simple services in processing, assembling, and manufacturing. Employees of the company all do the same, highly repetitive tasks and experience the same monotonous work conditions.
The team tested a theory that individuals with higher levels of mindfulness find monotonous work subjectively less boring than individuals with lower levels of mindfulness. By reducing boredom, they predicted employees with higher mindfulness would perform better. Mindfulness has been previously theorised to increase work performance by improving attentional qualities, such as stability, control, and efficiency at work.
However, previous investigations of the relationship between monotonous task performance and mindfulness have shown contradictory results. And some have argued that monotonous tasks are best performed using automatic cognitive processing, or mind-less-ly. While there is a large body of research which shows mindfulness improves job attitudes, including job satisfaction and turnover intentions, it is unclear whether these findings can be generalised to attitudes of employees in monotonous jobs. Therefore, further research is needed to better understand the effect of mindfulness on monotonous task performance.
The international research team collected information from the employees at the Mexican company at three separate time points. At the first, they collected demographic information for the employees and used a short questionnaire to measure their levels of trait mindfulness. At the second timepoint, four weeks thereafter, they collected information on the employees’ levels of boredom and attitudes towards work. At the third and final timepoint four months later, they measured each employee’s job performance, including the number of errors made over the previous four months. This information was obtained through the HR department of the company.
The results of the study showed that higher mindfulness was indeed associated with lower boredom in monotonous work. This supports previous research and improves understanding of the relationship between objective monotony and subjective boredom. Although monotony can lead to boredom, the relationship between monotony and boredom is not properly understood. This research suggests that mindfulness plays an important role: Mindfulness enables employees to experience a task as if they are engaging in it for the first time, thus alleviating the subjective sense of monotony and boredom in the task.
Higher mindfulness was also related to lower quantity of task performance, but higher quality of task outcome. This mixed picture of how mindfulness relates to overall task performance in monotonous work provides a new contribution to the field. This finding suggests that two of the leading theories on the relationship between mindfulness and task performance may be correct: Mindfulness increases focus on the task, which may benefit the quality of the task outcome, but equally the increased awareness that comes with mindfulness may slow down progress towards the target work goal and therefore decrease the quantity of the completed task.
The researchers also found that higher mindfulness was associated with better job satisfaction. This supported previous research exploring this research question in other types of jobs, for example with high amounts of emotional labour or dynamic environments. Going further than previous studies, the research also showed that this relationship could be partly explained by employee’s level of boredom. Employees with high mindfulness were more satisfied with their jobs, in part because they felt less bored in their work.
Finally, the research team found that higher mindfulness was associated with a lower inclination towards leaving their job. These results support and extend previous findings of an association between mindfulness and job turnover intentions towards monotonous work conditions. The results may also help companies adapt their personnel selection processes for improved retention rates.
This research offers a novel insight into the role of mindfulness in monotonous job performance, and improves upon previous research by measuring actual job performance instead of ratings of job performance by employees or supervisors, which are more subjective and can be biased. It also improves understanding of boredom at work, which is not well understood but is receiving increasing research interest.
The study collected a large sample of participants and utilised valid measures, bolstering the reliability of the results. The authors note that the mindfulness questionnaire may not comprehensively cover all the different aspects of mindfulness, and so future research should test whether the results of this study hold when using a different mindfulness questionnaire. The authors also note that future research should explore whether the findings replicate in different cultures – as the current study only included employees from a company in Mexico.
Other future research directions for this work could include exploring the efficacy of mindfulness interventions on job performance in monotonous work, and investigating how the relationship between mindfulness and job performance changes in the short-term, for example on a day-to-day basis.
This research could have important implications for organisations whose employees engage in monotonous work. Organisations could use mindfulness practices to improve employee job satisfaction, reduce boredom, increase work quality and lower employee turnover. To do this they could offer employees mindfulness training in the workplace. In addition, employees in monotonous work could also benefit from the findings of this research by using mindfulness practices to improve their own job satisfaction and reduce levels of boredom.
The researchers note, however, that while the findings of this research can be used to improve outcomes for employees and employers, they should not be used in unethical ways. For example, the findings of this research should not be used to make employees who are in monotonous jobs work harder, or make employees more compliant with non-ethical procedures. The findings of the research should also not be used as a way to avoid improving monotonous working conditions.
Professor Jochen Reb says that most mindfulness studies have focused on white-collar employees, even as many workers around the globe work in blue-collar jobs under often monotonous conditions. He adds that through their encouraging findings, they hope to stimulate more research on how mindfulness may be helpful in blue-collar work, reducing boredom and increasing the quality of work and employee well-being.
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