The stresses of mindfulness in the workplace

The Health and Safety Executive approximates that employers lost 9.9 million working days to work-related stress, depression and anxiety in 2014/15 and these statistics appear to be rising. The subsequent absences of staff and lost productivity are motivating employers to find effective practices to reduce work place stress. “Mindfulness” is fast becoming the go to method to reduce stress and increase employee resilience to work place demands.

Mindfulness is a state of focusing on the immediate moment, minimising judgements about our experiences and taking a step back from our automatic responses to allow us to calmly acknowledge the here and now and our own thoughts and feelings. With a high proportion of the workforce feeling stressed by their job, and an increasing number of employees suffering from ‘burn out’ at work, many have touted Mindfulness as an effective solution to support stressed workers. Mindfulness can offer new tools to cope with the stress and anxiety that many jobs involve, generating advantages for both employees and employers. Studies claim that Mindfulness can improve resilience, problem solving and relaxation. But what is the flip side of Mindfulness training for employers and what should employers be wary of when considering offering it to their workforce?

Key considerations
Before introducing programmes of Mindfulness training to the workforce, employers should consider carefully who the training is offered to, and how it is communicated to the workforce.  Mindfulness practises should be viewed as both a training tool and an employee benefit – inequitable distribution may give rise to a claim from an employee, particularly if an employee could demonstrate that the training is relevant and appropriate to their role or that they were excluded for a discriminatory reason or preconception. Employers who offer Mindfulness training exclusively to specific groups or sections of their workforce are arguably conceding that those roles are more susceptible to stress than others, and as such that medical conditions associated with stress may be ‘foreseeable’. As a consequence, employers could be argued to owe a higher duty of care to employees performing those roles.

Mindfulness training should almost always be communicated as “voluntary” and as such, employers should consider carefully the timing of training sessions. It is a well-known problem where employers schedule such training sessions during working hours, and potentially at peak pressure times in the day, thereby exacerbating the work load of attendees when they return to the day job.  Scheduling such training outside of working hours may lead to an argument that the training is ‘working time’ and as such should be paid time or that the scheduling excludes certain groups from attending altogether such as working parents or shift workers.  Employers should be aware of these potential pitfalls, and arrange any Mindfulness training with these concerns in mind.

Implementation
The format of such training is also critical. Mindfulness training is a form of therapy and should be treated with caution. It is not a one size fits all that is guaranteed to help every employee, and this should be stressed to participants at an early stage to manage their expectations. Therapies related to the mind require participants to take responsibility for the way they think and behave, with Mindfulness being offered as a potential tool to aid this.

If an employee declined such training and subsequently pursued a stress related personal injury claim, the employer may rely on Mindfulness to show that their duty of care was met and that a culture of support and wellbeing existed in their business. However, given that such training is reliant on mutual engagement and responsibility, there is no certainty that this argument would gain any traction with the Courts or Employment Tribunal. It is also possible that undertaking Mindfulness training may prompt an employee to seek other forms of counselling or support from the employer to deal with their workplace stresses, which the employer would be obliged to consider.

Creating a culture of employee wellbeing is far from simplistic. When considering Mindfulness training employers should tread carefully and bear in mind the potential risks that may go hand in hand with attempts to alleviate stress in their workforce.

By Hannah Ford, Senior Associate
First published in EmploymentSolicitor.com

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