3 Reasons Why MBSR Should be the Workplace Standard

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By Ted Meissner

Today you can find mindfulness just about everywhere, from classrooms to corporations, PBS specials and TIME magazine, and even in your grocery store checkout line. But that hasn’t always been the case, and mindfulness going mainstream has been a relatively new development.

Much of that is due to the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, who created a detailed curriculum for learning, practice, and even scientific research about mindfulness. Kabat-Zinn founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts in 1979, to help people who were falling through the cracks in the healthcare system. His Center for Mindfulness at UMass Medical School has been the main driver of academic research, teacher training, and development of a worldwide community of mindfulness practitioners, and their banner program has been Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR.

But why does MBSR matter? Meditation and yoga, two elements of the course, have been around for centuries, so what’s the importance of this particular program?

First and foremost, MBSR is open to everyone. There are no expectations or pushes to adopt any kind of spiritual path which may be different than your own, and no insistence to attain perfect poses or deep stretches that might not be suitable for you. As someone who started meditation in the early ‘90s, the only options available where I lived were in religious institutions that didn’t fit well with my own world views. MBSR, however, has no subtle pressure to adopt a particular spiritual framework and is informed by neuroscience, psychology, and even group dynamics and contemporary learning methods. As such, MBSR has been not only more accessible and applicable to my experience in the corporate world, but in my personal life as well. It helped me to recognize when I wasn’t listening when I should have been, kept me more focused on tasks so I could complete them instead of deluding myself with inefficient “multi-tasking,” and be much better able to understand and appreciate the views and insights of co-workers, friends, and family, all in practical ways that were immediately relevant to my daily life.

Second, because it is a specific and standardized curriculum, MBSR has been a gold standard for research on the effects of mindfulness. While a total of 39 scientific papers were published before the year 2000, today that number is upwards of 6,000 papers exploring how mindfulness can help with attention, employee well-being, surgical performance, test-taking success in students, as well as pain management, depression, anxiety, burnout, and other psychological and physiological issues.  MBSR is the foundation for similar programs like Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC), and over a dozen other structured mindfulness-based programs for a variety of special interests and needs.

Finally, MBSR matters because most people who dedicate themselves to the eight weeks of the program find tremendous and long-lasting value in their daily life, both at work and at home.  Whether taken in-person or live online, evidence continues to show through various metrics that mindfulness can be helpful, challenging, and has a long-lasting impact on those who take it.  This was particularly so in my own encounter with cancer, shifting from an otherwise hopeless (none of my family had yet survived it) and fearful time to one of resiliency, increased closeness to those I loved, and ultimately surviving the challenges of a life-threatening diagnosis.

So how does MBSR compare to other choices you have to learn about and practice mindfulness? After all, you may have many years of personal meditation practice in other places, perhaps even using online tools, apps, and websites, so what makes this different? In addition to being the first and most studied secular mindfulness program of its kind, MBSR has literally decades of rigorous teacher training and competency assessment, so you can find teachers who are credentialed to provide the high standards needed for proper delivery of the program. It’s also a specific and methodical curriculum; you are guided through a learning and practice process, with forty years of continuing scientific research behind it. Finally, MBSR is a program that is taken with others, so you not only have the opportunity to interact directly with your teacher, but to develop connections with other participants who are on their own mindfulness journey.

You may have been considering taking MBSR for a long time, or perhaps this is the first time you’ve heard of it. When I took MBSR for the first time, I’d already been a meditator for over fifteen years – but this program was and continues to be different and beneficial to me in ways I’d neither expected nor considered. It can be both challenging and supportive to commit to the program: meeting once a week for eight weeks, an all-day retreat, and home assignments every day of the program can sometimes seem like a lot for “just mindfulness.” But what I found was a welcoming environment that inspired me, taught me new and practical ways of meeting the difficulties and joys of life, and ultimately shifted the way in which I saw myself, my work, and those around me.

Interested in learning more? Mindful Leader co-created MBSR Live & Online with Ted Meissner. Registration is open now.

Ted Meissner created the UMass Medical School Center for Mindfulness MBSR live online program, is a Certified MBSR Teacher, and has been teaching mindfulness for over twenty years. He is the host of the podcast Present Moment: Mindfulness Practice and Science, has been published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Mindful, and The International Journal of Whole Person Care. He mentors MBSR teachers, holds a Masterclass for Oxford Mindfulness Centre on live online mindfulness program delivery, and is the Executive Director of Mindfulness Practice Center.

11 comments

A wonderful and much needed reminded about the value of MBSR.  Thanks.

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Thanks, Lisa, that's very kind of you!

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Luanne Francis Jan 21, 2020 12:30pm

I purchased MBSR through Sounds True last summer and i have not found anything like it in the apps that I use for practice. I go back to MBSR over and over for practice and continued learning.  Very valuable in helping me at work and at home and does not interfere with my spiritual practice, if anything it has helped deepen it.

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Hi, Luanne, thank you for sharing that.  You're right, it's not like the apps, and completely agree about it supporting whatever personal spiritual path a participant may be on.  I've yet to have a class where that exact experience wasn't shared, and this again is a strength of MBSR -- it is about living as a person, not about a particular ideological stance.

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Kendra Boone Jan 22, 2020 01:45am

Fantastic practice, although yoga in MBSR is reduced to postures and fails to recognise the richness of the other 7 limbs of yoga philosophy and its affects on mindfulness.

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Hi, Kendra!  Actually I refer to what we do in MBSR as Mindful Movement rather than Yoga, for several reasons including that it's a different focus.  A wonderful and rich practice indeed!  We simply start with becoming more aware of gentle motion well within your own comfortable range of motion, rather than the many underpinnings inclusive of a more involved Yoga practice.

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Lisa Ann Ballard Jan 22, 2020 01:57pm

Ted,

This is a great reminder of the impact and accessibility of the MBSR program as a catalyst for transformational change in anyones life.  Thank you for your contributions to its growth worldwide. 

Fellow Certified MBSR Teacher

Lisa Ballard

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Aw, Lisa, so nice to see you here!  Yes, such a wide range of possibilities because of the way in which MBSR meets people where they are.

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Graham Norris Jan 23, 2020 10:30am

I agree with pretty much everything in this article except the headline. In its pure form, MBSR has indeed been shown to be very effective in the medical environments for which it was designed. Even in research on workplace environments, it is often modified versions of MBSR that are studied. However, it's necessary to emphasise they are modified, often to reduce the substantial time commitment required.*

MBSR was designed for people suffering from chronic pain. I don't know what the weekly schedules of those people looked like, but they had exhausted all other medical avenues to address their problems, so they were likely highly motivated to complete the course. While MBSR has translated well to other, related contexts, the workplace understandably presents a greater variety of conflicting priorities.   

Therefore, I don't think the challenges of introducing MBSR to the workplace should be underestimated. I'm not even convinced it is necessarily the best intervention in all workplaces. I'd suggest there is a good argument for keeping our minds open to the possibility that different kinds of mindfulness interventions might be appropriate for different people in different situations. 

*Jamieson, S.D. & Tuckey, M.R., 2017. Mindfulness Interventions in the Workplace: A Critique of the Current State of the Literature. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 22(2), pp.180–193.

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Hi, Graham, thanks for the insights and link!  To be sure there are lots of modified versions of MBSR designed to meet the constraints of a busy work day, and as you've said many of these reduce the time -- effectively making them no longer MBSR, which has a very specific curriculum and practice schedule.

This particular program is the full MBSR course for those who would like to meet that challenge and make the commitments for class and practice.  We quite intentionally chose to offer this after hours for as many as possible, knowing the difficulties of scheduling work time for class time!

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Hi Ted,

Have you looked into mindful self compassion at work with Chris Germer and Wibo Koole? They are doing really cool work. MSC maybe the next iteration much  needed in this world ....

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