How does hydration, scent, and mindfulness affect your health at work? Karen Plum from Advanced Workplace Associates discusses the science behind cognitive function in the workplace.

Regardless of whether you’re a believer or part of the crowd that dubs “mindfulness” as just another fad, it’s everywhere you go. “How to be Mindful” books line the shelves in shops, leaflets litter GP waiting rooms, business conference presenters pay homage to the practice as soon as ‘health and wellbeing’ pops onto the agenda, and Twitter is inundated with people offering tips for finding peace in a frantic world… and just the other day, I spotted a “mindful cooking” video on YouTube! It seems mindfulness is very much front of mind.

Tech giants, such as Google and Apple, have started to offer mindfulness or meditation schemes as part of their standard benefits package. But it’s not just the companies that are known for workplace radicalism adopting these ideas. Public sector organisations, like the Department of Health and Transport for London, have also hopped on the mindfulness wagon. There’s been article a’plenty claiming this practice leads to a happier, healthier workforce, increased productivity and fewer sick days, thanks to its ability to reduce stress, anxiety and depression. However, there have also been stories to suggest it can have a negative impact on mental health, depending on one’s disposition.

At Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA), we’re concerned with the science more than the stories. Our aim is to bring the latest workplace thinking, underpinned by the available evidence, to help organisations unleash the potential of the workforce. For businesses operating in the knowledge industry, this involves helping HRs improve the health and function of every brain in the building. To that end, we partnered with the Center for Evidence-Based Management (CEBMa) to explore the factors that have been scientifically proven to impact cognitive health.

There are eight areas that impact “brainpower”:

1. Caffeine and glucose drinks – these beverages significantly impact alertness and focus when people become mentally tired.

2. Hydration – memory, decision-making and attention are all impacted by dehydration.

3. Breakfast, nutrition breaks – the brain needs fuel, particularly after a night’s sleep when fluids, nutrients and sugars have been depleted.

4. Lighting, temperature, scent – being uncomfortable distracts people from work, it’s that simple.

5. Noise, speech, task interruptions – all impact concentration and focus to a significant degree.

6. Acute exercise, physical activity – having an active lifestyle promotes both physical and cognitive health.

7. Sleep – insufficient sleep affects concentration, decision-making and relationships.

And last, but by no means least…

8.Cognitive stimulation, mindfulness – demanding and varied activities have a positive impact on the brain’s performance.

Our research also suggests that mindfulness can help with focus and concentration. And this is the area that I will focus on from hereonin.

Breaking down “mindfulness” – today’s workplace buzzword – the dictionary definition states that “to be mindful” is “to be aware” of something. Furthermore, it suggests that one can only be mindful if there’s a sense of willingness to be so. Mindfulness, put simply, is a practice that places the mind in the spotlight. It involves awakening your mind to heightened levels of consciousness – and focusing your energy on the parts of your psyche that you may not always pay attention to.

Our recent systematic review of the academic research targeting this topic suggests that mindfulness training could be associated with improvements in selective and executive attention, working memory capacity and some executive functions. It could be that such techniques involve self-regulation (your ability to maintain focus and attention) and attitude (are you essentially open to the experience) – so that if you believe the technique can/does work and you can devote sufficient effort and energy to the experience, it is felt to be effective. As a further example, people with low working memory capacities are more likely to suffer from emotionally intrusive thoughts and are less successful at suppressing emotions, so developing a more focused approach through mindfulness and meditation may be of benefit.

You may have heard the term “neuro plasticity” – a relatively new area of science. This refers to the fact that the brain can be physically shaped by everything we do and don’t do. Our awareness determines which bits are strengthened. This can work in both a positive and negative way. For instance, the more we worry, the better we become at worrying. If, on the other hand, we practise being calm, clear and focused, then we can strengthen these areas. Attention is the faculty that allows us to navigate our lives and mindfulness can build skills of concentration. Nothing is more effective than practise at helping one learn. It has been reported that mindfulness and meditation techniques can help us access capabilities for creativity, flexibility and lateral thinking – which, in the workplace, helps people manage challenging situations more skillfully.
Mindfulness could be helpful if your employees are currently experiencing difficulty concentrating, focusing and keeping clarity of thinking during complex, demanding tasks, and/or if they experience anxiety and stress. However, don’t think they are an alternative to addressing, for example, a particularly demanding workload!

In addition to the benefits found in many studies, some were not sufficiently robust in terms of their methodology to draw firm conclusions – and yet others highlighted negative results associated with the practice for some people. The important thing to remember is that there is no “one size fixed all” approach and it’s important to recognise that the shaping of each brain is unique. If your employees are open to the experience of mindfulness and other forms of meditation, there are many books, courses and apps to help them find something that will work for them. Do your own research on the tools available, recognising that as with most things – mindfulness isn’t for everyone.





Karen is responsible for Advanced Workplace Associates research and development activities undertaken under AWA’s Workplace Performance Innovation Network (PIN). A Business studies graduate, Karen spent her earlier career in HR before joining AWA, over 10 years ago. In her consulting work, Karen specialises in working as a senior coach with leaders, supporting them in creating the conditions to bring about strategic change in the way their people work.