A head start with mindfulness

Don't dismiss the meditation technique as a fad: its well documented benefits for those in demanding careers make a strong case for teaching it at university, says Craig Hassed

June 22, 2017
Mick Marston illustration (22 June 2017)
Source: Mick Marston

Mindfulness is a hot topic these days, but its potential importance to higher education has not yet been broadly recognised.

It can be described as a form of meditation and a way of living. It is a mental discipline that involves not only sharpening present-moment attention but also cultivating the attitude with which we pay attention: one of curiosity, acceptance, openness and compassion.

Although it is seen by many as a new phenomenon – some would even call it a fad – its roots go back millennia. And even at the birth of modern psychology, the importance of attention was recognised. In his Principles of Psychology, published in 1890, William James wrote: “The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will…An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.”

Mindfulness is easily marginalised by hard-nosed academic disciplines, and its mischaracterisation as a mere relaxation exercise means that its utility is commonly overlooked in the training of professionals such as doctors, lawyers and chief executives. Yet mounting evidence since the turn of the millennium is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.

The tidal wave began with studies into the effectiveness of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) in preventing the recurrence of depression. Subsequently, many further applications have been documented, including combating addictions, chronic pain and infertility.

Indeed, some see mindfulness as a panacea. The reality, though, is probably more complex. Like physical exercise, cultivating awareness is a basic human need, but not everyone will be ready to learn about it or want to do it. Mindfulness demands application and perseverance and is sometimes uncomfortable.

As well as improving their attention, mindfulness has many other benefits for future professionals. For example, a 2004 Australian study tracked the mental health of medical interns throughout their first year of working life. It found that 75 per cent had burnout by the eighth month, and 73 per cent had a diagnosable mental illness (mostly depression and/or anxiety) at least once. Furthermore, a British Medical Journal study in 2008 found that a doctor with depression makes more than six times as many medication and prescribing errors as a doctor without. Considering that medical errors are the third most common cause of death in the US, this points to a major deficiency in our training of professionals destined for demanding jobs. It can’t just be about transferring technical skills and knowledge; enhancing practitioners’ mental health and preventing errors should be seen as aligned objectives.

At Monash University, mindfulness has been part of our medical curriculum on a small scale since 1992 and on a larger scale since 2002. Our main emphasis is initially on student well-being, but it moves on to clinical and communication skills. Mindfulness has also spread into the core curricula of 15 other Monash degree courses, from allied health and pharmacy to law, IT and the MBA.

Our own research has found that mindfulness is associated with significantly enhanced student well-being and self-care, even during high-stress assessment periods. Other studies have also shown that mindfulness can improve memory and learning and can help students to cope with exam anxiety. It improves mental flexibility and problem-solving skills, as well as helping to protect against the unconscious cognitive biases associated with decision errors. These skills are increasingly important in modern, complex workplaces, where the negative impacts of haste, distraction and complex multitasking increase stress and errors, and diminish performance.

The limited studies done on teachers and academics suggest that mindfulness has similar benefits for them as it does for health professionals. In a pilot programme among teachers, the mindfulness group reported significant reductions in psychological symptoms and burnout, alongside improvements in observer-rated classroom organisation, performance in tests of attentional bias and self-compassion. And a collaborative study of university staff (academic and non-academic) by Monash and the Australian National University found that an eight-week mindfulness programme produced increased self-rated performance, well-being, work engagement and feelings of authenticity, meaningfulness in work and satisfaction with life. These improvements were sustained at six-month follow-up.

Academics’ ability to engage and sustain student attention is harder but more important than ever, and, at Monash, we have been running mindful learning and teaching programmes for academics for a number of years. A number of strategies may be helpful over and above practising mindfulness meditation at home. For example, starting a class with a brief mindfulness exercise can help students engage attention. Minimising unnecessary distractions such as mobile devices during tutorials can help the academic to be mindful while teaching, and to model the level of engagement that they desire of students. Being mindful when giving feedback is also important to ensure that it is given clearly and sensitively.

Research into attention also suggests that it is wise not to interrupt the flow of complex tasks such as writing research papers, planning classes or reading complex articles. One study at Loughborough University found that interruptions such as emails and phone calls are associated with about a minute of lost productivity when the person re-engages with the task, amounting to eight and half hours a week. So taking control over the environment and compartmentalising time are important strategies to help academics and students remain productive in time-pressured environments.

On that topic, some argue that there is no scope to add mindfulness to already packed university curricula. But its wide-ranging benefits for students and teachers alike make it hard to make a rational case against its inclusion in the training of modern, job-ready professionals – including future academics.

Craig Hassed is a senior lecturer in the department of general practice at Monash University. He spoke at the University of Warwick’s Mindfulness in Health and Higher Education conference on 16 and 17 June.

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Print headline: A clear head start

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