What do the new NICE guidelines say about mindfulness at work?

Ruth Ormston and Andrew McNeill highlight how new guidance from the governmental body can help employers choose and implement wellbeing initiatives

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Earlier this month, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), published its new Guidelines on Mental Well-Being at Work, setting out key considerations and recommendations for employers wanting to support employees’ mental wellbeing in the workplace. 

Mindfulness – a natural capacity that enables individuals to focus on what they experience in the present moment, inside themselves as well as in their environment, with an attitude of openness, curiosity, and care – features strongly as a recommended offering for employees within these guidelines.  

Who are the guidelines for and what do they say?

NICE is an executive non-departmental body sponsored by the Department of Health and Social Care. It has long published national guidance and advice to improve health and social care, based on substantive evidence reviews and consultations with stakeholder organisations.

This new set of guidelines is aimed at workplaces of every size across the UK, and is likely to be an important resource for HR and leadership teams across the country, as well as employees wanting to find out what best practice looks like.

The guidelines advise adopting a tiered approach to mental wellbeing in the workplace, by using an organisational-level approach as the foundation for good mental wellbeing (the bottom tier), followed by an individual approach for all employees (the middle tier) and a targeted approach for those employees who have or are at risk of poor mental health (the top tier).

Within the middle and top tiers, mindfulness is strongly recommended as something that employees should be offered or helped to access, with the guidelines stating that:

  • in relation to individual-level approaches, employers should offer all employees (or help them to access) mindfulness, yoga or meditation on an ongoing basis; and

  • where employees have or are at risk of poor mental health and want further support, employers should offer cognitive behavioural therapy sessions or mindfulness training or stress management training. 

Acknowledging and recommending that more evidence in certain areas is needed, the NICE committee concludes that, based on the evidence it was presented with, “mindfulness, meditation and yoga were most effective overall in reducing job stress”. Indeed, the evidence review for this particular ‘tier’ runs to almost 2,000 pages, referencing ‘mindfulness’ more than 1,000 times.

So what mindfulness programmes should employers be offering?

There are a huge number of workplace mindfulness programmes and interventions available now, and it is clear that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution.

However, if employers want to ensure that the programmes they offer are effective, evidence based and of good quality, research and due diligence is strongly recommended. It is worth noting that in relation to interventions for employees who have or are at risk of poor mental health, the guidelines make clear that “…if treatment is commissioned by the employer, they are required to check that the provider has the necessary qualifications and is accredited and regulated by relevant professional organisations to offer the interventions”.

The Mindfulness Initiative is an independent global policy think tank which looks at the evidence base for mindfulness and maps it onto key policy and societal concerns. In 2016, it worked with a steering group of mindfulness experts and champions from companies such as  BT, EY, GE, GSK, HSBC and Jaguar Land Rover to produce the Building the Case for Mindfulness in the Workplace toolkit. That guide was followed up in 2020 by the creation of the Mindful Workplace Community, an independent and international community of mindful workplace champions, organisations and trainers who come together to support one another in sharing best practice.

While mindfulness is looked at within these guidelines within the context of wellbeing, it would be doing both mindfulness and employees a disservice to confine it to that pigeonhole, or frankly put, wellbeing budgets. Businesses that lead the way in this area aren’t only interested in wellbeing, but in the wider ways in which mindfulness can positively impact social connection, cognitive skills like decision-making, leadership and even our sustainability behaviours. So the NICE guidelines are a welcome recognition of the important role mindfulness has to play in UK workforces, but they are really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how mindfulness can support flourishing in individuals, the workplace, and the world at large.

Ruth Ormston is co-director of the Mindfulness Initiative, and chair of the Mindfulness in Law Group, and Andrew McNeill is workplace policy lead and projects advisor for the Mindfulness Initiative, as well as an author and mindfulness and leadership consultant