Sunday, August 26, 2012

FT on corporate mindfulness

The FT surveys the growth of corporate wellness programs that include aspects of "mindfulness", pop Buddhism, yoga and other spiritual tricks for daily living.

I am sympathetic to the idea that periods of quiet and reflection can improve one's life, but the supposed "scientific" evidence cited in the article is pretty miserable.

The first bit consists of participant evaluations:
The company has even begun research into its efficacy, and the early results are striking. After one of Marturano’s seven-week courses, 83 per cent of participants said they were “taking time each day to optimise my personal productivity” – up from 23 per cent before the course. Eighty-two per cent said they now make time to eliminate tasks with limited productivity value – up from 32 per cent before the course. And among senior executives who took the course, 80 per cent reported a positive change in their ability to make better decisions, while 89 per cent said they became better listeners.
Smith, Whalley and Wilcox mock these sorts of questions and provide evidence from an active labor market program that they do not correlate with impacts estimated in more compelling econometric ways.

And then there is this:
Other companies have found that such programmes can generate both health benefits and cost savings. Aetna, partnering with Duke University School of Medicine, found that one hour of yoga a week decreased stress levels in employees by a third, reducing healthcare costs by an average of $2,000 a year.
The main problem with this, of course, is that we do not learn the methods the companies used to find this amazing reductions in health care costs. Did they do random assignment? Did they compare participants to non-participants without controls? Did they compare participant health costs before and after the program? Two of those methods typically yield rubbish, one does not. The second problem with this is that the estimate does not really pass the smell test. Employees are large corporations do not have high average health care costs. If they did, in most cases they would not be working. For this group, a $2000 impact would be really large, so large, I suspect, as to be implausible.

I think the FT author needs to meditate a bit on methodology, as well as on his bodily sensations.

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