A man sits at a desk and smiles while looking at something on a laptop. The man has dark hair and a beard and is wearing a light blue button-up shirt. He's in a white room with large windows along one wall and a whiteboard along another. A leafy green plant sits next to the laptop on the desk.
A study from the journal "Work & Stress" found that watching a funny video can help employees regain lost emotional energy and self-control, leading to better focus. — Getty Images/Westend61

At first glance, it might appear that encouraging employees to take a few minutes to watch a humorous video while they’re on the job wastes both time and money. Similarly, a concept like mindfulness might seem too academic to apply in the dollars-and-cents business world.

However, recent research shows both short, lighthearted breaks and mindfulness can lead to more satisfied, calmer, and more productive employees. These tools also can reduce stress and strengthen mental health.

A recent study with the rather cumbersome title “Some positivity per day can protect you a long way: A within-person field experiment to test an affect-resource model of employee effectiveness at work” draws on long-standing research that shows self-control, or managing one’s emotions to meet the demands inherent in many contemporary occupations, requires emotional effort, said Wladislaw Rivkin, a study author and Associate Professor of Organization Behavior with Trinity College Dublin (Ireland). “Self-control demands (internal) regulatory resources,” he said.

When employees’ regulatory resources are depleted—say, after a particularly contentious interaction with a colleague or customer—they’re often less able to focus on other tasks and are less creative, Rivkin said.

[Read more: Staying Focused in Hard Times: Tips for Small Business Owners]

The research team sought to identify interventions that would help employees replenish their emotional coffers by eliciting happiness and energy, said Vera Schweitzer, Lead Researcher and a doctoral candidate at WHU - Otto Beisheim School of Management in Germany. They found that watching funny, unoffensive videos, typically three to five minutes in length, was more effective than music or even receiving a gift in helping employees replenish emotional resources, remain engaged, and enjoy working. Many videos were from popular comedy shows, she said.

Fortunately, employers can rather easily and inexpensively encourage this type of intervention. Rivkin suggests recommending short, humorous videos or posting a joke-of-the-day on a company intranet or newsletter.

To be most effective, the videos should prompt a laugh, rather than just a smile. Of course, it doesn’t make sense to interrupt a session in which an employee is focused on a task. Instead, the idea is to use natural breaks to introduce a positive intervention, Rivkin said.

The more knowledge you have of what’s going on within your head, the more power you have to change it.

Lynley Turkelson, University of Cincinnati doctoral candidate

Mindfulness: another way employees can enhance mental health

Many jobs require employees to focus their attention on a project or task. Yet mind-wandering or off-task thinking can account for 30 to 50% of a person’s daily thoughts, said Lynley Turkelson, a doctoral candidate at the University of Cincinnati with a focus on neuropsychology. Turkelson also led a review of studies on mindfulness; the results are captured in the paper “The Current State of Mind: A Systematic Review of the Relationship Between Mindfulness and Mind-Wandering.”

“Our brain is wired to pay attention to certain things,” Turkelson said. Novelty is one. If something isn’t new, our brains aren’t as excited, she added.

That can create challenges in the work world, as employees often must complete tasks they’ve done before. Mindfulness can help. This refers to focusing one’s attention on the present moment or a specific action, like breathing, while also nonjudgmentally accepting whatever thoughts and feelings occur. The key is to notice that your mind has wandered, as this enables you to redirect it back to the present moment. “The more knowledge you have of what’s going on within your head, the more power you have to change it,” Turkelson said.

[Read more: Postal Petals Founder Reminds Entrepreneurs to Be Mindful]

How can this help employees? Research shows that periods of mindfulness even as short as 10 minutes can reduce mind wandering and improve focus, Turkelson said. Mindfulness can also help individuals react more thoughtfully and healthily to stressful situations, according to health care provider Kaiser Permanente.

Organizations can easily and inexpensively expose employees to mindfulness. This could include offering a class or a subscription to a science-supported mindfulness app, Turkelson said.

Mindfulness’s benefits can extend beyond reducing mind-wandering and boosting productivity. “It can address aspects of mental health and help people prevent burnout,” Turkelson said.

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