Mindfulness, MBSR and Work Engagement

A recently published book I read – David Gelles (2015), “Mindful Work” – prompted me to post a Report I did back in 2011 covering MBSR as an intervention in the context of mindfulness and work engagement.


Engagement in our work matters. Low levels of engagement impact productivity and our sense of self-esteem. When substantive changes to the design of the work we do are impractical, an alternate path may reside in positive steps individuals can take to reappraise their own circumstances. Assuming that mindfulness training can elevate reappraisal skills, we investigate whether an intervention such as a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme correlates with improved levels of work engagement. A cohort of employed participants were tracked through an open enrolment eight-week MBSR programme conducted by an MBSR Service Provider in Australia (ACME). A snapshot of the work engagement levels of the participants (N1=57) was taken in week one using the Utrecht Work Engagement Survey (UWES-9). In week eight a tailored survey tool was issued (N2=32) to assess changes in work engagement and report back on mindfulness practice routines. Based on the UWES-9 scale, we found our starting cohort to be of significantly above average work engagement levels. At the end of the intervention, the sample recorded significant improvement across a variety of work engagement factors including energy, enthusiasm and capacity to think creatively. We found some evidence of a practice effect as those claiming better work stress management also tended to report longer practice times. We conclude with a call for a longitudinal study to validate our results and the potential for non-invasive biomarkers (e.g. heart rate variability) as objective measures by which to track and motivate students along the demanding practice regimes required of interventions such as MBSR.

Key words:    work engagement, mindfulness, reappraisal, mindfulness based stress reduction, heart rate variability


Dan:              Hey, Socrates. If you know so much how come you’re working at a gas station?

Socrates:    This is a service station. We offer service. There’s no higher purpose.

Dan:              Than pumping gas?

Socrates:    Service to others.

From the film “Peaceful Warrior” (2006) based on the novel “Way of the Peaceful Warrior” by Dan Millman.

NeuroLeadership (Ringleb, Rock, & Collegio, 2008) seeks to offer brain-science based insights to help the natural leader in all of us to emerge. This includes how we take control of our own lives such as how we engage in our work. Positive psychology (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) strives to unearth effective interventions so that individuals can thrive – to make a normal life more fulfilling (Comptom, 2004).

In this Research Project, we intersect these two disciplines – NeuroLeadership and Positive Psychology – to explore whether an intervention such as a mindfulness (M-based) training programme can lead to improved work engagement outcomes. Work forms a significant part of our lives and matters keenly to our sense of self. Yet Gallup (Crabtee, 2011) report global levels of engagement averaging as only 27% (Adonis, 2011). Disengaged employees cost $3,400 for every $10,000 in salary (Mobbs & Mcfarland, 2010, Pfeffer & Sutton, 2006) whilst engaged employees drive customer loyalty (Salanova, Agut, & Peiró, 2005). This is a problem that matters.

The benefits of mindfulness is the subject of a growing body of research including on 1) physical health (e.g. Baer, (2003); Bishop, (2002); Chiesa & Serretti, (2009); Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt, & Walach, (2004)); 2) mental health (e.g. Biegel, Brown, Shapiro, & Schubert, (2009); Foley, Baillie, Huxter, Price, & Sinclair, (2010)); 3) stress reduction (e.g. Bränström, Kvillemo, Brandberg, & Moskowitz, (2010); and 4) overall well-being (e.g. Brown & Ryan, 2003; Davidson et al., 2003; Passmore & Marianetti, (2007); Sears & Kraus, (2009); Fredrickson, Cohn, & Coffey, (2008); Hutcherson, Seppala, & Gross, (2008)).

In Australia, mindfulness is entering the mainstream discourse (e.g. ABC, 2011). Specific evidence in support of mindfulness and work engagement may help normalise an appreciation for preventative mental well-being interventions as we now accept for physical health. Perhaps in the workplace of the future, employers will be as supportive of meditation as many have become of staff making time for physical exercise.

Terms of Reference and Objectives

In this project we pick up on a call for future research (A. B. Bakker, W. B. Schaufeli, Leiter, & Taris, 2008) to focus on interventions that can lift levels of work engagement. Inspired by a “Neuroscience of Engagement” (Rock & Tang, 2009), we nonetheless find scant research relating work engagement and intensive mindfulness training.

The objective we set for ourselves is to evaluate if a mindfulness training based intervention that is not directly work related, e.g. not tied to increasing job resources, providing more support and feedback (A. B. Bakker & Demerouti, 2007) can nonetheless contribute beneficially to work engagement. The pivotal mechanism we theorise at play here is self-regulation through reappraisal, namely, that mindfulness training imparts heightened attention (Jha, Krompinger, & Baime, 2007) and awareness skills that can empower individuals to reassess their work circumstances in a positive manner. Like the “Socrates” of our introductory quote, perhaps mindfulness offers the tools to discover motivation, meaning and purpose in the work that is already there. Key terms, concepts and their relevance are described as follows:

Work Engagement

For an operational definition of work engagement we borrow from A. B. Bakker, Schaufeli, & Salanova, (2006) who describe it as a “positive work-related state of fulfilment that is characterized by vigour, dedication, and absorption”. This is a positive psychology formulation focussed on positive experiences and traits as opposed to burnout (Maslach, Schaufeli & Leiter, 2001). Vigour captures the high levels of energy associated with an engaged employee. Dedication characterizes a strong sense of involvement, of meaning, enthusiasm and pride. Absorption characterises a state of concentration, of happy preoccupation with the task at hand.


For mindfulness, we paraphrase the two-component model described in Bishop (2004). This describes a process that involves 1) directing one’s attention to current experience and 2) to attend to that moment with a non-judgemental orientation characterised by curiosity, openness and acceptance.


Research points to the benefits of cognitive change via reappraisal (Goldin, McRae, Ramel, & Gross, 2008) in which the meaning of the stimulus is reinterpreted (Ochsner & Gross, 2005). The detached reflection on one’s emotional state using techniques such as labelling (Lieberman et al., 2007) is one such reappraisal mechanism.

However, the effective application of such cognitive techniques is dependent on the individual’s awareness that change is required. Mindfulness can provide such a bridge. Supporting evidence includes experiments showing an inverse correlation between subjects with high Mindfulness Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS) (Brown & Ryan, 2003) scores and amygdala deactivation while under stress (Way, Creswell, Eisenberger, & Lieberman, 2010). Mindfulness becomes a foundational skill for (Garland, Gaylord, & Park, 2009) positive reappraisal.

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction

Kabat-Zinn’s (2007) Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is an example of a structured and intensive eight-week programme proven effective at imparting mindfulness skills with its participants. Established at the Centre of Mindfulness (Massachusetts, 2011), over 18,000 people world-wide have now completed the MBSR program. Meta analysis has affirmed that MBSR can help individuals cope with clinical and non-clinical problems (Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt, & Walach, 2004) (Dobkin, 2008). Reported benefits include improved emotional well-being and pain management.


The project spawned three experiments. The primary experiment tested for a relationship between mindfulness and work engagement. This was complemented by a secondary experiment consisting on the author’s own direct experience as an MBSR programme participant. And finally, a tertiary experiment to pilot self-quantification techniques of biomarkers thought associated to mindfulness practices.

Primary Experiment

In this experiment we seek to establish if practicing mindfulness results in improved levels of work engagement. This constitutes the primary focus of this report. MBSR was identified and selected as an appropriate intervention by which to impart mindfulness skills as described in the previous section. Certain constraints limited our experimental design options, namely, we required subjects willing to participate in a long and intensive intervention, the MBSR programme itself requires certified professional facilitators and there was not funding available to engineer a wholly dedicated trial. This meant that a randomised trial in which work engagement effects was measured by comparing e.g. a target group exposed to an MBSR intervention versus a control group undergoing some alternate non-M-based training was not viable.

We were able to proceed through the kind support of a professional MBSR service provider who agreed to support the study for the course of one of their Terms. Such circumstances prescribed a design in which a cohort of MBSR students be observed for self-assessed changes in work engagement levels using survey instruments. Note that an advantage of this approach was that we were able to form a sample drawn from the general populations (of Melbourne and Sydney, Australia). However, practical limitations remained such as 1) respecting the time of subjects by keeping survey instruments brief and 2) restrained follow-up actions in the event of a non-response.

Baseline: UWES-9 Utrecht Work Engagement Scale

Following our working definition, we used the freely available UWES-9 self-assessment survey as the instrument (W. Schaufeli & A. Bakker, 2003) by which to measure work engagement. It is composed of three scales each measuring one of the three engagement constructs – vigour, dedication and absorption. The UWES scale is available in a long (17 items) and short (9) form. UWES-9 has been “shown to have good construct validity, suggesting high correlation to the theorized construct of engagement” (Seppälä et al., 2008) and has been studied cross-culturally (A. B. Bakker et al., 2006) including psychometric verification of an Italian version (Balducci, Fraccaroli, & Schaufeli, 2010). By issuing the UWES-9 to participants at the start of the MBSR programme we were able to gauge a baseline level of work engagement of our cohort. An image of the survey instrument used is located in the Appendix I, showing ancillary demographic data collected. A unique re-creatable yet anonymous identifier was created for each respondent. Note that an alternate work/employee engagement measurement tool known as the Gallup Q12 (Gallup, 2011) was assessed but was eliminated due to licensing and usage restrictions.

After Survey: Customised Survey Instrument

For measuring the impact of the MBSR course on work engagement a five-point Likert scaled series of nine questions was designed. The questions were based on items that corresponded to three dimension of the UWES scale and also borrowed from research findings published by The Potential Project (Project, 2011). This organization is author of a “corporate mindfulness based training” (CBMT) programme that is claiming positive results in Europe. Additional questions were inserted to assess how individuals were able to integrate mindfulness practices into their lifestyle and workplace. A tailor-made instrument was used as our cohort reported high levels of work engagement when base-lined. While this jeopardises the validity of the instrument, it was assessed that re-issuing the UWES-9 instrument for a before versus after comparison was unlikely to surface a score drift of informational interest. Such a method may be more suitable for a longer-range longitudinal study beyond the eight weeks available in this project window. A pilot study (Meijerink & Bohlmeijer, 2010) measuring the impact of work engagement following an eight-week Tai Chi intervention programme using UWES-9 as a before/after instrument drew similar conclusions. Refer again to Appendix I for a copy of the instrument used.

Secondary Experiment

This experiment consisted of the Researcher’s personal experience as a participant in an MBSR programme. The Researcher had no prior experience with M-based training or of key related practices such as meditation. MBSR is a demanding and challenging intervention over a considerable period of time, requiring significant lifestyle changes to e.g. accommodate guided session attendance and comply with the practice regimes. Actual participation in a programme enabled the Researcher to reflect and report with a depth of comprehension impossible otherwise. This immersion enabled, for example, to revise and refine research questions and survey instruments to leverage personal insights reached along the way. Note that this does not constitute Action Research (Neuman, 2009) as the Researcher did not affect the course of the MBSR programme nor its participants. The findings of this experiment are not reported on directly but rather emerge as the lens by which the primary experiment data is interpreted.

Tertiary Experiment

In this experiment the researcher piloted the self-measurement of the non-invasive biomarker known as heart rate variability (HRV). Improved HRV is thought associated with mindfulness practices such as meditation and hypothesised as an indicator of engagement (Rock & Tang, 2009), improved health and well-being (Sztajzel, 2004). A challenge with forming positive new habits, e.g. meditation, is the motivation to practice. Here we test whether easy to use and inexpensive consumer-grade devices to measure HRV are practical as tools to provide feedback analogous to, say, how some use weight measurements by which to track the benefits of a physical exercise regime. Results are published as Appendix III to be provided at a later date.

Ethical Issues

The intervention was designed, organized, conducted and facilitated by an external party accredited in MBSR training – ACME. The curriculum was not changed in anyway to accommodate the interests of the project. There was no previous relationship between the researcher and the training institution or any of the participants. ACME provided all attendees with a welcome kit that included questionnaires and consent forms and were followed up with pre-course one-on-one interviews. This included notice of the work engagement project as described here in. Participation in the survey was informed, voluntary and without payment. Personal information was not collected. Survey data routinely collected by ACME as part of its standard procedures, e.g. the Depression Anxiety Stress Scale (DASS) (UNSW, 2011), was not accessed or cross-referenced in this study.

Project Activity

We pick up on the project activity with the requirement to secure the cooperation of an M-based training provider in Australia. Potential accredited MBSR programme suppliers were identified. Each was contacted and followed up until an in-principle agreement was reached with ACME in June 2011, an organization supportive of research in this field. The terms, objectives and experimental methods of the research were discussed with their Director and Lead MBSR Instructor, Timothea Goddard, with a view to using the participants of MBSR Term 3, 2011 as the cohort for this study.

The Researcher’s role in the project activity that followed consisted of a) authoring of the work engagement measurement instruments and b) analysis and reporting of the findings as contained here-in. The ACME organisation, as coordinated by a Lead, handled all others matters including 1) those routinely associated with the conduct of the M-based intervention, 2) the distribution and collection of this Project’s survey instruments and 3) any and all other incidental or related participant contact.

A Beginning

Term 3 was conducted over four locations, three in Sydney and one in Melbourne. The UWES-9 “before” survey was issued at the commencement of the first guided session of week one which participants completed and returned at the completion of that class. We approached this as a census event, i.e. to take a snapshot in time of work engagement levels and so students that failed to make the first class were not subject to follow-up. Note that course attendees consisted of individuals that self-presented as fee-paying MBSR students drawn from the adult (English-speaking) populations of Sydney and Melbourne. The UWES-9 survey data was then analysed using Microsoft Excel for Mac 2011.

A Middle

The MBSR intervention itself consisted of eight facilitated evening sessions each of 2 ½ hours duration on a weeknight, e.g. Tuesday nights from 6:30pm for the Sydney program. Each student received a Course Book that also served as a record-keeping journal. Homework and associated mediation practice exercises were set each week. At least 30 minutes per day of meditation was prescribed in addition to the specific homework assignments set each week. An instructional meditation CD was provided to assist in meditation practice covering still and movement based exercises. In addition a Day Long Intensive (mindfulness and meditation retreat) was held on Sunday September 4, 2011 at a separate single location for all attendees.

The table below summarises sample activities through the eight weeks of the programme. As the Researcher has observed from the direct immersion in an MBSR programme (the Secondary Experiment), the weekly-guided sessions can make demands that are challenging and confronting. Class exercises can require deep introspection and the sharing of personal experiences with other students. Outside the formal class, the homework commitments are onerous especially for first time meditators. However, many students find the prospect of being adequately prepared for the upcoming Day Long Intensive strong motivation to practice.

MSBR Intervention Schedule


And an End

The “after” survey instrument was issued to attendees at the start of the eighth and final Instructor guided session. An online survey variant was also published (Picozzi, 2011) so that participants who either did not attend or did not complete the form could do so at a later time. A number of follow-up attempts via email were made to encourage all MBSR participants to complete the survey. The after survey data was then collected and analysed using Microsoft Excel for Mac 2011. The before and after data of individual respondents was correlated using the unique identifier constructed (See Appendix I to be published at a later date) for each form.

Project Findings

The Before

There were 57 employed respondents in the before survey. We estimate the non-response rate at 17%. Sample demographics summarised below show 70% female, 65% in professional roles and a median age of 35-44 years. The gender bias may be attributable to the high representation of participants from the health care and not-for-profit Industries (see Appendix II) and/or more speculatively that males are less informed of MBSR programmes. The age and occupation distributions may reflect the resources required to attend and/or even be aware of the programme’s existence. Nonetheless, the data does point to an opportunity for taking measures to broaden the socio-demographic reach of the MBSR programme.

Before Sample Demographic Summary


Results for each of the UWES-9 questions are listed in Appendix II. Reported below are the summarised results across each of the three dimensions (Vigour, Dedication, Absorption) and for an overall (Total) work engagement score. The grading was formed by computing the average score for each dimension and then categorising that as either very low, low, average, high or very high based on comparison with benchmark (norm) population described in the UWES preliminary manual (W. Schaufeli & Bakker, 2003).

UWES-9 Before Sample Survey


UWES Sample versus Norm

Using Welch’s t-test (Welch, 1947), we conclude that the sample of individuals that presented themselves for the MBSR programme exhibit statistically significantly greater work engagement for all but the Vigour criteria. These are individuals that are dedicated, absorbed and overall engaged in their work compared to the average. The table below summarises results when comparing the ACME Sample versus a Norm based on the benchmark population cited previously.


This was a curious and counter-intuitive finding as, a-priori, the expectation was that individuals that voluntarily enrol in MBSR do so as they are stressed or generally dissatisfied. This sample data suggested an alternate self-presentation-bias, namely, that participants present as highly motivated and engaged in their work. Perhaps that same enthusiasm projects into being aware of and investing in their mental well-being in courses such as MBSR. Note that data that could reveal inner motivations such as the DASS questionnaires issued by ACME were not accessible for this Report. Nonetheless, as one respondent noted in the optional survey comments section:

“I love my work. I feel connected with people. I feel engaged on an intellectual and heart level. My days fly. I do not enjoy getting behind in paperwork.”

And After

In the after survey, 32 employed respondents were collected of which 29 could be matched to the original before sample (of 57). The remaining three were either 1) no-shows and non-respondents from week one or 2) individuals resuming from a prior Term. Females represented 62% of this sample; median age range was again 35-44 years and 66% professionals. See Appendix II for the complete demographics. Attempts where made to follow-up all participants. The difference between the before and sample sizes is due to a combination of factors including course dropouts, deliberate non-respondents and unsuccessful follow-ups.

Before/After Change

To test if respondents report improvement in their work circumstances as a result of the MBSR programme, we take the average score result for each question and compare it against same/no-change. Using an α=0.05, a one-way t-test (critical t=2.0395) yields significant results for all but Question 9 (“My work colleagues are responding more positively to me”) as tabulated below. Strongest positive shifts are record for questions 3 and 7 (improved focus and stress management). See Appendix II for histograms covering all survey results.


To summarise, improvement was reported against Q1 to Q8 of the after survey questions, with Q9 the exception. Overall, respondents report that since participating in the MBSR programme, their work circumstances have reported, in order of statistical significance, positive improvements for:


Q3, Q2 and Q1 were intended to capture changes suggestive of UWES’s Absorption, Dedication and Vigour respectively. The remaining questions attempt to assess indicators typically associated with M-based interventions e.g. stress management, creativity and thinking skills (Project, 2011).

The strong Q3 (focus/Absorption) result may be due to keener “attention” skills attributable to meditation. The greater energy/Vigour (Q1) score may be an effect confounded with better stress and relaxation outcomes routinely associated with MBSR. Nonetheless, a degree of elasticity for Absorption and Vigour against M-based inputs was unsurprising.

More encouraging was the significant result for Q2, indicating improvements in the enthusiasm/Dedication factor. This was consistent with the hypothesis of a link between mindfulness and a positive reappraisal of the subject’s work circumstances. This Researcher’s personal reflection (Secondary Experiment) was that mindfulness was helpful in surfacing what values are important to the individual – and by so doing help (re)discover if such values are present in the current work context. However, this same process can also amplify any “value dissonance”. For example, if there is fundamental dissatisfaction, the intervention may, instead, stir the individual to face this as a truth and commit to change his work situation.

We temper our overall conclusions, however, by revisiting some key limitations of this study. The self-presentation bias of this cohort required use of a customised and, therefore, potentially invalid “after” survey instrument. Similarly, while we have some evidence here to suggest M-based interventions can make a good situation better we cannot extrapolate this to conclude we can reverse what was a “bad” situation to being with. Moreover, we must remain vigilant of the potential for allegiance contamination and/or “halo” effect. Having made such a significant investment in MBSR, our self-presenting participants may project generalised life benefits whether there be right cause or not.

After Versus Before

We recall the above average engagement scores using UWES-9 in the before sample. Given the small sample sizes, we tested for correlation between the before and after survey results by forming simple 2×2 celled frequency tables in which before results are aggregated as either High or not-High work engagement for each dimension and after survey results as either More or not-More for each of the nine questions. Chi-square tests were then used to test for any drifts in expected frequencies – yielding no significant results as reported below. We conclude that an individual’s starting UWES-9 work engagement scores were not correlated to the their self-reported work experience improvement scores in the after survey.


Mindfulness Practice

Respondents reported their uptake of mindfulness practices as summarised in the table below in the period up to the last MBSR session. We note that all practiced sitting meditation and when all techniques are considered, the average time spent in mindfulness related practices was 27.9 minutes/day – a commendable compliance result when compared to the recommended 30 minutes per day. For most attendees, accommodating mindfulness practices and meditation routines required lifestyle changes and so it was useful to report how people integrated these techniques into their daily lives.



Average Total Reported Practice Minutes/per person/per week        195.37 minutes

Average Total Reported Practice Minutes/per person/per day           27.91 minutes

Of the 32 respondents, only 3 (9%) reported that their employer had provided some level of financial support for participation in the MBSR course and only 4 (13%) indicated that their workplace provides facilities in support of mindfulness practices. The table below summarises the percentage of respondents that reported practising any of the four categorised mindfulness techniques while at work. The STOP breathing exercise at 84% is only a very short (< 1 minute) pause and so easily executed while in the workplace. However, 50% reported pausing for meditation (25 minutes+) while in the workplace despite the lack of specialised facilities. We conclude that there is a need and opportunity for employers to make greater efforts to support their staff to integrate mindfulness practices into their workplace.Practice at Work


Practice Effect

Finally, the table below summarises average minutes of mindfulness practice broken down by whether the respondent reported an improvement (More) or not (Not More) for each of the 9 after survey questions. The interest here was whether there was a relationship between duration of mindfulness practice and improvement. This was tested using a one-side α=0.05 t-test with pooled variance (SD= 14.47). A critical value of t=1.70 yielded a significant effect for questions 3, 7 and 8. The strongest result Q7 (“I am coping better with the pressures and stress of work”) is perhaps indicative that those under most stress were also most motivated to practice.


Conclusions & Recommendations


Our sample of respondents reported improvement in their level of work engagement across a number of factors including those related to Absorption, Dedication and Energy. This is despite the fact that 1) our cohort presented with above average starting work engagement levels and 2) the MBSR programme resulted in no direct changes to their current work environment and circumstances.

There is some evidence of a practice effect. Participants recording longer practice times represented a significant percentage of those reporting improvements in capacity to manage the pressures and stress of work.

We caution that the constraints of the experimental design prevent generalizing beyond our Term 3 cohort. The absence of a control group, risk of allegiance contamination and a “halo” effect moderate our conclusions.

Furthermore, we reiterate that while we have some encouraging signs that MBSR can make a good situation better, we cannot extrapolate using this sample to suggest M-based interventions can reverse what was a poor work-engagement situation to being with. Repeating this same trial against a less engaged starting cohort would make for an interesting follow-up experiment.

Future Research

The benefits of a more engaged workforce via mindfulness are such as to warrant investment in more sophisticated experimental designs to test the efficacy of M-based interventions. For example, a longer-range longitudinal study in which before and after UWES scores are compared using randomised trials with demographically representative samples. Controls based on alternate interventions such as Tai Chi could be then compared against various M-based alternatives. It would be helpful to cross-reference the UWES with other valid and related instruments such as the MASS and the DASS and so unearth and track, e.g., the motivations and factors that prompted M-based intervention enrolment.

Interesting too, would be to explore the neuroscience that connects mindfulness and emotional self-regulation strategies such as cognitive reappraisal. While beyond the scope of this project, one speculates a rich vein of enquiry behind this theoretically hypothesised mechanism.

Meeting the practice commitments of M-based training is a significant challenge. The suggestion of a relationship between practice and its benefits merits further investigation – both to experimentally verify the relationship and to inspire creative approaches by which coaches can better monitor, interact and motivate students. The capture and sharing of non-invasive biomarker data such as HRV via emerging low cost sensor technologies may augur a “m-wellness” trend analogous to what we are seeing in m-health (“The mHealth Summit: Local & Global Converge,” 2011) .

Closing Remarks

We hope that this project plays some role in promoting interest in the potential of mindfulness to improve mental wellbeing and that such benefits can transfer into the workplace as improved work engagement. This may encourage organizations to embrace and support M-based training initiatives for the employees under their care.

As the author can attest, the MBSR programme can be a disruptive personal transformational journey. For myself, it strengthened the resolve to action changes leading to more meaningful employment. In contrast, the “Socrates” of our opening quotation was able to find meaning and purpose in a work many might consider menial. Whichever the case, maybe it is these simple epiphanies that are the gift of mindfulness.

Socrates:     Where are you?

Dan:              Here.

Socrates:     What time is it?

Dan:              Now.

Socrates:    What are you?

Dan:            This moment.

Notes & References

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