In the workplace, this type of absentmindedness can take the form of missed points during an important meeting, work mistakes, poor decision-making, or a short fuse that leads to a confrontation.
One tool that can help us to avoid distraction and stay in the moment is meditation – the practice of single-pointed concentration. Meditation can help us learn to be more present, aware and focused. This is particularly helpful at a time when we are all managing multiple tasks and constantly checking our phones, tablets, and emails.
Meditation is a means to achieving mindfulness, and when we are mindful – that is, solely focused on the task we are doing at that very moment– we are more likely to be productive. Once considered a New Age fad, meditation has become much more popular and mainstream because its benefits have been proven. A 2007 federal government study found that nearly 10 percent of adults had practiced meditation in the past year, and a 2011 Harvard Medical School study found that more than 6 million Americans were being prescribed alternative practices (including meditation) by their conventional doctors.
Studies show that meditation has a range of health-related benefits, such as lower blood pressure and a reduced risk of hypertension, lower cholesterol, and less risk of anxiety and depression. Harvard Medical School and the Benson-Henry Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital are conducting a ground-breaking five-year study that relies on fully scientific and medical analysis of meditation; their study has already proven that practicing meditation has the direct effect of flipping the on-off switch for genes associated with stress and immune functions (see www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-11-22/harvard-yoga-scientists-find-proof-of-meditation-benefit.html).
There is a clear connection between stress-related illness and health care costs. The Benson-Henry Institute reports that 60 to 90 percent of doctor’s visits in the United States are for stress-related conditions. And the American Psychological Association reports that job-related stress costs U.S. companies an estimated $300 billion per year in “absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity, and medical, legal and insurance costs.”
The Chopra Center for Wellbeing contends that meditation and mindfulness can also help with mental functions like creativity, problem-solving skills and memory (see www.chopra.com/ccl/why-meditate?). It can generally make us happier and less likely to have knee-jerk reactions.
How to meditate
One of the common misconceptions about meditation is that it must involve going into a quiet corner and experiencing total solitude, with the proper pillow and the right music, for an extended period of time. Another is that you must have a totally clear mind in order to be doing it right.
Meditation is about adopting an investigative mindset and about focusing on the here and now. It’s about being in the moment without judgment of self or others. More than anything, it is a quality of awareness. Dr. Herbert Benson, founder of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, coined the term “relaxation response” to describe this practice of reaching a deep relaxation and profound state of rest through meditation – and then being able to adjust response throughout the day from a swift emotional one to a more positive, productive one (see www.psychologytoday.com/blog/heart-and-soul-healing/201303/dr-herbert-benson-s-relaxation-response).
Meditation can be learned through various forms, including yoga, visualization, chanting, guided imagery or progressive muscle relaxation – or by simply trying it at home for a few minutes each day. Meditation doesn’t have to be sedentary, so activities such as walking, swimming or knitting – all of which possess a repetitive nature – can become mindful and meditative. (“Meditation 101,” a recent article in the Yoga Journal, can be found at www.yogajournal.com/practice/1307.)
Meditation in the workplace
Meditation can be encouraged in the workplace through organized programs as well as sharing helpful information with employees. Some employers, such as General Mills, provide a meditation or quiet room where employees can go to take a break and recharge. At Google headquarters, employees can access a seven-week mindfulness course that teaches various techniques for gaining focus, including meditation.
The best way to help employees manage stress in the workplace is by helping them identify and practice better coping skills. The health benefits of meditation apply to the workplace just as everywhere else, and providing tools can have a positive impact on employee health, productivity and focus – and, potentially, health care costs down the line. (In cases of prolonged or intense stress, it may also be beneficial to get a mental health professional involved.)
MIIA works to incorporate meditation training into courses offered to Health Benefits Trust members, such as Heart Matters, a 12-week program emphasizing cardiovascular health. During two sessions of this program, a trainer is brought in to discuss warning signs of stress and to lead exercises related to breathing techniques, relaxation and meditation. MIIA also offers an eight-week “Relax, Renew & Rebalance” program, yoga and tai chi classes, other stress-reduction series programs, and multiple single-session stress reduction workshops.
Elizabeth Berner is a Wellness Representative with the MIIA Health Benefits Trust.
The cost of stress
What is the cost of stress-related illness? According to a federal study, 40 percent of U.S. workers reported their job was very or extremely stressful. And workers who report workplace stress also report high health care use. In a study of 46,000 workers, health care costs were almost 50 percent greater for stressed-out workers.
For more information:
• American Institute of Stress: www.stress.org/workplace-stress
• U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: www.cdc.gov/niosh/programs/workorg/risks.html
• American Psychological Association: