Business of Well-being

Mindfulness Training for Effective Employee Wellness Programs

Lili is a well-trained, committed employee who stays late and comes in early, volunteering for extra projects to ensure client satisfaction and company success. But she is often overwhelmed by guilt at not spending more time at home with her 8-month old daughter, and she has difficulty falling asleep each night as her minds reels through her long to-do list. She has met with the company-provided nutritional consultant but she has not been able to shed the extra pounds since the baby was born, and her desire to attend the on-site exercise program is frequently usurped by answering those last minute client emails at the end of the day. Until mindfulness training came in.Lili is an example of the stealth failures facing employee wellness programs. Although she is signed up for the program, and her age and other initial "numbers" keep her out of the high risk pool, she is suffering from stress and overwhelmed by work-life balance issues that could result in either crisis, long-term health problems, or burnout and retention issues. With participation in employee wellness programs at about 40-60 percent, and employers seeing tangible results in lower healthcare costs, especially for those considered "high- risk" employees, the next step is to address the hearts and minds of employees in order to increase participation and create sustainable change for those who do participate.Dan Witters and Sangeeta Agrrawal, writing about employee wellness programs in the Gallup Business Journal, provide statistics and summarize; "the overwhelming majority of well-being programs focus on physical wellness, this leaves a substantial gap between what workplaces currently gain from their well- being programs and the gains they could achieve if they broadened their approach."Many companies are "broadening their approach" with mindfulness training. Corporations diverse as Google, Aetna, Target and Goldman Sachs are introducing mindfulness training with good results in stress management, increased focus, concentration and productivity, and decreased absenteeism. In a pioneering employee mindfulness training project, Aetna teamed with Duke University researchers and a virtual mindfulness training program that resulted in significant gains in productivity through concentration and focus, while decreasing absenteeism. Researchers correlated the high cost of stress for the company when they noted that those participants who initially tested as highest in stress, had cost $2,000.00 more in healthcare the previous year than those who tested as low stress participants.Stress as an accelerant for ill health is a forgone conclusion, but as in the illustration above with Lili, stress is also an obstacle to program effectiveness. Providing mindfulness training as a foundational component of the traditional wellness program strengthens the participant's ability to follow through on targeted nutritional, physical, and time management goals.So if mindfulness is a necessary catalyst for success in wellness programs, what is it and how does it work? Mindfulness is a learnable skill that neuroscience has validated as increasing focus and concentration as well as decreasing habitual stress reactions while creating calm, emotional regulation. The man responsible for bring mindfulness to the masses is Jon Kabat-Zinn from the University of Massachusetts, where he combined and packaged ancient practice and cutting-edge science, bringing the techniques of focused breathing, body awareness, and present moment appreciation into hospitals, classrooms and now company conference rooms.Mindfulness training has proven to be the antidote to the onslaught of distractions that inundate our lives from inboxes and all of our electronic devices. Constant pings and alerts divert us off-task a multitude of times each day. Although we may confidently assert that technology has helped us to evolve as multi-taskers, neuroscience clearly demonstrates that our brains are actually incapable of simultaneously functioning. More accurately we are task shifting, which actually degrades each of the tasks resulting in decreased efficiency and accuracy. Mindfulness practice increases one's ability to remain focused in the midst of distractions, skillfully and calmly moving from one completed task to the next. That focus helps us experience the incessant chatter in our minds as internal auto distractions, keeping us either ruminating in the past or worrying about the future, unconsciously absent from the often remarkable calmness of Right Now.Corporate mindfulness training programs are conducted on-site or virtually as 6-8 week group workshop sessions, combining instruction in technique and practice, along with introduction and discussion of the essential mindfulness concepts of awareness (body, mind, and emotion) and a constant inquiry around the perceptual shift of going through life in the "business as usual" way as opposed to mindfully.Home practice is required, as science confirms that consistent mindfulness practice is similar to the routine of physical exercise in order to see and feel significant results. There is also an emphasis on "informal practice," instructing participants throughout their normal daily routines of walking to the car, showering, washing dishes to pause, breathe and acknowledge body sensations, thoughts, and surroundings, in order to interrupt the auto-pilot sleepwalking we have all become accustom to.Mindfulness programs also address emotional triggers, instructing participants to "feel" the body sensations associated with anger, irritation, joy, craving, etc. in order to not be hijacked by these habitual reactions, and instead be aware of these messages from the body, allowing for measured and calm response.Increased awareness of ourselves leads to increased awareness of others ultimately leading to greater understanding and compassion, crucial mindfulness aspects that reinforce emotional intelligence skills. Mindfulness training also introduces practices that assist staff in dealing effectively with each other. Awareness of how our minds work, especially our judgmental thoughts and often hyper critical self-talk can dictate our social interactions, perhaps even stymie our creativity or initiative. Mindfulness practice asks participants to observe that voice in our head and notice how it influences our decisions and behavior toward ourselves and others.Mindless eating, over scheduling, non-filtering of distractions and impulsive reactions are impediments to accomplishing lifestyle, nutrition and exercise goals established by wellness programs. Mindfulness skills are the prerequisites that can ensure consistent use and follow through on those goals and increase success and healthy changes for more employees.

About the Author

Barbara Byrne

As a licensed psychotherapist for over 25 years, as well as an experienced and professionally trained mindfulness instructor, Barbara Byrne has created Mindful Way Solutions, dedicated to bringing the benefits of mindfulness training to boardrooms and classrooms.

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