Stress in today's workplace is endemic and ever increasing. Why is this? We live in a culture where multi-tasking, distraction and overwhelm are the norm. We are bombarded with soundbites, Facebook posts, email and text messages. The workplace has become more and more demanding with greater pressure to meet deadlines, endless meetings to attend, a flood of emails to manage, and constant interruptions and distractions; research shows that in such a climate memory, attention, and concentration suffer.
Stress is so commonplace it can even be regarded as a kind of badge of honor, says mindfulness academic Mark Williams, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford. "We spend so much time rushing from one task to another we may think we are working efficiently but it's counter-productive," explained Williams. The Work Stress Survey in 2013 concluded that that eight out of 10 Americans find their jobs stressful.
The Problem with Stress
A stressful workplace translates into employees suffering from all the negative effects of stress on health, happiness and well-being. The constant activation of the stress-response system causes overexposure to adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress hormones that increase the risk of numerous health problems including: anxiety, depression, digestive problems, heart disease, sleep problems, and weight gain.
Besides these serious physiological effects on the body, chronic stress also results in significant cognitive impairment. It hijacks the executive centers in the brain responsible for the capacity to pay attention, comprehend, and learn.To have a healthier, happier, and more productive workforce, it is imperative to address stress and find ways to mitigate it.
Mindfulness and Stress Reduction
The rise of stress levels in Western culture has been accompanied by an ever more urgent search for strategies to promote health, vitality, and optimal performance in all spheres of life. We have seen an explosion of interest in exercise, yoga, and meditation with record numbers of people joining gyms and yoga studios, running marathons, and learning to meditate. Out of this climate came the realization that the 2,500-year-old tradition of mindfulness offers ways to cultivate healthier more balanced lives that are simple, effective and easy to learn.
Time magazine declared on its cover that 2014 was the year of a "Mindful Revolution." Suddenly everyone from Oprah Winfrey, to schoolchildren, to the U.S. military, and even a congressman in the White House, began practicing mindfulness. And they discovered mindfulness practices are not only effective in reducing stress but also significantly improve overall health and cognitive functioning.
Practicing mindfulness involves slowing down, paying attention, and becoming aware of what is happening in the present moment without judgment. Extensive research shows this approach can reverse our common habit of "zoning out." Mindfulness helps us become aware of our thoughts, emotions, and body sensations.
When we wake up' to our present experience, we increase our capacity to cope with challenges and build stress resilience. The list of people reaping these rewards from mindfulness training grows daily as Olympic athletes, prison inmates, film stars, and top-level executives discover the benefits.
Mindfulness and Health
One of the earliest mindfulness pioneers, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, introduced mindfulness to the world of wellness. In 1979 he founded the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Woreester, Mass., to alleviate the effects of chronic stress on illness and disability. Since then more than 22,000 people have completed the MBSR training and have reported huge success in relieving pain, managing anxiety and depression, and improving sleep and overall health.
This well-researched eight-week program is now offered in over 200 medical centers, hospitals, and clinics around the world, including Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine, Duke Center for Integrative Medicine, and Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine. As a psychotherapist in private practice and long time meditator myself, I was so impressed with the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program that I trained at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center as an instructor.
I often begin MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) classes by asking people which aspects of life are the most stressful for them and typically hear the top four on everyone's list: work, finances, relationships and health. While the outer circumstances of the participant's lives remained the same I saw firsthand the remarkable transformation people made. Applying the tools of mindfulness every day they learned to ease their stress, reduce their pain, and cope better with whatever life challenges they were facing.
And I realized how this core program could be adapted to other fields of my own work. As a research associate of a pilot program at the Veterans Administration for the Puget Sound Health Care System in Seattle, I was part of a team that created an eight-week Mindful Eating course to reduce stress for traumatized veterans. As the lead instructor I taught and facilitated the course and week-by-week witnessed the same improvements I had seen in the MBSR class.
Mindfulness has also become a fundamental aspect of many programs designed to address the emotional needs of infants, children, and families. I have facilitated six-week mother and baby Mindfulness-Parenting programs with the Community of Mindful Parents in Seattle, and created fun and instructive workshops for parents and their children.
In my private practice I have found it valuable to integrate mindfulness into my work with clients. I will often instruct them in mindfulness training and create customized mindfulness meditations that address their particular issues and needs.
Mindfulness and Cancer
It was when I was diagnosed with cancer 13 years ago however that I realized just how beneficial mindfulness is in addressing the huge challenge of living with cancer. Since that day I have worked with hundreds of cancer patients, survivors, family members, and health professionals. I have designed and developed workshops, classes, retreats and audio recordings specifically for their needs.
When I was a cancer patient myself I searched in vain for a residential retreat designed to deal with my specific, cancer-related needs. None existed, so I created one. My Awake & Alive Mindful Living with Cancer five-day retreats are attended by people from all walks of life and from places near and far - even from Europe.
Mindfulness at Work
Corporations all over North America and Europe are incorporating mindfulness in the workplace. Harvard Business School, Target, Aetna, Adobe, Ford and Goldman Sachs are now offering mindfulness programs for their employees. Google invited renowned mindfulness teachers such as Jon Kabat-Zinn and the Vietnamese monk and mindfulness master Thich Nhat Hahn to offer teachings at their headquarters.
The interest in their teachings eventually resulted in the birth of Google's most popular class, Search Inside Yourself, the brainchild of Singapore-born engineer Chade Meng-Tan. Since 2007 Google employees have been taking advantage of this course, which combines the ancient practices of mindfulness with contemporary neuroscience and emotional intelligence.
The results have been dramatic. As one graduate said, "I really think this course changed my life." There is no doubt that it has improved both the personal lives of employees and the productivity of one of the most successful businesses in the world.
Mindfulness Solutions to Workplace Stress
To protect yourself and your team from the risk of overwhelm and burnout there a simple steps you can take that make a big difference. The beauty of these mindfulness practices is that you can do them anywhere any time - at your desk, waiting for your coffee, in the elevator, or on the subway platform.
Do not underestimate the power of these simple-seeming techniques. If practiced regularly, over time they help develop the inner resources to navigate through stressful situations with more ease and competence. They are the building blocks of stress-reduction in your workplace.
When You're Distracted, Frustrated, Having Difficulty Concentrating: Take a Mindful Pause
When your mind is wandering and you can't think straight - taking a Mindful Pause is like hitting the refresh button on your computer! It helps unclutter your mind and bring you into the present where you're better able to think strategically and calmly.
- Start with three deep, slow belly breaths. Breathe in fully and exhale slowly and completely.
- Check-in with your body. Are your shoulders or jaw tight? Your neck tense?
- Notice any tightness, discomfort or pain and breathe into it, releasing tension.
- Check-in with your mind: Notice what's on your mind. Are you ruminating on the past or planning the future? Invite yourself to come back to the present moment.
- Breathing in, let go of the past and future. Breathing our, rest in the now.
When You're Stuck, Overwhelmed, Exhausted: Give Your Body a Break
When you're feeling stuck and overwhelmed, unplug from technology and tune in to your body. Even five minutes can make a big difference.
- Stand-up and gently stretch and bend. If you can't leave your workspace, at least get up from your desk. If possible, walk outside and breathe in some fresh air.
- Take some full deep breaths all the way down to your belly. Abdominal breathing really helps to revitalize and ground you.
- Continue to stretch while you breathe fully and deeply until you feel more awake and recharged.
- Breathing in, release tension. Breathing out, refresh.
When You're Wound Up, Ready to Blow Your Top or Send an Angry Email: Recognize and Release Emotions
When you're overwhelmed by strong emotions the first step to transforming reactivity is to simply acknowledge what you're feeling and name it.
- Ask yourself: What am I feeling right now? Am I angry, frustrated, anxious, sad, hopeless? Name it.
- Then take three slow, deep breaths. On the in-breath allow your mind to settle and clear. On the out- breath let the muscles of your neck, face, and shoulders soften. Let your body release and relax.
- Repeat until you feel calm and centered and have a more objective perspective.
- Breathing in, calm. Breathing out, relax.
About the Author
Erica Rayner-Horn MA, LMHCA, is a psychotherapist and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction instructor specializing in mindfulness in her work as a therapist, presenter, facilitator and writer. She teaches stress management in medical, educational and corporate settings.
Erica is the founder of Awake and Alive: Mindful Living with Cancer Retreats, author of the CD "Finding Tranquility-Guided Mindfulness Meditations for Stressful Times," Finding Tranquility Guided Mindfulness Meditations for Stressful Times CD and an upcoming book and audio series on cancer and mindfulness. www.ericarayner-horn.comMailing