Mindfulness exercises help workers overcome stress
Meditation and other stress-reducing strategies have become popular workplace practices.
Most days around lunchtime, Suzanne Sears settles into a chair, closes her eyes, and tunes out the world.
She breathes in and she breathes out. For 20 minutes.
Sears is among several Newton-Wellesley Hospital employees who gather in the hospital chapel during their lunch breaks to sit in quiet meditation.
The daily session is organized by the hospital to help workers cope with the stresses of their jobs. Sears, an assistant in the pediatrics department, and many of her colleagues believe meditation has helped them feel healthier and perform better at the office.
“I can sit through my day,” Sears says. “I make my list, I can get everything I need done — and if I don’t get something done, then I know I have tomorrow, rather than stressing out about it.”
Newton-Wellesley is among a growing number of employers turning to strategies such as meditation to help employees sort through the chaos of daily life so they are less distracted and more focused on work. It’s part of an increasingly popular workplace dogma: mindfulness.
Workers today are facing “high-pressure information overload,” says Rasmus Hougaard, a consultant to employers and coauthor of a new book about mindfulness in the workplace. “In this pressure cooker of a work environment, people’s attention is suffering.”
Programs to promote mindfulness have gained the endorsement of major companies such as American Express and Nike, Hougaard says. And while such initiatives may sound a bit “fluffy,” he acknowledges, they can help workers with very tangible and necessary tasks, like managing e-mails.
“Mindfulness is a great tool to help employees feel less stressed and be more balanced and resilient,” he says. “The more you’re able to stay focused on what you’re doing right now, the less stressed you’ll be.”
Mindfulness, loosely defined, is essentially staying in the moment. This can be a difficult task for a worker thinking about her smartphone, her in-box, her children, her parents, her mortgage.
“When you’re dealing with all this overload, it really moves your brain into a fight-or-flight response. You’re not able to make decisions in a way that is rational, and your mind doesn’t have the ability to focus,” says Dr. Claudia Coplein, vice president and chief medical officer of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. in Springfield.
MassMutual launched a mindfulness program this year, sending employees short video tutorials to help them take “mindful minute” breaks at their desks. For those who want to delve further, the company is offering a free four-hour seminar and an eight-week course to teach mindfulness and stress reduction.
The interest at MassMutual comes from the top. Chief executive Roger W. Crandall starts his days with meditation and even begins company meetings with breathing exercises.
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts offers yoga and meditation classes to employees twice a week, including at a wellness center in the insurer’s newly renovated headquarters in the Back Bay. Most companies do not formally measure how such offerings may be helping their employees or their corporate bottom lines. But at Blue Cross, interest is growing, says benefits consultant Lesley Delaney: “People are asking for more classes.”
At Newton-Wellesley Hospital, meditation is also catching on. Carole Dowd, a medical education coordinator, awkwardly sat through several sessions, her mind wandering — until it started to click. Now Dowd tries to make every session.
“All of a sudden, I’d go back to work and nothing bothered me in the afternoon,” she says.