Meditation Brings Sharper Focus to the Workplace

Taking a few minutes in the workday for meditation has benefits for employers and employees. Research shows it can improve workers’ health, increase productivity and reduce employers’ health care costs.

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION CREDIT: JOE STOLTZ

Every Wednesday, Fred Jeske takes a break from his job as a business analyst, heads to a nondescript conference room, and enters another world. The lights are dim, gentle music plays softly, and he joins about 10 other people in a guided meditation.

Their eyes closed and bodies relaxed, the gentle voice of meditation guide Sadhana Panuganti plays over a speaker. She tells them to quiet their minds and focus on their heart, encouraging them to feel the inner calm and capture inspiration from within. If a thought pops up, acknowledge it but don’t dwell on it.

After the session is over, Jeske and the other participants slowly open their eyes, take a deep, cleansing breath, and feel refreshed and energized as they head back to their work for the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Plans in Illinois, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.

All that from 30 minutes of meditation? Yes, says Jeske and a host of experts who’ve studied the effect of meditation in the workplace. It may seem counterintuitive to interrupt the workday in order to be a more productive employee, but Jeske says that’s exactly his experience.

“This is that opportunity for everybody to understand it’s OK to take that little time for yourself to reboot,” Jeske says. “The benefits are endless. That stress I used to have for the rest of the day doesn’t exist after one session at noon.  I am able to accomplish more without thinking about it.”

Jeske’s experience is playing out across the country as workplace leaders recognize the benefits of allowing time and training in mindfulness practices like meditation. Nearly 10 percent of U.S. workers engaged in meditation in 2012, up from 8 percent in 2002, according to a study of more than 85,000 U.S. adults released last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Workplace stress is associated with many poor health outcomes, both mental and physical, the study authors wrote. It is linked to decreased productivity, more on-the-job injuries and higher medical expenses.

By helping employees manage stress better, the study says, mindfulness-based practices can improve workers’ health, increase productivity and reduce employers’ costs.

Shelter from the storm

Brian Jones, a trainer for the Heartfulness Institute, which provides meditation guidance and training for corporations and individuals, says the practice is appealing to employers because it doesn’t require equipment beyond a quiet space, and it can be done by employees of all fitness levels. Even just a short 15-minute session can boost productivity and focus for the rest of the day.

Decision-making becomes much clearer as we slow down our nonstop mental chatter.

“We get out of the activity in our head and all of the stuff that’s going on and center ourselves,” Jones says. “With a little practice of meditation, we become more efficient. Decision-making becomes much clearer as we slow down our nonstop mental chatter, which can be very fatiguing.”

Jones says people often don’t realize how exhausting constant connectivity can be until they take a break from it.

“In the meditation process, what happens is we learn to withdraw our awareness from the wall of the storm and move into the eye of the storm,” Jones says. “Though everything is still going on around us, it’s not affecting our newfound inner calm. This greatly increases our ability to effectively interact and lessens our reactions.”

Easing health care stress

Every day, physicians, nurses and other health care personnel make decisions that can have serious and sometimes life-altering consequences. Maryanna Klatt, clinical professor in the Department of Family Medicine at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, has studied the use of mindfulness techniques to help reduce some of that stress for staff at the 900-bed teaching hospital.

In one study, Klatt led 32 surgical intensive care nurses in an eight-week program called Mindfulness in Motion. It included regular meditation as well as gentle stretching, yoga and soothing music. At the end of the study, the biomarker of stress called salivary alpha amylase had decreased 40 percent in study participants from the start of the study. The control group showed no changes. There were no changes in the stressors in the nurses’ work, only in their response to it.

Klatt has expanded her Mindfulness in Motion program to other medical personnel at the hospital to help them manage their stress levels, including resident physicians. The program helps them deal with the demands of their residency and develop skills to use later in their careers.

“There are so many residents who are burned out, and we needed to do something about them,” Klatt says. “We did the program with 23 residents from the hospital and got a significant reduction in burnout — 22 percent — at the end of eight weeks, along with an increase in resilience and vigor toward their work.”

The results were so promising that Wexner Medical Center is now implementing Mindfulness in Motion throughout the hospital, including non-medical personnel.

Essential management buy-in

To achieve company-wide acceptance of any practice — meditation or otherwise – the first step is to get the full support of management, says Janice Marturano, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Institute for Mindful Leadership. Marturano, a former executive at General Mills, began practicing meditation and integrating it with leadership development practices after an intense period of work and personal stress in her life. She developed a mindful leadership training program for other executives and staff at General Mills, then she founded the institute to provide training to organizations and professionals around the world.

When executives and other senior leaders support meditation practices in the workplace, employees feel more empowered to take time out of their workday for it, she says. When that happens, the results benefit everyone.

“The most effective thing a manager can do is live this themselves,” Marturano says. “When I was at General Mills, I would always start off a session by asking people what brought them there. In the early days, they would say they were curious.

“By the end of the second year, I started to hear people say, ‘my manager is the best listener I’ve ever seen, and when I asked about it he said you have to do mindful leadership training.’ I always started at the director and vice president level because that gave people permission to ask about it when they saw the difference and felt the difference in their manager’s leadership. More importantly, it gave them permission to explore the practices and applications for themselves.”

A good workplace meditation program also can have a positive effect well beyond the individual employees, says Manika Turnbull, vice president and chief diversity officer for the five Blues Plans. She says it makes good business sense by promoting a culture of unity and wellness, helping businesses attract and retain good talent.

“The first session that I walked into, I was really blown away by all the various people that were in the room,” says Turnbull, who takes part in the workplace meditation program. “There were people I didn’t know and people from different backgrounds — whether it be gender, race, ethnicity, different departments within the organization, different life experiences — and it really hit me in that moment that meditation is a form of inclusion. We’re all there to go through our meditation practice together, but it also was an opportunity to get to know and connect with one another.”

Both Turnbull and Jeske have the same advice for anyone intrigued by meditation but nervous about doing it: Just try it. The only investment is a little bit of time and, for employers, a quiet space.

“I would tell anyone who’s curious to have no expectations and just go into one session and experience it,” Jeske says. “I’m 99 percent sure everyone’s going to walk out feeling different.”

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