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Stress Reduction and Employee Health The Role of Yoga, Relaxation and Meditation

November 21, 2003
Related Topics: Stress Management, Featured Article, Compensation, Benefits

According to the Ford Headache Clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, headache related absenteeism by employees, on average, results in 155 million lost workdays a year. Due to the increasingly high pressure work environment in our society, headaches and other stress related ailments are on the rise and are exacting a heavy toll on employees and employers.

    To counter the effects of stress due to both personal and work related factors, wellness programs that focus on employees' physical and mental health have become widespread in many organizations. Such programs, when properly implemented and taken advantage of by the employees, can lead to improvements in their health and morale. In view of the organizational concern about escalating health care costs and the cost of employee absenteeism due to poor health, wellness programs are clearly appropriate in today's organization.

    Organizations can improve the quality of their wellness programs by incorporating exercise components that emphasize yoga postures, deep relaxation and meditation techniques. Such methods have been specifically acknowledged by researchers to be helpful in reducing blood pressure, lowering stress, quitting smoking, helping insomnia and enhancing the general well being of employees who take them up.

The nature of yoga postures
    The practice of Yoga may be the oldest form of exercise and relaxation known to man in reducing stress. A number of stone seals excavated from the Indus valley, dated around 3000 B.C., show human figures in various yoga postures. Yoga exercises and movements are very different from other forms of exercise. They are not meant to develop muscles or exhaust one's strength. Instead Yoga postures focus on gentle stretches to stimulate and increase the circulation in vital organs of the body.

    The different yoga postures further focus on a variety of spinal movements to stretch, tone and nourish the root spinal nerves which spread out to every part of the human body. The practice of yoga postures and deep yogic breathing has been shown to stabilize the response of the nervous system to different forms of physical and mental stress.

The nature of yogic relaxation
    A comprehensive wellness program should include both yoga postures and yoga relaxation. Whereas the postures focus on improving the health of the nervous system and the body, the relaxation and meditation processes are partly mental in nature. Practiced jointly, the yoga postures and relaxation form a unified system of stress reduction and management for both physical and mental health. The yogic relaxation should promptly follow at the end of the yoga posture routine.

    Yogic relaxation from 10 to 20 minutes can be very rejuvenating and energizing. It is much better than any power-nap in the afternoon and can be done during the lunch break. It consists of lying down on the floor and consciously relaxing every part of the body mentally. Guided imagery and the use of creative visualization by an experienced yoga teacher allows the trainees to enter a state where the tension is gradually eliminated from the major muscle groups and the body feels as if it has become light and is floating. Within 10 minutes the whole body is in a state of deep relaxation but not in deep sleep. This conscious deep body relaxation leads to a very calm and restful state for the participant.

The nature of yogic meditation
    The term "meditation" has many different connotations to people. However, learning meditation and relaxation techniques does not require a re-orientation of one's basic religious or philosophical values, diet, or making any major life style changes. Because of this, such methods are widely accessible to employees and managers. Training in meditation techniques can particularly help individuals discover their own potential for innovation and creativity in the workplace. M.L. Ray, a Professor of creativity, innovation, and Marketing at Stanford university suggested in 1992 that businesses must move towards a new paradigm in dealing with their employees which recognizes that "…The power of individual psyche is far more vast than we could have previously imagined."

    There are physiological and psychological explanations of how meditation works. According to meditation experts as well as empirical research evidence, meditation techniques, when practiced properly, can lead to an optimally functioning nervous system and release of hidden mental energies which are latent in all individuals. Development of these energies facilitates functioning at a more alert, conscious, and a higher creative level. Such attributes are certainly desirable in both employees and managers. Many Japanese, and some Europeans and American companies make extensive use of meditation techniques in their management development programs.

    One example of a meditation technique involves the use of Mantra. This is a well known technique for calming a restless mind and focusing it along a particular thought pattern. A Mantra is a word or combination of words that the trainee is asked to repeat mentally for a specified period of time (24 minutes); either once or twice a day. Some Mantras do not appear to have any obvious meaning while others have a very specific and a clear meaning and involve repeating a pleasant sounding word which is also a confidence boosting self-affirmation.

    Repetition of the Mantra, keeping the meaning in mind, for a prolonged period in a stable sitting posture will lead to relaxation of the body. The body posture should be erect with the back, neck and the head in as straight a line as possible. One may sit cross legged on the floor or on a chair. The mantra should be repeated and remembered with feeling. Eventually the mind will start to enter a calm state of pleasant self-awareness.

Recognizing the effectiveness of yoga and relaxation training
    Senior managers in charge of employee development need to be made aware of the enormous research literature documenting the role yoga, relaxation, and meditation training can play in enhancing the workplace performance of both employees and managers. For example, D.R. Frew in 1974 reported in the Academy of Management Journal that practitioners of meditation experienced greater job satisfaction, improved job performance, and better interpersonal relationships. A replication of the study discussed by Frew in his 1977 book Management of Stress reached similar conclusions.

    A Swedish study by C. Jonsson in 1975 found that employees who were regular meditators, when compared to employees who had not yet learned the technique, reported being significantly more alert and active, self confident, less irritable, more cooperative with others, and enjoying a greater level of accomplishment. In research published by T. Haratani and T. Henmi in 1990 in the Japanese Journal of Industrial Health and the Japanese Journal of Public Health, some of the benefits of meditation were again identified. This research showed that meditation leads to significant decreases in psychological distress, health complaints, insomnia, and smoking.

    A study by Alexander et al. in 1993, published in Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, found that meditation practice on a regular basis lead to improvements in employee job satisfaction, productivity, and better work relationships. Several other studies in the 1990s have found that the meditation training can be useful in the workplace in terms of employee and managerial productivity and organizational effectiveness.

Yoga and relaxation training programs
    If an organization has never had a stress reduction program emphasizing yoga exercises and relaxation, then the human resource staff needs to carefully prepare the groundwork so that employees will take advantage of such an offering. A pilot program is advised before a total corporate commitment is made.

Implement The Program
    1. Survey the employees and find out the interest level for various kinds of classes including Yoga, Deep Breathing, Relaxation, Meditation, Tai-Chi, etc.

    2. Interview several teachers from the different Yoga and Meditation centers in your geographic region. The Yellow pages or the Internet are good places to start.

    3. Discuss costs of programs and compare. Organizations which charge the most money may not always be the best providers of Yoga, Meditation and Relaxation programs. Experienced individual Yoga teachers may have more reasonable prices as they have little or no overhead costs.

    4. Schedules classes several months in advance so employees can plan. Advertise the benefits of relaxation and stress management through Yoga and Meditation.

    5. Lunch hours are ideal for Yoga and Relaxation classes and typically lead to high rate of employee participation. Once the classes have started, they should be offered on a regular basis to build and sustain the interest of the employees.

Select the trainer or consultant for the program
    Getting the right person to implement the program is critical and may be the decisive factor in the success or failure of the yoga, relaxation and meditation training program. It is critical to determine if the trainer has legitimate background and experience in the field? Unfortunately organizations that offer yoga teacher certificates after a weekend retreat or a one to two week yoga program have mushroomed. These certificates may be meaningless and typically indicate nothing about a person's understanding or experience in the field.

    The following information about a potential trainer needs to be obtained:

1. Where was the person trained, by whom, and for how long?

2. How long has the person himself practiced?

3. How much experience in actual teaching does the individual have?

4. Check the background of all the teachers. Ask them about their training and teaching experience. Check references. Ask about the insurance that the teacher carries.

5. As part of the interview process, ask several teachers to come and give sample Yoga and Relaxation classes for the employees. Observe carefully the different teaching styles and methodologies.

6. Ask employees for their reaction to the various classes and the teachers.

7. Does the person teach one technique or method or does the person have the ability to teach a variety of methods to individual pertaining to yoga and meditation?

    This final point is especially important as there are trainers who focus exclusively on one technique of meditation as they consider it superior to all others. While this may be acceptable to many employees, it may not be to others. One shoe may not fit all. Therefore, it is advised that an experienced teacher of a variety of methods of yoga, relaxation, and meditation be sought for initiating such a program. Once a Yoga center or a group of yoga teachers has been selected to implement the program, stick with them to provide continuity for the employees.

Educate the Employees
    The following points need to be publicized to employees at the pilot site before the program is instituted to ensure maximum participation:

1. Training in yoga and relaxation does not involve changes in diet or one's fundamental values.

2. Widely used autogenic methods, including biofeedback, have developed from yoga and relaxation techniques.

3. There is evidence that systematic practice of yoga and relaxation helps in such conditions as insomnia, tension headaches and backaches, leads to stress reduction and lowering of blood pressure.

4. Almost everyone, regardless of their current physical condition or limitation, can participate in some capacity in yoga and relaxation classes and benefit by them.

5. The person hired by the organization to teach yoga and relaxation is competent and an expert in the area.

Evaluate the Program
    Before evaluating the efficacy of a pilot yoga and relaxation training program, it must have been given enough time to have an effect. Offering such a class to employees for six months should be sufficient to generate evidence regarding its benefits. The following data needs to be considered:

1. Did enough people participate to warrant continuation?

2. What are the reactions of the employees who have attended the classes?

3. What tangible effect is such a program having in terms of health claims, absenteeism, interpersonal work relations, and employee motivation?

    If it appears that there has been low attendance of the program, but the employees who are participating in the yoga and relaxation program are very positive about it then the following issues need to be addressed.

1. Have the yoga and relaxation classes been offered at a convenient time for employees such as a lunch break or after work hours?

2. Are all the employees aware of the physical and mental health benefits of the relaxation training and has the training been adequately publicized?

3. Is there support from department managers for employees to participate in the program?

    Only after properly addressing the above issues can an informed judgment be made with regards to continuing, expanding or terminating the on-site yoga and relaxation program. Because the potential health benefits for employees are enormous, such decisions need to be made carefully.

    Given the potential benefits of yoga, relaxation and meditation relating to stress reduction, human resource executives need to carefully scrutinize wellness programs in their organizations to determine if such training is offered to employees. If such training is not being offered, the company may be losing a valuable opportunity to encourage employees to take a serious interest in their long term health and quality of work life.

    Organizations have a definite interest in helping employees cope with stress, and remain healthy and energetic in the workplace. Stress reduction and successful stress management can reduce absenteeism, make the work environment more pleasant, and minimize other work related problems due to burnout. There is much evidence that one excellent way to help employees manage stress is to incorporate yoga, relaxation and meditation training in the company wellness program in some form. If the employees are made aware of the physical and mental health benefits associated with the practice of yoga and meditation, they are more likely to take advantage of such a program. This in the long run can lead to a healthier work environment and more productive employees. You are the company you keep.

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