To Cut Office Stress, Try Butterflies and Meditation?
By Sue Shellenbarger, WSJ, October 9, 2012
Some 70% of Americans know the feeling: Some time during the workday, the stomach tightens. The heart races. Palms grow damp, breathing becomes shallow.
Job pressures are the No. 2 cause of stress after financial worries, a recent survey shows. And while most of us struggle to manage the stress of a demanding boss or a mounting workload on our own, more employers are trying to help. Efforts include earnest-sounding techniques like “mindful communication” and “cognitive behavioral training” as well as office designs featuring leafy, plant-covered walls.
Such stress-busting attempts may have some rolling their eyes, but recent research shows they can actually change the way the brain and body react to stressors. Researchers are using brain imaging and hormone-sampling technology to measure the techniques’ physiological impact.
One of the most effective stress-beaters, research shows, is a training program called “mindfulness-based stress reduction,” developed years ago at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, but adapted in recent years for the office. Numerous studies link training in the technique to increased activity in regions of the brain involved in self-control and the ability to pay attention and process sensory input.
The program, which typically involves eight, two-hour weekly sessions, plus a final full-day retreat, teaches meditation techniques like breathing and bringing thoughts back when they wander, says Diana Kamila, a senior teacher at the university’s Center for Mindfulness. Participants also learn stretching, yoga and “body scans”—noticing their responses to stress, softening their muscles through breathing and tuning in to the feelings and sensations of the moment.
Employees learn to practice periodic “check-ins” while working, walking, driving or eating. And they are encouraged to blend the techniques into their daily routines, at their desks, in meetings or during talks with colleagues.
At some offices, the house plant takes on a bigger role. The thinking: research shows that exposure to nature can help lower blood pressure, pulse rates and levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
At Vertical Screen, a Warminster, Pa., maker of employment-screening programs, natural light streams through the building’s three glass walls; 900 plants adorn a “living wall,” a kind of indoor vertical garden; and an outdoor employee cafe sits at the edge of a five-acre meadow of wildflowers. Senior account manager Jacqueline Smith says she could almost feel her blood pressure rising one day recently. Going to the cafe for a few minutes to watch butterflies in the meadow, she says, “really does change your mind. It alleviates all that pressure.”
Some companies, without easy access to the world of wildflowers and butterflies, are simulating it. At American Specialty Health in San Diego, employees can retreat to a “relaxation room” decorated with large tropical-beach photos, a trickling fountain and herbal aromatherapy scents. Greg Lane, a manager there, says he uses the room about 10 times a month to meditate. He says his shoulders drop, his breathing deepens and tension drops away.