Eli DeFaria, Unsplash.

How Mindfulness Can Combat the Pressure-Cooker of Work

Big companies are quashing stress to improve worker health, happiness and productivity.

Workaholism, it turns out, has its breaking point. Guess what? We’ve reached it.

As Americans, we’ve vaulted the workplace to the essential source of identity, fulfillment and worth. We put in longer hours at the office and enjoy less recreation than any other industrialized workforce. 

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Smart companies know that clocking in more hours doesn’t necessarily lead to more creativity and innovation. It simply makes us tired, cranky and sick. An epidemic of anxiety, sleeplessness and chronic disease now costs American businesses $300 billion a year in stress-related absenteeism. 

Just look at these numbers, drawn from studies by ComPsych, a Chicago employee assistance provider. 

  • 80% of workers feel stress on the job, with 59% reporting “high stress.”
  • 25% say work is their number one stress, ahead of finances and family.
  • 25% say they’ve felt like screaming or shouting because of job stress.
  • Yet 35% of people actually just work harder as a way to cope with stress. 

Stress, not surprisingly, leads to higher turnover as well as difficulty sleeping, physical ailments like fatigue, weight gain, depression, anger and anxiety—as well as higher rates of absenteeism. One survey by IT staffing firm Hays found that younger workers, Gen Ys, in particular are far more willing to leave their jobs if they’re stressed out.

Mindfulness has emerged as a powerful tool to stem this tide of stress. And it’s being embraced by companies such as Aetna, Salesforce, Google, Nike, HBO, Twitter and Yahoo!. These companies see it as a way to improve mental and physical health, boost workplace resiliency and create a calm, reasonable, and compassionate workplace. 

Meditation spaces, mindfulness classes, daily group time-outs for contemplation, and on-site yoga, are all ways employers are infusing the workplace with zen. The trend isn’t just a feel good band-aid. Multiple research studies have shown that meditation has the potential to decrease anxiety and potentially boost resilience and performance under stress. 

Your brain craves mindfulness

A 2017 University of Waterloo study found that practicing just 25 minutes of Hatha yoga or mindfulness meditation per day can boost the brain’s executive functions, cognitive abilities linked to goal-directed behavior and the ability to control knee-jerk emotional responses, habitual thinking patterns and actions.

In a similar 2010 study published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, researchers found that after just four sessions of meditation training, participants with no prior meditation experience were able to measurably improve mood, reduce fatigue, anxiety, and increase mindfulness. Moreover, brief mindfulness training significantly improved visuospatial processing, working memory, and executive functioning, benefits that had previously only been reported with long-term meditators.

Sometimes the effects are more nuanced, as serial entrepreneur Archana Patchirajan found. The serial entrepreneur and CEO of mattress company Sattva told the Harvard Business Review that before meditation, he’d get angry with workers whose performance didn’t meet his expectations. Says Patchirajan: “Thanks to meditation, I have developed patience. I have a better relationship with my team. Best of all, I maintain my peace of mind.”

Such stories and students are pushing meditation mainstream. More than half of employers in Fidelity’s 10th Annual Corporate Health & Well-Being Survey offer well-being programs, up 20 percent from 2018.

Om like Aetna, Salesforce, and Twitter

Mark Bertoli, CEO of Aetna, has been an outspoken advocate of meditation since a 2004 skiing accident left him with a spinal injury and severe, chronic pain. 

“I was on the verge of taking my life,” he told the audience at an Asia Society event on the topic of Buddhism and Business. He said he sat on the side of the freeway in his car, with the engine running, ready to run his vehicle into a bridge abutment, when a police officer intervened. Bertoli subsequently sought treatment through cranial sacral therapy, yoga and eventually, meditation. He credits his meditation practice with dramatically transforming the way he sees the world, his relationships, and ultimately, Aetna. 

Under Bertoli’s leadership, Aetna started offering meditation and yoga classes, and eventually ran a double-blind study with its own employees, focusing on the stress-reducing effects of both therapies. Aetna also created the position of chief mindfulness officer and raised minimum pay after Bertoli learned these workers, most of them women with children, were using food stamps and government health insurance. (He ultimately raised the pay for those workers to $16 an hour from $12.)

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff has long embraced mindfulness in running his business. He formed a close relationship with a Buddhist monastic community in France called Plum Village. The monks there inspired him to add meditation rooms to each floor of the new Salesforce Tower in San Francisco and bring them to Salesforce’s annual 170,000-person Dreamforce conference to offer meditation and life advice.

A similar emphasis plays out at Twitter, where managers are trained to bring mindfulness practices out into the work environment during everyday interactions and to cultivate mindfulness as more than a one-time-a-day practice.

Melissa Daimler, Twitter’s head of learning and organization, talked about this approach during a recent event hosted by Impact Hub San Francisco. “One of our core skills of managers is coaching, which is about listening, being present, and asking questions. It’s not about having a bad day at work and then going to yoga so you can feel better.” 

Stress won’t disappear from the workplace. But as the research and corporate leaders indicate, mindfulness may be the key to handling it better, and ultimately, to creating a healthier, more resilient workplace.