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Meditation Comes to the Workplace
There are compelling reasons to offer meditation training and resources

By Joanne Sammer  6/11/2014
 

Employers concerned about improving employee health and wellness are considering whether to add meditation to their employee benefits and existing wellness programs.

While many organizations offer yoga classes as a voluntary benefit (either employee- or employer-paid, or on a shared-cost basis), fewer have made the leap to offering voluntary training in meditation techniques or providing a quiet space for meditation breaks. Yet there are compelling reasons for employers to offer meditation, which generally focuses on helping employees to relax, improve their focus and productivity, and reduce their stress levels.

Medical research and data have shown health improvements among individuals who meditate. These improvements range from improved cardiovascular health to reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety, to helping employees avoid burnout and increase their coping and problem-solving skills.

Developing a Program

Whether employers offer meditation as a stand-alone benefit or as part of an overall wellness program, they should understand some basics:

A meditation program should begin with some initial training that teaches employees how to meditate. Employers can provide access to in-person training, online classes, recorded materials or a combination of all of these.

Once they know the basics, employees can meditate on their own, in groups or (depending on the technique) using guided meditation with a pre-recorded session or with a live instructor online or in person.

Many wellness-based meditation programs begin with mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) training followed up with opportunities for group or individual practice. “MBSR is the most well-developed and well-studied program with demonstrated benefits in many different populations and a track record spanning several decades,” said Deborah Teplow, CEO of the Institute for Wellness Education in Teaneck, N.J. “Other programs, including various versions of mind/body stress reduction skills training, have not been subjected to as exhaustive research as MBSR,” in her view.

The technique of Transcendental Meditation, which gained prominence in the U.S. during the 60s, also has workplace advocates.

Practicing Mindfulness in a Multitasking Workplace

Google, eBay, Intel and General Mills offer classes on it. So do Harvard Business School, Ross School of Business and Claremont Graduate University, among other campuses. Mindfulness—being focused and fully present in the here and now—is good for individuals and good for a business’s bottom line.

How can people practice it in a workplace where multitasking is the norm?

“Even if a company doesn’t make it part of the culture, employees and managers can substitute their multitasking habits with mindfulness in order to reduce stress and increase productivity,” said Dr. Romie Mushtaq, a neurologist who specializes in mind/body medicine.

“Offering mindfulness training and yoga classes or giving people time and a place to meditate is an excellent investment,” she advised. “You’ll see a reduction in stress-related illnesses and your company’s performance will improve.”


“Meditation should be integrated into existing wellness programs, with a few caveats,” Teplow explained. “In general, novices greatly benefit by live supervision and guidance,” she noted. For that reason, employers should introduce meditation programs by offering either classroom work or real-time web-based classes with interaction and feedback. Ongoing meditation support can be in the form of additional onsite and online training and practice classes and groups.

Importantly, meditation training and opportunities should remain voluntary. Because meditation might be viewed by some as a spiritual or religious practice, even when presented in wholly secular terms, employees should not be required to participate.

Making Time to Meditate

“The simplest meditation integration is [making available] five minutes mid-morning and six minutes mid-afternoon,” said Brett Cotter, CEO of Stress Is Gone. “It's straightforward to implement with a company-wide blackout on the calendar, and ‘no e-mail’ policy.”

Cotter also suggested setting aside a quiet room that is available at any time for employees who want to meditate during the workday. And office workers who cannot or do not want to leave their desks can be provided with noise-canceling headphones for meditating at their workspace with the telephone ringer off.

Providing access to meditation guides, either printed or online, can aid employee efforts to meditate. However, the most important element of meditation support comes from management making clear that spending time on meditation is, even if not actively encouraged (see the caveat about remaining voluntary, above), fully permitted.

Matching the meditation approach to the type of work being done is important. The stress experienced by a call center employee will not be the same as that experienced by an attorney. For this reason, “the biggest challenge companies face when setting up a meditation program is getting the right form of meditation for the types of work, and individual employee needs,” said Todd Robinson, founder of Applied Awareness in Flint, Mich.

Robinson suggested that employees working in customer service, help desks and call centers would benefit most from a meditation program that focuses on stress reduction. “When they learn to deal with their own frustrations, they are more likely to remain calm which also eases customer frustrations, resulting in better interactions,” he said.

By contrast, employees working in a manufacturing environment or who perform repetitive tasks like data entry might benefit from a program focused on mindfulness to “help ease boredom and distractions, resulting in a safer and more accurate work environment,” Robinson advised.

To develop this type of customized meditation program, Robinson recommended looking for instructors or programs with experience in a variety of meditation styles. Employers with a varied workforce may not benefit from an instructor who “performs the same type of meditation no matter where they go,” he said. “If their knowledge is limited, they won’t be able to tailor their classes to business needs or the needs of employees.”

Measuring Impact

As with other wellness offerings, employers can gauge the program’s effectiveness through improvements in biometric screenings, such as blood pressure readings. Productivity metrics can also be helpful, particularly if a meditation program is focused on a specific group of employees, such as call center workers. Employee feedback is also an important measure of program effectiveness.

One employer in a high-stress industry began its meditation program by asking a representative of a local meditation center to talk to employees about meditation, what it is, its benefits and how a meditation class works. Because meditation is often new to many employees, “the company thought this approach would make employees more comfortable with the thought of giving meditation a try,” said Jeanne Nicholson, senior vice president of benefit consulting with CBG Benefits. To encourage participation, the company paid the price of a beginner’s meditation workshop.

To measure the effectiveness of the program, CBG is conducting anonymous employee surveys covering a range of questions, including how employees feel about their deadlines and workload. Although the nature of the industry means that employees will always face periods of high pressure, the company is focusing on using programs like meditation to help employees manage that inevitable stress and build more cohesive teams. With these goals in mind, “the company will certainly see a return on its investment,” said Nicholson.

Because the infrastructure necessary to support a meditation program is relatively simple, any resulting savings can quickly offset the costs of the program. For example, Nicholson noted that participation in an off-site meditation class costs the company about $45 per person. Online training, classes and resources can cost even less.

“Costs are minimal because there are tremendous resources on the Internet and from popular media with courses from credible sources, including hospitals, medical schools and universities,” said Teplow.

Joanne Sammer is a New Jersey-based business and financial writer.

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