Mindfulness and Stress Management: Creating Cultures of Optimal Performance: Workplace stress, which comes with a $264 billion annual price tag for the U.S. economy, is one of the driving forces behind escalating employee benefit costs. Through mindfulness and stress management, employers can potentially reduce those costs and create a healthier culture for employees.

Author:Schmidt, Lisa R.

Stress at work remains one of the largest drivers of employee benefit costs. (1) In addition to the economic disadvantages, the health consequences of stress and its impacts on employee well-being are profound. According to research from academic institutions, the economic cost of stress in the workplace is $264 billion annually. (2) Stress is a significant, causal factor in five out of the six leading causes of death. (3) Those who manage employee benefits budgets and employee performance outcomes have known for more than 30 years that stress is a big problem at work, yet interventions have had limited success in addressing stress in meaningful, measurable ways.

The practice of mindfulness holds promise for mitigating negative effects caused by stress. A corporate benefits plan with an effective mind/body/spirit program may see measurable outcomes such as improvements in self-reported quality of life, lowered incidences of depression and anxiety, increased resilience, improved team and individual performance, and gains in physical health.

This article will explain some of the concepts and biology behind mindfulness and offer ideas for science-based mindful interventions, including a breathing activity--Noticing the physical and emotional effects for one's self can help in teaching and implementing workplace interventions. We'll end with some tools that employers can use in the workplace to potentially improve bottom-line organizational results and create a culture of optimal performance.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is about being fully aware of whatever is happening in the present moment, without filters or the lens of judgment. It can be brought to any situation. Put simply, mindfulness consists of building awareness of the mind and body and living in the here and now. This universal practice can be thought of as mental training for learning how to notice and pay attention to thoughts and feelings before they move into habitual patterns that may cause stress and impact relationships at work or at home.

Mindfulness is observing, watching and examining. People become not judges but rather scientists of their own minds. This practice can profoundly impact stress levels, with positive results for workplace culture.

There are many ways to practice mindfulness. Some forms, such as meditation, body scanning, breath awareness and focusing the mind on a word or an object, have been practiced for nearly 5,000 years. Other mindful awareness methods such as body-focused yoga, tai chi or qigong are more recent adaptations of the practice of paying attention to the present moment.

With guidance, employees can practice calming their minds, noticing the body and learning the signals the body sends when it is under duress. Through patient and diligent practice, people can train their minds to mitigate the effects of stressful situations, opening up their lives to less emotional reactivity, increased stress tolerance and fewer interruptions from intrusive, distressing thoughts.

Life and Stress

Living with stress and anxiety, inside and outside the workplace, is much more prevalent than you might imagine. Millions of people are burdened by life's challenges every single day--from difficult life events and balancing professional and personal responsibilities to acute pain, illness and chronic health conditions. For most, stress is caused by a combination of all or some of these factors. Most people don't want to talk about stress and anxiety, nor do they wish to face its causes. Employees may bring their stresses to work and carry them around in ways that exacerbate their professional challenges (see Figure 1). Typical of the culture is the tendency to minimize, avoid or altogether deny fears and feelings and to resist talking about difficulties in problem-solving ways or even practicing methods to mitigate stresses. It's almost as if mental and emotional difficulties are a no-go zone, which is ironic, since people universally face these challenges.

Emotions such as stress, anxiety, tension and fear are all part of the human experience. But life experiences also contain positive emotions such as love, comfort, relaxation, safety and pleasure. Although people may prefer comfortable experiences to stressful ones, the human nervous system helps us deal with anxiety-inducing experiences in a successful and balanced...

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