Stress afflicts millions of American workers and costs business and industry dearly in lost productivity and rising healthcare costs. But a new study reveals that help may be just a few meditative moments away.
Researchers at the Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic found that mindfulness-based techniques, including meditation, can lower stress levels in a demanding work environment and lead to happier, more engaged employees.
In a one-year, randomized study, wellness researchers introduced an online stress management program at a busy corporate call center. After eight weeks of intervention, participating employees reported feeling more energy and less stress and anxiety, which can lead to depression. Many said they were sleeping better and had lost weight. Positive psychological changes were still evident a year later.
“What we found is that when employers make a real commitment to building resiliency in their workforce, the benefits are sustainable,” said Jennifer Hunter, the Director of Wellness, Employer Services, at Cleveland Clinic.
Hunter, a cognitive behavior therapist and one of the study’s five authors, finds it significant that the positive changes appear to be lasting, meaning the employees learned new, permanent coping skills. A full year after the stress reduction program, participants reported:
- A 31 percent decrease in stress levels
- A 28 percent increase in vitality, a measure of how energized a person feels throughout the workday
The study is being published in the current issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. It can be found online at http://bit.ly/1RydLO6.
The study sought to determine whether a low-cost, broadly appealing stress reduction program would work in an emotionally exhausting workplace. A call center near Cleveland that serves the retail industry fit the criteria. Many of its roughly 900 employees are debt collectors. They call people who are late paying credit card bills. Initially, researchers found stress levels that exceeded those experienced by nurses, services workers and most other American workers.
Wellness specialists introduced meditation techniques based on the concept of mindfulness, a form of self-awareness sometimes defined as grounding oneself in the moment. Mindfulness has been proven to quiet the body’s stress response and to make challenges appear less threatening, Hunter said.
The 161 participants were randomly divided into four groups, including a control group that did not receive treatment. Members of the other three groups were given online access to a Cleveland Clinic-designed relaxation program, Stress Free Now, as well as a compact disc that guided them through the program. They were asked to practice the relaxation techniques at least four times a week.
Participants in one group were left to follow the program on their own. The others were divided into teams that met in weekly sessions, some of the teams guided by clinical experts. For all three groups, stress levels plunged. Virtually all participants reported feeling less anxious and less emotionally exhausted, though group interaction enhanced results significantly.
- Those who met in teams displayed the highest participation rates; between 80 and 90 percent of group members completed the eight-week program
- For those not grouped with peers, completion rates fell to about 40 percent, which is more typical for an online program
Researchers surmise that peer support and group discussions helped employees to customize the program to fit their needs, and to stick with it.
“With group support, people make it their own. They personalize it,” Hunter said. “We heard from people all the time, ‘I didn’t realize how stressed everyone else was.’”
Michael Roizen, M.D., the Chief Wellness Officer at Cleveland Clinic, said the study shows that employers can help workers to address unhealthy stress and achieve lasting results.
“Unmanaged stress is the largest cause of chronic disease in the world,” Roizen said. “Stress is associated with heart disease, stroke, cancer and dementia. These data show that while you cannot always eliminate the events that cause you to feel stress, you can always manage your response.”