Lois A. Bowers
Lois A. Bowers

Close your eyes. Focus on the breath entering and exiting your nose. Think of an image of peace — the word peace, someone you love or something else. As you breathe in, say (or think) “I am.” As you breathe out, say, “peaceful and present.” Repeat several times.

Those were the instructions that Francoise Adan, M.D., used to guide a roomful of journalists, myself included, in a mini-meditation exercise on Saturday at a session on healthful aging during Health Journalism 2016, a national conference of the Association of Health Care Journalists. It’s an activity she recommends that workers repeat often during the workday.

Although I probably won’t be able to conjure her beautiful French accent in my head, I will try to remember the words Adan shared about the benefits of mini-meditation and mindfulness — specifically, their role in stress reduction. As medical director of the University Hospitals Connor Integrative Health Network and assistant professor of psychiatry at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Adan said her most important task is to help her patients manage their stress. Stress, she said, can worsen illness and cause additional health issues because, when people are stressed, they tend to overeat, not exercise, and generally not take care of themselves. Chronic stress, she added, can accelerate aging.

Employees may consider meditation and mindfulness techniques for their benefit, but employers may wish to look to them as well as well. Why? Stress, Adan said, costs companies $300 billion in the United States, through sick days, lack of worker productivity and similar effects.

Adan (pictured) described mindfulness as the art of being present, of focusing on your immediate environment to prevent stress from getting the better of you. And now a study by a Ph.D. student in the business school at one of Adan’s institutions, CWRU, and others has demonstrated that, indeed, a corporate culture of mindfulness can improve focus as well as the ability to manage stress, and it also can improve how employees work together. Their research recently was published in the Journal of Management.

“Historically, companies have been reticent to offer mindfulness training because it was seen as something fluffy, esoteric and spiritual, but that’s changing,” said Christopher Lyddy, who is studying organizational behavior. Entities such as Google, Aetna, Mayo Clinic and the U.S. Marine Corps now use mindfulness training to improve functioning in their workplaces.

“When you are mindful, you can have a greater consciousness in the present,” Lyddy said. “That’s vital for any executive or manager, who, at any given moment, may be barraged with various problems that call for decisions under stress.”

Lyddy and the others on the research team reviewed 4,000 scientific papers on various aspects of mindfulness, documenting the effects that mindfulness has on how people think, feel, act, relate and perform at work. Among their conclusions based on the studies they examined:

  • Mindfulness improves attention, cognition, emotions, behavior and physiology. Specifically, it has been shown to improve three qualities of attention: stability, control and efficiency.
  • Although mindfulness is an individual quality, it appears to affect interpersonal behavior and workgroup relationships. Mindfulness may improve relationships through greater empathy and compassion, suggesting that mindfulness training could enhance workplace processes that rely on effective leadership and teamwork.

“Remarkably, scientists have found the effects of mindfulness consistently benign,” Lyddy said. “Of the thousands of empirical studies we read, only two reported any downside to mindfulness.”

So what have we got to lose?

Lois A. Bowers is senior editor of McKnight’s Senior Living. Follow her on Twitter at @Lois_Bowers.