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Reducing Employee Anxiety

Training employees on ways to meditate may be a low-cost method of reducing stress. While research on the subject is still ambiguous, such a method may be worth exploring by HR leaders.

Thursday, April 19, 2012
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Employee mental health, with stress and anxiety leading the way, is an important part of human resource management. It requires an effective HR focus because such emotions play a role in several challenges facing human resource management, including:

* Ensuring employees remain engaged and productive;

* Retaining key talent as the economy recovers; and

* Controlling healthcare costs.

As many as 50 percent of all working Americans have indicated that stress reduces their productivity and a similar 50 percent have stated that stress has caused them to look for -- although not necessarily choose -- a new career.

Wellness programs have received a lot of attention of late, but not every company can afford sweeping changes that will have a worthwhile effect on the entire company. What's more, most of these wellness programs are aimed at the general health of staff members, and while it's possible -- perhaps likely -- that HR programs will benefit mental health, they're not directly targeting it.

Ideally, every company would be able to cover the costs of in-house counselors or trained HR staff who understand how to assist with employee mental-health needs. But for now, many companies need to find low-cost systems and treatments that will reduce the stress or anxiety of employees willing to participate in such programs.

Anxiety Reduction Strategies

Because cost is an important issue to companies in today's struggling economy, attempting to gauge the success of relaxation strategies is and should be the first step.

Relaxation strategies -- such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and visualization -- are free, can be completed at a time that's best for either the company or the employee, are very unlikely to lead to any potential injuries or lawsuits, and are easy to integrate with employee support.

One such strategy is meditation, which, on its own, hasn't received much support.

Part of this is because meditation is rarely studied under strict conditions that conform to valid research guidelines and methodologies, with fewer than 10 percent of all studies even using randomized control trials. While most meditation methods were found to be effective, the results were little different than simply relaxing in any other method, such as laying down on a couch in the quiet.

Still, meditation represents a very simple, low-cost addition to company programs that could have positive benefits.

Meditation Research

Recently, researchers at Sydney Medical School attempted to use more valid scientific methodologies to explore the effects of meditation on workplace stress and anxiety. They used randomized testing to place each participant into one of three groups:

* Wait List -- a no-treatment control group;

* Relaxation Meditation -- basic meditation, with a self-reflection component; and

* Mental Silence Meditation -- a Sahaja Yoga technique designed to clear the mind of all thoughts.

Mental-silence meditation uses affirmations and a general focus on the present. The idea is that, when the mind focuses only on the present, it becomes devoid of all thoughts (especially worrisome or stress-related thoughts), but otherwise still functions. Without thoughts, stress is expected to temporarily melt away.

The relaxation-meditation group represented the relaxation control, while the wait list represented the no-treatment control. The idea is that mental-silence meditation must perform better than both to be considered a potentially valid relaxation strategy.

Instructors and participants were not made aware of the study and researchers were not told which employees were in each group. Each participant was given a psychological-strain questionnaire, state/trait anxiety inventory for adults, and profile of mood status.

The results of the study were promising. The mental-silence-meditation group had a significant decrease in their stress and anxiety, compared to both the relaxation group and the no-treatment group. This implies that mental-silence meditation has potential as a treatment for workplace stress.

Weaknesses of a Meditation

While these early results are encouraging, there are potential weaknesses in mental-silence meditation that make it unnecessary to drop everything and integrate them into today's business practices. Some of these include:

* No Effect on the Cause

Relaxation is important, but meditation doesn't affect one of the most important parts of relieving stress and anxiety -- discovering the anxiety cause and addressing it. If employees are stressed because of issues with management, difficulty completing tasks by the deadline, communication problems or money issues, meditation is not a cure. It is simply a strategy that individuals can use to make the effects of those causes less pronounced.

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Most likely, any meditation option would have to be an opt-in program for employees. This is true of any wellness campaigns, but meditation is a fairly rigid program that is more likely to attract only very specific employees. While it has potential benefits, it's unlikely to attract a broad range of support within the organization and may not have enough reach to have substantially positive results.

* Placebo

Meditation is prone to the placebo effect. The relaxation technique is supposed to account for this. By comparing the mental-silence strategy to the basic relaxation-meditation strategy, presumably the placebo affect is accounted for -- but not necessarily. It's possible for some type of treatment to have a stronger placebo effect based on the way the treatment works and the believability of its effectiveness.

* Training and Support

For this type of meditation to work, HR professionals need to make sure that employees are adequately trained and receive expert education on the technique. One of the issues researchers found with previous meditation techniques is that meditation -- like many other types of natural anti-stress and anxiety strategies -- are often perverted for commercial gain. Also, this type of meditation is a tool that people learn over time. Those new to it are not expected to pick it up right away.

* Finding Time in the Work Day

While meditation can be completed in a limited amount of time, presumably this type of meditation would take place at work, and that means either longer work days or fewer hours of productivity. Neither option is going to be particularly popular with either employers or employees.

In addition, there are the standard caveats about small samples, the need for future research, the effects of this type of treatment across industries and within various types of stress causes and so on. While none of these negate the potential benefits of this style of meditation, they are issues that may reduce their relevance for various companies.

Strategies to Support Stress Management

Despite these weaknesses, this research is a clear step in the right direction. It's crucial for HR executives to treat employee stress as a more serious issue.

Stress and anxiety play a role in most of the problems that affect human resource management today, and while many companies have small changes in place to reduce this burden, few are taking larger steps to cut back on these mental-health issues, either due to cost or the belief that stress and anxiety are inevitable or a personal problem.

Mental-silence meditation may not be the answer, but it is a low-cost option that is worth exploring -- and finding an evidence-based treatment to combat stress and anxiety should be the goal of many companies in today's struggling economy.

Ryan Rivera works with organizations all over the world, attempting to integrate better methods of preventing stress and anxiety. He writes more about these conditions at www.calmclinic.com.

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