Balancing Act: Working with 'mindfulness' reduces stress

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A few years ago, when Miami attorney Paul Singerman received a hostile email from opposing counsel, he would react with an immediate terse response. Not anymore.

"The first thing I do is nothing," he explained. Then, he said, he takes a deep breath, processes both his mental and physical reaction, and thinks carefully about how to stop the negative dynamic taking shape.

For Mr. Singerman, reflecting before reacting is the first step in practicing mindfulness -- a stress-busting technique quickly spreading in workplaces across the country.

In the rush to accomplish multiple tasks or respond to job pressures, people often lose connection with the present moment. They stop being attentive to what they're doing or feeling, and react from a place of stress. Mindfulness is the practice of focusing awareness on the present moment.

Teaching and encouraging mindfulness in the workplace has become a part of corporate efforts to reduce the stresses that can lead to burnout. Increasingly, the practice has gone mainstream, buoyed by the recent endorsements of CEOs, educators, actors and politicians who link mindfulness to improved psychological and even physical health.

According to the World Health Organization, the cost of stress to American businesses is as high as $300 billion -- a cost estimate that includes health care and lost productivity because of diabetes, high blood pressure and other illnesses.

Mindfulness programs in the workplace typically involve multiple sessions that teach meditation techniques, such as controlled breathing and bringing thoughts back to the present. They also include exercises for toning down mental chatter and improving listening skills.

At Aetna, more than 48,000 employees have access to three different wellness programs that incorporate mindfulness. Paul Coppola, director of wellness-program strategy at the insurance company, said about 13,000 have participated either in person or virtually. "Classes always fill up quickly," he said, mostly because word of mouth has increased interest.

Mr. Coppola said employees who have participated report a decrease in stress levels and more awareness of triggers. Employees who participated in a 12-week program saw increased productivity and even improvements in physical health, such as lower blood pressure and weight loss. Aetna also offers two mindfulness programs to its employer customers; some are offering it through one-on-one coaching.


Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal LLC; balancegal@gmail.com.

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