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Taming Work-Related Stress through Meditation

Taming Work-Related Stress through Meditation

The Global Workplace 2021 Report by Gallup reveals that 43% of all the employees worldwide experience stress in their workplace. As it turns out, not even the ‘new normal’ imposed by the global pandemic — remote and hybrid models of work — have made things better. For example, Deloitte’s Report, Women at Work 2022: A Global Outlook, finds that over 50% of the surveyed women feel more stressed compared to the year before, while nearly 50% self-assess their mental health as either poor or very poor.

Workplace stress has been called the ‘silent killer.’ The World Health Organization (WHO) assesses that ‘pressure at the workplace is unavoidable due to the demands of the contemporary work environment.’ But pressure should not necessarily translate   into chronic stress and compromised psychophysiological health. Why, then, are so many people around the world unable to cope with the increasing demands and challenges at work?

In the 1970s a curious phenomenon related to occupational health began to emerge in Japan. Initially referred to as an ‘occupational sudden death,’ it soon became known as karoshi, literally translated as a ‘death by overwork.’ Karoshi stood for sudden death of an employee, and it a?ected people irrespective of their profession or age. Victims of karoshi, often being in their 20s or 30s, would suddenly collapse and die, or die by suicide. Some of them su?ered strokes or heart failure caused by excessive working hours, elevated stress, poor dietary habits, and sleep deprivation; others died by suicide triggered by anxiety and overwork; and yet even a larger number died due to untreated medical conditions, having lacked personal time to seek medical care.

For decades, karoshi was studied by researchers and reported by journalists mainly as a cultural phenomenon geographically restricted to Japan, China (where it is known as guolaosi) and South Korea (where it is termed gwarosa). At the same time, the West, too, recognized that a state of chronic exhaustion began to a?ict an increasing number of workers in the corporate sector. A new term — burnout — was coined to denote this phenomenon. Although burnout sounds like a diminutive of karoshi, its manifestations and consequences can be alarming. Burnout is a result of prolonged physical, mental, and emotional stress at work. It leads to gradual but steady decline in energy, interest, and motivation; fatigue and exhaustion; cognitive di?culties; disturbed relationships; and reduction in output and performance. A burnout can also lead to insomnia, bouts of anxiety, sadness and depression, episodes of frustration and anger, substance abuse, and even more serious health conditions, including high blood pressure and diabetes. For many people, burnout leads to reduced quality of life and development of various debilitating conditions.

In recent times, both karoshi and burnout have steadily become a global problem, a?ecting employees of all sectors and industries worldwide. It is easy to see why. The primary predictors of a burnout (and even a sudden death) are the number of work hours per week and a grueling work schedule. WHO places the threshold at 55 hours per week and warns that working such long hours is a serious health hazard linked to early death.

But there are, in fact, multiple risk factors that contribute to compromised health due to work-induced stress. These factors include job insecurity, uncertainty, ambiguity, unhealthy organizational culture, lack of clarity about the role, work overload, unrealistic job expectations, ambiguity about the reward and promotion processes, pressing deadlines, inadequate communication, and poor support system from the management and/or the team, lack of agency or autonomy, workplace bullying (harassment and discrimination), poor implementation of labor laws and labor rights, lack of work-life balance, etc.

Add to that a climate of competitiveness in which almost everyone seems replaceable; a global work culture that incentivizes workaholism and encourages presenteeism; a widely-embraced misuse of technology — from surveillance to implicit expectation from the employee to respond to e-mails and phone calls 24/7; and, of course, the global stressors — from pandemics to global conflicts to threats of global recessions. The fear of becoming jobless surpasses the burden of having a dysfunctional job. Is it possible, then, to keep a rein on the stressors and to maintain a state of holistic health?

The physiology of stress is part of our evolutionary legacy. Any perception of a threat (either real or imagined) automatically triggers the fight-or-light response. A cascade of hormones through the body prepares us to either face and fight the danger/enemy, or to flee the scene. Once the danger is over, the body reestablishes balance. However, repeated, or prolonged, unmitigated stress can cause irreversible damage to the bodily system and processes.

There is an age-long solution to the problem of stress, and it is very simple — the practice of meditation. While for many people the word meditation triggers associations to religion, in its purest form meditation is devoid of any cultural or religious attributes. So much so, that in recent years, some of the top global companies — including Apple, Google, P&G, McKinsey & Co., Astra Zeneca, and HBO — have not only endorsed, but actively promoted mindfulness and meditation programs for their employees. From providing on-the-job meditation sessions to designing employee relaxation rooms to tailoring specific mindfulness programs, these companies invest in the holistic wellbeing of their employees.

The returns on investment are high, since meditation reduces employee absenteeism, increases employee job satisfaction and retention, and improves the quality of interpersonal relationships within teams. Mindfulness meditation anchors the meditator in the present moment and calms the mind’s incessant chatter. It puts an end to the obsessive preoccupation with the past, often accompanied with feelings of guilt, regret and insecurities. It breaks the loop of negativity — of fear, anxiety, and fret over the future. Meditation sharpens the focus, directing it toward the tasks at hand; it brings clarity and acuity; it reprograms one’s limiting beliefs, and makes the meditator more grounded and confident; it increases one’s personal resilience; it elevates one’s emotional state, helping the meditator experience peace, calm, kindness, empathy, gratitude, and joy. It resolves one’s inner conflicts — the misalignment of the thoughts, emotions, and behavior. It makes the individual more energetic and enthusiastic, and opens the gates of heightened productivity, creativity, and innovative thinking.  Meditation makes employees feel comfortable in their own shoes, whatever the challenges might be. It brings coherence to teams and organizations.

About the Author

Lidija Stankovikj is the author of two books — 'The Outcasts' (social fiction) and 'Alexander's Infinity' (mathematical fiction). For over a decade, she has worked in the areas of education, sustainability, CSR, international development, communications, wellness, and spirituality, across sectors and geographies. She holds degrees in Mathematics, Management of International Organizations and Contemporary Asian Studies. She works as a Senior Manager – Communications at Krea University, Sri City. She can be reached at lidija.stankovikj@gmail.com.