An odd thing happens almost every day at consulting firm Symmetrix in Lexington, Mass. Some of its 125 workers shut their office doors, hold their calls, and spend 20 minutes sitting quietly, meditating.
They began doing this after going through a four-week program in which an instructor from Harvard's Mind/Body Medical Institute taught them a variety of techniques for relaxation, including meditation and guided visual imagery. George Bennett, Symmetrix's CEO, says he signed up his company for the $3,000 program because employees complained of being too stressed out. "There's no question employees who do this are more relaxed, and some are even more productive," he says. One diabetic worker noticed a big health benefit: His need for insulin injections dropped 15% after using the relaxation techniques for three weeks.
Bennett is not practicing some New Age religion or oddball management strategy. His approach to easing job stress is based on the modern health-care principles of mind/body medicine. Meditation, one of the field's key methods, is often used in combination with other therapies--such as exercise, nutrition, and support groups--to deal with a host of problems, including stress, heart disease, insomnia, and anger.
BEYOND THE FRINGE? Companies such as Marriott, Polaroid, and Boston Co., an investment firm, have all offered mind/body training to their employees. Adolph Coors Co. has one of the most extensive "wellness" programs anywhere, with a separate building and a full-time staff. Among its many services, the program combines meditation, nutrition, and exercise to help treat any ailment. "The best way to control health-care costs is to prevent costs from occurring in the first place," says Chairman William Coors, who himself meditates regularly.
The field is still considered fringe medicine in some quarters--notably the insurance industry. But mind/body techniques are making inroads into the business world based largely on new credibility gained from recent scientific studies that suggest strong links between mental attitudes and physical health.
At Stanford University, a psychiatrist has used meditation, hypnosis, and group therapy for women with advanced breast cancer--helping to prolong their lives by an average of 18 months, compared with women who did not receive the treatment. Another report, published in the journal Lancet by the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, Calif., showed that yoga and meditation, used in conjunction with a low-fat diet, can reverse heart disease. Scores of other studies document a relationship--still not well understood--between thought patterns and the immune system.
FOCUS WORD. Specialists say anyone can use meditation to deal with workday and personal stress, whether their company has a formal program or not. A key is getting the body and the mind to relax completely for a few uninterrupted minutes. In the 1970s, Dr. Herbert Benson developed the "relaxation response," which can be elicited at any time with two types of mental focusing--repetition of a single thought or phrase and disregarding other thoughts.
To assist in the process, you should sit quietly, in a comfortable position, with your eyes closed, relaxing your muscles and breathing slowly. If you've never meditated before, you may need practice. A problem for beginners is that various thoughts may break their concentration. If that happens, don't get anxious; just shrug it off and gently return to the repetition of the focus word. Ideally, you should meditate once or twice a day for at least 10 minutes a session. If you want to do it at work, it helps if you have a private office with a door you can close, but you can also try it in a quiet corner of the cafeteria or outside on a bench during lunchtime.
If you own a business and want to promote the benefits of meditation and other relaxation techniques to your workers--or if you just want to learn more for yourself--you can turn to several sources. Dr. Benson's Mind/
Body Medical Institute (617 632-9525) at Boston's Deaconess Hospital gives guidance and holds training sessions, starting at about $300 for individuals and running into the thousands for customized corporate programs.
STATE OF THE ART. Another resource is the Stress Reduction Clinic (508 856-1616) at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, which conducts an eight-week program for $365 per person. This clinic specializes in something called "mindfulness meditation," which is based on a Buddhist approach. The technique teaches people to react calmly to their thoughts, whether pleasant or not.
Some insurance companies offer stress-reduction seminars, meditation classes, or other mind/body approaches to preventive medicine. And many health clubs and private practitioners teach meditation and yoga, as do self-help books and tapes.
A good source of practical information on the topic is a new book called Mind/Body Medicine (Consumer Reports Books, $24.95). Articles from leading scientists describe the state of the art in this field, and there is a long list of resources for people with specific concerns. Healing and the Mind, by Bill Moyers (Doubleday, $25) offers an engaging narrative based on a recent PBS series. The book describes techniques used in major U.S. hospitals and in China.
People who have the most success with meditation make a point of incorporating it into their daily routines, whether at home or on the job. That way, it becomes second nature. So if your boss blindsides you at 5 p.m. with a
20-page report that's due tomorrow, you have a better chance of staying calm and keeping your blood pressure down.