Jan. 21 (Bloomberg) -- As business and political leaders gather in Davos this week, those weary of the palaver on trade alliances, mergers and charity initiatives can stop by the Congress Centre on Thursday morning. There, Goldie Hawn will expound on the benefits of meditation.
The “mindfulness” panel with Hawn, star of the 1975 hit film “Shampoo,” is among 25 sessions at the 2014 World Economic Forum discussing wellness, mental health, and the potentially pernicious effects of technology on the brain. That’s at least 50 percent more wellness-related presentations than in 2008.
The theme shows how anxiety over stress and its impact on business is mounting among the Davos set, who’ve spent the last five years dealing with crises from the collapse of Lehman Brothers to the Syrian civil war -- all connected 24/7 to their beeping, buzzing smartphones. Mental health-related illnesses may cost $16 trillion in lost output over the next 20 years, according to figures from Harvard University and the WEF.
“People are becoming aware of the huge economic impact” of illness, said Norbert Hueltenschmidt, a partner at consultancy Bain & Co. who is involved in seven Davos sessions on physical and mental health. “Healthy living is at the top of this year’s agenda and you see it throughout the program -- there’s never been a year like this one.”
The goal of the sessions, Davos organizers say, is to draw attention to problems of mental health, disease, and stress that increasingly afflict global populations -- as well as the Forum’s own attendees. The worldwide burden of mental and substance-abuse disorders climbed almost 38 percent between 1990 and 2010, authors including the University of Queensland’s Harvey Whiteford wrote last year in the medical journal The Lancet.
Among Davos delegates, “there’s maybe a greater recognition that the levels of stress of the last five years are not going to go away,” said Robert Greenhill, the Forum’s Chief Business Officer. “We may not be in the crisis we were, but there’s no sense of a return to complacency.”
For those with energy to burn between pre-dawn breakfast meetings hard on the heels of late-night Champagne-and-schmoozing sessions sponsored by the likes of Google Inc. and McKinsey & Co., organizers are encouraging attendees to sign up for the “Davos Health Challenge” -- a series of commitments to exercise, stay hydrated, and get enough sleep.
“You cannot separate body and mind and what we call the spirit. Health is a combination,” said Nerio Alessandri, the CEO of Italian exercise equipment manufacturer Technogym, who’s in Davos this week for the fifth time. Still, he said, simply convincing the rarefied attendees of the summit to lead healthier lives isn’t enough. “The idea is making an impact on decision-making, on policies.”
On the sidelines of the main Forum, an inaugural Health Summit will bring together executives, academics and government officials to talk about large-scale challenges. The health focus, encouraged by business leaders including Sanofi CEO Chris Viehbacher, isn’t entirely altruistic.
For businesses, “there is accumulating evidence about how one’s psychological well-being affects one’s productivity,” said Laura Tyson, a Davos participant who headed the U.S. Council of Economic Advisers during the Clinton administration.
In the last two years Lloyds Banking Group Plc and Barclays Plc have seen executives take extended leave or resign due to stress and exhaustion. And Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Credit Suisse Group AG, and Bank of America Corp. are among firms that have limited working hours for junior staffers in an effort to retain talent and cut stress. A Bank of America intern in London, Moritz Erhardt, died of an epileptic seizure in August after working day and night in the weeks beforehand, prompting the New York-based firm to review its practices.
While stress has long been an issue for senior executives, underpinning interest in the subject in Davos is an emerging body of research indicating that constant attention to smartphones, tablets, and other electronic devices may be affecting the human brain. Even in Silicon Valley, some techies are signing up for “Detox Weekends” that ban devices, and attending conferences like Wisdom 2.0, an annual yoga-and-meditation confab.
“We created our own problem that we are now trying to solve,” said Loic Le Meur, a Davos regular who co-founded the Le Web tech conference in Paris and says he began meditating six months ago. “We’ve been completely addicted to Facebook and Twitter and always being bombarded by your phone or the Internet nonstop.”
Meditation is attracting particular attention from executives who see it as a method for alleviating stress and are starting to emulate long-time adherents like Bill Gross, the co-chief investment officer of Pacific Investment Manager Co. Hawn is on two panels dealing with the subject, including “Meditation: Why the Hype,” where she’ll sit alongside a pair of scientists and Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk who founded the Karuna-Shechen humanitarian association.
“The fact they call people like us is symptomatic” of an unmet need for values and purpose, said Ricard, who is capping off a 40-day retreat at a French hermitage with a trip to Davos, where he’ll lead delegates in meditation. “People know this is important, but they need both the voice of reason and the voice of care, or altruism, to convince them to make changes.”
Davos attendees aren’t ready to swear off technology entirely. The panelists for a session entitled “Rewiring the Brain,” for instance, include Daphne Bavelier, a University of Geneva scientist who has studied the beneficial effects of activities like playing video games. “In any technological revolution, we have seen there are bads and goods,” she said.
Nor are delegates totally switching off their gadgets, even when trying to take a break from all those glowing screens. Le Meur said that when learning how to meditate last year he didn’t bother with visiting a mountaintop retreat or Buddhist temple. Instead, he used a smartphone app called Headspace.
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