Stress kills—often very slowly. Half of all US adults have at least one chronic health condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and many of us spend a majority of our waking hours at work, which doesn't exactly make for a fighting fit workforce.
Chronic sleep loss costs employers around 1.2 million lost work days—up to $411 billion a year—a recent report from the RAND Corporation found. So there's clearly an economic imperative for employers to consider sleep-friendly work policies, like discouraging after-hours emailing and offering flexible work schedules to reduce lengthy commutes.
"Increasing nightly sleep from under six hours to between six and seven hours could add $226.4 billion to the US economy," Wendy M. Troxel, Senior Behavioral and Social Scientist at RAND and one of the co-authors of the report, told PCMag in an email.
Before you get too excited that we can blame all our problems on our workplace, a healthier new relationship between employer and employee will go both ways. Businesses might have data that justifies policies that bring about a better work-life balance. But in return, employees will be "encouraged" to stay fit in order to qualify for workplace benefits like health insurance.
We're not just talking on-site gyms, banning donuts in team meetings, and putting raw juice options in the cafeteria. Are you ready to sign up for on-site mental resilience strategy sessions? Because there's a slew of new "busting-burnout" coaches, including many startups like the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute—led by Rich Fernandez, the former director of executive education and people development at Google—and Arianna Huffington's new venture Thrive Global.
We tracked down one of them—Wisdom Labs, a developer of workplace-based well-being programs with clients including Ford, GoPro, Salesforce, and Wall Street investment firm BlackRock—and spoke with Dr. Parneet Pal, Chief Science Officer, to find out how her science-based approach to optimum mental prowess at work—well—works.
Dr. Pal, you have a formal medical education [at Columbia University and Harvard Medical School]. What made you join a Silicon Valley startup? I did train as a physician, but became disenchanted because no one in medicine, at that time, was talking about the power of prevention, how to keep people well. By joining Wisdom Labs, which started four years ago, I was able to combine my medical background, with the latest in science-based behavioral health strategies. Wisdom Labs is focused on the art and science of thriving at work. I can now help companies shift their workplace culture to one that mitigates burnout, helps people achieve their potential, building resilience and ensuring better health outcomes.
How does it work, on a practical level? What's the science bit? Our programs make the science of resilience and mindfulness practical for employees. They focus on training and honing three brain networks: attention, emotional intelligence, and pro-sociality. We run half-a-day to five-week onsite or webinar "learning labs" at client sites as well as employee-led practice groups. These progressive learning pathways of resilience and mindfulness help employees respond skillfully to workday stress. When emotionally triggered, for example, we show them how to pause, reorientate attention to what the priority really is, and take appropriate action. That is good for them and the company.
Any cool tech/tools/gadgets used in your training? We provide our own app, which we customize for clients. It contains a library of materials, daily practice tools, and "mindful hacks." We also develop audio programming for on-site "Wisdom Labs Radio" feeds so employees can go somewhere to focus, take time out, and return to work refreshed.
Is it management, HR, or some new groovy "wellness" division that brings you in? Often, HR, but increasingly, it's the benefits team. The former can see productivity levels going down, due to 21st century stress, and the latter tracks rising healthcare costs.
Do you have a relationship with major health insurance companies? Many are rumored to be moving into wearables and contracts for workplace health. This is an interesting new movement. Not at the moment, but it's definitely something we're looking to develop in the future.
Finally, what's this new workplace health/sanity two-way employer/employee relationship going to be called? Wellness sounds too Lycra-wearing. Mindfulness has been co-opted by yoga gurus. There must be something cooler, more futuristic, more, well Jedi-like? I found these quotes: "A Jedi trusts the Force and at first seeks other ways to resolve problems: patience, logic, tolerance, attentive listening, negotiation, persuasion, calming techniques." - Luke Skywalker to his students. Also on the same site: "The way of the Jedi had become the way of wisdom and patience, backed by swift and decisive action when necessary."
Interestingly, that is a strong parallel to the essence of mindfulness: paying attention to the present moment, with kindness and curiosity so that you can then respond skillfully to whatever—good, bad, and ugly—that is being played out in front of you. But this ability needs to be trained—consistent daily practice. Chronic stress means we're mostly in a "fight or flight" state of mind, which literally narrows our options and results in impulsive reactions. Training our minds helps move us to the "rest and digest" calmer state of mind, and it is here that we are better able to tap into our inner, wise Yoda. And then take whatever action is most appropriate—for ourselves as well as the companies and causes we work for.
So there you have it—read your next employment contract carefully. In exchange for on-site perks, a less stressful environment, and healthier workplace practices, you might find yourself offered some mental resilience, Jedi-skills type experiences, and perhaps the opportunity to share the data on the number of steps your AI-powered wearables virtual assistant tracked today.
But if an aggressive manager gets just too Gordon "Lunch is for wimps" Gekko, remind him/her that meditating after an alfalfa sprout sandwich is building resilience of spirit, establishing new neural pathways to increase productivity, and improving the company's Q4 results.