With the normal pressures of work compounded by the pandemic, stress and burnout are proliferating in the business world. Even before Covid-19, stress and burnout were ravaging the health of Americans. The number of hours worked is said by the non-profit American Institute of Stress to be the main source of job stress and this makes work especially problematic in the United States where Americans have a work ethic that is second to none.
A report a few years ago by the International Labor Organization showed that US workers averaged nearly 2,000 hours of work every year (40 hours per week x 52 weeks = 2,080 hours), or nearly 350 more hours per year (nine more weeks) than Europeans.
This is important because reducing stress is still the most important thing we can do for our health. Among other things, stress increases the risk of heart disease by 40 percent and the risk of stroke by 50 percent, and the American Institute of Stress tells us that three out of four doctors’ visits are for stress related ailments, and that stress is the basic cause of 60 percent of all disease and illness.
What’s the solution?
Many advocate shortening the work week. In Iceland, a trial from 2015 to 2019 of almost 3,000 people found that shortening the work week from 40 hours to 35 or 36 hours with no reduction in pay resulted in productivity either remaining the same or increasing over the working period, while perceived stress and burnout went down.
Microsoft Japan tried a four-day work week without a pay reduction over five weeks and reported happier workers and a 40% increase in productivity. And in 2018 Perpetual Guardian in New Zealand tried a four-day work week over 8 weeks for 240 of its staff. Employees there reported enjoying a better work-life balance and reported their stress levels decreased by 7%. The studies show that the workers’ reported less stress, but, of course, workers are motivated to praise shorter work weeks without pay reductions, and they may even be inspired to greater productivity during their working hours.
But there are doubters about this as a permanent solution, and, of course, some people find happiness in their work and don’t want or need a shorter week. In all events, shortening the work week isn’t a complete solution to stress and stress-induced disorders because of the myriad potential sources of stress that we encounter at work, at home, and in all our interactions. Is there then something we can add to better equip people to deal with the stresses and strains of life?
What is Stress?
First, we should define stress to understand how we can best overcome it. Conversationally, we speak of “the stress of the job” or “the stress of a divorce,” ascribing the stress that people experience to an external event. However, more scientifically, stress refers to the internal bodily reactions to those events that are so disruptive to health.
The external events that are potentially stress-producing in the body are known as “stressors” or just stressful situations, to which individuals react very differently. One person in a given situation may suffer a stressful reaction such as a fight-or-flight response or a hormonal imbalance that can precipitate disease, whereas at least some people handle the situation with ease. Unfortunately, the latter appear to be in the minority.
A recent article in the Washington Post (“What burnout really means, and what bosses and employees can do about it”) tells us that the pandemic has caused prolonged stress to many, leading to “burnout.” Technically burnout is a combination of emotional exhaustion, and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment, and often a “take this job and a shove it” attitude.” The author of the Post article says that experts say companies need to allow staff to set their own schedules, have meeting free days, proactively address rude workplace behavior, and avoid praising or normalizing working around the clock.
But these strategies, and even a shorter work week, seek to eliminate the stressors, but don’t directly address the internal disorder that is stress, and they don’t enhance our resilience to stressful stimuli. While eliminating stressors (if we can) may help in reducing future disruptions of the employee’s physical state, it does nothing to address the current internal disorder that leads to the headaches, stomach problems, high blood pressure, insomnia, and other stress-related disorders. And, of course, changing the work environment won’t succeed for those companies unwilling or unable to change their environment. So, how do we overcome workplace stress?
How Stress is Typically Eliminated
Much stress is eliminated through night-time sleep. Although our bodies incur a heavy stress load on a regular basis, stress is a physical abnormality, which the body normalizes or heals whenever it is given the opportunity. When we become ill, we may relieve the symptoms with medicines, but Sir Hans Krebs, a Nobel Laureate in physiology, says “The physician and the patient can do no more than assist nature, by providing the very best conditions for your body to defend and heal itself.”
The rest we gain during sleep is a crucial requirement for “assisting nature” and allowing the body to heal itself. In fact, sleep is so important, it is part of every physician’s prescription for virtually every disorder. However, while we naturally eliminate a lot of stress through sleep, the statistics tell us that most people are not winning their fight against stress and have come to accept being stressed as “normal.” We manage our stress with an increasing number of pharmaceuticals as we get older and think nothing of a full medicine cabinet to deal with our many disorders. If assisting nature is the key, what more can we do to help our bodies eliminate stress? How do we supplement our sleep if rest is so beneficial to health? This is where the yogis’ approach comes into play.
Coherence is the Opposite of Stress
Research by co-author Dr. Wallace first published in Science and Scientific American in the 1970s showed that the meditation technique he analyzed, the Transcendental Meditation (TM) technique, produced a unique state of rest and orderliness in the mind and body, correcting physical disorders beyond what sleep had accomplished. His research showed that during the TM meditation session, the body gained a profound and unique state of rest. During the TM practice, even though the meditator was alert, the research showed remarkable decreases in oxygen consumption and respiration, reduced concentrations of blood lactate levels (high blood lactate is associated with anxiety), and a marked increase in skin resistance (associated with relaxation).
Later studies by Wallace and his colleagues showed reductions in cortisol (the stress hormone), as well as increases in serotonin (the happiness hormone), increases in blood flow to the brain, and perhaps most importantly, a marked coherence in the functioning of the brain. Sleep heals by creating order where there is disorder, but, interestingly, the rest during the Transcendental Meditation practice has been found to create more coherence, so in some respects it is more profound than what occurs during sleep.
The charts above show EEG brain wave measurements during sleep and the Transcendental Meditation technique. The mountains or spindles show periods when there is especially high coherence in the brain wave activity. High brain wave coherence is associated with memory, concept learning, creativity, high self-esteem, and reduced anxiety, depression, and other disorders, whereas abnormally low brain wave coherence is associated with autism, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, and other mental disorders. This is why researchers are so interested in studying brain waves.
And as can be seen from the charts, the individual who has been practicing TM for four months has significantly more brain wave coherence during the TM session than during sleep. And the five-year meditator has extremely high levels of brain wave coherence both during the meditation session and before and after meditating when just sitting with the eyes closed (see the EC or eyes closed period in the meditators’ charts). This is a level of coherence not found in other meditation practices.
Being resilient in the face of stress is also important since we can’t possibly eliminate all the stressors in our lives. An article by Dr. Wallace recently published in Medicina describes a series of studies on TM that investigated the meditators’ response pattern to stressful stimuli as compared to a relaxation control group.
The meditators’ heart rates and other physiological measurements increased appropriately in response to stressful stimuli, but the meditators recovered much more quickly than the non-meditators, basically brushing off a situation that would tend to have a lasting effect on the non-meditators and disrupt their nervous systems. Dr. Wallace coined the phrase “neuroadaptability” to refer to the more resilient physiology that can better withstand stressful events.
Another interesting analysis by Dr. David Orme-Johnson, a former professor at Maharishi International University in Iowa (where all the students learn TM), determined that the number of medical visits of about 2,000 TM meditators were just a fraction of the number of visits of non-meditators of comparable age, gender, and profession, who had similar health insurance policies. Over the five-year study period, the TM meditators had significantly fewer incidents of illness in 17 medical treatment categories, including 87 percent less hospitalization for heart disease, 87 percent less for nervous system disorders, 73 percent less for nose, throat and lung diseases (including virus caused diseases), 65 percent less for metabolic disease, including diabetes, and 55 percent less for cancer.
Overcoming Job Burnout
Our new book, The Coherence Effect (Armin Lear Press, 2020), has many personal accounts of business people overcoming stressful work situations. Josh Griffith is one good example. He went from being burned out on the job to having the enthusiasm of a new hire. Josh has been the head writer for the popular daytime TV shows Days of Our Lives and The Young and the Restless. In 2013, he was having serious stress issues at work, and he started looking into meditation practices. Co-author Marcus interviewed Josh a few years ago after he had tried other techniques and had been practicing TM for a year. Josh said:
I saw a celebrated doctor on television and decided to try a meditation he said would help. So, I tried his meditation for about a year . . . . It was kind of helping, but then the work issues got worse and I was still feeling the same way that I had before.
Then Josh saw an interview about TM on television, and he decided to try it. He said:
In the world of daytime TV, you’re having to create five shows a week. As head writer [The Young and the Restless] I was responsible for all the stories that aired. I walked away from it a few years ago because I felt burned out. It was too much of an output, and I didn’t feel the quality of the output was something I could be proud of. It was taking such a toll on me that I walked away.
Then I started doing TM. I thought I was a meditator before starting TM. Boy, was I wrong. I was offered the head job on Days of Our Lives, and I agreed to take it because with TM I already felt sort of a creative energy bubbling back inside of me. So, I stepped back in, and it was sort of the case where I felt like “I’m back at the beginning of the career.”
I felt like I had the energy that I had when I first started doing daytime. I was able to come in and the ideas flowed nonstop, whereas before I didn’t know if I would be able to finish this. I was thinking ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do – I’ve hit a wall.’ TM allowed me to generate so many story ideas that it was, in a way, sort of like a rebirth. You know I’ve had a 30-year career. And the changes happened within a month of practicing TM. I feel like I’m starting [my career] now. I feel like a 25-year-old again.
The New Frontier in Brain Science
In years past, businesses have been slow to adopt meditation as a tool. That is changing and will change even more once businesses use brain-wave coherence as a means of evaluating different meditation programs. We have referred to some of the findings on Transcendental Meditation, a technique that we have each practiced for about 50 years. If you are interested in trying a meditation program, there are many to choose from, but we suggest letting science be the guide in selecting one, and we say the principal criterion needs to be the degree to which the program creates coherence in the mind and body, especially in the brain. Because the brain is the control center of the body, when the EEG activity is coherent, it has a maximum effect in creating the orderly and neurologically adaptive state that counteracts stress and makes us more resilient.
Written by Jay B. Marcus.