Take a Deep Breath and Start Improving Employee Productivity
What can companies do that is free, shows quick results, and can have a long term beneficial impact on employee’s mental, physical, and emotional well-being? Simple – teach them breathing techniques and activities to reduce stress.
After all, we hear the word “stress” and its close cousins “anxiety” and “tension” pop up in ads, news stories, and TV more often – besides feeling it in our bodies. In 2009, 41 percent of American workers reported that they typically feel tense or stressed out during their workday according to the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America report. Only 34 percent reported stress in 2007.
Stress levels impact American companies’ bottom line. The connections between employee productivity and health habits are clear. Health care expenditures are nearly 50 percent greater for workers who report high levels of employee stress according to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Corporate wellness programs can help reduce stress but they usually take time, money, and long term planning from companies – three elements in short supply in understaffed businesses still reeling from the recession.
How to Reduce Employee Stress with Breathing Techniques
So, what will breathing techniques do to help employees? As taught in traditional Chinese and Indian medicine and their related disciplines of chi gong, tai chi, and yoga, the four major benefits to regularly practice of deep breathing techniques are:
1. Clears the mind. The typical human brain takes 15 to 20 percent of the oxygen in the body so when there is more oxygen in the body, the brain functions better, thus improving employee productivity one breath at a time.
2. Improves circulation and energy. More oxygen allows the cells to better flush out cortisol and lactic acid which is released by a stressed body. Healthier cells result in fewer illnesses and less swelling.
3. Reduces muscular tension and spasms. Deep breathing triggers the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system counteracts the “flight or fight” system that kicks into action when the body or mind feels stress. By relaxing, the body can reduce the wear and tear of maintaining constantly tense muscles. When you introduce these breathing activities that reduce employee stress, the body has more energy to focus on the job at hand.
4. Helps the heart. The increased circulation will help to take some pressure off the heart in circulating the blood throughout the body. Since 62 percent of the American workforce is now either overweight or obese according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, many hearts need any help they can get.
So, what is “deep breathing?” It has many synonyms including belly, abdominal and diaphragmatic breathing. Then, there are myriad variations from that base. Yet, most variations boil down to the three basics: inhale through the nose, expand the belly rather than the chest on the inhale, and exhale as long as or longer than the inhale. There are thousands of years of experiential learning and decades of lab testing behind these three basics but, rather than covering all of that history, let’s just keep moving on to the specific breathing techniques that you or fellow employees can do when feeling stressed or anxious.
1. The Belly Breath. Inhale thru the nose and try to imagine the breath swelling out the belly out as the belly moves. Exhale by bringing the belly button towards the spine and pushing the air up and out through the nose. For chronic chest breathers (most Americans), it might be easier to practice this lying down the first few times while placing the right hand over the belly button and the left hand in the center of the chest. As you get comfortable with this, try to get to a count of four on inhale and on exhale. Then, extend the exhale to a count of six and then to eight. Try to practice this for at least 2 minutes at a time.
2. Six-Second Breath. Inhale for two counts, hold for one, exhale for two, hold for one. Repeat for at least two minutes and practice often. This ten-breaths-per-minute rate has been proven to be most beneficial to our health but most of us breathe 15 to 20 times per minute.
3. Focusing Breath. Take three belly breaths. Start to imagine you are inhaling focus and vitality and exhaling darkish clouds of fatigue or fogginess through your nose. Feel that you are alone with the task at hand and nothing else matters but that for now. Take two more deep breaths while audibly sighing and letting the shoulders rise then drop. Imagine performing the task smoothly with complete concentration. Begin the task. The more you practice this, the faster it will work.
4. Sitali Breath. Stick your tongue out slightly and curl it upwards and even into a tube shape if you can do so (some people are genetically able to do so). Inhale strongly and long through the “straw” of the mouth. Exhale strongly and completely through the nose. Repeat for two to three minutes. This yogic breathing technique is also helpful when you are angry or physically overheated.
Regular, daily practice of one or more of these four breathing techniques is an effective stress management activity. Once you master the belly breath and start to incorporate it more into your daily routine – such as when you look at the time, read email, sitting in a boring meeting or at a stop light – you will notice you will feel less stressed yet more energized.
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