Work related stress is now the leading cause of workplace disability, costing America businesses up to $300 billion a year, according to the World Health Organization. Doing more with less is the mantra in many of today’s workplaces. Change is the name of the game. Given those realities, the likelihood that work related stress is going to end anytime soon is slim to none.

So what’s an employer to do?

Offer a weekly, 30 minute meditation class.

Wendy Quan, Organizational Change Manager at Pacific Blue Cross, in Vancouver, BC, has been leading  a weekly meditation class for her colleagues for the past 2 years.The class has grown from 12 attendees to over 150. And it is producing tangible results.

Wendy has been conducting research in order to quantify the business benefits of her meditation classes. Despite the fact that PBC is in year 7 of a 7 year system change project that impacts everyone in the organization, the latest study found a 400% increase in attendees’ self-reported ability to handle workplace stress. There was a 530% increase in how employees rated their personal resilience.

Employees report being able to handle conflicts more easily, being able to focus more easily, think more clearly and make better decisions. They feel calmer and don’t get as upset as they used to, because they are not as easily triggered. They are experiencing less anxiety. Employees that have been diagnosed with clinical depression are finding they are able to reduce their medication and/or have less need for counselling. Many are finding more joy in their lives and are going home after each class to share what they are learning with their families.

All because they are making the choice to attend one meditation class a week, held on company premises, facilitated by one of their colleagues, during their lunch hour.

The benefits are enormous. The costs to the organization are nil.

I had the opportunity to attend one of Wendy’s classes recently and sat down with her afterwards to find out more about how the meditation program at PBC got started.

Wendy’s personal  story is inspirational. She is a cancer survivor who credits the benefits of a meditation and mindfulness practice as critical to her healing. “When you go through  a change, when you go through something you have no control over, like a cancer diagnosis, you have a choice in how you react.” The practice of meditation and mindfulness offers the opportunity to increase our personal resilience – “the ability to handle what life throws at you and the ability to bounce back more quickly or not fall as deep.”

Increased personal resilience means employees are better able to deal with change at work. In order to support her colleagues in dealing with the “huge system change” that PBC has been involved in, Wendy has focused on developing personal resilience in her meditation classes. “There is always change at every workplace. Increasing personal resilience and increasing perspective is about realizing that there is a lot that is going to change but you are going to get through it. It is ok. You can handle it by developing a sense of peace and calm, and the building of personal joy.”

Attendees learn simple techniques to practice mindfulness and reduce stress at work. Wendy teaches many different meditation techniques so employees can find ones that work well for them personally. “It can be as simple as focusing on your breath for 5 breaths: you are rushing to a meeting –  breathe. Or you can do walking meditation:  whether you walk slowly or quickly just put 100% of your attention on what your body is doing when you are stepping. You can add an internal mantra: right,  left with each foot. Focus on each step, where you weight is, on what part of your foot: your toe or your heel. “

PBC has a host of wellness options available for its employees: regular yoga classes,  fitness classes every day at 4:30, lunch and learns on health related subjects. The meditation class has been the most popular among all of these offerings. I asked Wendy what she attributed that to. “People see the benefits. Four out of seven on our senior executive team come on a regular basis because they see the benefits. Even those that are only coming once a week are seeing benefits. Someone gives you a funny look at a meeting – you can use a silent mantra like Let it Happen, Let it Go. You can choose to let go and move on.”

In 1960s the US Navy coined the phrase “Keep it simple stupid.” While I instinctively object to the insulting name calling, the idea of adopting  simple solutions to manage the myriad of challenges we face in our ever changing workplaces is most appealing. The success of Wendy’s meditation classes at PBC was somewhat accidental. It was a result of her sharing her personal story in dealing with her illness when she returned to work that colleagues asked if she could show them her “secret.”

Her secret is a simple practice that is thousands of years old: one that might have even more relevance, more value in our contemporary workplaces than at any time in our history.

What struck me on hearing about the success of the meditation program at PBC is that such strategies don’t have to be complex, elaborate or expensive.

It can start with a simple conversation with your employees, soliciting their input and ideas for dealing with change and managing stress. It might be as simple as reminding your colleagues to breathe and to take time to celebrate success.

Effective change management strategies are a requirement for any organization looking to achieve sustainable business success. Why not take a page from PBC’s playbook and get the meditation conversation started at your workplace.

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