Maybe yoga really is the answer to everything. I had been thinking that must be true, based on the number of specialized yoga classes available to address nearly every aspect of well-being. So when I saw an article in Saturday’s Globe and Mail reprinted from Sue Shellenbarger’s column in the Wall Street Journal, “To reduce workplace stress, how about butterflies and yoga?”, I knew it was true: yoga conquers all.
Nearly every day there is at least one article in the news decrying stress in the workplace and the erosion of work-life balance. Just this morning, one of the headlines in our paper read, “Canada’s work-life balance more off-kilter than ever”. And, according to Sue Shellenbarger, 70% of surveyed American workers suffer from too much pressure at work. It turns out that at least some employers have started to recognize that this is something they should address. Whether it’s because they can see that the increased number of sick days from stress-related illness is counterproductive or whether they are just compassionate bosses is not clear, but some intriguing techniques are being introduced.
No, it’s not bringing on a few extra employees so that people who are paid to work 40 hours per week can get back to working 40 hours per week. Maybe they haven’t thought of that yet. Instead, the idea is to introduce stress-management techniques to help employees deal with “the stress of a demanding boss or mounting workload.”
The first set of techniques is grounded in principles of yoga. Companies are teaching the employees mindfulness techniques, the essence of mindful communication, breathing, stretching, yoga relaxation, and the idea of doing body scans (like in Chi Running). I am the first one to reinforce the usefulness of these techniques, and I don’t know why it bothers me that employers are providing training in these valuable life skills. Or do I? Sorry, but the message that comes through to me is that the employer is saying, “Suck it up, but here’s a way that you might be able to suck it up more easily.”
The article reports that employees are “coached on accepting daily hassles without judgment.” They are encouraged to use mindful communication when interacting with their boss to reduce stress in that situation, focusing on their breathing and trying to listen carefully, ask questions, and avoid becoming defensive. One can only hope that the stress-inducing bosses are getting the same training.
Another approach to reducing stress in the workplace revolves around introducing plants into the office, as explained in Shellenbarger’s article. According to more research, “exposure to nature can help lower blood pressure, pulse rates and levels of the stress hormone cortisol.” An example is given of one company that has installed a wall of plants, as well as providing access to a meadow of wildflowers (with butterflies) outside its cafeteria. Most women have always understood the concept of plants and nature as a source of comfort. I remember decades ago, when many of our university residences (aka dorms) went from all-male or all-female to co-ed, a male colleague of mine observed that you could tell which rooms were the male rooms and which were the female by looking at what was on their window sill: empty beer bottles, male; plants, female. There is no doubt that having an attractive, peaceful place of work can help decrease the stress levels, but I’m not sure how profound a change that is in trying to combat the fact that your employees feel overworked and underappreciated.
My understanding of good management practice is that a happy employee is a productive employee. In my world happy employees are people who:
- feel appreciated for the job they are doing,
- are treated with respect,
- feel empowered to fulfill their responsibilities to the best of their ability,
- feel they are being supported to reach their full potential, and
- have an expectation that – for the most part – what they are expected to accomplish is realistic within the confines of the workday.
Training employees in yoga and mindfulness techniques to provide them with life skills that help them do their jobs better can only be seen as a good thing. These skills are also valuable in other aspects of their lives. However, providing this training so they can handle stress and daily hassles better without changing anything that’s causing the stress and hassles doesn’t strike me as a laudable action.
Similarly, ensuring that employees have a work environment that includes spaces offering a sense of comfort and calm is important, whether through nature or some other method appropriate to the circumstances. Nevertheless, I am uncomfortable with the acknowledgement that, in most cases, the workplace – and society in general – has become stressful beyond what is acceptable or fully explicable, and we are talking about band-aid solutions. We should be talking about how to alleviate an unacceptable level of stress, not just identify ways to handle it. We ignore this at our peril.