By Nikhil Ramburn and Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, Ph.D.
The impact of employee wellbeing on overall productivity has attracted great attention in the last few years. Workers today are increasingly impacted by stress, musculoskeletal conditions (especially back and neck pain), low empowerment, sleep disturbance, low quality of life, low job satisfaction, and a sedentary lifestyle. Reasons for these modern challenges vary but it seems that the rising dependency on volatile global market forces create more pressure to make organizations more profitable, efficient, and accountable. Furthermore, the growth in technology at work, organizational restructuring, and the absence of clearly defined “work” hours have all negatively impacted employee wellbeing.
Chronic stress has been a key factor. Research has shown that stress can lead to depression, reduced job satisfaction and disruptions to personal relationships that can all increase the risk of injury to the workers themselves or to the people that their company serves. Stress also negatively impacts high-level cognitive functions, especially attention and memory, and this raises the already high stakes for those professionals who cope with situations that affect human lives on a daily basis.
Stress can lead to “burnout,” which has been defined as a syndrome of depersonalization, emotional exhaustion, and a sense of low personal accomplishment. An early theoretical model proposed two processes for the development of burnout. First, long-term job demands from which employees do not fully recover may lead to sustained arousal levels, eventually resulting in exhaustion, which is the energetic component of burnout. The second aspect is the motivational component of burnout, manifesting as reduced motivation, or withdrawal, and acts as a self-protective strategy to prevent further depletion. A revised model included a health impairment process, whereby burnout leads to depression, cardiovascular disease, or psychosomatic complaints.
The burnout syndrome is highly prevalent, with fewer than one in every five workers actively engaged in their work. Disengaged employees can be the cause of detrimental corporate outcomes such as poor job performance, low productivity, poor employee interactions, low creativity, absenteeism, presenteeism (on the job but not productive), and high employee turnover.
Average adults spend a quarter of their waking lives at work and job satisfaction accounts for a quarter of overall life satisfaction. Happiness at work should not be taken lightly since happiness provides positive benefits for not only the happy individuals themselves but also for their coworkers. In this light, happiness is almost a responsibility to one’s self and one’s coworkers. Indeed, research and site investigations have uncovered enormous financial and human costs associated with unhappy and unhealthy organizations. In one study of MBA students, those who scored high on wellbeing were shown to be superior decision makers, demonstrated better interpersonal behavior, and received higher overall performance ratings.
Fortunately, the notion of a healthy workplace has evolved throughout the past 60 years and human resource professionals have begun to prioritize healthy workplace programs as a competitive advantage to curtail rising health care costs, retain employees, and boost employee morale and interpersonal relationships. There is consistent evidence that a good social environment at work is associated with employee wellbeing and some companies are using team-building exercises, facilitated dialogue groups, and improved workspaces to increase the frequency of shared activities between workers. Other businesses are promoting physical activity as a strategic corporate priority to improve worker health and business performance. Employers are also turning to conventional cognitive behavioral interventions to improve worker wellbeing. In fact, a 2017 meta-analysis of digital mental health interventions delivered at work found statistically significant improvements on both psychological wellbeing and work effectiveness scores.
Yoga is yet another strategy that provides several of the psychological and physical health benefits mentioned above and, in addition, provides acquisition of a skill of self-regulation of stress and emotion. Its meditative component improves mindfulness that has been associated with improving quality of life and increasing self-compassion. On a deeper level, the philosophical and spiritual component of yoga can help employees increase life’s meaning and purpose. A 2014 review of yoga and exercise interventions in working populations evaluated five yoga studies, which reported improvements in stress and anxiety. They hypothesized that yoga may be superior to exercise interventions. Yoga programs can be delivered in multiple ways. Employees can be enrolled in a residential yoga program at a yoga retreat center allowing for an in-depth exposure to yoga practices and lifestyle in a highly supportive and nurturing environment. Alternatively, yoga can be delivered outside of the workplace at a nonresidential external venue or at home via DVD or an online program. Finally, yoga can be delivered onsite at the workplace. In this article, we focus on residential program research.
A study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2016 compared 69 healthy individuals (58 women and 11 men) who were quasi-randomized to either a six-day Ayurvedic intervention of yoga, massage, diet, and journaling or a six-day residential vacation, both at the Chopra Center for Wellbeing at the La Costa Resort in Carlsbad, California. The participants in the program with yoga showed significant and sustained increases in ratings of spirituality and gratitude when compared to the vacation group, which showed no change. Interestingly, the yoga and Ayurveda group also showed increased ratings for self-compassion as well as a reduction in anxiety at the one-month follow-up. These findings suggest that a short-term intensive program in body-mind practices can lead to long term changes in perceived wellbeing. We should also note that the results show that a vacation alone is insufficient to yield sustained improvements in certain aspects of wellbeing.
A 2011 study from the Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana University (S-VYASA) in Bengaluru, India further supports the benefits of a residential yoga intervention to enhance wellness. 72 corporate executives from the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited went through 5 days of the Self-Management of Excessive Tension (SMET) program which combined “stimulating” yoga postures and “calming” supine rest practices in a comprehensive residential yoga lifestyle program. Brain wave recordings at baseline and post-intervention showed an increase in delta, theta, alpha, and gamma wave coherence but a decrease in beta waves. The authors concluded that these changes in brain wave coherence may point to heightened states of consciousness and increased wakefulness and vigilance, which are essential components of “executive efficiency.” Furthermore, they suggested that increases in frontal alpha coherence could reflect an enhancement of frontal lobe integration, which would result in greater cognitive flexibility, intelligence, and emotional stability. These findings, in combination with results from an Emotional Quotient (EQ) questionnaire test, indicate that the SMET program improves emotional stability and may have implications for “executive efficiency.”
A newly published study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine by the coauthor (SBSK) and his colleagues examined the effects of a residential yoga-based program on the psychological health of frontline professionals who work with at-risk individuals in areas such as education, health care, and law enforcement/corrections. This is the first scientific investigation of the “Resilience – Integration – Self-awareness – Engagement” (RISE) program of the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health that incorporates yoga-based practices with meditation, body scan, mindful communication, healthy nutrition, and sleep. 64 frontline professionals from education, healthcare, human services, and correctional institutions completed a baseline survey before participating in a five-day residential immersion program at the Kripalu Center in Stockbridge, MA. The program included five hours of daily structured sessions of yoga postures and exercises, meditation, breathing techniques, and education about mindful communication specifically targeted for these workers. The study found that participants’ self-reported stress, resilience, positive and negative affects (mood), mindfulness, empowerment, vitality, sleep quality, amount of exercise, and vegetable and fruit intake was significantly improved after participating in the RISE residential program. At the two-month follow-up, all measures remained improved except for duration of exercise. In fact, self-compassion only reached statistical significance at the two-month follow-up, suggesting long-term gains from a short residential yoga intervention.
These studies provide preliminary support for the benefits of residential yoga programs for stress reduction, improved behavior, and emotional and physical resilience in working adults. However, it is likely that corporate policymakers may prefer to invest in more economical worksite or home-based interventions, which have also been the focus of a larger number of published research studies. It remains to be seen whether intensive yoga retreat interventions may have better long-term outcomes than home or worksite-based yoga interventions, which would be best evaluated in a head-to-head comparison of a similar intervention in the same population within a single randomized controlled trial. In either case, the appearance of research on yoga in the workplace is a welcome addition to that of the parallel growth of research on yoga in schools and in healthcare.
Nikhil Rayburn grew up practicing yoga under mango trees in the tropics. He is a certified Kundalini Yoga teacher and has taught yoga to children and adults in Vermont, New Mexico, Connecticut, India, France, and Mauritius. He is a regular contributor to the Kundalini Research Institute newsletter and explores current yoga research.
Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, Ph.D. is the KRI Director of Research, Research Director for the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He has practiced a Kundalini Yoga lifestyle since 1973 and is a KRI certified Kundalini Yoga instructor. He has conducted research on yoga for insomnia, stress, anxiety disorders, and yoga in public schools. He is editor in chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy and The Principles and Practice of Yoga in Health Care and author of the Harvard Medical School ebook Your Brain on Yoga.