Stress, regardless of how we try to avoid it, is a given. It is part of everyday living, but how we choose to acknowledge and approach it makes all the difference. Stress can be either productive or destructive depending on how much of it you have and how you process it. Think of a time when you performed better, prepared more, and worked harder because you were able to harness it and use it to your advantage. Now think of a time when you performed worse because of stress, perhaps spiraling out of control? What made these situations different for you?
This post is based on the work of Maryanna Klatt, PhD, professor of Clinical Family Medicine at The Ohio State University. An expert in integrative medicine, she has spent more than a decade studying perceived stress, sleep, cortisol, and salivary alpha amylase levels in saliva—an indicator of the fight-or-flight response we experience in stressful situations. Her research is helping people of all ages and professions reduce their stress and improve their overall wellness. “We all have the same stresses—lack of control is a big one people struggle with, lack of time, continuous partial attention is a huge problem,” says Klatt. This post is a companion to the Voice America radio interview focusing on mindfulness and leadership.
Klatt uses mindfulness as the foundation for her research. “Mindfulness is characterized by nonjudgmental, sustained moment-to-moment awareness of physical sensations, perceptions, affective states, thoughts and imagery.”
Using the analogy of a hurricane, Klatt explains that mindfulness training can help you navigate to the eye of the storm—the calmest part—and figure out a way to deal with the chaotic circumstances swirling around you in a positive manner. To do this, she developed Mindfulness in Motion, an eight-week program that combines weekly group meetings on awareness and relaxation techniques with a 20-minute individual practice done daily. The daily practice is available using audio downloads. The weekly group meetings can be facilitated by Mindfulness in Motion trained facilitators.
To better understand how mindfulness works physiologically, and to underscore that it is much more than just a trend, we want to share a brief summary of what happens in the body when one engages in a mindfulness practice. According to an article published in the July 2015 Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE):
“Mindfulness has been found useful as an intervention that increases attention and has been associated with changes in brain structure and function. For example, the changes in gray matter brain density impacts cognition, while changes in the amygdala impact emotional reactivity. This may explain some of the positive benefits associated with stress reduction worksite interventions that teach non-reactivity for personnel who work in a chronic high stress work environment.”
In a study with intensive care unit nurses at Ohio State, Klatt found the program contributed to a 40 percent drop in the fight-or-flight indicator. Nearly 100 faculty and staff participated in a recent pilot program; participants reported significant declines in perceived stress and improvement in resilience and sleep quality. “I don’t think people have to leave work to learn some strategies to reduce their stress,” Klatt says. “Translational research is the sweetness that comes with scientific research for me.” In other words, being able to translate research in the laboratory into meaningful health outcomes in one of Klatt’s goals and pleasures.
That translation extends beyond the university setting to inner city school children and city refuse workers in Columbus, Ohio. Klatt has trained OSU Extension staff who, in turn, have led the program in communities across Ohio, and the University of Minnesota sublicensed the program and offers it as a fully covered benefit to employees through their health plan. She has also worked extensively with organizational leaders in the business community.
So, why do leaders care about mindfulness?
During a VoiceAmerica interview, Klatt pointed out that one of the primary causes of stress is dealing with people. This stressor is common in most work environments, whether it be a clinical setting or board room, and whether people are medical professionals or those engaged in business.
One of the factors we discussed in the interview is the fallacy of multi-tasking. In reality, humans aren’t wired to perform multiple tasks simultaneously, rather we engage in continuous partial attention and task switching. One of the important takeaways from this conversation is that by being mindful of how we invest our time—giving full attention to the tasks at hand—we are able to reduce our stress level, perform our tasks more effectively and efficiently, and improve our interactions with others.
As leaders, this has a direct correlation to improved productivity and focus. Like a domino effect, a better ability to focus improves interactions with others that can improve employee engagement, customer retention, and loyalty. It can also reduce stress and absenteeism.
The question to leaders is: If you could improve your performance and the quality of your work life with an investment of 20 minutes per day, wouldn’t you do it? The cost to benefit ratio is invaluable. You’ll likely never find a 20-minute investment to yield such great and lasting results that permeate every aspect of your personal and professional life. I highly recommend Klatt’s Mindfulness in Motion program!
SO….what can you do about becoming more effective? To become a more innovative leader, please consider our online leader development program. For additional tools, we recommend taking leadership assessments, using the Innovative Leadership Fieldbook and Innovative Leaders Guide to Transforming Organizations, and adding coaching to our online innovative leadership program. We also offer several workshops to help you build these skills.
About the author
Maureen Metcalf, founder and CEO of Metcalf & Associates, Inc., is a renowned executive advisor, author, speaker, and coach who brings thirty years of business experience to provide high-impact, practical solutions that support her clients’ leadership development and organizational transformations. She is recognized as an innovative, principled thought leader who combines intellectual rigor and discipline with an ability to translate theory into practice. Her operational skills are coupled with the strategic ability to analyze, develop, and implement successful strategies for profitability, growth, and sustainability.
In addition to working as an executive advisor, Maureen designs and teaches MBA classes in Leadership and Organizational Transformation. She is also the host of an international radio show focusing on innovative leadership, and the author of an award-winning book series on Innovative Leadership, including the Innovative Leaders Guide to Transforming Organizations, winner of a 2014 International Book Award.