Regular doses of meditation might prevent work-related stress and burnout, a small U.S. study suggests.
Teachers and support staff working at a school for children with behavior problems felt less stressed after practicing 20 minutes of Transcendental Meditation (TM) twice a day for four months.
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But participants "reported feeling less stressed and more energetic within a few days," said the study's senior author Sanford Nidich, of Maharishi University's Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention in Fairfield, Iowa.
Starting stress levels among the participants had averaged 39 on a 40-point scale and fell 5 points by the end of the study period. In comparison, 20 school staffers who did not meditate started with stress levels around 37 on the same scale and those rose 2 points during the same period.
Meditating participants also felt less depressed and less emotionally exhausted, according to Nidich and his coauthors. But meditation seemed to have the strongest effect on stress levels, they note in their report, published in the Permanente Journal.
The researchers don't describe the techniques taught to participants in the study in detail, but TM, a trademarked method of meditation, generally involves sitting with one's eyes closed for 20 minutes twice a day and thinking about a particular sound or mantra.
"Automatic self-transcending techniques, such as TM, involve the effortless use of a sound without meaning (mantra), which allows the mind to settle to quieter levels of thought," Nidich's team writes.
Certified instructors teach the practice nationwide at a cost of $960 for the full course , according to the TM.org website.
"The devil's advocate might claim that the effect is non-specific, and has nothing directly to do with TM," said alternative medicine researcher Dr. Ezard Ernst in an email. Ernst, of the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, was not involved in the new study.
He said the results do not show a causal link between TM and reduced stress levels among the school staffers. "We would need a much more rigorous trial and several independent replications" before drawing any conclusions, Ernst said.
Plenty of past research points to apparent benefits from various forms of meditation, such as TM or the popular "mindfulness meditation" approach, for conditions ranging from anxiety to pain.
Workplace stress can have costly side effects in the form of employee turnover. A 2012 study by the Center for American Progress puts the cost of replacing an employee at 10 to 30 percent of that worker's annual salary.
Some meditation can be done without leaving your desk, said Janice Marturano, founder and director of the Institute for Mindful Leadership in Oakland, New Jersey.
"Mindfulness meditation is retraining our mind's ability to direct our attention," said Marturano, who was not connected to the new study.
"Simply putting your feet on the floor, and paying attention to the weightiness of your
legs or the breath in your body can bring your mind back to the present," she said.
Meditation is a way to avoid working on "auto-pilot," Marturano said, explaining that today's 24/7 workplace connectivity requires employees to be mentally present at most times - something that doesn't necessarily come naturally.
The workplaces of the future could benefit by having a quiet room for workers to visit for 10 minutes or less, Marturano said.
"Employees who come out of a stressful meeting or situation can then go inside and reset their minds so they do not have to carry that stress with them for the rest of the day," she said.