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Reducing Employee Stress in a Time of Widespread Disruption

The social and economic turmoil unleashed on our society by the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has created a level of apprehension not seen in this society since the financial crisis, or perhaps even since World War II. Anxiety is compounded by the 24-hour news cycle, social media, and global messaging apps. Misinformation travels around the globe while the truth is still putting on its shoes. 

Between home quarantines, meeting cancellations, travel restrictions, supply chain complications, budget cuts, personal concern about contagion, and more, every business feels the effects of this public health crisis. In the face of all these challenges, employers have an opportunity to alleviate some of their employees’ stress by providing tools to ensure their mental well-being. 

Many companies are ahead of the curve, having already introduced stress reduction techniques based on the concept of mindfulness as part of health and well-being programs. Over the past decade, a diverse cohort of businesses have launched such initiatives—companies like Apple, Google, General Mills, Aetna, McKinsey, P&G, and Deutsche Bank. A few months ago, I attended the annual Mindful Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., where executives from Microsoft, Novartis, IBM, and MAPI-member EnPro Industries presented case studies on their mindfulness-based stress reduction programs.  

The companies aren’t pitching mindfulness as some magic cure for the stress of the business world. These tools won’t eliminate the underlying concerns afflicting employees. Rather, they are intended to help build resilience. Circumstances will change, events will unfold that disrupt our lives. How people respond to these changes—their level of acceptance—determines their resilience and ultimately their happiness. Mindfulness trains us to build a wider space between outside stimulus and our response by teaching us self-awareness—of one’s thoughts, emotions, and physical reactions occurring in the body at any given moment—and to be aware of what’s going on around us. Deep awareness of the present moment transitions us away from our habitual state of planning, worrying about the future, and reminiscing and regretting the past.   

Under ordinary business conditions, some corporate leaders might eschew such a different approach to management. But the current climate of social and economic anxiety has made mental health a priority. Some companies have introduced “check-ins” before the start of meetings, providing an opportunity for employees to share what’s keeping them up at night as well as what’s good in their lives. And more companies are now willing to offer time and space for employees to take 30 minutes during their workday to meditate in a group setting. In the current period of home quarantines, this is readily available through virtual meeting rooms and guided meditation podcasts.   

Companies turning to mindfulness can equip their employees with the tools to become more resilient. As EnPro Industries CEO Marvin Riley told me, “During this time of extreme uncertainty, social distancing, and the global healthcare crisis, it’s critical that we as a company leverage mindfulness to cultivate the inner capacity for calmness and tender-hearted connection.”