Hit the pause button on work for 15 minutes to beat stress

Concerns about mental health consistently top post-pandemic employee surveys

Jon Kabat-Zinn is an early riser. The man credited with popularising modern mindfulness likes to start each day with a combination of yoga, meditation and mindfulness because it tees him up mentally for whatever the day brings.

Kabat-Zinn has been following this regime for 50 years so it’s second nature. But in a lot of households, mornings are frantic and the idea of chilling while the toast burns is for the birds. However, the pause to decompress doesn’t have to take long. Even 15 minutes works and, with employees consistently ranking mental health and wellbeing as major concerns in workplace surveys, it could be 15 minutes well spent.

A Matrix recruitment survey from April, with a sample size of just more than 800 people, showed that stress and poor work/life balance are still hot topics.

"If the research is telling us that employee mental wellbeing has become more salient, then we need to do more than just acknowledge it. We also need to try to understand how employee needs and concerns have altered," says Finian Buckley, professor of work and organisational psychology at DCU Business School.

“If we are to be an employer of choice, we need an understanding of what employees might reasonably expect from us to support their needs and what we might reasonably be able to respond to. This is back to the idea of a dynamic ‘psychological contract’ between employer and employee – the (often) unwritten expectation that both parties have of each other – that, when provided, leads to a strong sense of mutual commitment.

“To uncover these emergent and changing needs, we need to have individual conversations with employees. Human resources and line managers are facing a busy period of ensuring they reconnect with people at a personal level and active listening is becoming the key focal skill as we navigate this new work life era.”

But while employers have a role to play, employees can also do their bit by taking the 15-minute challenge. What someone does in the time is up to them. It can be meditation, yoga, mindfulness, a short walk, sitting quietly with a cup of tea – whatever helps the calming process.

The "fight or flight" response associated with the primary stress hormone, cortisol, is undoubtedly helpful when confronted by a hungry bear looking for the perfect bowl of porridge, but producing too much of it in response to ongoing chronic stress is a potentially serious health hazard as the Mayo Clinic makes clear.

“The long-term activation of the stress response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that follows can disrupt almost all your body’s processes,” it says. “This puts you at increased risk of many health problems, including anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, sleep problems and memory and concentration impairment.”

Dr Mary Flaherty, author of Does Yoga Work?, says there are many simple things we can do to support our mental health and just 15 minutes a day are proven to make a difference.

“Go for a walk, take a dip, do yoga. Make it a ritual,” she says. “In relation to yoga, the science shows it’s not essential to attend a class or even commit a lot of time. However, regular daily practice can help manage stress, reduce anxiety and depression, relieve the symptoms of post-traumatic stress and eating disorders.

“It can also improve body image, help with insomnia and the regulation of emotions and perhaps even make us more co-operative and pro-social.”

Flaherty also recommends being consciously grateful for the good things in life, spending time with people with whom you have a strong connection and when feeling stressed pausing to inhale slowly, holding the breath for a count of three to five, and then slowly exhaling.

She adds that this exercise is also useful for those finding it hard to drop off to sleep at night.

“Regularly doing some of these things will help quell overthinking and worrying,” she says. “Consciously deciding and committing to do something for ourselves to help our mental health actually results in better mental wellbeing. Just setting the intention is a great first step.”

Mindfulness turns up in all sorts of shapes and sizes these days. But for those who want to go back to the original modern source, Kabat-Zinn’s book Full Catastrophe Living, sets it all out in detail over a hefty 400-plus pages.

It all began in 1979 when Kabat-Zinn, with the help of his colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, pioneered an eight-week mindfulness-based stress-reduction course for patients experiencing chronic pain. In summary, they used the fundamentals of mindfulness meditation as taught by the Buddha, but without the Buddha connection to make it as secular and broadly applicable as possible.

Kabat-Zinn believes that mindfulness is a simple route towards greater sanity and wellbeing and over the last 40 years mindfulness courses have been rolled out across the world and picked up by individuals, health services, educationalists, sportspeople, the military and the corporate sector as a way of helping people cope with stress, depression, pain and the general challenges of living in an always-on world.

Mindfulness has taken off with an estimated 18 million-plus people practising it through the Headspace app alone while a two-year study by Oxford University professor of mindfulness and psychological science, Willem Kuyken, has shown that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy can be as effective as medication in preventing relapses of depression.