The study offered participants a modified version of what is known as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a program established in 1979 to help hospital patients in Massachusetts assist in their own healing that is now in wide use around the world. In this context, “mindfulness” refers in part to one’s heightened awareness of an external stressor as the first step toward relaxing in a way that can minimize the effects of that stress on the body.
While the traditional MBSR program practice takes up an hour per day for 8 weeks, supplemented by lengthy weekly sessions and a full-day retreat, the modified version developed at Ohio State University for this study was designed for office-based workers wearing professional attire.
Study participants attended 1-hour weekly group meetings during lunch and practiced 20 minutes of meditation and yoga per day at their desks. After 6 weeks, program participants reported that they were more aware of external stressors, they felt less stressed by life events and they fell asleep more easily than did a control group that did not experience the intervention.
“Because chronic stress is associated with chronic disease, I am focusing on how to reduce stress before it has a chance to contribute to disease,” said Maryanna Klatt, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of clinical allied medicine at Ohio State. Klatt said she wanted to deliver a practically, sustainable, low-cost solution at the worksite to help reduce health care costs.
The weekly 1-hour group sessions included breathing, relaxation and gentle yoga movement, which were designed to coax participants toward a meditative state. Participants also discussed work-related stress and were coached to contemplate a specific topic in each session that explored their response to a specific type of stress over the past week.
“It doesn’t matter what the stress is, but how you change the way you perceive the stress,” Klatt noted. “If they can’t change the external events in their life, they can instead change the way they view the stress, which can make a difference in how they experience their day-to-day life.”
The study analyzed participants’ responses to the intervention using data from established research questionnaires that measured perceived stress, or the degree to which situations in life are considered stressful; a number of components of sleep quality; and what is called mindful attention awareness, which refers to how often a person is paying attention to and is aware of what is occurring in the present.
Mindful attention awareness increased significantly and perceived stress decreased significantly among the intervention group when compared to the control group’s responses. Overall sleep quality increased in both groups, but three of seven components of sleep were more affected in the intervention group.
On average, mindfulness increased by about 9.7 percent and perceived stress decreased by about 11 percent among the group that experienced the intervention. These participants also reported that it took them less time to fall asleep, they had fewer sleep disturbances and they experienced less daytime dysfunction than did members of the non-intervention group.
Finding the Time
Klatt said mindfulness-based stress reduction, developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, has been studied widely and determined to be useful in lowering symptoms ranging from depression and anxiety to chronic pain. But the time commitment required in the program makes it impractical for busy working professionals, and adding a stress-reduction class outside of work could add stress to these people, she said.
Klatt set out to develop what she calls a “low dose” of the program that is suitable for the workplace and still offers stress-reduction benefits. She specifically scheduled weekly sessions during lunch to avoid interfering with work time or home time, and combined movement with verbal prompts and music that are cues for participants to relax.
Klatt and colleagues are building on these preliminary findings and continuing to study the broader impact of the intervention in various populations, such as cancer survivors, intensive-care nurses and inner-city schoolchildren.
The results of the pilot study are published in a recent issue of the journal Health Education & Behavior.