Working with someone who is extremely anxious isn’t always fun, but it’s worth remembering stress hits everyone, including us. Anxiety disorders are by some measures the most common mental health issues in the western world (even more common than depression).
Previously research has shown sufferers of anxiety – which could be defined as continuous feelings of stress or worry – typically take more sick days at work and use more mental health services than average workers.
But mental health problems are so common they are basically unavoidable in the workplace, affecting at least 45 per cent of all Australians in their lifetimes and possibly more, according to charity Sane Australia. Undetected mental health issues can also be triggered by major life events.
Hence the move to expand corporate wellness programs beyond physical health, and embed mental health programs and tools in them. Mindfulness is one such promising tool.
Mindfulness has been shown in many studies to positively affect symptoms of depression, insomnia and anxiety but now there is proof of improvements that could directly benefit employers: rates of absenteeism in anxiety sufferers fell after establishing a meditation practice.
A team of seven researchers, led by Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical Center, split a 57 subjects diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder into two groups, with half doing eight weeks of “attention control” training while the others did MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) training.
Those that did the mindfulness cut their time absent from work by nearly two-thirds, while the control group actually increased the amount of time they took off work.
The measurement scrutinised in Hoges’ latest research paper – called Effects of mindfulness meditation on occupational functioning and health care utilization in individuals with anxiety – was “partial days missed” and not full days. Why?
“This may be the most sensitive measure of how anxiety disorders impact work performance, as employees … may come late to work, or leave early depending on their mental state,” her report said.
For those who continued practicing mindfulness in their own time, the reduction in absenteeism continued and there was a similar decrease in visits to mental health professionals.
The report concluded: “Mindfulness meditation training may improve occupational functioning and decrease healthcare utilization in adults with GAD.”
Hoge recently published research from a similar experiment which found a group which had undergone mindfulness training “felt” less stressed and had lower levels of the stress hormone ACTH in their blood than people who did stress management training.
If you need to speak to someone about your anxiety call Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636 or Sane 1800 18 7263.