Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Controlled study finds mind-body stress reduction techniques effective in workplace

A large randomised controlled study has found yoga and meditation techniques to be effective for stress reduction in the workplace. The study screened employees from a single company at two location to find healthy individuals who identified themselves as stressed and did not practice those techniques. This led to 239 employees who were randomly assigned to a weekly program of viniyoga practice, a similar program focused on mindfulness meditation, or to a control group who were simply given information about resources available to help with workplace stress. After 12 weeks, participants in both programs had significantly lower stress, as well as reduced difficulties in sleeping, whereas the control participants did not.

The study also measured biological features, such as heart rate variability measured post-intervention, where the participant had to imagine an upcoming stressful event and try and apply the relevant technique (mindfulness, yogic techniques such as breath control, or simply their default coping strategy if a control). Again those participants who had been through the intervention had better outcomes, in terms of heart rhythm coherence, a measure of autonomic balance linked to better functioning.

Key to these findings were the time commitments taken on by participants: the weekly commitment was in most cases just an hour, with a total time investment of 12-14 hours leading to these health effects. We've written about even more bite-sized approaches to introducing health activities into the workplace, which itself is being evaluated in a trial form. As our scientific understanding of the valuable impact of these often-ancient activities deepens, it's very welcome that we are simultaneously investigating the pragmatic concerns: understanding which strategies are viable for introducing these techniques on a large scale into a workplace.

ResearchBlogging.orgWolever, R., Bobinet, K., McCabe, K., Mackenzie, E., Fekete, E., Kusnick, C., & Baime, M. (2012). Effective and viable mind-body stress reduction in the workplace: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 17 (2), 246-258 DOI: 10.1037/a0027278


  1. wasn't exactly a well balanced control group, was it? Self study materials on stress - for the stressed? Whereas 12-14 hours of human interaction is pretty significant. So this is hardly objective testimony for an intrinsically "valuable impact of these often-ancient activities". Anecdote coming up - for a throat problem, I once had 5 sessions from a speech therapist. She taught me relaxation, breathing and voice techniques that are still useful 25 years later. Now THAT might have been an effective control intervention.

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  3. Hi Jay

    Interesting to hear about your speech therapist techniques, these sound very useful.

    As to the matter of controls, I take your point, that with better controls more specific claims can be made. I have two thoughts, however. Warning: this post is quite long, and written to help me to think this through as much as anything else. If I appear to be telling you what you think, at any point, please assume I'm directing these thoughts at myself!

    Firstly, as far as I see it, the claim of value for these techniques stands up: doing these activities (as opposed to not doing them) not only has effects, but effects in line with the claims made by their adherents, including physiological effects that present the outline of a mechanism working in practice to link the activity and the psychological. That's not bad, and worth reporting.

    On the subject of controls: I agree that there appears to be little equivalence between controls at first bluch; because of that, it reasonably seems a little suspicious. The fact that stressed employees probably would be provided with self-study materials as a first point of call in many organisations means the comparison has real-world plausibility - "compared to what normally happens, would these interventions be effective?". But they don't seem standard enough from the point of view of, say a clinical drug trial.

    But of course, a drug trial is relatively straightforward compared to a multifaceted intervention that involves interpersonal contact, a self-reflexive practice (meaning that human factors owing to participants are going to be massive), physical and mental components, and elements peculiar to both the tradition and the practitioner. Prematurely imposing a control in place could obscure an effect that's worth knowing about - like this one - by overlapping too closely. And whereas the control for drugs is relatively easy - does this mixture of chemicals lead to better outcomes than this one / this sugar pill - the control for a multifaceted intervention depends on exactly what we are trying to show (for instance, do we need a skilled practitioner to deliver it, is it just all about face time with someone else, etc). Important questions, to be sure, but that takes us down quite a thorny path, and possibly away from what this study aimed to do - demonstrate efficacy of a set of techniques (that many people are already trained in and many more are curious about) to deal with a common workplace issue in a workplace setting. That's not a bad beginning, in my view!


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