It is commonly recognised that stress in the workplace is one of the biggest drivers of decreased performance, causing a loss of over 11 million days at work in the UK each year (HSE).
The most forward-looking companies are exploring new ways to help employees reduce stress and anxiety levels. Breathwork is one of the cutting-edge techniques (increasingly backed up by research, e.g. Perciavalle et al (2017) reported a 15% reduction in self-reported measures of stress for men and women practising deep breathing techniques*) that is finding increasing acceptance in the business community.
Many companies have embraced the benefits of mindfulness and some of the most effective mindfulness techniques are based on the breath. The simple act of observing the breath can be a potent way to bring you into the present moment, creating a potent impact for employees when the pressure to deliver is intense – reducing stress and anxiety, creating a sense of calm and peace, bringing greater clarity of thought, more creativity and increased ability to pay attention.
When we pay conscious attention to our breath, we stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (the part responsible for helping us rest and recover from stress). This is important because in our always-on world, many people suffer from overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system (the part responsible for the fight or flight response). This is the most ancient part of our brain, responsible for keeping us safe, signalling danger, ensuring we have enough food, water and rest.
The challenge we have today though is that for many people it kicks in almost continuously – when we receive an email or text, when we see someone apparently living the perfect life on social media, when we have work pressures and deadlines piling up, when we have an important meeting to attend or to speak at.
Breathing exercises can help counter the impact of stress, calming down the fight or flight response and returning us to a state when we can think more clearly and objectively.
Try this short exercise:
- Sit or stand comfortably, with your feet placed firmly on the floor about hip-width apart
- Notice how you are feeling right now – any sensations in your body, perhaps tingling, or a sense of being hot or cold, perhaps think to yourself, ‘on a scale of 1-10 where are my stress levels right now?’
- Become aware of your breathing: Is it fast or slow? Shallow or deep? Where are you breathing – in your belly or your chest?
- Place your hands on your belly so that the very tips of your fingers are just lightly touching
- Take a deep diaphragmatic breath (you will know you are getting down into your belly effectively if your fingertips gently move apart as you breathe in, and gently come back to touch again as you breathe out)
- Take 4-5 deep breaths in this way
- Notice how you are feeling now, and check in again where your stress levels are now
If this was helpful, try practicing it a few times a day. It can be useful to anchor the practice to something you do regularly – mealtimes or making a cup of tea, for example. By anchoring the practice in this way you will start to build muscle memory, so that when you really need to use the technique it is readily available to you.
Breathwork at Work
There are three ways in which dedicated breathwork exercises and support can be helpful in the workplace, boosting business performance and helping employees at all levels to thrive and grow:
For the general population of employees, teaching them to use some simple breathwork exercises gives them easy-to-access tools they can use every day, whenever they feel they need some additional support.
If you are focused on performance improvement rather than stress reduction, breathwork can be combined with simple embodiment techniques (literally tapping into and aligning the body’s intelligence with that of the brain) to increase confidence, improve public speaking ability, enhance communication skills, help employees learn more effectively, and develop better teamwork.
New leaders wanting to develop their own personal leadership style can also benefit from breath and embodiment coaching to support their growth and development, helping them to step into their own personal power as leaders and managers.
If you have staff heading towards or already suffering from burnout, 1:1 breath sessions can be a powerful tool to support them in overcoming symptoms, and enabling them to return successfully to the workplace. 1:1 sessions are dedicated to the person as an individual. Sessions begin by analyzing their unique breathing pattern and they are then guided and encouraged to develop a more full, open and diaphragmatic breath. This type of support helps to reduce stress and panic attacks, promotes better sleep patterns and ability to rest, and gives them a tool they can use to support themselves on a daily basis, strengthening the chances of an employee coming back to peak performance levels again.
Empowering your employees
Bringing breath into business is all about empowerment. Creating employees who are resilient, aware of what they can do to support themselves in times of stress or when they need to up their game, and who have the right tools readily to hand to help them, will drive your success as a business. Breath really does mean business.