It's hard to imagine a more stressful environment than a surgical intensive care unit, where events happen fast and decisions are literally a matter of life or death. Yet even in the ICU, new research suggests that mindfulness -- the cultivation of a focused, nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment -- may help workers manage that stress.
Just eight weeks of mindfulness training reduced the stress levels of ICU personnel by 40 percent, according to the study by Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center.
"What's stressful about the work environment is never going to change," Dr. Maryanna Klatt, a professor of family medicine at Ohio State and one of the study's lead authors, said in a statement. "But what we were interested in changing was the nursing personnel's reaction to those stresses."
For the study, 32 members of an ICU unit at Wexner Medical Center participated in a mindfulness-based training program that included meditation, yoga, breathing exercises and gentle stretching. The program ran eight weeks and was conducted in the workplace.
One week before the training began and again one week after it ended, researchers asked the participants to answer questions assessing their levels of stress and burnout. They also took saliva samples from the participants and from a control group of ICU workers, which were analyzed for biomarkers of stress.
What did they find? The participants didn't report experiencing any less stress after taking the mindfulness course -- the ICU was still a tough place to work. But measures of stress reactivity in their saliva lessened dramatically. The control group saw no such drop in stress levels.
That decrease in stress biomarkers indicated less activation of the sympathetic nervous systems (i.e., the fight-or-flight response). In other words, the ICU personnel who received mindfulness training were significantly less reactive to stress -- even though they didn't seem to be aware of it.
Learning mindfulness also helped the ICU personnel to "become aware of what their individual stress response is" and to "practice flexibility in cultivating alternative ways" of dealing with chronic stress, Klatt said in an email to The Huffington Post.
This was a limited study, but if its findings suggest one good answer to a major problem facing health care workers. Nearly half of all physicians experience burnout, with emergency care, critical care and family medicine doctors experiencing the highest rates, according to a 2012 study.
Even if you don't work in emergency care, there's a good chance that mindfulness could help you to feel less stressed and improve your performance at work. It's good for your employer, too, as stress costs American companies an estimated $200 to $300 billion in lost productivity each year.
"Pragmatic mindfulness programs ... can be mutually beneficial for employee and employer alike," Klatt told HuffPost. "Employees can recognize opportunities to reduce stress, and employers can provide a worthwhile benefit with significant results."
The findings were published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
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