The American workforce is becoming more mindful. In a new study of more than 85,000 adults, yoga practice among U.S. workers nearly doubled from 2002 to 2012, from 6 percent to 11 percent. Meditation rates also increased, from 8 percent to 9.9 percent.
That’s good news, say the study authors, since activities like yoga and meditation have been shown to improve employee well-being and productivity.
“Our finding of high and increasing rates of exposure to mindfulness practices among U.S. workers is encouraging,” they wrote in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) journal Preventing Chronic Disease. “Approximately 1 in 7 workers report engagement in some form of mindfulness-based activity, and these individuals can bring awareness of the benefit of such practices into the workplace.”
The study, which surveyed adults on whether they’d participated in specific activities in the last year, revealed that people with jobs were more likely to practice mindfulness techniques than those who were unemployed. (However, the participants were not asked where and when they practiced these activities, so it’s unknown how many people were actually doing them at work, versus on their own time.)
The authors point out that incorporating mindfulness practices into the workplace experience—through employee wellness and stress-reduction programs, yoga and meditation classes and web-based offerings—can be a way for companies to encourage their workers to take part.
The study also identified room for improvement in certain sectors. Blue-collar and service workers were less likely to practice mindfulness techniques than white-collar workers, and farm workers even less. Household income and education levels partially accounted for these disparities, but not entirely.
The authors say that employers in these occupations could benefit by identifying workers who do practice mindfulness techniques, and involve them in planning and promoting these activities for other employees.
Institutional obstacles, such as lack of funding, lack of time or personal beliefs, “should be addressed to make these practices available to all workers,” they wrote. Men and socioeconomically disadvantaged groups within these occupations are the least likely to do them.
In previous research, these types of workplace interventions have been associated with a host of benefits for employees. Mindfulness training has been shown to reduce burnout and mood disturbances in health care providers, and to improve sleep quality among teachers. (The study authors were unable to find any mindfulness studies that had specifically focused on blue-collar or farm workers.)
The new study also looked at the prevalence of two other mindfulness practices—tai chi and qigong—but did not find a substantial change in these rates over time. Yoga and meditation are likely more popular because they’ve received much attention in the general public over the past two decades, the authors point out.
As a whole, mindfulness practices can “address multiple workplace wellness needs, benefiting both employees and employers,” the study authors say. Kristin McGee, a yoga instructor in New York City and author of the upcoming book Chair Yoga, says that mindfulness techniques are important for managing workplace pressures, no matter what that workplace is. “Having any type of job nowadays is so stressful because of the long hours we spend working,” says McGee (who was not involved in the study). Mind-body techniques like yoga can help counteract some of that stress and some of the physical demands of work, whether from hard manual labor or sitting hunched over at a computer, McGee says.
McGee encourages people in all types of jobs to incorporate a bit of mindfulness into their workday, even if it’s just a simple breathing exercise. Research has shown that slowing down and deepening breath can have real effects on wellbeing, including controlling blood pressure and improving heart rate. “That oxygenating breath helps clear the mind and reminds you that you’re in charge of your breath and your body,” McGee says. “It’s a great tool for avoiding knee-jerk reactions, and having better control over the situation.”
To stretch a bit at work, McGee recommends side bends to help prevent back soreness and stiffness. These can be done standing or seated in a chair: Keep your back straight, lift your arms overhead, interlace fingers and press palms toward the ceiling, and bend gently to right and then to the left.
Other work-friendly yoga poses include spinal twists, (which can be done seated or standing) eagle arms (great for stretching out wrists and shoulders), and mountain pose (for resetting your posture, boosting energy, and improving focus).