The virtual world is upon us, and there doesn’t appear to be any turning back. Virtual safety meetings, safety training, and webinars are a part of everyday life. According to research by Microsoft, the virtual world, specifically virtual meetings, comes with the potential for high stress.
Stress is both good and bad. It can spur us on to accomplish goals or hamper our ability to perform our job, study, or even concentrate. Chronic stress can lead to mental health problems. Symptoms may include insomnia, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, muscle tension, and irritability. We can’t avoid it, but we can recognize and adjust to mitigate it.
The study “Research Proves Your Brain Needs Breaks” by Microsoft Human Factors Lab (2021) found that when workers attended four consecutive half-hour virtual meetings without a break, beta-wave activity, an indicator of stress, increased (see graphic). Beta-wave activity remained low when the same workers were given 10-minute meditation breaks between meetings. I assume a meditation break does not involve catching up on emails, returning phone calls, or discussing the day’s headlines. All of which would keep most brains in the yellowish-red color.
In short, frequent meditation breaks reduce stress. However, the study did not conclude that reduced stress improved productivity. If we extrapolate the results, we can assume performance was higher when breaks were provided.
So, what are the implications for safety professionals, safety leaders, and safety leadership in general? Here are three that come to mind:
Training – If you are conducting training, either virtual or in-person, frequent breaks reduce stress and make for a more pleasurable learning experience. According to adult learning theory, a pleasurable learning experience has a positive impact on a learner’s motivation which improves retention. At least hourly breaks are recommended and always appreciated. It’s also advisable to set classroom rules that encourage and define a meditation break and discourage checking email, scores, and betting lines. Perhaps a brief instruction on meditation techniques is needed. More on that later.
Meetings – If you are facilitating one or more meetings or an all-day meeting, ensure you schedule 10 minutes per hour for a break. If you are scheduling a meeting at a time when most invitees are jumping from one meeting to the next, they will appreciate a 10-minute break. Besides being a hero, you will likely get more out of the attendees. As with training, setting meeting rules that encourage a meditation break sans cell phones, laptops, and political discussions is recommended.
Studying for Associate Safety Professional or Certified Safety Professional exam – The Microsoft study provides more evidence that cramming doesn’t work well and likely increases stress levels. The key to test anxiety and passing the exam is preparation. Include frequent meditation breaks in your study schedule. A relaxed and less stressed mind leads to productive study time and an improved likelihood of a passing score. Intense study can increase stress. My partners at Nito Solutions Exam Prep suggest studying for about 30 minutes before taking a brief break. Ideally, if your schedule permits, we suggest 30 to 60 minutes of daily study.
All of this brings me to meditation and what specifically is a meditation break? And what is a quality break? This is way outside of my wheelhouse, so I did some research. This is what I learned. Meditation is easy enough that anyone can do it and benefit, but it does take some practice. A simple but powerful meditation break lasts about 5 to 10 minutes and might include focused breathing by taking long, slow “belly breaths.” Often referred to as mindfulness meditation, where you pay attention to your breath as it goes in and out. As you breathe, notice when your mind wanders and bring your attention back to your breath. Other simple techniques include body scans or sitting in a quiet area to relax.
Research shows mindful meditation can reduce psychological stress and anxiety—even short-term mindfulness meditation programs work. To get started, set aside five minutes in a quiet place to sit and breathe. In addition to meditation, physical activity, a nutritious and varied diet, and good sleep hygiene are good starting points, but there are other coping mechanisms available.
Whether we’re attending meetings, training, or working on a project, hourly meditation breaks reduce stress and improve productivity. If you are the training facilitator or meeting organizer, your trainees and attendees will thank you.