Thursday, February 9, 2012

Meditating at Work: A New Approach to Managing Overload


Today's employees and managers are deluged with an unprecedented amount of information and distraction. If it's not emails, texts, and instant messaging, then it's phone calls, coworkers, and constantly changing demands and deadlines. Basex research found that 50 percent of a knowledge worker's day is spent "managing information" and that an excess of information results in "a loss of ability to make decisions, process information, and prioritize tasks." In fact, research shows that constant information overload sends the brain into the fight-or-flight stress response, originally designed to protect us from man-eating tigers and other threats.

According to Dr. Edward Hallowell, the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for executive functions such as decision making, problem solving, and planning) cannot execute properly when it is in stress mode. Instead, the "lower part" of the brain, which is responsible for dealing with survival, takes over. The prefrontal cortex then waits for a signal from the lower brain that the stressor has disappeared. Until then, the prefrontal cortex still functions, but poorly. Intelligence declines, and flexibility is minimal.1The result of this information and distraction overload is wreaking havoc with both employees' and managers' mental and physical health, as well as with productivity. As Jonathan Spira notes in Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous to Your Organization, this problem has been estimated to cost the U.S. economy $900 billion per year in "lowered employee productivity and reduced innovation."2 This figure also includes recovery time, which can be ten to twenty times greater than the time lost from the interruption itself.

While organizations have addressed these challenges with a variety of stress-management solutions, until recently meditation was not among them. It still had a reputation for being flaky and unfit for corporate consumption. However, scientific studies that have proven the value of meditation in changing the brain point to meditation's practical application in the workplace. Meditation is now gaining acceptance and being used in established American companies such as General Mills, Google, and Prentice Hall.

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