Improving Workplace Wellness with Yoga

By Doug Galligan

The popularity of workplace wellness programs has increased considerably in recent years. Since businesses in the US cover over one-third of all health related costs, employers have responded to escalating health care costs by making employee wellness a high priority (Ickes & Sharma, 2009). The focus of workplace wellness programs has shifted from simply offering employees the opportunity to obtain health insurance to include a variety of options such as complimentary gym memberships, counseling, stress management, immunizations, and much more (Ickes & Sharma, 2009).

Naturally, as successful companies report favorable return on investment from their wellness programs, other firms attempt to emulate their practices in the hopes of building a healthier, more productive workforce. Yet, in spite of the numerous companies reporting outstanding success with their wellness initiatives, most programs fail to meet expectations (Osilla et al, 2012). For a variety of reasons, over half of the average workforce will not participate in any wellness program offerings. Furthermore, a significant percentage of those who do participate in wellness initiatives will not be impacted in a meaningful way (Osilla et al, 2012). In other words, many will attend a few meetings or events, but not enough to benefit their health or wellbeing. Moreover, the majority of employees who successfully meet weight-loss or fitness related goals eventually regress into their old habits within a few short months (Jeffery & Wing, 1995).

Although, workplace wellness programs can be productive endeavors and can lower health related costs, the inability to facilitate long-term change to employee’s health behaviors prevents these programs from realizing their potential. Unless new, novel approaches can be formulated to motivate the “difficult to reach” groups and build long-term adherence to health habits, workplace wellness programs will fail to help the majority of the workforce (Garcia, 2007).

Although a number of physical exercise interventions are currently utilized in workplace wellness programs, the comprehensive benefits of Yoga practice make it an ideal addition to workplace wellness initiatives. Furthermore, infusing the yogic lifestyle into the workplace has potential to shift the wellness promotion paradigm by improving physical, emotional, and mental fitness (Bhandari, Balkrishna & Datt, 2011). Workplace wellness programs face the daunting task of building a culture that can minimize countless illnesses and injuries. Fortunately, yoga is multipurpose intervention that can effectively benefit those who face fundamental health issues like hypertension, smoking cessation, stress management, back pain, and obesity (Bhandari, Balkrishna & Datt, 2011). In addition, some of the basic tenants of yogic philosophy may enable people to make more honest assessments of their physical condition and allow them to adhere to a healthier lifestyle (McCall, 2007, p. 478-479).

Certainly, it would be difficult to identify any single health issue as the most important element of workplace wellness. However, the relationship between hypertension (high blood pressure) and life threatening illnesses like stroke, heart attacks, and cardiovascular disease establish it as a chief concern for wellness professionals (Jackson et al, 2011). In addition, over one-third of American adults currently have high blood pressure (Jackson et al, 2011). The costs associated with hypertension in the US alone are nearly $75 billion (Jackson et al, 2011). Many cases of hypertension go unnoticed for years since there are generally few symptoms in the early stages. Unfortunately, much of the physical damage caused by this condition occurs quietly, over time (McCall, 2007, p. 360). Therefore, promoting regular blood pressure screening is imperative to prevent long-term exposure to unhealthy levels. However, the percentage of workers who participate in these types of screenings is extremely low. Naturally, discovering simple, effective methods to remedy this problem should be a high priority for wellness programs.

Typically, the traditional first lines of defense against hypertension are prescription drugs, exercise and low-sodium diet (McCall, 2007, p. 362). However, these are not effective for many high blood pressure patients and do not address the root cause. Furthermore, high blood pressure often comes with no obvious signs or symptoms (McCall, 2007, p. 362). If an individual fails to have regular physical check-ups from their physician they may be unaware of their dangerous condition.

In these cases, the benefits realized from practicing yoga and the lifestyle changes it entails may prevent the long term damage that could take place from long-term exposure to hypertension. Yoga has proven to be an effective, holistic treatment for hypertension. Although the scientific data is limited, there are numerous scientific studies and millions of personal testimonies to support the benefits of yoga practice for treating hypertension (McCall, 2007, p. 363-364). Given the holistic nature of yoga one might expect that it would take a considerable period of time to realize measurable benefits. However, following a three week yoga intervention, Murthy et al (2011) discovered that the average blood pressure reading among subjects decreased by ten points.

Surprisingly, the yoga therapy sessions utilized in their study were only thirty minutes each (Murthy et al, 2011). What’s more, many of the study participants were able to discontinue taking anti-hypertension medications (Murthy et al, 2011). This study is just one example of the positive influence that yoga practice can have on hypertension. Another randomized, controlled study conducted in 2000 compared the impact of yoga therapy to prescription drugs (McCall, 2007, p. 364).

By comparison, the average blood pressure for the yoga group decreased by 33 points, while the prescription drug group dropped by just 24 points (McCall, 2007, p. 364). Clearly, the multifaceted benefits of yoga yielded superior results in these cases despite the fact that is not an orthodox approach in the US.

The scientific literature contains many examples of the efficacy of yoga practice for lowering blood pressure. Still, it seems likely that the body of evidence underestimates the long-term benefits of the yogic lifestyle. The majority of studies only examine the impact of yoga over a period of several weeks (Murthy et al, 2011). Yet, the benefits of yoga are generally thought to have a slow onset that increases gradually over time (McCall, 2007, p. 8). Many studies fail to include important aspects of the yoga lifestyle, such as diet or personalization of the practice.

Naturally, a more comprehensive approach to yoga that addresses the individual’s unique needs is likely to yield superior results to standardized, “generic” regimens Smoking cessation continues to be a high priority for workplace wellness programs. In spite of tremendous efforts to discourage the use of tobacco products, smoking still accounts for $170 billion in health related costs each year (Gollust, Schroeder & Warner, 2008). Regrettably, over 20% of the US population still report that they are regular smokers (Gollust, Schroeder & Warren, 2008). Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths among American women (Bock et al, 2010). Although two-thirds of smokers indicate they would like to quit, statistics suggest that less than 6% of those who attempt to quit will be successful (Gollust, Schroeder & Warner, 2008). In addition to the staggering health costs absorbed by employers, smokers tend to be less productive while on the job as well.

There are many tools and techniques available to facilitate smoking cessation. Unfortunately, current methods like cognitive behavioral therapy, or nicotine patches, have proven to be less than optimal (Gollust, Schroeder & Warner, 2008). While the prevailing approaches to smoking cessation may not deliver adequate results, it may be possible to improve their success rates by adding complimentary treatments (Bock at al, 2010). Bock and colleagues (2010) propose that the reductions in stress, increased self-efficacy and improved well-being derived from yoga participation can make it an effective complimentary treatment for smoking cessation programs. Their forecast was authenticated by a 2011 study which established that practicing Hatha yoga decreased nicotine cravings during smoking cessation (Elibero, Van Rensburg, & Drobes, 2011). Naturally, one of the most significant roadblocks to long-term success for smokers is to overcome the cravings brought on by nicotine addiction. A randomized trial by Bock and colleagues (2012) evaluated the effectiveness of twice per week sessions of Vinyasa yoga over an eight week period (Bock et al, 2012). Their study concluded that the women in the Vinyasa yoga group had a greater rate of abstinence than the other groups studied (Bock et al, 2012). Certainly, more research needs to be done to explore the potential application of yoga on tobacco cessation. Still, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that yoga may be a useful, complimentary treatment to assist smokers who would like to quit.

Work related stress and anxiety pose significant risks to workforce health and productivity (Wolever et al 2012). Abnormally high stress levels increase the likelihood that an employee will experience heart disease, fatigue, obesity, and cancer (Wolever et al, 2012). Although most employers offer stress management and counseling services through their EAP (employee assistance program) programs, only a minute fraction of workers take advantage of this benefit. Moreover, many employees fail to seek assistance with stress and anxiety either because they are unaware of the problem or the stigma associated with counseling prevents them from seeking care. Often, those who suffer from stress and anxiety only notice physical symptoms like headache, neck tension, or eye strain (Gura, 2002). Yet, they fail to make the connection between the symptoms and the root cause: stress. Unfortunately, attention to mental health education and awareness in the workplace is inadequate (Gura, 2002).

Consequently, workplace wellness professionals must seek effective strategies to curtail the detrimental effects of stress on workers.

Yoga is a tool that can enable workers to cope with stress more effectively by quieting the mind (McCall, 2007, p. 51). Often, when stressful situations arise, the racing mind can become our worst enemy; however, yoga practice can help reduce mental fluctuations and “turn the mind into an ally” (McCall, 2007, p. 51). Furthermore, regular yoga practice provides the practitioner with a healthier perspective, which enables them to cope with trivial matters more easily (McCall, 2007, p. 51). A 2012 study by Wolever and colleagues confirmed that a workplace yoga intervention could significantly reduce stress levels and improve sleep patterns. The participants in their yoga intervention also exhibited improvements in breathing rate and heart rhythm as well (Wolever et al, 1012). In addition, the combination of yoga asanas and meditation can also serve as a preventative measure by mitigating the impact that stress has on employees who have yet to experience symptoms.

In other words, yoga is not only an effective cure; it can also serve as a strong preventative measure as well (Tekur et al, 2012). Given the dismal rate of participation in current workplace stress management interventions, it seems evident that the addition of yoga could attract individuals who need assistance yet are not compelled to access EAP services due to social stigma or other reasons.

Back pain is a pervasive problem for many employers. Although it is difficult to make a definitive estimate, the combination of direct and indirect costs associated with back pain are “enormous” (Mannion et al, 2009). Employers bear the costs from both lost time injury from back pain and decreased productivity attributable to physical limitations as well (Mannion et al, 2009). Not to mention, many employees who suffer from back pain work at sub-optimal levels of productivity regularly. Back pain is the second most common reason for visiting the physician and the most common reason for seeking the services of a chiropractor (McCall, 2007, p. 188). In a recent study of nearly three thousand employees, Mannion and colleagues (2009) found that 43% of respondents claimed to have suffered from low back pain. Over 25% of those individuals reported that they were less productive because of their low back issues. Furthermore, 27% of the group having back pain stated that their back pain required them to take additional time off from their jobs (Mannion et al, 2009). Without a doubt, back pain has an immeasurable impact on workers and employers when considering both financial and quality of life costs associated with the condition.

Back pain is a complex problem that has baffled traditional medicinal practitioners (McCall, 2007, p. 189). The countless causes of back pain, whether from an injury, postural defect, or muscle weakness make diagnosis and treatment extremely problematic (McCall, 2007, p. 189). Moreover, there is growing consensus that many cases of back pain have mind-body components due to psychological issues like stress or anxiety (McCall, 2007, p. 188,190). The poor success rate of conventional treatment leads many patients to elect surgical options to manage their pain (McCall, 2007, p. 189).

Sadly, surgical treatments often come with grave consequences and usually fail to achieve satisfactory results (McCall, 2009, p. 189). Given the risk to benefit ratio of established treatments, back pain patients would be wise to consider more holistic options. Without doubt, finding less invasive treatments for back pain would be in the best interest of employers as well.

Tekur and colleagues (2012) studied the impact of a comprehensive yoga program on patients with chronic low-back pain. Surprisingly, they found that the majority of participants experienced significant relief from back-pain with just seven days of yoga therapy (Tekur et al, 2012).

Symptoms of anxiety and depression, which are common among patients with chronic pain also improved (Tekur at al, 2012). The authors concluded that the yoga intervention produced equal or superior results to typical treatments such as traditional exercise, physical therapy, and counseling (Tekur et al, 2012). Like previous studies, Tekur and colleagues (2012) establishes that yoga reduces pathological levels of stress and anxiety while improving mood. However, this study moves one step further by suggesting that “yoga has the ability to reverse the interlinked, downward spiral, whereby chronic lower back pain causes depression, which gives rise to further back pain, resulting in increased depression and so on…” The authors postulate that yoga therapy resolves chronic stress, anxiety and depression, thus breaking the cycle of chronic pain (Tekur et al, 2012).

Poor posture and tight or weak muscles can place undue strain on the spine, thus causing back pain (McCall, 2007, p. 190-192). However, a delicate balance must be maintained between the various postural muscles to ensure proper alignment and curvature of the spine (McCall, 2007, p. 190-191).

The traditional medical approach is to encourage strengthening of the abdominal muscles (McCall, 2007, p.191). Unfortunately, this generic prescription only benefits a small portion of patients, while others require stretching of tight muscles or strengthening of the weak muscles (McCall, 2007, p.191). Yoga practice offers a well-rounded approach that addresses all potential muscle groups and may be customized to fit specific needs (McCall, 2007, p.191). With the combination of warm-up, asanas, breathing exercises, and meditation, yoga serves as an effective and versatile therapy to remedy tight muscles, weak muscles and postural issues that contribute to back pain (McCall, 2007, 190-192).

Although it is not widely reported, there is growing consensus that many cases of back pain are not caused by true pathological changes in the spine or related tissues (Schubiner, 2010, p. 8). Physical examination and imaging tests, like the MRI reveal that only a small portion of back pain patients actually display any physical damage capable of explaining the patients pain (Schubiner, 2010, p. 11). There is a great deal of evidence which suggests that a mind-body syndrome may be responsible for a significant number of back pain cases (Schubiner, 2010, p. 11). In other words, there is a strong psychological connection to chronic back pain. Although there is disagreement about the precise nature of mind body syndromes, many experts contend that emotions such as anger, stress, and dissatisfaction may create muscle spasms, tightness and/or poor posture, which exacerbates or even causes the pain (McCall, 2007, p. 190). Fortunately, yoga effectively address many of the issues that are attributed to mind body syndromes, like stress, anxiety, tight muscles, and lack of body awareness (McCall, 2007, p. 190). A survey of five-hundred back pain patients, conducted by Dava Sobel discovered that patients regarded yoga as the most effective treatment available when compared to surgery, acupuncture, muscle relaxing agents, anti-inflammatories, chiropractors, and other treatments (McCall, 2007, p. 193).

The extensive range of objectives facing workplace wellness professionals creates a formidable challenge of determining how best to utilize scarce resources. Unfortunately, the generalized, “one size fits all” approaches used in many wellness programs have proven to be ineffective (Mazzocchi, Traill, & Shogren, 2009) (McCall, 2007, p. 189). Therefore, a more strategic approach is required to reach a larger portion of the work force. Of course, there are no magic bullets to make workers practice healthier habits. However, thoughtful planning with more valuable program offerings can go a long way toward making the difference between having an average wellness program and one that truly has an impact on people’s lives, while saving money and increasing productivity. Given the significant body of evidence, yoga therapy offers wellness professional a multi-dimensional tool that can be used to prevent or treat a surprisingly wide variety of ailments. Furthermore, it is inexpensive and simple to implement. While is still remains to be seen how many workers will be compelled to take part in yoga, making the opportunity available is a step in the right direction.

Doug Galligan is a Certified Personal Trainer and Health Club Manager with over 20 years of experience in the fitness industry. You can visit his site at: http://www.personaltrainerpros.com

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Tekur, P., Nagarathna, R., Chametcha, S., Hankey, A., & Nagendra, H. (2012). A comprehensive yoga programs improves pain, anxiety and depression in chronic low back pain patients more than exercise: an RCT. Complementary Therapies In Medicine, 20(3), 107-118.

Submitted by:

  • Name: Doug Galligan
  • Date: 11/11/13 at 08:18
  • Email: wolferlabc@yahoo.com
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