Stressed Out At Work? How to Train Your Brain to Fix It
Around the age of 40, executive Joe Burton was experiencing what he calls “unhappiness at full speed.” He lost two siblings at young ages, wrenched his back, and suffered from insomnia. He served as a COO at several multibillion dollar companies and was finding great success in his career, but he was burning out – quickly. Stress was killing him, if not literally, then certainly in terms of his mental well-being and productivity.
According to the World Health Organization, stress costs businesses in the United States around $300 billion per year, in terms of absenteeism, employee turnover, and in losses of productivity. According to the University of Massachusetts Lowell, health care expenditures are 50% higher for employees who report high levels of stress, and absenteeism can cost large U.S. companies around $3.6 million each year. Another analysis shows high levels of stress contributes to at least 120,000 deaths in the U.S. each year and health care costs of $125 to $190 billion.
To ease that burden on himself and on others, Burton decided to take a step back from the traditional executive sphere and instead focus on technology that could help people in similar situations. For Burton, that meant focusing on mindfulness. “There are literally thousands of studies correlating mindfulness training across a wide array of health and performance benefits,” Burton said in an interview with The Cheat Sheet. According to Burton, the average person spends about 47% of their time with their mind wandering, thinking about the past, worrying about the future, or focusing on regrets or anxieties. The brain follows established patterns, meaning over time it grows more ingrained to accept those distractions.
“Most of us are training ourselves to be incredibly good worriers, or not being able to sleep, or not being able to have good relationships,” Burton explained. Practicing mindfulness is a way to combat that, without any “woo-woo” nonsense, as Burton calls it. Mindfulness isn’t oddball chants tied to the mystical or spiritual. “It’s brain training, pure and simple,” he said.
With mindfulness training, Burton eased his back pain and restored his ability to get a good night’s sleep. Mindfulness is also tied to relieving symptoms of PTSD, addictions, and can even have biometric effects like lowering blood pressure. With that in mind, Burton founded Whil (pronounced “will”), a company that provides mindfulness exercises for employees and individuals who are looking to relieve the stress in their lives. It’s geared toward driven professionals who “know they’re not going to slow down but also need help,” Burton explained.
Mindfulness at work
Whil has three main branches. Now is geared toward adults, both in professional and personal capacities, and leads people through mindfulness and yoga exercises with videos created by trained experts. Grow is a similar platform, but is designed for teenagers. Burton said to his knowledge, Whil’s program is the first of its kind for teens. “Happiness begins at home, but so does stress,” he said. The goal of Grow is to equip teenagers to handle stress appropriately, before ingraining stress patterns into their lives. A third branch, Search Inside Yourself, is based on the book written by former Google engineer Chade-Meng Tan. Those sessions, also all online, provide employees with emotional intelligence lessons and ways to improve leadership and teamwork through the lens of mindfulness.
“The beauty of our program is everything was mapped against the leading causes of diseases and was made for the individual,” Burton said. An employee can log into their company-sponsored account when they’re having a particularly difficult time focusing, or can log on if they’re experiencing the death of a loved one.
“The thing I’m excited about is the teachers that we’re working with are really world class – the content we’ve created is just amazing,” Burton said. Once you sign up, you can search for meditations or yoga sessions based on how you’re feeling, what you’d like to accomplish (become more aware, connect with others, experience gratitude, etc.), and how long you have. Some sessions are just one minute, others are about 10 minutes or so. Mindfulness and yoga both have introductory lessons, followed by a library of hundreds of videos based around certain goals.
The “ground swell” of interest around the topic of mindfulness has really made a difference in the last few years, Burton said, but individuals and companies will have a number of reasons for trying it. Individuals might want to become more productive or alleviate stressors, while companies may want to lower their health care burdens by meeting the needs of their employees. “Different people are interested in creating new habits for different reasons,” Burton said. Whil is optimized to work on a desktop or a mobile device using headphones. “For us, we think mobile devices are the best stress-delivering mechanism ever invented,” Burton said. In this case, the devices that often cause the most distractions can also be the vehicle for stress relief.