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Relaxing the Rules: More Companies Embrace Meditation : Businesses say the at-work sessions make for happier employees, increased productivity-- even higher profits.

June 05, 1995|JANE E. STEVENS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Every afternoon, office manager Janet Atwood leaves her desk, walks into a quiet room, closes the door and spends 20 minutes meditating. Her boss, Encino physician Phil Lichtenfield, can't accuse her of nodding off on the job. He approved the rest break.

At about the same time Atwood is closing the door, Montague Guild, founder of Guild Investment Management Inc., is sitting down in the conference room of his Malibu office with the company's chief operating officer and one of the firm's analysts for 20 minutes of meditation.

Almost everybody in this country could use a rest in the afternoon, according to the National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research. The group said in a 1992 report that Americans get 20% less sleep today than 100 years ago.

Combine the national lack of sleep with people's normal circadian rhythms that cause eyelids to droop in midafternoon, and the result is cranky, inefficient workers who often make bad decisions. A case in point is the sleep-deprived third mate who ran the Exxon Valdez aground in 1989.

Some companies, such as Omni Health Care, a health insurance company in Sacramento, recommend napping as a way of improving health. That's a great idea for employees who have private offices. But those who work in the open can't unroll a mat next to their desks and pretend they're in nursery school.

Although history is replete with notable nappers--Winston Churchill, Louis Armstrong, John F. Kennedy and Thomas Edison among them--U.S. corporations aren't likely to adopt the siestas of other cultures or turn closets into napping rooms.

However, some businesses have recently begun to recommend that their employees meditate twice a day, in the belief that the benefits of meditation improve a company's bottom line. If some of the early results prove solid in the long run, companies may be setting aside meditation rooms.

The method of deep relaxation became popular in the United States more than 30 years ago when transcendental meditation was introduced in this country by a Hindu teacher named Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Transcendental refers to the intense, or extraordinary, concentration achieved by repeating a meaningless sound.

The benefits of meditation have most often been touted as personal. Scientific studies have demonstrated that meditating twice a day for 20 minutes lowers stress, cholesterol and blood pressure levels. Many physicians, including Lichtenfield, who began meditating in medical school 20 years ago, prescribe it for patients with high blood pressure. People who meditate have been able to reduce the amount of medication they take or stop using it altogether, he said.

But R.W. (Buck) Montgomery found meditation improved the health of his company. He instituted it at his Detroit chemical manufacturing firm in 1983. Within three years, he said, 52 of the company's 70 workers--ranging from upper management to production line employees--were meditating for 20 minutes before they came to work and 20 minutes in the afternoon, on company time.

Over the next three years, absenteeism fell by 85%, productivity rose 120%, quality control rose 240%, injuries dropped 70%, sick days fell by 76%, and profit soared 520%, Montgomery said.

He attributes the improvements entirely to the meditation exercises, which relieved stress and made the company's employees more relaxed, he said.

"As a result, people enjoyed their work, they were more creative and more productive," he said. "I tell companies, 'If you do this, you'll get a return on your investment in one year.' "

Montgomery, who sold the company in 1987 and retired, has spent the last six months promoting the benefits of meditation in the workplace to more than 70 companies nationwide. He's working with the Transcendental Meditation Program, an Iowa-based group dedicated to promoting meditation. He says about a dozen companies have begun meditation programs and that another 50 will begin pilot programs by the end of the year.

Paul Worland, president of Real Estate Development Services, an engineering company in Woodland Hills, meditates on company time, as do three of his employees.

"People are a lot more focused and friendly" after meditating, he said. "And in that atmosphere of focus and friendliness, we get a lot more done."

Meditating is not like napping, he said. "In a nap, you're completely out. With meditating, you're wide awake, and you feel a level of clarity much greater than before or after a nap. It enlivens the central nervous system. You feel revitalized. It doesn't take the place of sleep, but over the long run, it seems to reduce the need for sleep."

Puritan-Bennett Corp., which produces respiratory care and other medical equipment in Kansas City, Kan., started a pilot program in 1993 that compared 38 people who meditated to 38 who didn't.

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