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Meditation Rooms Offer Employees a Refuge From Stresses of the Workplace

Work & Careers | Human Resources

November 22, 1998|AMY JOYCE | Amy Joyce writes for the Washington Post

The phone is ringing, bosses are hovering and the deadline is just about here.

You can't prioritize, your muscles are tense, and all you can think about is how awful it all is. If only you could escape, maybe you could get it all together.

Companies including Bethesda, Md.-based Acacia Life Insurance Co. and New York City's PT & Co. realized a need for mending the worker's soul, and both provide that escape in the form of a meditation room.

When Acacia Life Insurance moved into a new headquarters last year, the company decided there should be a spot where workers could go to be alone for a little while. The dimly lighted room, with soothing paintings, comfortable chairs and a couch--and, most important, no phones--serves as a meditation spot where employees can give themselves a "timeout," said Mary Alice Mezenwerth, manager of Acacia's health services.

"Stress can cause a lot of physical symptoms," she said. It can increase allergy symptoms and blood pressure and cause stomach problems, among other things. "And when you have high stress at work, it can spill over into the home."

Stress also causes a decrease in productivity, Mezenwerth said. "It's hard to focus on the job when you're focusing on the stress."

Although Mezenwerth doesn't know how many of the 850 employees have used the room, she said, she sees the door to the room closed at various times at least every other day. The company is known as a markedly progressive employer, and it was listed as one of the 100 best employers for working mothers this year by Working Mother magazine.

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The National Safety Council estimates that 1 million employees are absent on an average workday because of stress-related problems. The World Health Organization described job stress as a "worldwide epidemic." A 1992 United Nations report called job stress "the 20th century disease." In 1973, almost 40% of workers reported being "extremely satisfied" with their jobs. Today, fewer than 25% fall into that category, according to the American Institute of Stress.

Laura Pierron, benefits director for Acacia, has used the meditation room a few times. "You can go in, close the doors, lie down, think things through and calm down," she said. Pierron said she has used the room at a time when the phones were ringing and she needed a break "before I started snapping at people."

"All companies are under the gun to provide some sort of stress-reduction program," said Paul J. Rosch, president of the American Institute of Stress and a professor of medicine and psychiatry at New York Medical College. He suggests that workplaces conduct a "stress audit"--a survey of what employees find to be most stressful in their work environment. Then, he said, make a list of the stresses and take action in a way that will be not only "cost-effective for the company, but also an improvement for the employee."

PT & Co., a public relations firm in New York, moved into new offices about four years ago. The owners wanted something that would "promote creativity," said Ellen LaNicca Albanese, the company's president. So PT & Co. decided to turn a large, window-walled area into its meditation room.

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The room--with large pillows, soothing paintings and a water garden--is near the back corner of PT's space, away from the noise of the open office. Meditation tapes and books are available for the more than half of their 35 employees who use the room.

One employee, Johanna Flattery, said she uses the room when the company sponsors a meditation leader to conduct a scheduled program, usually about once a week. And she also uses it on a personal level. "I find the room very calming and soothing," she said. "It gives me a place to release. There have been times when I've been paralyzed at my desk. That's when I go in there."

Herbert H. Rozoff, spokesman for Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based outplacement consulting firm, said perquisites such as meditation rooms are necessary in today's stressful work environment. Employees are looking to relieve the "pressure that comes from a thinner work force," he said, and "if they have a room to duck away in for a few minutes, that's probably the most important thing today, even versus an extra dollar in the paycheck."

John Frazier, chief operating officer of PT & Co., uses the meditation room just about every day. "The PR business can be extremely stressful," he said. A part-owner of the company, he said he designed the space with everyone in mind.

"As a company, we're really trying to create a workplace that is nurturing for employees," he said.

For the small agency, competition with the bigger public relations firms can be rough. But sometimes, he said, "a nurturing environment can be worth a lot more than money."

Jasmin Case, the accounting supervisor, felt that the nurturing environment was worth a lot, especially when she was pregnant. "I would get tired and really stressed out," she said. "But I would go into the meditation room, sit on the pillow, close my eyes for about 10 minutes, and it was like a whole load came off of me."

At first glance, the meditation room seems "a little 'out there' on many levels," Flattery said, "but people are drawn to it."

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