Harvard Uses Mindfulness Approach to Reduce Stress, Improve Campus Mental Health

Posted By Eliana Osborn on May 13, 2016 at 9:03 am
Harvard Uses Mindfulness Approach to Reduce Stress, Improve Campus Mental Health

Take the essential elements of meditation but simplify it for a wide audience, and you can begin to understand the concept of mindfulness. Psychology Today defines it as “awakening to experience;” a way of being open and attentive to the present rather than occupied with worries about the past or future. Chronic stress, in particular, is a major health concern for companies and college campuses alike, and a focus of Mental Health Awareness Month this May.

What was once a fringe wellness concept has become mainstream as research is backing up claims of how mindfulness can have all sorts of benefits. Mindfulness isn’t just a personal activity or approach; today, companies around the globe are training employees in mindfulness and trying to incorporate such principles into their practices.

Harvard University is a recent advocate of mindfulness, implementing an atypical stress management program. Employees at top universities like Harvard are not immune from such stresses. There’s a financial cost to businesses when staff is experiencing high stress or long-term stressors, as well as the personal costs. Missed days, decreased productivity, medical expenses, and employee turnover are all associated with chronic stress. The American Psychological Association (APA) estimates one million employees miss work each day because of stress.

Harvard launched its mindfulness program in 2012, aware of the many who would be doubtful of such an approach. The aims were simple—unify the campus, which has many disparate staff parts, and help employees deal with stress even if it hadn’t reached clinical problem level yet. Nancy Costikyan, director of the Office for Work/Life worked with Jeanne Mahon, director of the Center for Wellness to implement the program. Mahon teaches Koru Mindfulness at Harvard, a specific program designed for college students and their peers. The Harvard staff program was named Mindfulness at Work, offering seven hours of training for those interested.

Initially, Mindfulness at Work was incredibly popular with courses filling rapidly. According to reporting from Mindful magazine, “the team had an initial goal, over a three-year period, of getting 10% of central administration to go through the course, and they exceeded that goal.” Today, they are working to make the program more flexible and responsive, like by offering classes geared to specific campus departments.

Mindfulness at Work is run through Harvard’s Office of the Executive Vice President. This commitment from top leadership is one reason the program has found success. From their website, M@W is described as, “providing employees in Central Administration with new tools to manage stress and increase personal resilience.”

Similarly, many colleges and universities are offering meditation or mindfulness training to students as part of wellness initiatives. Research has shown benefits in physical and mental health, as well as pain reduction and lowered stress. With concerns about mental health issues growing, mindfulness programs are a proactive way for schools to combat problems.

Research in the journal Personality and Individual Differences found college students handled failure better if they practiced mindfulness; they bounced back more easily and retained self-confidence despite the challenges.

Dozens of companies are taking advantage of this wave interest in mindfulness to specifically target workplaces. The benefits for leaders, as well as regular workers, may be worth the investment of time and funds in a competitive business market. Research has found greater self-confidence for trained leaders, as well as a greater ability to inspire others to share a common vision.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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