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Is Work Isolation Adding to Our Sick Days?

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Yoga session at Shanti Yoga.

Researchers have been studying the effects of loneliness and isolation on our physical health for years. In fact, the University of Chicago Medical Center conducted a study on mice in 2009 that showed negative social isolation to have connections to altered gene expression, a phenomenon that is linked to tumor growth. Further studies published in Science Magazine suggest that social isolation has a broad range of negative health effects, the most notable being on the brain and cardiovascular system. Social isolation increases stress on the heart and lowers the immune system, putting people at higher risk of illness and disease, and it is shown to have mortality rates that rival those of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and even smoking.

The detrimental effects of social isolation are becoming better known, but the occurrence of social isolation itself may be a lot more prevalent in our workplaces than we realize.

Social isolation can result from a number of causes, including maternity leave, sick leave, conditions that leave employees working independently in rooms or cubicles, tense working conditions that don’t allow employees the opportunity to connect outside the constraints of the boardroom, and even from discrimination.

“There are negative impacts on mental health that come from any unhealthy working conditions. Isolation from others and unwarranted behavioral restrictions increase the stress people experience,” explains George Lucki, psychologist and partner at ARCH Psychological Services. “Stress is cumulative, and so any unhealthy work condition adds to the other stress that is present.”

ARCH Psychological Services has been an established clinical psychology practice for close to 30 years with local offices in Edmonton and St. Albert.

“We know that we are experiencing an excess of stress when we experience greater levels of anxiety, frustration, or other sustained arousal, when it interferes with sleep, relationships, or leads to increased reliance on unhealthy coping mechanisms (alcohol, changes in food intake),” describes Lucki. “Ultimately, an excess of stress over a period of time runs people down and makes them sick.”

When stress-related illnesses begin to occur, says Lucki, it is important to assess where they are coming from. “Work conditions that only address productivity without considering health and wellbeing are likely to cost both employers and employees. Creating healthier workplaces is a win-win. It improves staff productivity, well-being (reduction of absences), and employee retention.

“Individuals do differ in their capacity to handle different levels of stress, and each person could develop their skills to manage stress to some extent, but for every individual there is a level of stress beyond which there are only increasingly negative impacts, both on performance and health.

“Even when workplace conditions are difficult due to factors beyond the employer and employee’s control, it is always important to assess and respond to concerns, to monitor impact on individuals, and to make available appropriate supports. This is best done collaboratively with input from both employers and employees, and if needed, consultation with human resource or organizational psychology professionals.

“Human resources are exceedingly valuable, and investing in staff health pays dividends – great staff give any business an edge. The issue of creating healthy workplaces is a huge opportunity for businesses (and for workers) to improve productivity, gain advantage, develop, and retain staff. There is the potential to positively impact society as a whole by reducing the personal and healthcare costs that arise from stress-related conditions that are, to a great extent, preventable.”

Stress and isolation prevention in the workplace has also contributed to the success of other businesses in the Edmonton area. Many yoga studios and businesses alike are noticing the benefits of introducing corporate yoga into their daily routines.

As Melanie Checknita, owner, senior teacher and trainer at Yoga Within describes, yoga provides a level of self-care that can not only help the body to replenish, but can also enable the body and mind to better handle the stresses that are put on us by our work lives.

“We need to learn to treat ourselves with kindness, and that will transfer out into our daily lives, melting stress away and enabling us to learn better coping strategies,” explains Checknita. “We tend to wear it like a badge of honour that we don’t have time for ourselves, but it’s like they tell you on an airplane: you need to take the time to put your own mask on first. By looking after yourself, you are better equipping yourself to deal with life’s stresses.”

Checknita has been running her Edmonton studio for close to 10 years and has made overall wellbeing a primary focus.

“What’s important is breathing, moving the body in a way that allows you to pay attention to your breath, and giving yourself time to just breathe,” says Checknita as she quotes Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness. “We need to learn that ‘Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts’.”

Our psychological stresses directly impact our ability to breathe, Checknita explains, “Look at the way someone is sitting or standing. People who are hunched over and closed in at the heart are feeling disconnected and closed off, and when they close themselves off physically, it closes off the chest area.

“When we aren’t mindful of our breathing, it tends to mean our bodies are in pain and discomfort, or our minds are not present. We can’t change the past, and we don’t know from one breath to the next what is going to happen tomorrow, but we can teach ourselves the skills of how to be in the moment.”

“Yoga studios are social places, too,” Checknita adds. “They create a sense of community for people to come and feel welcome and not isolated.”

That environment can be incorporated directly into the workplace with corporate yoga.

“Yoga creates a mental as well as a physical space for healing,” agrees Rene Johnson, owner of Shanti Yoga. “Being collectively with people, breathing together and moving together, is good for the mental health as well as for productivity.”

“There is collective energy in yoga,” explains Johnson, who has been running Shanti Yoga for 11 years. “Sitting in a boardroom with people who don’t want to be there creates a lot of negative energy. Plus, fluorescent lights are draining energetically. When we are in isolation, it can affect us on emotional as well as physical levels. Our bodies get tight and sore and weak, but isolation causes chemical reactions in our brains, too. We become depressed and lonely.

“When our nervous systems are in fight or flight response, our digestion slows down, hormone production slows down—any bodily functions that aren’t necessary slow down, and everything else heightens up. We get jumpy and tense, dry mouths and dilated pupils. “Stress builds, layer upon layer upon layer, until the body breaks down under it.”

Johnson says, “The main solution is to take time for yourself. Even if it’s locking yourself in the bathroom or hiding under your desk, there are ways to find space and take time for yourself.”

Of course, employers can make a huge difference simply by providing spaces for employees to go when they start feeling overwhelmed as a result of isolation or stress: “Offering a room to go to when employees are in need is a start, but employers can also have yoga instructors come in to teach. Doing something as small as encouraging meditation, or even just encouraging people to take breaks can go a long way,” Johnson stresses.

“It really is the best thing for businesses to do,” Checknita concludes. “Even if it’s just a 45 minute lunchtime class, it can get people moving and connecting to others around them, and that’s the best gift an employer can give.”

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