[Paleopsych] NYT: Working Long Hours? Take a Massage Break, Courtesy of Your Boss
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Tue Sep 7 15:53:47 UTC 2004
Working Long Hours? Take a Massage Break, Courtesy of Your Boss
New York Times, 4.9.7
By BENEDICT CAREY
Through the tropics of mid-August, Michael Maccari, a men's
clothing executive, was at it 10 to 12 hours a day,
fretting over the details of an imminent holiday shipment
to stores, the fittings for the spring 2005 lines and the
designs for next fall - three seasons, three sets of
But right now, at lunch hour on a Wednesday, the deadlines
were dissolving beneath a gentle tide of deep breathing.
Dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, Mr. Maccari joined 14
colleagues who were arrayed across the floor of a large
conference room, holding the downward-facing-dog position,
an upside-down V, with their rear ends in the air, arms and
legs straight, as if they were playing a game of Twister.
"Think of something you can let go of," said the yoga
instructor, Margi Young. "Something, or some way, you could
be doing less."
The company, Armani Exchange, offers this yoga and
meditation class free to help employees relax, reduce
stress and recharge during the middle of the week. Similar
classes are now familiar in workplaces across the country,
from old-line firms like AT&T to New Economy outfits like
Yahoo. About 20 percent of employers have some kind of
dedicated stress-reduction program in place, surveys find,
and corporate spending has helped fuel what is an
$11.7-billion-a-year-and-growing stress management
industry, according to estimates by Marketdata Enterprises,
a market analyst in Tampa, Fla.
But as the menu of techniques expands to include not only
chair and table massages but practices like tai chi, feng
shui ("wind and water") and energy dances, the trend has
prompted some experts to ask how effective the popular
programs are, and whose interests they serve. They wonder
if the effects are lasting or just provide a brief break in
an ever-longer day. And wouldn't some employees really
prefer a raise to a massage?
Researchers are finding, among other things, that the
benefits of stress reduction programs are generally
short-lasting, and may be as useful to a demanding employer
as they are to stressed-out workers.
All agree that, in part, the courses have sprung up in
reaction to the enormous shifts in the nature of work
itself, the kaleidoscopic flow of electronic information,
the way work obligations have pushed like a climbing vine
into almost every corner of private life.
"The sheer diversity of hours people are working is just
startling," said Dr. Harriet Presser, a University of
Maryland sociologist whose book "Working in a 24/7 Economy"
(Russell Sage Foundation, 2003) explores the social and
physical effects of commercial activity that depends on
people working at all hours of the day and night.
"For some people, like dual wage earners with kids," she
added, "the sleep deprivation adds to the stress and it's
like they are never, ever away" from work.
But researchers say companies' interest in stress gurus and
breathing lessons has as much to do with pushing workers as
it does with real, sustained stress reduction. The programs
took off in the expanding economy of the late 1990's,
experts say, when the labor market was tight, and workers'
compensation suits claiming damage from stress were on the
"These stress programs were a part of the concierge
services that companies were using at that time so that
employees didn't notice how many hours they were working,"
said Dr. Peter Cappelli, a professor of management and
director of the Center for Human Resources at Wharton
School of Business in Philadelphia, "and they held over
It does not take an M.B.A. to understand why. After his
hour of yoga and meditation, Mr. Maccari said: "It's not
that different from going to therapy, the way I see it. It
takes one hour of your time, and youre mind is clear, and
you approach the rest of the day in a completely different
Meditation usually makes people feel, well, meditative. The
downward-facing dog certainly beats jumping like a circus
dog for a demanding boss. For those who like it,
acupuncture can be a godsend. And even lobsters relax when
given a massage (their eye stalks go limp).
Dr. Lawrence Murphy, a psychologist at the National
Institute of Occupational Safety and Health who has done
extensive reviews of the research, says studies of
workplace stress reduction typically pick up the immediate
effect of the technique in question. Massages relieves
stress when stress is determined by measuring muscle
tightness. Meditation appears psychologically soothing when
people are answering questionnaires about how calm they
feel after the classes.
In a 2001 analysis of 48 studies of occupational stress
reduction programs, Dutch researchers came to the same
conclusion: Courses teaching meditation, acceptance and
letting go provide mild relief, at least in terms of what
participants report after having taken the classes.
But the effects are short-lived, said Dr. Murphy, unless
people make the yoga or meditation a part of a regular, or
even daily, routine, and ideally combine it with some other
activity, like jogging or massage.
For anyone with a spare hour or two in the day, or who is
living comfortably off interest income, this regimen might
make sense. For those whose daily lives demand a mental
jujitsu with competing appointments and deadlines, however,
a tai chi class becomes just that: another appointment,
"I love the yoga class, but I just can't get to it anymore;
I'm running all day," said Wendy Rothman, a public
relations officer at Armani Exchange.
Time is what most stressed people crave, of course, and
this is where mind-body relaxation techniques can backfire.
While a lunchtime course may add quiet space to a workday,
it can also prime people to put in longer hours. John
Sheehey, a business consultant based near San Francisco,
had acupuncture for six months while working long hours in
"Finally, my acupuncturist said, 'Hey, all I'm doing is
tuning you up so you can keep running longer.' I think if
your tendency is to be a workaholic, it just enables you to
do that. If stress is a warning system that you're about to
burn out, all you're doing is overriding it so you can stay
in the game."
Some providers of stress reduction services acknowledge
this effect, said Holden Zalma, the chief executive of
Metatouch, a massage therapy practice in Culver City,
Calif., whose clients have included Earthlink, eToys and
other technology companies.
"We got them all addicted to massage in the 90's; it was
wonderful," he said. "But we were very clear that we were
not going to fix the stress problem, we were only going to
The one workplace stress-reduction technique that seems to
outperform all others in preventing the buildup of stress -
rather than reducing symptoms temporarily - is a form of
counseling called cognitive therapy. In these classes,
people learn to challenge the sort of assumptions about
their work (that every assignment must be perfect, for
instance, or that they must impress everyone) that
unnecessarily amplify the pressure they are already getting
from people around them. In 18 studies, including more than
850 people working in a wide variety of jobs, from hospital
cleaners to telecom workers, this kind of counseling has
significantly reduced work complaints, sometimes in as few
as six sessions of training.
But there is a catch. The counseling has been tested almost
exclusively among the sorts of workers who have some
control over their own schedules, like bankers, engineers
and other professionals.
When it comes to job stress, control over one's work may be
the most important factor, said Dr. Peter L. Schnall of the
Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at the
University of California at Irvine. Dr. Schnall and others
have shown that the workers most likely to develop high
blood pressure are those who work under deadlines with
little control over what the workday will bring, like bus
drivers on heavily traveled routes or nurses in frantic
In one study, of 195 New York men followed for three years,
Dr. Schnall found that people in these "high strain" jobs
had significantly increased blood pressure during work and
at home compared with men in less stressful jobs.
"When people have some say over how and when their job is
done,'' he said, "when they are able to learn new things on
the job, when they are able to improve their skills and see
them improving, these are the things that are most
important" in managing strain.
These are also the very properties that most people
associate with a satisfying job. By contrast, the 50-some
studies of on-site stress reduction programs show little
effect on job satisfaction, Dr. Murphy said.
"Turnover, employee absenteeism, commitment to the
organization, pride at work - there's no good evidence that
any of those things are affected" by mind-body techniques,
he said. "It's not rocket science. If you're still
overworked, still have a supervisor who doesn't support you
and is making all kinds of demands, you're going to be
Perhaps the most stressful of all jobs is the one that
might soon be gone. Companies hoping to ease employees
through layoffs or restructuring with meditation, tai chi
or other mind-body techniques are serving weak tea to
people in need of Scotch, say organizational psychologists
who study plant closings and downsizing.
Rare is the employee who is going to spend the middle of
the day chanting like a monk when fighting to keep his or
In these circumstances, researchers find that what best
keeps stress levels in check is telling employees as
clearly and quickly as possible who is being laid off and
why, and offering meaningful benefits, like help in finding
another job, generous severance payments and psychotherapy
"Everything else is window dressing," said Dr. James
Campbell Quick, a stress researcher at the University of
Texas at Arlington who helped advise the military in
closing Kelly Air Force base in San Antonio, which employed
The skeptic's view of stress management, said Dr. Samuel
Culbert, a professor of human resources and organization at
the University of California at Los Angeles, is that the
programs are a cheap diversion from the real problems,
which companies and managers themselves are creating.
"Human resources departments hypothetically have a fabulous
role to play in bridging the gap between employees who want
to do well at work and managers who want them to do well,"
Dr. Culbert said. "But once you hear about stress programs
for employees, you have to start wondering whose interest
is being represented."
Certainly, many of those who teach stress-management
classes know this story from both sides. Often
self-employed and formerly in stressful jobs themselves,
they are entirely at the whim of their clients, and their
services are among the first to be cut when management
changes or times are tough.
"Once the economy started dying down after 2000," said Mr.
Zalma, "we were the first to go. We had to transform the
business entirely, to treat injuries and pain."
In this economy, stress managers need stress management
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