Changing Hearts and (Anxious) Minds

By Ed Frauenheim

Nov. 21, 2008

During these days of economic anxiety, employees at insurance firm BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee may be a bit calmer than the average American worker, thanks to a stress-reduction program launched four years ago.

    The 4,500-employee firm has trained about a fifth of its workforce in the HeartMath system, an approach using biofeedback technology to help people calm their minds.

    Sharon Gilley, BlueCross Blue­Shield’s manager of organizational development, says the training is helping the firm’s employees make sound decisions even as workers nationwide face worries about reduced retirement accounts, higher costs of living and fears of a protracted global recession.

    “They sleep better, they feel better, they’re less irritated,” she says. “That tells me that they’re thinking better.”

    The financial crisis of the past few months has ratcheted up economic anxiety among American workers to severe levels, experts say. A recent poll by employee assistance program provider ComPsych found that 92 percent of employees say financial worries are keeping them up at night. Such stress can affect businesses in the form of employee health problems, retention troubles and decreased productivity.

    BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee is helping employees cope in a number of ways. CEO Vicky Gregg, for example, reassured workers in an October e-mail that the private, not-for-profit company is financially strong. The firm also gives employees access to massage therapy, an employee assistance program and personal health advocates who can address stress.

    And it is continuing the program from HeartMath, a Boulder Creek, California-based company that sells stress-relief tools to individuals and organizations. HeartMath’s system uses software and a heart monitor to help people learn to change their heart rhythm pattern and create physiological “coherence” in the body. Stress leads to an irregular, jagged pattern. But when people shift to a more positive emotional state, HeartMath says, the heart rhythm pattern becomes smoother and coherent.

“[Employees] sleep better, they feel better, they’re less irritated. That tells me that they’re thinking better.”
—Sharon Gilley, manager of organizational development,
BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee

    HeartMath CEO Bruce Cryer likens the benefits of the system to the way a healthy body builds resistance to catching a cold. Stress management, he says, “is trainable.”

    BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee has invested about $200,000 in the HeartMath system and has trained about 1,000 employees, including claims and customer service staff. According to BlueCross BlueShield’s initial projections, 1,000 employees practicing stress management would save the firm about $440,000 annually in reduced health care costs.

    Gilley says her organization plans to conduct a claims-data study to check on the actual health savings. Meanwhile, other results are promising. Last year, 311 employees were trained in the HeartMath system. In the wake of the training, the portion of those workers reporting that they were exhausted dropped from 35 percent to 17 percent. The share saying that they were anxious slipped from 22 percent to 9 percent.

    The stress-reduction program is not just helpful for today’s economic crisis, Gilley says. “Heart­Math tools give anyone under any specific stressors effective ways to deal with stress in the moment,” she says. “With regular practice, this is a benefit in all kinds of life’s stress.”

Workforce Management, November 17, 2008, p. 18Subscribe Now!

Ed Frauenheim is a former Associate Editorial Director at Human Capital Media and currently works as Senior Director of Content at Great Place to Work. He is a co-author of A Great Place to Work For All.

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