Mindful Ergonomics

Ergonomics March 6, 2018

Musings from the Ocean’s Floor –

Panic would kill me. There was no other conclusion to draw. At that moment, I was flat on my back on the ocean floor. The downward pressure from the giant waves crashing – somewhere directly above – was holding me fast, pinned to the bottom like a big, unyielding hand. Even lifting my head off the hard sand was impossible. To make matters worse, I was completely out of breath. Nothing coming in. Nothing going out. Some might say it was a seminal moment.

It was then the training kicked-in. Something deep in the recesses of my mind told me to “let go,” focus and release the tension in my entire body. Go limp. Go passive. Draw into yourself. Save waning energy. ‘This too shall pass.” And it did. There’s no way of knowing how long it took. Time isn’t measurable in life-or-death situations. In fact, it stands still.

But just as sure as it held, the pressure of the crashing waves above passed. Suddenly, I was light as air. So much so, I became able to calmly roll over and get both feet underneath me. Crouching on the bottom, with one strong thrust using every available calorie and oxygen molecule left inside, I broke for the surface in a long, hard, breathless climb to the life-preserving air above. What this taught, still sustains. Allow me to share…

The New Medicine – And Why It Matters –

It wasn’t long ago that medicine was considered nothing more than objects that rattled in the bottom of brown plastic bottles. Thankfully, people grew both weary and wary of that limited use of the word. Over the past few decades the term “medicine” has come of age, especially in the ever-expanding role of mind-body studies and research. Now, surveys show more than one third of Americans are using expanded versions of collaborative, participatory medicine in their healthcare. And it’s not stopping anytime soon. Here’s why…

There’s an ever-increasing amount of chronic stress present in the American workplace. Studies abound regarding the influence of stress on the workforce. Performance and productivity decrease, absenteeism increases and the impact on our modern lifestyle is profound. Seeking to address these issues has led to the integration of many forms of effective, evidence-based approaches in order to center the mind for safer, sounder, saner methods of working effectively in the digital age. With 65 academic medical centers organized to build best practices, it’s clear integrative mind-body medicine is here to stay, and it will continue to flourish in this century.

What’s the Scientific Support of These Practices?

Mind-body practices have been demonstrated to keep important parts of the human brain from age-related withering. They’ve been shown to activate brain circuitry associated with higher energy, better mood and healthy enthusiasm. They’ve even been proven to lengthen the ends of chromosomes, known as telomeres. This has been shown to extend cell life – and by default – organism life, itself. Brain tissue – shown on MRIs – and activity shown on EEGs have demonstrated physical restructuring of grey matter and functional reconfiguring of brain activity with mind-body practices – all in a positive direction in terms of performance and well-being.

To fully appreciate what’s been discovered, it’s helpful to revisit some basic neuroanatomy. There’s an old neuro-evolutionary concept born in the 1930’s known as the triune brain. Simply put, our brain is divided into 3 separate structural, developmental and evolving layers. The evolutionarily oldest part of our brain is our brainstem. Known also as the “ancient reptilian brain,” it’s the part of our brain we have in common with all reptiles scurrying about. Built upon that structure is what’s known as the “ancient mammalian brain.” It’s called our limbic system, and it’s the seat of our emotional life. We have this part of our brain in common with all the lower mammals with beady eyes seen scurrying about as well. The third and highest structure in this 3D model is our “modern mammalian brain.” Also known as our neocortex (for “new brain”), it’s our most evolutionarily recent development. We hold this in common with all the higher mammals, from great apes (orangutan, chimpanzee), to cetaceans (orca, dolphin).

Sitting in front of this multilevel construct is the only part of the brain not shared with any other animal on the planet. Known as the pre-frontal cortex (right behind our foreheads), this is the seat of what neuroscientists describe as “executive function.” This uniquely human portion of the neocortex allows our volitional will to manually override what used to be thought of as autonomic, independent functions from the brain centers below it. But more about that later.

These three levels of brain organization weigh about 3 wet, gelatinous pounds, yet they gobble up about 20 percent of our bodies calories to function optimally. It’s extremely high-priced real estate. There are some 100+ billion neurons enmeshed in some 700+ trillion interconnections with one another. Together, they are the hardware in this extremely advance computer system that gives rise to our software, known simply as “the mind.”

The astonishing thing about this complex computer system is its software – the mind – can essentially write itself and continually upgrade itself as needed throughout the life of this exceedingly advanced computer. Our hardware brains give rise to our software minds. Simultaneously, our software minds have the capability of rewiring and rerouting our hardware brains. The arrows of causation point in both directions. Neuroscientific research has shown us these “soft” and “hard” systems are interdependent and capable of influencing one another. It’s known as neuroplasticity, and it’s influenced by epigenetics.

Recognizing this complex interplay between these interconnected elements, it gets even more interesting when social and environmental factors are added to the mix. Behavioral and social influences – from education levels to family income to cultural backgrounds to gender roles – all play a part in how this super computer functions now and in the future. While heredity may put us at risk for some diseases, our social, behavioral and environmental factors play a role in whether that susceptibility expresses itself. This woven interplay is known collectively as the biopsychosocial model. Knowing this interchange’s influence is what helps us recognize modern approaches to performance and health that can transform workforce and workplace into high functioning, highly sustainable economic engines for all stakeholders.

The most promising of these approaches include: 1) Guided Imagery – this brings to mind images, memories or visualizations that produce a relaxation response in the body. It’s used to successfully treat headaches and some types of chronic pain; 2) Self-Hypnosis – inducing a trance-like state where positive suggestion is encouraged to take root. It can help manage chronic pain, anxiety and tension headaches; 3) Meditation – clearing and calming the mind by focused relaxation on the breath, a word, phrase, sound, or some other object of attention. It can be used to successfully to address anxiety, stress and high blood pressure; 4) Tai Chi and Qi Gong – an easy, graceful series of exercises that focus the mind, while blending movement with meditation for a compounded benefit. This approach fits well in the modern workplace, where Employee Stretch & Flex programs are proving effective at controlling musculoskeletal disease exposure; 5) Yoga – a series of postures that – like tai chi and qi gong – includes focus on mindful breathing. It’s commonly practiced to relieve chronic stress, but also benefits other conditions as well.

So What ARE the Components of These Mind-Body Techniques?

From the western biopsychosocial perspective, these practices build the faculties of 1) attention to this present-moment with 2) full awareness, and 3) acceptance of our circumstances. Focused attention is better known by what we like to call concentration – the ability to observe clearly. Full awareness is known by neurobiologists as ‘open monitoring’. This allows us to observe clearly when our mind is on task and – just as importantly – when it’s not on task. Thirdly, the acceptance practice allows us to respond to events in what’s known as “right action”. Thoughtful responses replace thoughtless knee-jerk reactions. That’s more likely to be the recipe for safer, saner more appropriate interventions over reflexively unskilled ones in the modern workplace.

Practicing these attention / awareness / acceptance techniques have suggested in medical research the cultivation of an ability to reverse what is known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect – the inversely proportional relationship of self-perceived competence to actual competent performance. Workforce members build their disciplines of attention / awareness / acceptance by practicing the study of “mind-LESS-ness” itself. What do we mean by “mindlessness?”

We have all experienced arrival at a destination, yet don’t recall the journey to that destination. This underscores a lack of focus on the task at hand, and an unawareness of our immediate surroundings. From an Environmental Health & Safety perspective, it’s a recipe for failure – and potential disaster. When it is brought into sharp relief in our everyday life, we can then recognize it before it has the potential to put us into dangerous situations. Think of the incidences that don’t happen when this recognition prevents them from happening.

The goal of mind-body techniques isn’t to develop a “blank” mind. Far from it. What actually is developed is a different relationship with our thoughts. It’s cultivating the ability to watch them come and go, and most importantly – to not automatically get caught up in them so easily. These practices aren’t intended to provide escape or disposal of thought. They just allow a more measured vantage point upon which to observe them dispassionately.

Remember, this isn’t about finding a way to “blissful peace”, as “Mc-Mindfulness” is so often sold. It’s about learning to be with whatever arises non-judgmentally. From this elevated perspective, we can deal with any situation more objectively and effectively. Isn’t this what we want from our workforce and coworkers – to respond rather than react?

Achieving Workforce Balance and Flexibility – In the Highest Sense of the Words

Recognizing the ever-building beneficial evidence supporting mind-body medicine practices, one must then wrangle with the feasibility of implementing them in the modern workplace. Clearly, practices like Guided Imagery, Self-Hypnosis, and even forms of formal Meditation present challenges in many workplace situations and circumstances. Similarly, yoga – though exceedingly beneficial for musculoskeletal health – tends to favor some body types (often lean, lithe and inherently flexible) over many others.

This leaves us with the most accessible and sensible approach to the 21st century workplace – that is, modern Tai Chi and Qi Gong. The benefits of musculoskeletal health from invested in Employee Stretch-and-Flex time can be artfully combined with Employee Stress Management and Refocusing. The result creates something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s efficient. It’s effective. It’s progressively cumulative and it’s sustainable.

One need only view YouTube videos to see people of every age, shape, size and stature practicing this extremely healthy “Flex-and-Stretch” routine with little to no difficulty. Compounding the benefits of Workforce Stretch-&-Flex, with mindfulness-based stress reduction is a practice whose time has come. We are living in a “Back-to-the-Future” moment of unparalleled opportunity. Respected institutions such as The Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins University, Harvard Medical School and many others have all published rigorous medical research here in the 21st century reporting measurable physical, psychological and social health benefits from practicing tai chi and qi gong. This research is ongoing, with more studies released every year.

Another exciting development is the evolving design of modern “free-form” ways of tai chi practice. Older, traditional tai chi is practiced just like classical music is played. While a movingly wonderful experience, they are to be performed exactly as they were written long ago. In this way, the Chen / Yang / Sun / Wu styles of Tai Chi Chuan are to be precisely executed just as the Mozart / Haydn / Schubert / Beethoven symphonies are to be precisely played. With no deviation.

Modern “free-form” styles of tai chi are more akin to American jazz music. That is, it’s about getting participants into a common “groove”. That groove is tantamount to what’s known as “the zone” only elite athletes experience. Modern tai chi practitioners simply describe it as “flow”. An effortless state where one gets out of one’s own way.

This allows a more focused and settled state to take over, producing optimal human functioning. The more one practices this flow state, the more this state seeps its way into its practitioner’s broader life. Work becomes more centered, safe, sensible and sound. Distraction recedes. Concentration deepens. Workforce performance improves. A safer workplace ensues as calm focus both resonates and radiates outward. Sounds like it’s what we’re all looking for, doesn’t it?

Lessons from the Ocean’s Floor

It was September 3rd, 1979 when Hurricane David sent 20-25-foot walls of water against the North Florida coast with the ferocity of a heavily sustained artillery assault. But as a young man, I had to surf it. After all, it’s how young men gauge their mettle in the world. The mind-body medicine techniques learned just a year or two prior, saved my life that day. In – or more accurately under – the ocean, I applied 1) focused concentration, 2) acute awareness, and 3) “this too, shall pass” acceptance.

As a then 19-year-old, had I not employed deeply meditative techniques in that distressed situation, remaining oxygen would’ve been exhausted. Futilely struggling against an unyielding force, I’d have certainly washed up days later in a decayed state no decent person would want to see. That’s an unsettling mental image, but one that drives home how vital this practice is to our workplace Environmental Health and Safety. Life and death is nothing to toy with, no matter how prepared we might be for the challenges we confront. Attention, awareness and acceptance saves lives.

It’s a new century. Our old models served us well – until they didn’t anymore. It seems our advanced scientific research into the bidirectional interface between the mind and the body is proving what the ancients have been teaching all along. The arrows of causation point in both directions. The point on those arrows is this present moment. How we use our minds and our bodies in it sets our course for the future of our work, our workforce and our workplace.

Modern life can continue to be chaotic, stressful, and weakening – or – it can be safe, sensible and sound. Which present moment and future will you choose? Mine involves modern tai chi and qigong. Mindfulness with movement for integrated safety and health makes clear ergonomic sense. It’s time we go back to the future.

A little about our author, Matt Jeffs DPT PSM CEAS –

Dr. Jeffs is a health and safety performance advisor for national and international firms. He’s also a seasoned ergonomics educator here at The Back School.

Years ago, he excelled as a big-wave surfer and an experienced ocean lifeguard – with numerous rescues – prior to earning both his undergraduate and doctoral degrees in physical therapy.

He now serves as a Tai Chi Fitness Instructor in multiple settings – including modern healthcare centers and the modern workplace. Through his unique approach to ‘Meta-Physical Therapy’, Mind-Body Awareness is taught, learned, and cultivated into safer, healthier and higher performing work environments.

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