Innovation on Campus: Mindfulness, Body Awareness and Yoga to Improve Workplace Safety

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By Travelers
4 minutes
Risk manager practicing yoga at work.

On a recent holiday weekend, a series of tornadoes swept through the University of Dayton, damaging the campus, homes and other structures in the western Ohio city. Inside their risk management office, the university’s chief risk officer took a deep breath, then activated their emergency response protocol, business continuity and community outreach plans.

“That storm is an example of why I practice mindfulness,” said Robin Oldfield, the university’s Assistant Vice President & Chief Risk Officer. “You just never know what’s going to come at you. Being flexible is really critical for resilience.” Employees across campus could also draw on their mindfulness training, yoga and body awareness, which has been helping them focus, relieve stress and be more aware of movements that could lead to injuries.

Oldfield started the University’s mindfulness training program in response to frequent workers compensation claims. Many of the injuries reported were related to strains, sprains, “struck by” accidents and other injuries at the campus’s dining halls where employees performed repetitive motions including reaching and lifting; and in public safety, where employees’ jobs are physically demanding and include wearing heavy equipment.

As Oldfield was conducting ergonomics studies and reviewing workers comp cases, she recognized an opportunity to include mindfulness, yoga and body awareness. She began leading staff to incorporate things like chair yoga, workstation ergonomics, meditation and reminders to take frequent movement breaks throughout the workday. She also added wellness to onboarding programs and annual safety training sessions to help improve their employee experience. “We started to track it and we began to see the workers comp injury rates go down,” said Oldfield. “We believe the improved ergonomics, body mechanics, mindfulness and yoga that the program has encouraged has contributed to reduced injury rates.”

While much of the safety training is related to body mechanics, awareness and ergonomics, Oldfield also incorporates something she refers to as “the power of the pause,” or how taking a short break can help diffuse a stressful situation.

Since then, demand has grown across the campus, with departments requesting training sessions.

The Power of Mindfulness

The University of Dayton mindfulness program shows how being aware of ergonomics and body mechanics can help employees remember to adopt safer lifting practices, which could help reduce workers compensation claims. It’s an example of an innovative approach to managing risk on college campuses that has potential to improve employee well-being, on and off the job.

For initially skeptical public safety officials, Oldfield taught the value of practicing mindfulness before starting a shift. “Taking a short break for just three minutes of meditation can reset their day,” said Oldfield, who instructs employees to put both feet on the floor and to feel their breath, a simple exercise that can be done without others nearby being aware of it.

“The biggest advice when I approach training with new groups is to encourage them to be open-minded and be exactly where your feet are,” Oldfield says. Humor can also help overcome resistance. “I tell people to close their eyes, so no one can see them,” she says.

For risk managers interested in incorporating mindfulness into safety training, here are some tips:

  1. Get support at all levels. Oldfield saw a need to change the overall work culture on campus, making it acceptable to stretch and to encourage small, frequent motion breaks rather than a single lunch break. To accomplish this, she needed managers to see the value in mindfulness. “Really, it’s about getting buy-in at all levels,” said Oldfield. A series she launched for supervisors focuses on training both seasoned and new managers in the importance of mindfulness and meditation within the context of risk management.
  2. Start at ergonomic evaluations. Oldfield identified dining facilities and public safety as two areas across campus where injuries were most frequent. “Look for areas of higher injury rates and start doing some targeted work there,” Oldfield said. Simple things, such as setting timers that remind employees to take frequent breaks, can be helpful in introducing healthy behaviors. Oldfield demonstrates how employees can use their chair to stretch their back, for example.
  3. Practice empathy. She tells leadership across campus that they never know what stress their employees may be under, and she encourages the practice of empathy to help understand their perspective and involve them in the solution. “At the end of the day, everyone’s a risk manager. We want everyone to be as healthy as possible,” Oldfield said.

In addition to leading risk management insurance, environmental health and safety, internal audit, compliance and enterprise risk management for the university, Oldfield is also a certified yoga instructor who has been practicing mindfulness for three decades. “My passion for it is what kind of started it,” Oldfield recalls, while  stressing that being a yoga instructor is not necessary.

Oldfield started getting invited to staff meetings at other departments, where she led brown bag sessions on meditation and yoga during the lunch hour. She encourages people to take breaks and have small frequent movements. “People have really seen the results in their well-being at work,” Oldfield said. “It’s about giving yourself permission to take a breath.”

Woman sitting in a chair.

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