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A 10-step routine to reduce work stress one breath at a time

This is part of a series looking at microskills – changes that employees can make to help improve their health and life at work and at home, and employers can make to improve the workplace. The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell have created the Employee Recommended Workplace Award to honour companies that put the health and well-being of their employees first. Register your company now at

How often do you feel that stress is winning?

Extended periods of high levels of stress can have a negative impact on both the mind and body. If you're not sure how much stress you have in your work and home life, take a few moments to complete the Your Life at Work Survey, done by Howatt HR and The Globe and Mail.

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Research from this survey indicates that on a typical day about 60 per cent of employees go to work under stress. This stress may not be only work related; it may be partially due to life issues such as financial or relationship stress.

Unhealthy, bad stress kills. When unchecked, this kind of stress can damage the body, causing deterioration of the gums, heart disease and cancer. It can weaken the immune system, resulting in increased risk for common colds and other illnesses.

This microskill promotes the health benefits for stopping for a moment and taking a breath – a proven way to curb and reduce the negative impact of stress. Deep breathing, often referred to as diaphragmatic breathing, facilitates bringing oxygen into the body.

The optimal time to use this microskill is when you're feeling stressed and need to take back control. There's also a benefit to adding this practice to your daily routine as a tool for promoting mental health.

Stop and breathe

There's little learning and practice required to gain the benefits of adding a new microskill. The first action is to read the following steps a few times. One easy way to get started is to record the instructions on your personal phone, speaking slowly in a relaxing tone and pace, and then follow along as you play it back to yourself.

1. Get comfortable in a quiet spot. It's fine to be seating comfortably or lying down. If you choose to lie down, ensure your head is comfortable, and you're flat on your back with your legs pulled in and your knees bent up.

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2. Rest one open, flat hand above your belt line and facing palm down and the other palm down on your upper chest. Your hands are guides to show you which parts of your body are moving up and down. When doing deep breathing, the top hand is not to move.

3. This deep breathing exercise begins with a gentle exhale. There's no need to empty your lungs. This action is meant only to prepare for the deep breathing exercise. As you lightly exhale it's helpful to let your body relax by allowing your neck and shoulders to relax.

4. After you have exhaled, close your mouth and pause for a second. Think about being relaxed.

5. When you're ready to begin, slowly breathe in through your nose and fill your lungs. Focus on bringing the air in deep into your lungs so that your belly and bottom hand rises. When this exercise is done right the upper hand will not move, only the bottom hand will as you breathe in and out deeply. Bring in as much air as you can comfortably.

6. Hold this air in for a minimum of five seconds. The length of time will be determined by your level of comfort.

7. Once you're ready, it's time to move to the next step.

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8. Slowly and gently release the air through your mouth. Continue to do so until you have released all the air that you can. As you breathe out, imagine all your stress is riding a wave away from you, and feel the tension leave your body.

9. Once all the air is out, pause and close your mouth. Prepare to repeat the deep breathing cycle.

10. Repeat steps five to nine one breath at a time. Do this five to seven times with each practice session.

At the end, you'll feel less stressed and more relaxed. It will help you gather your thoughts to proceed to the next steps in your day.

Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto. He is also the president of Howatt HR Consulting and founder of TalOp, in Kentville, N.S.

This series supports The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell's Employee Recommended Workplace Award.

This award recognizes employers who have the healthiest, most engaged and most productive employees. It promotes a two-way accountability model where an employer can support employees to have a positive workplace experience.

You can find all the stories in this series at this link:

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