Inner self goes to work

Sandra Deeble seeks internal balance through alternate therapy
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BALANCING, or juggling, the projects that continue to land on your desk - not to mention home, family, relationships and social life - has been par for the course for a while now. But there is a different type of balance which individuals, and in some cases, organisations are trying to achieve: the balance of the inner self.

While alternative therapies might still be regarded as at best quirky, at worst flaky, it would seem that rather than employees having to lead the double life of corporate strategist during the week and yoga practitioner at the weekend, increasingly organisations are recognising that the skills and techniques associated with holistic practices such as massage, aromatherapy, yoga and the Alexander technique could be the key to restoring flagging workers, stimulating creativity, enhancing presentations, improving concentration and increasing productivity.

Aromatherapy may seem more at home on the notice board of the local health food shop, yet at BA, the cabin crew has taken on board the healing benefits of essential oils. Jenny Harding, a tutor for the Tisserand Aromatherapy Institute, is helping people to combat work stress: "Sleep patterns, backache, migraines and flu are among the examples she cites as causes of stress and absenteeism. Harding is helping people at BA to understand how to use essential oils for self-help treatment - such as how lavender oil can aid sleep on a 14-hour flight - and is involved in on-going training to raise awareness about aromatherapy within the BA staff-care programme.

The day-to-day grind is stressful enough, but nothing puts the wind in your sails like the looming date of a big presentation. The best man's speech is traditionally delivered with a wit oiled by champagne, but in the commercial world you might be fuelled only by strong coffee.

Alan Mars sees things differently. An Alexander technique teacher, Mars integrates this practice into business training for presentations. The Alexander technique is based on relieving muscular tension and realigning posture by "unlearning" the distortions in our bodies as we perform everyday movements - from reaching for a file to putting on the kettle. While many people have experienced the "hands out of your pockets, stand up straight and project your voice" approach to delivering a presentation, this has no bearing on nerves, inner confidence and, least of all, how to communicate in an interesting and charismatic way.

"Alexander was an actor who had problems with posture and breathing," explains Mars, "and the Alexander approach to using your voice on stage is particularly suited to helping people in business - not just physically, it really effects your personal presence and how you feel."

Mars is an inspiring teacher. At one of his classes at the Letchworth Centre in Hertfordshire, I witnessed how the integration of simple breathing exercises and attention to posture helped people to build their confidence, as they appeared to grow in height, loosen their voices and open up their vocal chords, while succeeding in keeping the attention of their audience, as they gave flamboyant, compelling, without-props demonstrations of hamburger making and tree planting.

Creativity, hardly surprisingly, is on the wane, as stress encroaches on fluid, lateral thinking. Mark McGuinness, a hypnotherapist offering business coaching believes that creativity can be expressed in every day of your life and advocates the power of the imagination. He encourages people to remember a good day at work, a time when things flowed and people listened, and uses that to help people to rehearse for a specific event - a meeting or a presentation. They imagine themselves doing it in the way they would love to - rather than imagining the worst things that could happen. McGuinness is based at the Life Centre in London and explains that "the objective is to provide someone with a tailor-made state of mind, to help people to remember a good day, then allow them to access that state again and enhance it."

If it all makes such good sense, why has the infiltration of holistic practices into the boardroom been so slow? It could be a question of language. If strategy, productivity and creativity are all things to strive for, where does "autogenic therapy" fit? The "therapy" word may not be one to bandy about near the photocopier, yet Jane Bird and Chris Pinch both teach autogenic therapy - mental exercises which bring about relaxation and relief from the negative effects of stress - to business people.

"Autogenic" means generated from within. This practice was developed in the 1930s in Germany and is particularly attuned to the Western brain. "It is a tool that encourages people to release their own resources - you are able to relax more, deal with emotions, allow creativity to flow," explains Pinch. "They are tools to use when under stress. They are discreet. You don't have to reveal yourself." These "tools" include winding-down exercises which are practiced to settle breathing and calm the heartbeat and bring the body back into neutral. Pinch teaches in companies where she finds that stress is ongoing. "There is no cut off point; work never ends."

Bird, meanwhile, helps underwriters in the City to "lower anxiety, be more confident and release tension through looking at the whole". Together with Gillian Harner, she has set up The Company Health Programme which encourages organisations to look at the care and well-being of their staff by offering acupunc- ture, reflexology, shiatsu and massage.

The term "holistic" must eventually address the total work environment: food, lighting, furniture, hours worked and travel time, as well as helping people to cope with workloads which will never really shrink. Even if European legislation brings about a reduction in working hours, the barriers between work and life outside will remain blurred. Surely, then, finding a way to become more yourself at work, focusing your mind and making you feel more in control, can only reduce stress and increase well- being?

One business that takes a refreshing approach, the advertising agency St Luke's, has set up The Quest, a group acting as company barometer, responsible for non-commercial decisions. Part of their work in monitoring the well-being of staff is offering free or subsidised classes in yoga, the Alexander technique, life drawing and shiatsu massage. It has also set up a "Make Yourself More Interesting Scheme", where the agency encourages self-improvement and is paying for employees to pursue interests that include scuba-diving, singing, riding, drumming, novel writing and aromatherapy.

For more information contact: Alan Mars (tel: 0171-226 5805), Chris Pinch (tel: 01727 851574), Jane Bird (tel: 01923 675501), Jenny Harding (tel: 0181-941 9668), The Letchworth Centre (tel: 01462 678804), The Company Health Programme (tel: 0181-744 2051) or The Life Centre (tel: 0171-221 4602).