Early one morning, among the coastal redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains, a learning and development team from Cisco Systems converges at the Institute of HeartMath. They’ve come to learn new scientific techniques for developing human capital -- appreciation, communication, core values -- intended to decrease stress and improve productivity. No time is wasted.
"Just about all of you used the word ‘exhausted’ on your needs-assessment questionnaire," says John White, an easy-going Southerner who team-teaches this corporate seminar, called Inner Quality Management (IQM). No surprise. These people work in Silicon Valley. They’re the drivers of the New Economy, kings of the 24/7. "Mine was in caps–EX-HAUS-TED!!!!" jokes Keith Kaneko, a tall muscular guy who jogs about 18 miles a week.
Later, when the Cisco team hikes mountain trails during the lunch break, Kaneko heads back inside. He’s intent on testing his skill at Freeze-Frame, the stress-reduction technique that forms the foundation of HeartMath’s program.
The Institute of HeartMath was founded in 1991 as a nonprofit think-tank for scientific literature on the heart. A few years later, bolstered by studies on heart intelligence, the institute launched the for-profit HeartMath, whose mission is to improve organizational efficiency. The main program, Inner Quality Management, teaches skills such as internal self-management and renewing strategic processes. The tool with the most leverage, however, is Freeze-Frame. Basically it’s a time-out for stressed adults: Step back from the aggravating situation and shift perspective.
So now, sitting before a heart monitor, Kaneko practices the Freeze-Frame instructions: He focuses on breathing through the heart, then concentrates on positive feelings. He thinks of backpacking in the Sierras and family reunions. With each image, the screen reflects his changing heart rhythms. A jagged line swiftly morphs into soft curves. A graph rates his success: He hits 90 percent, a near-perfect score. This state of synchronicity, according to HeartMath, reduces insomnia and fatigue, boosts the immune system, heightens intuition, improves creativity, and makes employees happier–thereby increasing employee retention.
Freeze-Frame improves their job performance, people say, because they apply it to everything from work stress to strategic planning, complex decision making, and personal interactions in difficult meetings. "HeartMath develops innovative tools to maximize the inner technology of human performance," says Bruce Cryer, president of HeartMath, who’s fluent in geekspeak. "iTech meets high-tech."
Critics say that Freeze-Frame sounds a lot like new packaging of the biofeedback and meditation techniques popular in the ’70s, when scientific studies first proved the effectiveness of stress management.
But now, in a tech-driven work force where social capital is the acme of efficiency, there’s a big difference. Beneath all the scientific studies, Freeze-Frame is really about the power of the heart–focusing on positive emotions such as love to increase health and happiness in corporate cubicles. (Power of love balancing the love of power –CR)
"In high tech, when we have used the words ‘heart’ or ‘soft skills,’ people have been distracted by that," says Debbie Reichenbach, manager of work force development at Lisle, Ill.—based Tellabs, which builds telecommunications infrastructure. "But currently time is so frenzied that people can no longer deny this. The system has forced the naysayers to change their perspective."
Some say that HeartMath is the frontier of body/mind science. Dr. Paul Rosch, president of the American Institute of Stress, in Yonkers, New York, has spent a half-century conducting stress research. He is convinced enough by HeartMath’s research to have joined its advisory board.
Rosch considers HeartMath a leader in the new technologies of heart rate variability (HRV). Recent scientific studies demonstrated that fluctuations in heart rate are the key predictor of increased risk of sudden death.
The HeartMath technique–almost instantaneous–is ground-breaking, according to Rosch, a clinical professor of medicine and psychiatry at New York Medical College. In a 1996 article about HRV, he showcased the Freeze-Frame technique, then linked it to the concept of "entrainment," a coveted state that arises when one’s internal systems are totally in sync, allowing access to deeper intuition in things such as problem-solving and emotional self-management.
Rosch believes that Freeze-Frame allows people to access the same internal coherence sometimes achieved by experienced meditators and EEG biofeedback, but that it "appears to accomplish this more consistently and efficiently, and has now been shown to represent a very effective stress reduction technique that could have important applications in the workplace."
The workplace is indeed paying attention. HeartMath’s clients include Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, and Motorola–even the U.S. military. Diane Bauer, manager of worldwide marketing at Cisco, heard about HeartMath on a national TV newsmagazine. She signed herself up for the company’s IQM seminar, which teaches such techniques as HeartMapping and the Heart Lock-In.
When she experienced benefits in her own life, Bauer wanted to introduce her team to the IQM tools. She says the techniques have improved the spirit of collaboration among employees. "I saw a behavior change. Our team was gentler, better at listening, and much more calm. They were also willing to think outside the box.” (overcoming paradigm paralysis –CR)
Later, Bauer mentioned HeartMath to Larry Lenox, Cisco’s manager of leadership and development. A psych major himself, he set up a meeting with HeartMath executives, who hooked him to the heart monitor. "I was struck by the difference in my own mental and emotional state," says Lenox.
"Inner Quality Management is a fancy way of saying stress management, but certainly in Silicon Valley we’ve got plenty of it," says Lenox during the Cisco seminar. "We’re not going to do things fundamentally different, like slow up or reduce workload. Speed is the name of the game, it’s a very competitive industry.” (Paridigms narrow under stress –CR)
He likes how White of HeartMath puts it: "Can we figure out ways on the fly to help people stay centered and balanced?" Tellabs instituted a pilot program in 1998. It identified people with high-stress, fast-paced jobs, such as workers on the company’s information technology team. Results were dramatic.
"Two people with elevated blood pressure improved so much they went off their medica-tion. We documented improved job satisfaction, an increased desire to stay with the company, a decrease in fatigue, and an increase in the ability to think clearly, rather than react."
(Proactive anticipatory paradigm shifts require harmonic synergy of heart and mind –CR)
At Tellabs, HeartMath training is now offered to people on software teams. "It’s no different from a PC or a PalmPilot," says Reichenbach. "They’re all job enablers." A general manager at Tellabs, for example, has recorded his results over a period of time, and can now reach 90 percent "entrainment." "He just got promoted two levels, and without this, I don’t know if he’d even have been a candidate," says Reichenbach. "He was a pretty high-stressed guy, but now he’s so much more aware, and in tune with others." (Qualifying higher consciousness objectively –CR)
A similar story played out at Agilent Technologies, the Hewlett-Packard spin-off that makes test in-struments for communications devices. Occupational health manager Melinda Guarino heard about HeartMath from a colleague at HP, who highly recommended it. Agilent launched a pilot program for the finance group in December 1999, and is now rolling out a two-day HeartMath program.
"It not only gives people tools to use, but also incorporates team issues and communication skills," she says. "Unlike traditional stress-management programs, which only apply to the individual, this shows how to integrate the tools into the work team, which can be a benefit to everyone."
Psychobabble or science?
Of course, many in the industry are skeptical of yet another stress-reduction promise for the work force. "It looks like it’s empirically valid, all biofeedback works the same way," says a clinical psychologist (who prefers not to be named) at a prominent university medical center, who believes that other techniques can produce the same results. Cisco’s Bauer says some tech workers are initially leery: "It’s a little like, ‘Oh, no, is this one of those touchy-feely group-hug kind of things?’" she says.
But for many, this is a positive corporate perk. "There was an interim director who wasn’t wild about the HeartMath program, so it wasn’t as available for awhile," relates Tellabs’ Reichenbach. "Later it came out on the employee poll that people were saying, ‘We want that stress management program back.’" So the new CEO brought HeartMath back.
The jury’s still out on heart intelligence, but when the world’s moving at hyperspeed who has time to wait? Freeze-Frame: Breathe into your heart–and keep your fingers crossed.
Colleen O'Connor (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance journalist whose stories have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and People