Mr. Absenger

Human Resources, Recruitment & Training

How to Increase Employee Stress Resilience in 11 hours or Less

By Werner Absenger, Chef de Cuisine, Cygnus 27 at Amway Grand Plaza

Daily Work Stressors: The Main Culprits

Research on stress in the hospitality industry remains an utterly understudied topic. The type and magnitude of hospitality employees' stressors is not completely understood, and the subject presents much potential to affect positively many lives. How many lives? By 2016, the hospitality industry expects to employ 3.(1) million chefs, cooks, and food preparation workers alone.(2)

In 2010, O'Neill and Davis did a spectacular study on work stressors and well-being in the hotel industry.(1) The researchers took advantage of a daily diary design to "capture life as it is lived" (p. 387). This design is particularly innovative as it reduces recall bias, providing comprehensive information regarding the source, severity, and frequency of stressors on a daily basis, rather than averaging-out responses over time. For eight consecutive days, via phone interviews, the team inventoried stressors using DISE (Daily Inventory of Stressful Events).(3) Data was collected from 65 full-service hotels, with most major hotel companies, including Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, InterContinental, Starwood, Kimpton, Fairmont, and Wyndham represented. The work stress findings I am going to elaborate on below was collected from 98 managers and 66 hourly employees who completed all eight days of interviews.

As a group, hospitality employees are relatively stressed out. Surprising, however, is the extent of how much more hospitality employees are stressed when compared to a U.S. national average of subjects who report stressors on only 25-44% of days. Hotel and restaurant employees log stressors on 40-62% of days.

Higher stress predicted more negative physical health symptoms in both hourly employees as well as managers. However, this became acutely obvious for managers, who experience more work stress due to higher levels of responsibility. Managers worked an average of 57 hours per week in this study versus an average of 36 hours for hourly employees. O'Neill and Davis write that employee stress, especially managerial stress, should be a significant concern for owners and operators. "If hotel managers are going to work such hours in the long term, then hotel executives should consider ways to reduce those employees' stress, if not work hours. The result of not doing so could be additional organizational costs…" (p. 389).

A couple unexpected findings of the study, at least to yours truly, were the report that O'Neill and Davis did not find a significant difference based on gender or marital status, differing from previous studies which have shown that women have greater work stress than men. I found this surprising because female employees tend to have a ruminative copying style that has the potential to amplify and increase depression. Male employees on the other hand tend to respond to stressors through behavior and distraction, a copying style that has the potential to decrease depression.(4)

The most surprising finding was that two most frequent stressors in the O'Neill and Davis study were interpersonal tensions (employee and coworker stressors) and overloads (such as equipment and technological malfunction). Negative physical health symptoms were more so related to stress from interpersonal problems. Hotel employees reporting interpersonal tensions at work were significantly less satisfied with their jobs and significantly more likely considering leaving their jobs. A major cause for concern for employers should be the finding that stress from interpersonal tensions and stress from work overloads have the potential to increase operating costs, thus directly affecting the bottom line.

Here at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel we have a tuition reimbursement program that pays up to $700 per year for relevant education. Think of the impact you could have if you suggested that all managers take a basic workplace psychology course as well a basic course in interpersonal communication course at your local community college?

NOTE: My next article will deal with how effective communication can reduce stress.

Now onto the next issue of concern. Burnout.

Job Burnout: Erosion of the Soul

According to some estimates, annual worker turnover is 110% and manager turnover 30%, in the U.S. food service industry, making employee retention a number one concern for restaurants.(2) Contributing significantly to this high turnover is burnout. I will focus on job burnout from a chef's perspective here, as it is my area of expertise. Kang, Twigg and Hertzman(2) did excellent research and subsequently wrote an outstanding paper pertaining to chef burnout and turnover.

Chefs operate in a constant atmosphere of stress stemming from the physical work environment, interpersonal tensions, and the nature of the work. Our workplace is hot, loud, hectic, with slow monotonous preparations interrupted by fast paced, chaotic business flows. In many cases, chefs have to deal with long and anti-social work hours (weekends, nights, holidays), below average pay, and aggressive discipline (yes, the occasional threat of physical violence is all too common in many kitchens). Creativity is constrained by client demands, organizational efficiency requirements, cost of materials and labor. Not only do these factors make a chef's work complex, many of us have to adhere to a manufacturing production environment, while we are judged from a service perspective.(2)

The fast pace, long hours, and high energy levels required to succeed make culinary employees particularly susceptible to burnout and subsequent turnover, shaking even your most brilliant and highest producing employees. Because your chef plays such a vital role, if not the most important part, in ensuring your food establishment's success, burnout and turnover has significant deleterious effects on your entire operation. Attrition is extremely wicked for business as these employees are the trickiest to replace.(2)

Kang, Twigg and Hertzman put a chef's job burnout and subsequent turnover in the context of social exchange, social identity, organization-based self-esteem. I would venture on to say that providing top employees with effective stress management tools could further ameliorate burnout and high turnover rates.

Kang, Twigg and Hertzman also mention research by Huang who deals with Locus of Control, job satisfaction, work stress and turnover intention of culinary employees.(5) Locus of control (LOC) is an important aspect of personality. Reduced to its essence, people with high internal LOC believe they are in the driver seat and control their successes, failures, and other aspects of life. On the other hand, employees with high external LOC believe that others control their destiny. Huang's research showed that the culinarians with the highest internal LOC had the highest job satisfaction and the lowest work stress and turnover intention (most likely less burnout as well). On the other hand, culinarians with the highest external LOC were found to have the highest work stress and turnover intention.(2)

Time to make a transition to the relevance of mindfulness meditation pertaining hospitality employees work stress, job burnout and turnover.

Mindfulness meditation involves a receptive attention to and awareness of the present experiences and allows a person to become more accepting of their mental, emotional, and bodily-sensory experiences. In turn, a person with high levels of mindfulness cultivates acceptance of thoughts, feelings, and situations, rather than struggling against what they cannot change and gauging their worth by others' standards.(6)

What is Mindfulness Meditation?

According to Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness has been considered the heart of Buddhist meditation and is a remarkably straightforward concept whereas one simply pays "…attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present-moment and nonjudgmentally" (7, p. 4). Lau et al. describe mindfulness as "…non-elaborative, nonjudgmental, present centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is" (8, p. 1447). Shapiro et al. break mindfulness down into a "…simple, comprehensible construct…" consisting of the three axioms of "intention", "attention", and "attitude" (9, p. 374-375).

Lengacher et al. describe mindfulness as "…the capacity to bring full attention (not just thinking) into moment-to-moment awareness". Mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) specifically "…is a clinical program that provides systematic training to promote stress reduction by self-regulating arousal to stressful circumstances or symptoms". Essentially, the aim of MBSR is to train people "…to become more aware of their thoughts and feelings through meditation practice and to pay attention and observe, but not react to, their thoughts or feelings during stressful situations that contribute to emotional distress" (7 as cited by 10, p. 174).

Shapiro et al. propose a theory of mindfulness that sets forth that intentionally attending with openness and non-judgmentalness can lead to a remarkable shift in perspective. The authors call this shift "reperceiving", which ushers in change and positive outcomes via self-regulation, values clarification, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral flexibility (9, p. 377).

The literature seems to support the notion that mindfulness might not only reduce psychological symptoms but also affect a practitioner's biochemical stratum and immune system regulation.

Physiological Processes During "Paying Attention in a Particular Way: On Purpose, in the Present-Moment and Non-judgmentally?"

I thought it worthwhile to mention only a few benefits of mindfulness meditation since it is sometimes hard for people to believe that paying attention in a particular way can affect a person's biochemistry and physiological processes.

Fresh off the presses, meditation research by Kaliman etal. shows that a day of mindful meditation practice triggered gene expression, akin to an anti-inflammatory response, that was not observed in a control group. Furthermore, Kaliman's etal. research shows that mindfulness meditation brings about biochemical changes in certain brain regions. The take-home message from this study is that the mindfulness meditation group showed significant alterations in brain biochemistry and subsequent down-regulation of pro-inflammatory genes.(11) In other words, meditators were able to set biochemical events in motion that compare to popping ibuprofen, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, only without the detrimental side effects.

A second study I must mention here dealt with the subject of telomerase activity

A chromosome is a continuous piece of DNA that contains many genes and regulatory elements. A telomere is a region of DNA at the end of such a chromosome. Each time chromosomes replicate, telomeres prevent the loss of useful genetic information. As each cell replicates, telomeres shorten, unless counteracted by the activity of telomerase, a cellular enzyme responsible for telomere maintenance. Once telomere length is below a certain threshold, cell division can no longer occur and the cell is at a higher risk for entering a state of senescence. Cell senescence is thought to be at the basis of tissue aging.(12)

Telomerase and telomere length are susceptible to regulation via psychological stress and well-being. Thus, telomere length is suggested to be a useful psycho-biomarker (possibly linking stress to disease) indicative of a cell's biological age, human aging, and a predictor of physical health and longevity. Greater perceived stress and elevated levels of stress hormones are affiliated with reduced telomerase action.(12)

Contemporary studies imply that, in a significant segment of people telomere length can increase over time! Essentially, what researchers are saying is that telomere shortening can not only be avoided, but telomerase is capable to add DNA sequences back to telomeres, increasing telomere length and preserving healthy cell function.(12)

The conclusion by Jacobs et al., that telomerase activity was significantly greater in meditators than non-meditators, is very exciting news for us, because it confirms that meditation facilitated the effects of telomerase activity and ushered in feelings of increased "Perceived Control" (please recall discussion on locus of control above) and "Purpose in Life" in meditators.(12) Please recall that meditation and the associated positive outcomes via self-regulation, values clarification, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral flexibility, and exposure, which in turn, leads to psychological symptom reduction.

What if I told you that, in 11 hours or less, your employees could be on their way achieving the positive effects of mindfulness meditation? The changes in gene expression, the changes in telomerase activity, the changes in the locus of control? What if I also told you that your employees might be on their way to stimulate white matter changes in their anterior cingulate cortex, further strengthening their capacity to deal effectively with stressors?

Let me show you.

Increasing Employee Stress Resilience in 11 Hours or Less… Is it Really that Simple?

The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is a brain network that is involved in development of self-regulation. The ACC is also involved in monitoring and resolving conflict among competing response tendencies. This structure changes dramatically in childhood. It is this mechanism that allows children to control their emotions and behaviors. Deficiencies in the activation of the ACC are associated with a host of disorders, such as attention deficit disorder, addiction, dementia, depression, and schizophrenia.(13)

The anterior corona radiata is an important white-matter tract that joins the ACC to the striatum (a major input hub of the basal ganglia system accepting input from the cerebral cortex). Differences in anterior corona connectivity have been related to executive attention.(13)

A final definition before moving on; Fractional anisotropy is an index that shows the integrity and efficiency of white matter in the corona radiate, which is as discussed, an important tract connecting the ACC to other brain structures.

Tang etal. have shown that meditation increases fractional anisotropy in only 11 hours of practice time. Meditation practice was spread over one month, broken down into 30-minute meditation sessions. Tang et al. also show that meditation has the potential to enhance the basal immune system as the amount of training increases from 3 to 11 hours.(13)

Because no white matter changes were found after 3 or 6 hours of meditation training, the conclusions by Tang et al. imply that changing white matter in the human brain can be achieved in more than 6 hours but less than 11 hours of mediation training.(13)

Since deficiencies in activation of the ACC have been linked with many conditions, the capacity to enhance cingulate connectivity through meditation could provide a means for cultivating self-regulation.(13)

There we go. All the pieces of the puzzle are now in place, revealing that cultivating self-regulation in hospitality employees is quite achievable.

We examined research revealing that meditation can affect gene expression, telomerase activity, and white matter changes in the brain, supporting a person to usher in changes and positive outcomes via self-regulation, values clarification, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral flexibility, as well as affecting locus of control.

Although these shifts seem radical and a tall order, we have also determined that it takes a lot less time than one would assume for these positive changes to occur. Probably somewhere between 6 and 11 hours, increasing exponentially with continued meditation practice.

At the onset of this article, we have explained that job stress and job burnout negatively affect your hospitality operation. Rather than chalking it up as "cost of doing business" I demonstrated in this article that mindfulness meditation can potentially develop a person's potential to cultivate self-regulation, thus enabling a person to deal more productively with stressors, likely avoiding job burnout and employee turnover.

What if your Employees' "A Bourbon and a Cheeseburger"* Coping Strategy Isn't Working? (*Google's Bill Duane)

Even though meditation and mindfulness are the latest rage in Silicon Valley, you do not have to be in California to bring mindfulness to your employees. The Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in Grand Rapids, Michigan is proof of that. Several years ago I started with a group of employees by offering a 10-week Mind-Body Skills Group, which was received tremendously well. We met weekly for about two hours during which I introduced different mind-body techniques, one per session. Here is a comment from one participant:

"I cannot begin to say how much of a difference it has made for me. I am able to handle stress much more effectively. I have really learned that you cannot change other people, just YOUR reaction to them. I have made much better decisions in my professional life and personal life."

Here are a couple of resources that might guide you in starting a mindfulness program at your hotel:

  • Jim Gordon does tremendous work spanning the globe at the Center for Mind Body Medicine. Contact a practitioner that graduated from their program and setup a meeting. Ask the practitioner to demonstrate a typical session to your executive team.

  • Contact the University of Massachusetts Medical Schools' Center for Mindfulness to find a practitioner in your state.

  • Subsequently, if you have employees who are willing to put in the time and effort to earn a certificate in Mind-Body Medicine there is only one institution to send them. My alma mater, Saybrook University's School of Mind-Body Medicine offers a comprehensive certificate in Mind-Body Medicine. The certificate includes three academic courses, two residential conferences, one graduate colloquium, and a capstone integrative essay.

  • Still have questions or need help deciding how to bring mindfulness training to your employees? Send me an email for additional information and resources on how to implement a stress reduction program for your employees.

  • Should you ever find yourself in Grand Rapids, Michigan (according to Lonely Planet, the number one spot in the nation to visit in 2014) and detect a granola-looking guy relaxing in the lotus posture on a gorgeous sunny day on the luscious green grass of Rosa Parks Circle, join him! It just might be me, finding my Zen, before heading to work directly across the street at Cygnus 27 inside the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.


(1) O'Neill JW, Davis K. Work stress and well-being in the hotel industry. Int J Hosp Manag [Internet]. 2011 Jun [cited 2013 Dec 10];30(2):385-90. Available from: http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0278431910000897

(2) Kang B, Twigg NW, Hertzman J. An examination of social support and social identity factors and their relationship to certified chefs' burnout. Int J Hosp Manag [Internet]. 2010 Mar [cited 2013 Dec 10];29(1):168-76. Available from: http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0278431909000954

(3) Almeida DM, Wethington E, Kessler RC. The daily inventory of stressful events: an interview-based approach for measuring daily stressors. Assessment. 2002 Mar;9(1):41-55.

(4) Tsaur S-H, Tang Y-Y. Job stress and well-being of female employees in hospitality: The role of regulatory leisure coping styles. Int J Hosp Manag [Internet]. 2012 Dec [cited 2013 Dec 10];31(4):1038-44. Available from: http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0278431911002027

(5) Huang H-I. Understanding Culinary Arts Workers: Locus of Control, Job Satisfaction, Work Stress and Turnover Intention. J Foodserv Bus Res [Internet]. 2006 Mar 15 [cited 2013 Dec 12];9(2-3):151-68. Available from: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1300/J369v09n02_09

(6) Kong F, Wang X, Zhao J. Dispositional mindfulness and life satisfaction: The role of core self-evaluations. Personal Individ Differ [Internet]. 2014 Jan [cited 2013 Dec 12];56:165-9. Available from: http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0191886913012580

(7) Kabat-Zinn J. Wherever you go, there you are : mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York, N.Y.: Hyperion; 2005.

(8) Lau MA, Bishop SR, Segal ZV, Buis T, Anderson ND, Carlson L, et al. The Toronto mindfulness scale: Development and validation. J Clin Psychol [Internet]. 2006 Dec [cited 2012 Sep 24];62(12):1445-67. Available from: http://doi.wiley.com/10.1002/jclp.20326

(9) Shapiro SL, Carlson LE, Astin JA, Freedman B. Mechanisms of mindfulness. J Clin Psychol [Internet]. 2006 Mar [cited 2012 Aug 21];62(3):373-86. Available from: http://doi.wiley.com/10.1002/jclp.20237

(10) Lengacher CA, Kip KE, Barta M, Post-White J, Jacobsen PB, Groer M, et al. A Pilot Study Evaluating the Effect of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction on Psychological Status, Physical Status, Salivary Cortisol, and Interleukin-6 Among Advanced-Stage Cancer Patients and Their Caregivers. J Holist Nurs [Internet]. 2012 Mar 21 [cited 2012 Sep 22];30(3):170-85. Available from: http://jhn.sagepub.com/cgi/doi/10.1177/0898010111435949

(11) Kaliman P, Álvarez-López MJ, Cosín-Tomás M, Rosenkranz MA, Lutz A, Davidson RJ. Rapid changes in histone deacetylases and inflammatory gene expression in expert meditators. Psychoneuroendocrinology [Internet]. 2014 Feb [cited 2013 Dec 10];40:96-107. Available from: http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0306453013004071

(12) Jacobs TL, Epel ES, Lin J, Blackburn EH, Wolkowitz OM, Bridwell DA, et al. Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomerase activity, and psychological mediators. Psychoneuroendocrinology [Internet]. 2011 Jun [cited 2013 Dec 10];36(5):664-81. Available from: http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S030645301000243X

(13) Tang Y-Y, Lu Q, Geng X, Stein EA, Yang Y, Posner MI. Short-term meditation induces white matter changes in the anterior cingulate. Proc Natl Acad Sci [Internet]. 2010 Aug 16 [cited 2012 Jun 15];107(35):15649-52. Available from: http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1011043107

Chef Werner Absenger, chef de cuisine, has helped propel Cygnus 27, one of the highest-ranked restaurants in Michigan, into the forefront of the state’s premier culinary scene. Chef Absenger has been with the Amway Grand Plaza for 10 years. A 20-year culinary industry veteran, he has held posts at Alpenrose Restaurant & Café in Holland, MI as chef de cuisine and executive chef, and at the Grand Hotel in Mackinac Island, MI where he worked in various positions ranging from chef tournant to banquet chef. Chef Absenger also honed his skills at the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort and Spa at Gainey Ranch in Scottsdale, AZ and at the Hotel Gasthof Gramshammer in Vail, CO. Before joining the culinary team at the Amway Grand Plaza, Chef Absenger was an entrepreneur and operated an organic smoothie bar, Juz C, in Grand Haven, MI. As the owner, he developed the menu, concept, and theme of this healthy establishment from 2001-2003. Mr. Absenger can be contacted at 616-774-2000 or WAbsenger@amwaygrand.com Extended Bio...

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