Mr. Absenger

Human Resources, Recruitment & Training

Avoiding Burnout with Heart Rate Variability Training

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

If you read any of my previous articles, you already know that job stress negatively affects just about any division and department of your operation. So in order to tackle the problem of burnout, employee turnover, and increasing health care costs it make sense to teach your employees how to manage stress more effectively, and thus become more resilient to stress.

Today we will explore a little of the science behind Heart Rate Variability (HRV). You will learn how to train your heart to respond better to stress, allowing you to become more resilient to stress.

The Heart

Ever since the dawn of humans, the heart is regarded as a source of emotion, courage, and wisdom. We now have very good evidence that negative emotions bring increased disorder to the heart's rhythm and the autonomic nervous system (ANS). This wreaks havoc in the rest of the body if left unchecked (McCraty, Atkinson, & Tomasino, 2001).

Positive emotions have been shown to increase harmony and coherence in heart rhythms, balancing the nervous systems. The bottom line for health: Disharmony in the nervous system taxes the entire body because it creates inefficiencies, stressing the heart and other organ systems. Creating harmonious rhythms, on the other hand, leads to efficiency, allowing the body's systems run optimally (McCraty et al., 2001).

Heart-Rate Variability (HRV)

It is quite understandable that hearing the rhythmic "lob-dub" of a beating heart creates the notion that heartbeat is monotonously regular. However, quite the opposite is true. The rhythm of a healthy human heart, at rest, is quite irregular. Thus, calculating average heart rate often overlooks these beat-by-beat variations in heart rate. An electrocardiogram (ECG) allows one to observe these beat-by-beat changes in heart rate (McCraty et al., 2001).

Normal Variability in Heart Rate

Brief anatomy review: The ANS has two divisions, the sympathetic, and the parasympathetic division. The sympathetic nervous system is the division of the ANS that is responsible for the stress response. You might be familiar with the term "fight-or-flight" response. The ANS interconnects with our digestive, cardiovascular, immune and hormonal systems. Negative emotions generate disorder and imbalance in the ANS (McCraty et al., 2001).

The Parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is responsible for the "rest-and-digest" state of the body. Positive emotions, such as gratitude, amplify order and balance in the ANS. Resulting in increased hormonal and immune system balance and more efficient brain function (McCraty et al., 2001). Ideally, both systems complement each other, the sympathetic nervous system acting as the "accelerator" allowing you to quickly speed up when you need to. While the parasympathetic nervous system acts as "the break." Feeling stressed all the time creates a state of chronic stress, where these systems are out of balance (McCraty et al., 2001).

Normal heart rate variability is an indicator that these two branches of the ANS are acting in synergy, complementing each other, allowing the body to react appropriately to ever changing external and internal conditions. In a healthy person, the heart rate estimated at any given time, represents the current state of the nervous system, allowing us to discern whether a person is in "fight-or-flight" mode or a "rest-and-digest" mode. In technical terms: "The heart rate estimated at any given time represents the net effect of the parasympathetic (vagus) nerves, which slow heart rate, and the sympathetic nerves, which accelerate it" (McCraty et al., 2001, Heading 2: Heart Rate Variability, 3rd paragraph). As hinted before, these variations are moved by emotions, thoughts, as well as physical exercise.

A number of studies have revealed that throughout mental or emotional stress sympathetic activity upsurges, while parasympathetic activity declines. The overall consequence being extra strain on the heart, the immune and hormonal systems. HRV has also a direct impact on how we feel. So in terms of quantifying data, HRV is a potent, objective tool to investigate the dynamic interaction between physiological, mental, and behavioral processes (McCraty et al., 2001).

What Is the Difference Between Heart Rhythm and HRV?

Heart rate is the number of beats that occur in any given time frame - a minute for example. HRV is a different measure than heart rate. HRV is the normal, naturally occurring variation and change of time between heartbeats. These beat-to-beat changes comprise the heart's rhythm. Exercise, thoughts, emotions, and breathing patterns influence heart rhythm patterns. Research shows that evoking positive emotions intentionally such as love, caring, and compassion affects heart rhythms and overall health positively (McCraty et al., 2001).

Why Should an Employer Care?

Besides employee health, important for employers is the knowledge that HRV not only affects the heart. HRV also affects the brain's capacity for processing information, decision-making, problem solving and creativity (McCraty et al., 2001).

Coherence and Autonomic Balance

Coherence can be defined in several, correlated modes as it pertains to human functioning. Positive emotions such as love, appreciation, and gratitude can be labeled as coherent states. Likewise, negative emotions, such as anger, anxiety, and frustration can be labeled as incoherent states. Coherent and incoherent states can be quantified and thus are not only metaphorical (McCraty et al., 2001).

Coherence: Applicable Definitions

Coherence = Clarity of thought and emotional balance.

Best described by the quality of being orderly, consistent, and intelligible. For example a coherent argument (McCraty et al., 2001)

Coherence = Synchronization between multiple systems.

This can be shown by a constructive waveform produced by two or more waves that are phase or frequency-locked. Lasers are such a system (McCraty et al., 2001).

Coherence = Ordered patterning within one system.

An example of this is the notion of an ordered or constructive distribution of power content within a single waveform; auto coherence, such as a sine wave (McCraty et al., 2001).

Physiological Coherence

A state that is characterized by high heart rhythm coherence, increased parasympathetic activity, increased synchronization between physiological systems, and an efficient and harmonious functioning of the cardiovascular, nervous, hormonal and immune systems (McCraty et al., 2001).

Psychophysiological Coherence

A physiological coherence mode driven by a positive emotional state. This state is related to prolonged positive emotion and a high quantity of mental and emotional constancy. In this state, there is amplified synchronization and harmony between cognitive, emotional, and physiological systems. The result is a well-organized and harmonious functioning of the whole (McCraty et al., 2001).

What Is the Relationship Between HRV and Coherence?

Coherence echoes the systematic and harmonious connectedness amongst many systems in the body. These connected systems are the heart, brain, and respiratory and immune systems. When HRV is optimal, we are able to realize this coherence. This coherence can be measured by our heart-rhythm patterns with a monitoring device such as an electrocardiogram, emWave, or Inner Balance device for iPhone and iPad (McCraty et al., 2001).

By now you are probably wondering what this all might look like. The first image is a depiction of what your HRV and coherence might look when you are in a state of "Frustration."

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Note the rather "sharp" peaks and valleys of the wave in the above image. Let us look at Image 2, illustrative of what your readout might look like if HRV and coherence are in a state of "Appreciation."

alt text

Note the smooth peaks and valleys of this wave. Also, note how much more evenly spaced the sections of the "appreciation" wave are when compared to the state of "frustration." Which state would you rather be in most of the time?

If those were coherence states from two of your employees, which employee do you think is more productive, creative, better in information processing, decision-making, and problem solving at this particular time?

How Can You Increase Your Coherence?

Coherence is essential in helping people manage mental, emotional, physical and spiritual wellbeing. Coherence refers to a logical, orderly and harmonious connectedness between parts. When we speak of heart-rhythm coherence, we are suggesting smooth, ordered heart-rhythm patterns. Moreover, practically no energy is depleted since the body's systems are performing optimally. There is synchronization between the heart, respiratory system, blood-pressure rhythms, and heart-rate variability patterns. Among the numerous benefits of coherence are calmness, good energy levels, clear thinking, and proper immune-system function (McCraty et al., 2001).

The incredible takeaway here is that each of us can achieve, increase, and maintain our coherence. One of the simplest and quickest paths to heart coherence is to call up positive feelings such as compassion, caring, and love intentionally. In contrast, we can quickly become incoherent when we undergo negative attitudes such as anger, fear, and anxiety. The Inner Balance app will coach you through this process. As it monitors your coherence, the device will give you feedback on how to breathe and which emotions to try to evoke (McCraty et al., 2001).

Emotional Balance and Health

Some of the papers cited in the next section will exemplify the direct and profound bearing of emotions on overall health. These papers also provide data that represents how emotional management and deliberate modifications to genuine positive feelings states achieved via HRV training can produce changes in a number of central indicators of physiological and psychological well-being.

HRV, Coherence, and Health

The first study by Alabdulgader (2012) dealt with 62 hypertensive patients divided into three groups. Group One (medication + HRV training), Group Two (No medication + HRV training, and Group Three (medication only). The researchers found that HRV training was correlated with a significantly greater decline in mean arterial pressure in the two groups who used HRV. In addition, the No Medication + HRV training group exhibited significantly greater decline in systolic BP. The researcher reasons "…self- regulation techniques that incorporate the intentional generation of positive emotions to facilitate a shift into the psychophysiological coherence state are an effective approach to lowering BP" (Alabdulgader, 2012, p. 54).

The second study highlighted here analyze the impact of a workplace-based stress management program on blood pressure (BP), emotional health, and workplace-related measures in hypertensive employees of a global information technology company.

The 16-hour program included instruction in positive emotion refocusing and emotional restructuring techniques intended to reduce sympathetic nervous system arousal. The group used a HeartMath HRV feedback device and HeartMath's Inner Quality Management®.

Three months after the intervention, the employees in the treatment group exhibited a significant reduction in systolic BP when compared to the control group. Employees in the treatment group "…demonstrated improvements in emotional health, including significant reductions in stress symptoms, depression, and global psychological distress and significant increases in peacefulness and positive outlook" (McCraty, Atkinson, & Tomasino, 2003, p. 355). Employees trained in HRV also exhibited significant upsurges in work- place satisfaction and value of contribution scores.

HRV, Coherence, and Health Care Costs

How much could a company save implementing HRV and coherence training? The Reformed Church of America (RCA), who identified stress as a major cause of above average health claims in their clergy investigated. RCA implemented a 6-week HeartMath program using an emWave feedback device and "Revitalize You" program. Researchers analyzed claims costs for 144 pastors who completed the entire program and 343 non-participants. Participants' medical costs in the HeartMath program were reduced by 3.8% while the non-participant group saw a rise in 9.0% of medical costs in the same period.

Pharmacy costs increased by 7.9% in participants while pharmacy costs increased by 13.3% in the non-participants. RCA realized 2008 cost savings because of the HeartMath program of $585 per participant ($84,240 for all participants). Translating in a 1.95:1 return on investment, RCA's research shows that HRV and coherence training can reduce health care costs (Bedell & Kaszkin-Bettag, 2010).

HRV, Coherence, and Innovation

Can HRV and coherence training enhance intuition and entrepreneurship? For this, we look to a paper by Tomasino (2007). Tomasino (2007) speculates that entrepreneurial decisions and actions are informed by an unusually high degree of creativity and intuition, a state that researchers have termed psychophysiological coherence. This state is thought to promote creativity and receptivity to intuitive insight. Research suggests that providing real-time, objective validation of this coherent state, HRV feedback technology can promote a shift to an optimal psychophysiological "zone" for enhancing creativity and intuition.

The next paper dealt with research that investigated HeartMath's Inner Quality Management (IQM) training program. Barrios-Choplin, McCraty, Sundram, and Atkinson (1999) recruited 54 employees of an Information Technology Services Division of a state agency that experienced change-related turmoil.

The research team looked at measures of personal and organizational quality of employees that they trained with IQM and compared them to a group that had not received the training. Participants in IQM exhibited significant decreases in dimensions of negative affect and stress. IQM participants also showed significant increases in dimensions of positive affect in relation to the comparison group, while perceptions of goal clarity and productivity increased significantly, as well.

HRV, Coherence and Team Dynamics

The first paper I am highlighting in this section is authored by Quintana, Guastella, Outhred, Hickie, and Kemp (2012). The team writes that HRV plays an important role in social communication. This is because HRV may be a delicate marker of one's capacity to respond and recognize social cues. HRV was positively associated with one's ability to recognize emotions in humans, in 65 volunteers. Implications for the workplace are that recognition of facial expressions and the ability to infer the likely mental states of other people are an important feature of social cognition. Enhanced social cognition may contribute to optimal social interaction. In other words, a calm psychophysiological state might assist a leader to effectively read non-verbal cues, thus enhancing workplace communication. Effective workplace interpersonal communication becomes even more interesting in the next paper highlighted here.

Morris deals with research related to decision-making that suggests "…an energetic pathway for communications is formed between two objects that share the same resonance frequency" (Morris, 2010). If you are a sports fan, you probably heard of the notion that when a top team is playing at its best, the team members are communicating on a level beyond that of spoken words. This is a communication technique that perhaps is coordinated unconsciously by a form of collective coherence (Morris, 2010).

The same could be said about your workplace. Did you ever see a kitchen brigade work seamless; smooth, without exchange of many words, each member in-sync with the other member? Such an orchestration is beautiful to watch.

Morris (2010) undertook a study to test the theory that people are able to communicate on a resonance frequency level. He recruited participants trained in attaining high states of HRV and coherence, to see if they could enable higher levels of HRV and coherence in an untrained person, only by being in proximity to that person.

Morris (2010) took three participants trained to achieve high HRV and coherence, and paired them with one untrained volunteer. The HRV coherence was highest in cases where all four participants focused on achieving increased HRV and coherence. Morris' (2010) results suggest that a "…coherent energy field can be generated and/or enhanced by the intentions of small groups of participants trained to send coherence-facilitating intentions to a target receiver. This field is made more coherent with greater levels of comfort between group members" (Morris, 2010, p. 62). In other words, Morris' research suggests that heart rhythm synchronization across participants support the possibility of heart-to-heart bio-communications.


The members of the culinary team here at Cygnus 27 [insert http://www.cygnus27.com/]. are quite enthusiastic to learn about different stress management techniques. I think I spring for an Inner Balance unit and have my crew "field" test it. I can tell you from personal experience, using emWave technology for my Mac, that I find myself experiencing many of the benefits I tried to highlight in this article through the research of others.

This article showcases technology available for the iPhone and iPad. Most employees carry these devices with them at all times. Why not educate employees about the availability of apps that contribute not only to their personal health, but also their psychosocial well-being.

You can learn more about the Inner Balance app [inserted http://www.heartmathstore.com/item/6400/inner-balance?_oskwdid=12569820&_engineadid=40316847438&_oskwdid=12569820&_engineadid=40316847438&gclid=CK72ian27L0CFYFhMgodA1gAQw] right here. If you decide to adopt this technology, or any other mind-body techniques I have been writing about, please let me know at WAbsenger [at] Amwaygrand [dot] com. Also follow me on Twitter @WernerAbsenger [inserted https://twitter.com/WernerAbsenger] to compare notes.

Together we can make employee health and wellness through proactive stress management a reality. Our employees deserve it and your bottom line will thank you.

Disclosure: The app I am highlighting today is available for sale through HeartMath. I do not own stock in the company, nor am I paid to write for HeartMath, nor am I otherwise affiliated with HeartMath. I am merely writing about HeartMath's Inner Peace app because I use their emWave (desktop) for Mac at home and found it to be very beneficial on my journey to manage stress better.

I am citing seven papers in this article in order to support what you will learn about HRV. While four of the papers are from independent researchers, three of the seven papers I am citing were done "in-house" at the Institute of HeartMath Research Center, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit company.


- Alabdulgader, A. A. (2012). Coherence: A novel nonpharmacological modality for lowering blood pressure in hypertensive patients. Global Advances in Health and Medicine, 1(2), 56-64. doi:10.7453/gahmj.2012.1.2.011
- Barrios-Choplin, B., McCraty, R., Sundram,, J., & Atkinson, M. (1999). The effect of employee self-management training on personal and organizational quality. HeartMath Research Center.
- Bedell, W., & Kaszkin-Bettag, M. (2010). Coherence and health care cost--RCA actuarial study: a cost-effectiveness cohort study. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 16(4), 26-31.
- McCraty, R., Atkinson, M., & Tomasino, D. (2001). Science of the heart: Exploring the role of the heart in human performance (No. 01-001).
- McCraty, R., Atkinson, M., & Tomasino, D. (2003). Impact of a Workplace Stress Reduction Program on Blood Pressure and Emotional Health in Hypertensive Employees. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 9(3), 355-369. doi:10.1089/107555303765551589
- Morris, S. M. (2010). Achieving collective coherence: Group effects on heart rate variability coherence and heart rhythm synchronization. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 16(4), 62-72.
- Quintana, D. S., Guastella, A. J., Outhred, T., Hickie, I. B., & Kemp, A. H. (2012). Heart rate variability is associated with emotion recognition: Direct evidence for a relationship between the autonomic nervous system and social cognition. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 86(2), 168-172. doi:10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2012.08.012
- Tomasino, D. (2007). The psychophysiological basis of creativity and intuition: Accessing "the zone" of entrepreneurship. International Journal of Entrepreneurship and Small Business, 4(5), 528. doi:10.1504/IJESB.2007.014388

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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