The science behind breathwork: the benefits of breath in the workplace
We’ve all heard the saying ‘take a breath’. The concept of harnessing the breath to release stress is nothing new, but thanks to ongoing research, the list of known breathwork benefits is ever-evolving. Along with other stress resilience practices that have started to become commonplace in corporate wellbeing strategies, such as yoga and meditation, the ancient art of breathwork has been increasingly in demand by companies of all sizes to help engage teams and improve retention.
What is breathwork and how does it differ from meditation?
Breathwork and meditation often go hand in hand. Meditation aims to focus the attention in order to quiet the mind, and often, the natural breath is an easy focal point that many people choose. Breathwork, however, encompasses a series of breathing techniques that often take a different cadence to the natural breath.
Have you ever noticed that you hold your breath when you’re stressed? Maybe you sigh when you’re tired or inhale sharply when something takes you by surprise? Our body naturally uses the breath to help us process our experiences, even if you’re not aware of it. The concept behind breathwork is to be aware of and harness the power of the breath in order to reconnect our mind with our body.
What are the scientific benefits of breathwork?
There are several types of breathwork techniques, each with their own distinct set of benefits:
Holotropic breathwork involves taking faster intakes of breath than usual over the course of several minutes (with some experienced practitioners even continuing for hours). The Holotropic cadence of breath can help the practitioner enter an altered state of consciousness by changing the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body, and as it is often practised alongside music, is an excellent choice for group sessions guided by an experienced coach. Holotropic breathwork benefits include reducing anxiety, increasing confidence, and even releasing challenging emotions when used as a form of trauma therapy. A 2015 study showed that Holotropic breathing increased self-awareness and, with regular practice, also reduced domineering tendencies and feelings of hostility towards others.
Commonly used in yoga practices, Pranayama is an excellent entry point for anyone new to breathwork. Meaning ‘to draw out’ in Sanskrit, this technique involves breathing in, holding the breath and breathing out in a repeating cycle. Practising Pranayama helps to focus the mind, calm down racing thoughts, slow a fast heartbeat and create mental space during times of anxiety. Because of its discreet nature, Pranayama is also very easy to incorporate at a desk or in between meetings.
BioDynamic breathing aims to create a connection between the mind and body through the breath. Also known as full-body breath, BioDynamic breath works on releasing chronic stress held in the body with deep breathing alongside other sensory techniques such as mindful movement and sound healing. The practice involves feeling the inhaled air expanding into all four corners of the body, creating a sense of harmony and space within both mind and body.
BioDynamic breathwork benefits include a deep feeling of calm, an increased ability to process difficult sensations and increased emotional resilience.
4. Wim Hof
Named after Dutch athlete Wim Hof (also known as the Ice Man), this breathwork technique focuses on controlled hyperventilation—short, sharp breaths and breath holding in quick succession. This exercise acts as a stress response, mimicking the type of breaths you might experience during panic, and is therefore suited to more advanced breathwork practitioners. When practised in a safe environment and under guidance, this technique can be very effective at calming the nervous system, creating a feeling of energy in the body and even increasing lung capacity for more effective breathing. Wim Hof himself has listed the breathwork benefits of this technique (alongside his cold water training), as improved sleep, sharpened focus, decreased stress, and increased dopamine, creativity and willpower.
How can breathwork improve your employee wellbeing strategy?
As we’ve seen, the benefits of breathwork are diverse and plentiful, from helping individuals to calm themselves down in stressful moments, to creating energy and facilitating a more focussed headspace. Like many other stress resilience practices, breathwork aids in relaxing the nervous system to prevent a flight, flight, freeze response, providing a greater sense of control over difficult emotions. With levels of self-reported stress, anxiety and depression all on the rise since the pandemic, incorporating breath practices into your workplace wellness strategy could be a key way to help address burnout, increased sick leave and overall churn.
Adding practices like breathwork into your workplace benefits not only shows employees that their company is invested in helping them manage their stress levels, but also provides an opportunity for an increased sense of community centred around positive mental health practices. The trends don’t lie; when it comes to hiring, it’s exactly these kinds of empathetic policies that are attracting and retaining top talent across all industries.
How can you include breathwork in your employee wellbeing strategy?
Start by organising breathwork sessions with an experienced practitioner so employees can get a feel for different techniques, learn best practices and gain the skills needed to start using breathwork techniques on their own, as and when they need to. Consider creating dedicated spaces around the offices for employees to use for breathing exercises during the day, making sure they are away from noisy or communal areas and feel private. Biophilic Design (which incorporates the calming effect of plants and nature) can help to bring these areas to life and encourage employees to use them as they move around the office.
When designing new strategies to incorporate breathwork into your organisation, make sure you don’t exclude any remote workers. Zoom fatigue is a common complaint now that many companies have switched to a remote-first or hybrid working approach. Suggest shortening meetings by 5 minutes to allow employees to decompress with breathwork exercises in between rather than jumping straight into the next meeting. By adopting this practice as a company-wide policy, you can start to dismantle a culture of busyness and emphasise the importance of good mental health as part of your company culture, while making sure remote employees feel included too.
It’s an accepted fact that a calm, confident workforce performs better over time than a stressed one. As investment into employee health continues to be an important area of growth, it’s important to think about your current offering and how you can truly add value to your teams beyond the usual benefits. When 45% of employees state that they would stay longer in their job if there was an employer-sponsored wellness program in place, there’s no better time to expand your employee health strategy to encourage stress resilience and increase retention through breathwork.