Reduce sick leave & boost productivity with scientifically proven breathing techniques

Reduce sick leave & boost productivity with scientifically proven breathing techniques

29th November 2018

Sick leave and presenteeism are costing businesses 12% of payroll due to loss of productivity1. The UK average for this 12% loss is £3,414 per employee per annum2, but for some companies this will be significantly higher.

The Office of National Statistics reported 137 million working days were lost in the UK from 2016-2017 due to employee sick leave and injury3

Minor illnesses, including flu-like symptoms, were the highest contributor with 34 million days lost

On top of this, VitalityHealth and Financial Times found that businesses are being drastically hit by presenteeism (employees attending work whilst sick), with sick leave and presenteeism combined causing a loss of 30 days in productivity, per employee1

But there is a surprisingly powerful solution being utilised by top executives, Olympians and even Navy SEALs

Breathing techniques have been scientifically proven to help to reduce pain, stress, anxiety and blood pressure

One breathing technique in particular has been proven to switch on the immune system and reduce flu-like symptoms by 56%4

In this white paper, I’ll explain how breathing techniques can be used practically within office yoga classes to help reduce sickness leave and boost productivity. I know it can be hard to believe that something as simple as how we breathe can have such as big impact on employee health, so I’ll also be sharing some key scientific studies to show you that this is not pseudoscience.

How employee sickness is affecting businesses

The following sickness and health issues are the largest contributors to the 137 million working days lost each year3:

  • Minor illnesses including coughs and colds was the highest with 34 million days lost
  • Musculoskeletal problems such as back, neck and wrist pain followed at 30.8 million days lost
  • Mental health issues including stress, depression and anxiety resulted in 15.8 million days lost

But this isn’t all. In 2017 VitalityHealth and Financial Times1 commissioned a very large scale survey into health at work, comprising of 31,950 employees from 167 organisations. They found that more employees are attending work whilst sick, as they feel as though they could not take time off work, whether that be due to workload, not wanting to let their team down or job security. This is known as presenteeism, and it inhibits employee productivity.

The survey also found that the average number of annual working days lost per employee, combining sick days and presenteeism, has risen from 23 to 30 in the last 4 years. The most recent figures from the Office of National Statistics2 put the average salary of a person in full time employment at £569 a week, meaning that these 30 days of lost productivity are costing businesses an average of £3,414 per employee, every year.

In other words, 12% of payroll is lost due to sick leave and presenteeism.

How breathing techniques can reduce pain, stress and sickness

I spend a lot of time researching the science behind breathing techniques, also known as breathwork. Before I introduce specific techniques that would be of great benefit to any work team, here are some examples of where reputable scientific studies have proved that how we breathe can make a very significant impact on our health and, in turn, can benefit businesses.

A study by the Department of Physiology, Pondicherry University [India]5 looked into the effects of breathing techniques on healthcare students, whose stress levels are perceived as being particularly high on average. The study was made up of 90 participants and found that slow breathing techniques practised for 30-minutes a day, 3 times a week over a 12-week period showed a “significant decrease” in blood pressure, heart rate, mean arterial pressure and other physical measures of stress.

Top researchers from the University of California6 conducted a study looking into the effects of breath therapy for patients with chronic low-back pain, a condition that many workers now suffer from. Breath therapy involves the patient bringing awareness to the subtle sensations of breath movement in the back, while a therapist touches the patient with gentle pressure to enhance attention to the area. The study was made up of 36 patients and after 12 sessions over a duration of 6-8 weeks, they concluded that “breath therapy appears to be as good as physical therapy, the gold-standard therapy for patients with chronic low-back pain”.

Another study by Daejeon University [South Korea]7 looked into the effects of relaxation breathing on procedural pain and anxiety in 64 patients recovering from burns. The researchers found the “pain scores significantly differed” between the group who practised the relaxation breathing technique and the control group who did not. This was also the case for anxiety scores. Relaxation breathing is one of the most effective and simple breathing techniques to help reduce pain and stress.

The science behind a breathing technique to reduce flu symptoms

One particular breathing technique, which I practise daily, is a part of the Wim Hof Method8. There is some great scientific research showing how this technique reduces sickness, in particular flu-like symptoms such as nausea, headache, shivering, muscle and back pain.

In the simplest terms, this breathing techniques is done by taking between 30 – 50 short, deep breaths. The inhalations are particularly deep, filling the belly, chest, neck and head, before releasing the breath. After the final exhalation the breath is held for as long as possible, and when the body signals for air, inhale and hold for 10 seconds, before coming back to a steady breath. Please note that this breathing techniques should only be practised after being fully introduced by a teacher and it is not safe to be practised whilst pregnant.

The effects of the above are quite remarkable. Whilst doing the short, deep breathing section, the body tends to become tingly, particularly in the extremities such as the hands, feet and often the face. This is oxygen saturating the cells within the body and is a signal that the sympathetic nervous system (the part responsible for our “fight or flight” mode) has been activated. The reason why we would want to do this is because, in turn, the adrenaline running through the body switches on our immune system response, helping the body become stronger at fighting invaders.

How this breathing technique stimulates the immune system

In 2014 Radboud University Medical Center [Netherlands]4 created a study to look into whether we actually have some control over the autonomic nervous system and innate immune system, using the breathing techniques as part of the Wim Hof Method. The study was made up of 12 participants, 6 practising the breathing techniques and 6 not (the control group). Researchers found that the participants practising the breathing techniques released adrenaline, turned on the immune response and consequently produced anti-inflammatories. Before these findings, “both the autonomic nervous system and innate immune system were regarded as systems that cannot be voluntarily influenced”.

To take the study further, all participants were given an injection to induce flu-like symptoms. By doing this, the researchers found that self-reported symptoms (nausea, headache, shivering, and muscle and back pain) were reduced in the breathing techniques trained group by 56% at peak levels, compared to the control group. These results were recorded using a simple six-point scale (0 = no symptoms, ranging to 5 = worst ever experienced), resulting in a total score of 0-25 for each participant, which was measured every 30-minutes during the experiment.

This is a new area for research and, following these results, Radboud University Medical Center [Netherlands] are currently conducting a new study to find the effects of the various components of the Wim Hof Method on inflammation and pain.

Deeply calming the nervous system to reduce stress and anxiety

As one to three rounds of the Wim Hof breathing technique are all that is needed to stimulate the immune system, it is highly beneficial to follow with one of a number of different types of calming breathing techniques. The reason for this is to switch off the sympathetic nervous system and turn on the parasympathetic system: our “rest and digest” function, to create a calm, relaxed and focused state.

Types of slow and calming breathing techniques that can be used to activate the parasympathetic nervous system include coherent breathing (breathing at a rate between four and a half to six breaths per minute), nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) and savitri (a rhythmic breathing pattern where the breath is held for half the count of the inhales and exhales). I’ll write more about these different types of breathing techniques in a future white paper.

Incorporating breathing techniques into office yoga classes – a comprehensive approach to reducing sick leave

The combined practices of yoga and breathing techniques can be an enjoyable employee benefit, helping employees feel more calm, happy and healthy whilst improving team culture.

Additionally, the proven benefits of these practices can help businesses to reduce sick leave and improve productivity through reduced employee stress, sickness and pain.

It’s especially powerful to use both the Wim Hof technique and one of several available types of calming breathing techniques within office yoga classes, as an effective and comprehensive approach to lower employee sick days. As discussed above, 137 million days and 12% of salaries are lost due to employee sickness, so almost any business could gain significant benefits from these combined practices.

Why the combination of yoga and breathing techniques works so well

In classic Indian yoga, breathing techniques is part of the complete practice. Unfortunately this element is often missing from modern yoga classes, with more focus being placed on physical exercise. Yoga postures certainly have their place for office workers, offering much needed movement, stretching and strengthening to counteract the sedentary lifestyles many of us lead, improving cardiovascular health, mobility and reducing musculoskeletal pain. However, incorporating breathing techniques practices into office yoga classes can offer very significant benefits to businesses, given the scale of the problem of sickness and presenteeism.

The Wim Hof breathing technique is especially powerful if used towards the end of an office yoga class. This is because after class attendees have moved their bodies and worked through stretching and strengthening postures they are typically better prepared to be still and relaxed, allowing a highly focused and effective breathing techniques session.

For maximum effect, following the Wim Hof technique with a calming breathing technique means employees will leave an office yoga class not only having activated systems to help fight flu and other invaders, but also feeling deeply calm, relaxed and focused. This further helps to reduce sick leave by minimising stress and anxiety, as shown in the studies by Department of Physiology, Pondicherry University [India] and Daejeon University [South Korea] discussed above.

Sharing the benefits of breathing techniques with businesses and individuals is something that I’m very passionate about, as within these techniques there is so much potential for improved health and productivity. I teach office yoga for London based businesses, and use my knowledge of breathing techniques within these classes. If you want to find out more about breathing techniques or have any questions about this white paper then I would be happy to help. Please feel free to send an email to and I’ll get back to you shortly.

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  1. Financial Times and VitalityHealth found that on average 30 dyas are lost per employee per annum
    In 2017 there were 252 working days (excluding weekends and bank holidays). This means that the 30 days lost to sick leave and presenteeism equates to aprox 12% loss of each employees salary (30 days lost ÷ 252 working days = 0.11904 x 100 = 11.9% of all working days lost).
  2. Office of National Statistics 2018 earning figures:
  3. Office of National Statistics 2016 sickness and injury figures:
  4. “Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans”:
  5. “Effect of fast and slow pranayama on perceived stress and cardiovascular parameters in young health-care students”:
  6. “Randomized, controlled trial of breath therapy for patients with chronic low-back pain”:
  7. “The effects of relaxation breathing on procedural pain and anxiety during burn care”:
  8. Wim Hof Method:

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