Can going on a work and wellness retreat soothe stress and get you inspired?

lauren on work and wellness retreat

As a full-time work-from-home-er, wellness isn’t part of my nine to five schedule. With the exception of researching spa breaks to reward myself for sending an email, I keep the two very separate.

And while there are huge benefits to WFH (including my bank account’s breakup with Pret), working within the same walls every day has taken its toll.

Admittedly, some days I don’t leave the house due to my high workload and back-to-back meetings. I’ve fallen into the trap of working in my PJs, taking TikTok breaks and realising at 4pm that I forgot to have lunch or get dressed for the day.

Until now, wellness has been an extra-curricular activity – it’s a bonus if I manage to fit it into my day, but it’s never the priority.

Last month, Salesforce announced that they’re creating a work-and-wellness retreat for their 70,000-person staff. Set amongst the redwoods in Scotts Valley, California, it’s one of the first experiments by a big employer to combine work and training with a wellness schedule.

To kick things off, staff are required to throw a pebble into the retreat’s pond to set intentions and get their creative juices flowing. Rest and renewal activities that follow include yoga, art journalling and hiking, to encourage leadership and goal-setting.

But does it really work? To put the collaboration to the test, I set off on a work-and-wellness retreat at Birch. Surrounded by 55 acres of nature, the Hertfordshire hotel offers a new form of hospitality, encouraging you to work while switching off.

My experiment? To see if combining these seemingly opposite things is the secret to boosting productivity and succeeding in your career.

As I walk around, the retreat’s offering is clear. There’s a biophilic hot-desking area, spa treatments that aid brain and body connection, boardrooms with open doors to a working farm and a bar next to a buzzy co-working hub (for clarity, I’m absolutely classing this as wellness).

To prepare for my work day ahead, I take a pottery class. Known for promoting focus and flow, it can gradually awaken you and spark creativity.

Copying the teacher Jade’s every move, I’m fascinated at how one clump of clay could transform into a candle holder or mug just by rolling, pinching and smoothing.

‘Making pottery with your hands is good for your brain and eyes, allowing you to work in a visual way,’ explains Jade.

As I repeat the techniques, I’m able to visualise my work schedule, go through my objectives and manifest how my day will go. But the most powerful thing is slowing down and savouring each moment, which gives me a wave of clarity and calm.

Next on my schedule is deep listening training. This psychedelic sound experience claims to change the way we listen in our work life. Using music to access the inner ear, it helps you deeply connect with yourself, increases social bonding and blocks out noise without having to put headphones in.

Run by Robyn Landau and Katherine Templar Lewis from Kinda Studios and Eileen Hall, a psychedelic artist, we lie on our yoga mats, listening to the sounds of caves in Ecuador as we are led on a sensory journey.

It isn’t long before the deep echoes lull me into a gentle slumber and I come face-to-face with my internal voice – my body tells me I need rest, my temples feel overworked and my heart yearns for more self-love. It’s a deeply emotional and therapeutic experience and I wake up with a new understanding of myself.

‘You can practise deep listening for as little or as long as you like,’ says Katherine. ‘As you gain more presence and listen with intent, you’ll be less distracted by noise around you and able to focus on your task ahead.’

It’s time to eat. My lunch at home? A quick microwave meal in-between meetings. Not today – I join onto one of Birch’s weekly foraging sessions, where I’ll hunting for plants and foods and eating them off the forest floor.

I meet professional forager George, AKA Flavour Fred, who explains that foraging is simply making use of the flavours in nature.

‘It’s extremely valuable to your work day,’ he tells us. ‘You’re immersed in wilderness and surrounded by many colours and smells – it’s a treat and a break for the senses.’

My first find is jelly ear mushrooms growing on a tree – a winner stuffed with goats cheese, apparently. Then, I’m congratulated by my new foraging friends as I discover a scarlet elf cup mushroom amongst a bunch of nettles and told to keep it as a pizza topping.

Heading deeper into the forest, we pick sorrel leaves and lemon balm and crush them to make pesto served on oatcakes (with a sprinkle of salt and lemon George brought along). It certainly feels rewarding and refreshing – and I’ve got to say, it beat the supermarket stuff by a mile.

When pitching for business, I’d usually be in a boardroom. Today, I’m meeting Alice Aitken, Founder of Om Baby, in the forest, dressed in jeans and wellies.

I talk her through business objectives, creative strategies and content ideas while tripping over twigs, falling down rabbit holes and getting lost in the woods.

But by exploring and sharing the wonder of our surroundings, we could connect on a personal level, which seems so natural and impactful. I realise that business doesn’t always need to be formal – being outdoors and discovering new places together actually merges your work personality and authentic self, which can often lead to the most fruitful business connections.

Shortly after, I take a ‘wellness coffee break’ and join a sacred cacao ceremony. Drinking this raw, medicinal chocolate is said to uncover wisdom and release a surge of blood flow to your head and heart.

The claimed benefits include informed decision-making, inner guidance and increasing daily gratitude.

Led by Cacao Alchemist, Molly Chinner, we’re handed a cup of hot cacao and told that drinking it can have a profound effect – you might cry, laugh or feel empowered.

‘Unlike caffeine, cacao releases a long-lasting energy that lasts for the whole day, making it a practical work option,’ says Molly.

I sip the bitter, earthy drink, which stirs through my body and releases my unwanted nervous energy. While I don’t feel a rush of emotions, I am able to breathe clearer and for once, not have any work FOMO while taking a break.

The retreat teaches me that wellbeing is actually part of our work toolkit – it helps maximise what you’re doing and allows you to enjoy it in the process.

These practices aren’t taught to you in school, nor are they part of workplace agendas, yet a recent study by MetLife UK found that more than 10 million workers in the UK have called in sick as a result of feeling burnt out, costing UK businesses more than £700m a year.

Could work and wellness be the answer to staying motivated and energised – and actually make employees feel well enough to work?

You don’t need to attend a work-and-wellness retreat to master the art of doing both.

‘The key is to start being mindful and find what suits you,’ says Angie Tiwari, Wellness Educator & Coach and Founder of Tiwari Yoga. ‘Perhaps you’re holding your breath while reading an email or skipping those important breaks.’

‘Try simply stretching your fingers individually, then the whole hand, twice a day.

‘Also, rolling your shoulders forwards and backwards whilst tilting the neck from left to right brings you back to yourself and energises. Follow this by gently rolling the head around, tucking the chin into your chest and moving intuitively.’

Back at home, I’ve been putting my work and wellness techniques to good use. I’ve started collecting my thoughts each morning whilst drawing or journalling, being intuitive with my breaks and heading to the local park for one virtual meeting a day.

Most importantly, I’m not making work an excuse for skipping wellness anymore, because it’s helped me work at a faster pace, increased my attention span and pumped me up for my work ahead.

I can’t help but think that as work culture and lifestyles have shifted so much over the pandemic, this might just be work and wellbeing’s big moment.

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