Does anti-stress adult colouring really work?

Looking for a quick calm-me-down to punctuate a day packed with meetings and a To Do list that keeps getting longer?

Pull out the crayons, says Melbourne psychologist and neuroscientist Dr Stan Rodski, who's been doing brisk business with his Colourtation range of anti-stress adult colouring books launched earlier this year. Now into a third print run of 15,000 copies, the books feature intricate geometric designs ideal for colouring in.

Colour me calm

Tests have shown that the act of colouring in can have an effect on brain wave rhythms.

Focusing, even for a few minutes, on staying between the lines can help individuals gear down from busy beta frequency to the more relaxed alpha state typically experienced while listening to music or meditating, according to Rodski.

"You have to enable an organisation to do practical things to help employees," he says. "It's not the answer to stress on its own but can form a valuable part of the program.

Your colouring book might be something you pull out when you're struggling to quietly focus – like when you're on a conference call.

Michelle Pizer

"The concept really is an aid to the biggest and most fundamental way to deal with stress and revitalisation – relaxing through breathing and meditation."

The books have found favour with corporate customers including ANZ Bank, Suncorp, Bupa and Victoria's Metro Trains, which has commissioned a customised version with a railway flavour for its staff. This isn't Thomas and the Fat Controller – think geometric tracks, crossings and rolling stock themes.

Between the lines

Further afield, China's Harbin Ministry of Education is looking at introducing the books into its curriculum as a relaxation aid for students struggling to cope in the country's hothouse education climate.

Cute idea – but no substitute for leadership that's committed to improving the sort of unhealthy workplace culture that causes workers' stress levels to go stratospheric in the first place, says organisational consultant Virginia Mansell.

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"Whilst there is overwhelming evidence of increasing levels of stress in the workplace, this mechanism creates perceptions that we are treating employees like children," Mansell says.

"Stress and anxiety are serious issues which need to be treated seriously not trivialised by what I see as a short term band-aid fix.

"I think the HR community needs to think through introducing these types of solutions to employees which affect their self esteem and which, in turn, undermines any serious commitment to real change."

Colouring wars

Melbourne organisational psychologist Michelle Pizer is less critical. "If you wouldn't be seen on a yoga mat, or doing a walking meditation or any of those mindful prescriptions that help improve your focus, slow your busy mind down and improve your mental health … then why not try a little colouring in?" she says.

"Your colouring book might be something you pull out when you're struggling to quietly focus – like when you're on a conference call, when you're in need of some inspiration, or when you need to regroup, change gears and then get going again.

"If it doesn't harm anyone, if it doesn't become yet another competitive sport – who's the best at colouring in? – if it isn't a time suck like social media and if it helps enhance that increasingly rare commodity, focus, then why not?"

Balancing act

Corporate performance coach Andrew Sparks agrees – but don't expect to see captains of industry or other C suite-ers picking up the pencils just yet.

"I don't think we're seeing it at the top; it's not proven or widely established enough to be normal," Sparks says.

Senior executives typically have their own kit of coping strategies to help them survive the perpetual pressure and stress of life at the top, Mansell agrees – and coloured pencils are unlikely to be among them.

Long term sustainable performance at these levels takes enormous intellectual and emotional intelligence, strong leadership skill and high levels of resilience, she says.

"Many I have worked with exercise regularly, take on yoga and meditation and balance their lives socially and with their family life."

The Colourtation books and sell for $20 each, or $14.95 for bulk orders, including pencils. A second three-book series will hit the shelves in August followed by a range aimed at children.