Working Smarter

Work-Life Balance Programs: How to Stop Working the Hard Way

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Humans are prone to doing whatever takes the least effort—even though our brains want us to do the opposite and challenge ourselves. We are a little contradictory. The high brain wants the gratification of growth, while for the autopilot brain the default is to instant gratification and expending as little effort as possible. The TV remote may be the ultimate instrument for this impulse.

At the office, the “easy” reflex results in rote and last-minute behavior, along with the anemic productivity that comes with them. It’s why I usually hear from clients when overwhelm has peaked or work-life balance survey scores are underwater. 

HARDER THAN IT IS

It may seem like it’s easier to work on rote and avoid change, but it’s actually much harder, as clients learn in our work-life balance trainings. When we are stuck on reflex, that keeps us locked in habits that drive stress, slow us down, and make tasks more aggravating than they actually are.

Take interruptions, for example. Left unmanaged, they not only make it much harder to focus and finish the task you are on, but they also make anything you do seem more difficult than it is. They change the perception of the work to something harder. So which is easier? Managing interruptions or being managed by them?

It’s a no-brainer, as it is when it comes to letting devices call the shots or corralling them, so we are in charge. Do nothing and unbounded devices and messaging run amok, adding to workloads and disruptions that slow everyone down. Do out-of-control messaging and constant disruptions make the work easier or harder? Cut the volume of email and check it at set schedules, and you can reduce the amount of interruptions from 96 (checking every five minutes) to three or four times a day, the most productive checking schedules, report researchers at U. C. Irvine and Oklahoma State.

We can all free up hours of time to focus and get work done with a system that manages messaging. This makes changing how we work a lot easier than being bombarded by the anarchy of the status quo. But the law of least effort is seductive and most people today are also caught up in the autopilot of busy-ness, a condition that makes us think we can’t stop for a second, or it will be apocalypse now.

A HEALTHIER ROAD TO SUCCESS

Work-life balance is a process of stopping for a moment to find easier ways to work, of getting tools to carve out the space to live a quality life and take care of personal responsibilities and map out a healthier road to success. In our work-life balance programs we bring your team the best strategies vetted by the research to stop doing things the hard way and start doing things the smart way.

Bad work-life balance survey scores and crazy-busy workplaces rife with overwhelm are clues that things could be done a lot easier. If your team is drowning in meetings and teleconferences, that’s doing it the hard way. If deadlines are out of whack with reality, that’s doing it the hard way. If people are working in a way that drives stress and burnout, that is really doing it the hard way. Stress undermines intellect and drives irrational decisions.

A host of research and best practices tells us that we don’t have to do it the hard way. Instead, with the right self-management, boundaries, and effective norms, any team or organization can get work done faster, communicate more clearly, de-clutter brains, and help employees activate  lives off the job too. It all comes from avoiding the temptation to keep muddling through with the same-old, same-old.

Work-life balance training is about solving problems, taking inefficient habits and turning them into effective practices that create the space to think and manage demands and devices. It’s a collaboration in which we work together to identify the bottlenecks and pressure points that drive productivity and work-life south and get solutions that make work and life easier.

UNLEASHING EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT

I’m working with a client now on a post-work-life balance training sustainment program, two months of developing and practicing skills of sustainable performance. The managers of this global firm, with offices from Stuttgart to Hong Kong, Brazil, and the U.S, are super-enthused as we troubleshoot bottlenecks, set new norms, and make their days more effective. Each new practice they use to manage information or global time zones, or strengthen the work-family perimeter inspires more employee engagement—the very extra effort our species has an aversion to at the most basic level.

It turns out that effort isn’t a problem for people who are encouraged to participate and solve problems. In fact, we all are designed to be self-starters, to have a hand in writing our own script. Initiative and proactive behavior pay off core psychological needs, such as competence, autonomy, and connection with others as well as the quest our brain neurons have for novelty and challenge—the two key elements in long-term fulfillment 

So when it comes to working smarter with a work-life balance training, it’s a win-win-win-win. We improve work effectiveness, satisfy core needs, unleash the fulfilling powers of novelty and challenge, and inspire the discretionary effort that comes from employee engagement. And along the way, we make work, and life, a whole lot easier.

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Tags: employee engagement training, work life balance speakers, work-life balance trainings, overwhelm, information overload programs, employee development programs, work effectiveness, work life balance programs, work life balance, work-life balance and productivity

A New Productivity Model Based on Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

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The traditional measuring stick of productivity has been, let’s face it, a rather masochistic metric—whoever can work the longest or send emails at 2 in the morning. It’s also dead wrong. It’s based on a flawed notion that in the knowledge economy where brainpower rules that a fatigued brain is where it’s at for getting things done.

In fact, MRI scans of fatigued brains look exactly like ones that are sound asleep. The chief productivity tool is attention, and that goes AWOL after three hours of continuous time on task, studies show (Boksem, Meijman, Lorist). 

PREREQUISITE OF PERFORMANCE

Productivity comes from a very different place than burnout and fatigue, from the opposite place than we have been led to believe—from brains that are refreshed and energized. And where do those come from?

The data tells us from organizations that take work-life balance seriously. It turns out that work-life balance is much more than a check-off box on an employee survey. It’s the prerequisite for performance and engagement. It gives employees the tools and encouragement to work more effectively, to take care of their health, improve skills, and work in a way that makes them feel valued.

People who feel they have good work-life balance work 21% harder than those who don’t, reports the Corporate Executive Board, which represents about 80% of the Fortune 500. Gallup found that engaged employees are 28% more productive than those who aren't engaged. But only 29% of workers are engaged. American businesses leave more then $300 billion on the table in lost productivity every year due to disengaged employees.

Naturally, every company wants employee engagement, which means that employees put forth discretionary effort beyond the call of duty. What makes an employee do more than what's necessary? Certainly not a fatigued brain. The key dimension of engaged employees is energy, vigor.

That can’t come from people who are burned out. You will never have engaged employees, if they are caught up in the Burnout Model of productivity. The main marker of burnout and chronic stress is exhaustion, the polar opposite of engagement. All energetic resources have been depleted—mentally, physically, emotionally.

THE EFFECTIVE MODEL

It’s time for a new performance model, one that’s actually based on what the science says works. Let’s trade exhaustion for the Effective Model. The goal is to eliminate the bottlenecks that drain attention and engagement through things like interruption and information management, make operations more effective and less aggravating with better time management, manage demands, refuel the brain, and allow employees the sense that they can take adequate care of responsibilities outside the office. 

In other words, make work-life balance an integral part of the operations and workflow of the team or organization. When the goal is working in a way that strengthens attention, well-being, trust, communication, wellness, and value, it doesn’t take a brain scientist to see that people are more inclined to give not just their all, but more than that, the discretionary effort of employee engagement.

Work-life balance sets the stage for engagement, making employees feel valued, competent, trusted, and that they are a part of the mission, participants, not just cogs. Companies with high participation levels have a 19% higher return on investment, a study by Edward Lawler found.

Every company should want their employees to have better work-life balance, since that leads to the energy, commitment, and involvement that creates engagement. Every company should want their employees to have better self-management and be more proactive. When they are, we can delegate more, more ideas come forward, better communication reduces conflict, and we eliminate stress levels that fuel turnover (40% of people who quit cite stress as the main factor in leaving) and bad decisions.

THE MILLENNIAL CHALLENGE

The Burnout Model leads to ill and drained employees who are there physically but mentally depleted—the condition known as presenteeism, which costs U.S. companies more than $150 billion per year. The Effective Model produces team members whose brains are energized and focused on going the extra mile. Which is the better choice?

As a new generation that prizes work-life balance starts to play a bigger role in the workplace, the timing has never been better to integrate a comprehensive work-life program in every organization. There is a tectonic shift in corporate culture under way led by millennials and their values, and the Effective Model of work-life balance can lead the way. It’s a no-brainer for millennials—for productivity, commitment, wellness, and satisfaction.

How do you get started? Start with our comprehensive employee Work-Life Balance training that brings the strategies of the latest science to help your team work smarter and live better. We also offer a follow-up program that sustains the new behaviors, builds in new protocols and norms, and identifies challenges and solutions. Aftwards, everyone wonders why they didn't do this years ago. Let common sense and work-life balance demonstrate that there's another road to success, instead of one that is best described by an old Monty Python routine, "Being Hit on the Head Lessons."

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Tags: work-life balance training, presenteeism, avoiding burnout, employee development programs, employee engagement, work life balance programs, work life balance, work-life balance and employee engagement, work-life balance and productivity, work-life balance and millennials, millennials

Work Stress: 7 Stress Tests That Can Save Your Life & Team

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Humans made it through the survival gauntlet of evolution because of our legendary adaptability. Cold, heat, bad food—we adjusted and kept on ticking. Yet adaptability is a habit that can threaten your survival—and the productivity, decision-making, and bottom line of your organization when it comes to stress.

At first, you might feel the churning stomach or the headaches of a stressor overloading coping ability. Then the body gets used to it. The adrenaline set off by the stress response to help you fight or run from danger masks the fact that your body is going down in any number of ways—heart disease, diabetes, irritable bowel. Your team or department also gets used to the stress and adapts to it.

The adrenaline set off by the stress response makes you think you are handling it, but it’s an illusion. Stress is eating away at your health, suppressing your immune system, increasing the bad cholesterol, decreasing the good cholesterol and providing a false sense of energy and transcendence. Chronic stress can lead to stroke, depression, and burnout, the last stage of stress and a three-way shutdown of mind, body, and emotions.  

STRESS KILLS

Stress is nothing to mess around with. It’s a factor in five out of the six leading causes of death and some estimates have it as an element in more than 75% of doctor visits.

Stress is a killer. At one workshop I led for a large consulting firm, I learned that one of their top consultants, in his forties, had a heart attack on a bathroom floor while on assignment. He was known as someone who would go to the wall on every job. At a federal agency, managers told me about hospitalizations and nervous breakdowns because of stress. One entrepreneur I spoke with had a heart attack at the age of 29 from out-of-control stress.

Of course, all this has a massive impact on productivity, health costs, errors, and absenteeism for organizations. Stress costs U. S. companies $407 billion a year in health bills, absenteeism, lost productivity, and recruiting and training, according to U. C. Irvine stress researcher Peter Schnall.

The havoc doesn’t have to happen. We can manage stress with one simple new habit: regular stress testing. We do eye checkups, mammograms, blood panels, but we are never taught to identify and manage stress. We need to measure stress levels on a regular basis, say experts like Schnall, or we wind up at the mercy of a runaway medical train.

How do you know if you are in the danger zone? There are a number of tests you can do to monitor your stress levels, from saliva to blood and treadmill tests. If you are under a lot of strain, and even if you think you are managing the pressure, you need to make the time to take a stress test. Tom Row, a Tennessee scientist I spoke with, didn’t even know he was stressed when he had a heart attack at his office and was carried out on a stretcher. He’d been doing 12-hour workdays for years. 

ASSESS YOUR STRESS

Let’s take a look at some of the main types of stress tests, beginning with cortisol testing. Stress sets off a flood of hormones from your adrenal glands, including adrenaline and cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, to help your body prepare for action to confront danger.

Elevated cortisol levels from stress, though, cause a host of problems, from high blood pressure to heart disease, and can increase the risk of depression. Interestingly, researchers have found that cortisol levels drop in people who have burnout—another reason to do the test. Burnout depletes your adrenal glands of the hormones and energetic resources you need to function. Chronic fatigue and Addison’s disease are marked by low cortisol levels. So cortisol testing can determine both if you have abnormally high levels of the hormone and very low.

  • Saliva Test. This may be the simplest stress test, one which checks cortisol levels at various times throughout the day. The process involves leaving your saliva in a test tube-like device and sending it off to a lab for analysis. You can buy saliva test kits over the counter and online. Most experts, though, feel that the saliva test is less accurate than a blood serum test.
  • Cortisol Blood Test.  We all know the drill here. Needle time. Have your doctor draw blood and submit it to a cortisol analysis. The test will determine whether you have abnormal cortisol levels, high or low. Certain medications can interfere with test results, such as steroid drugs, estrogen, androgens, and anti-seizure drugs. According to the National Institute of Health, the normal values for a test at 8 a.m. are 6 to 23 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL).
  • Cortisol Urine Test. You can also measure your cortisol levels with a standard urine test.  The National Institute of Health reports that the normal range is 10 to 100 micrograms per 24 hours (mcg/24h).
  • Cognitive Stress Test. This non-invasive approach can be very helpful in identifying stress and various physical byproducts of strain and high demands. The questionnaire can be used in conjunction with other tests, such as a blood test or blood pressure test to map out the larger picture of demands outstripping coping ability and the effects that is having on your body and thinking. 
  • Blood Pressure Test. Keeping an eye on blood pressure is an important tool to track the effect of stress on your cardiovascular system. U. C. Irvine’s Schnall says that it’s crucial you get your blood pressure measured, not just at the doctor’s office, but also at work. The true state of elevated blood pressure may not appear in the calm of the doctor’s room. He strongly recommends that you test BP at work to measure how your body is faring in the heat of the workday. According to the American Heart Assoc., Stage 1 Hypertension begins at a systolic number (the top number on your BP reading) of 140-159 or a diastolic number (the lower figure) of 90-99. Hypertension Stage 2 is a systolic of 160 or higher and a diastolic of 100 or higher, while a Hypertension Crisis is higher than 180 for systolic and 110 for diastolic.
  • Electrocardiogram Test (EKG). This test can find underlying issues of heart disease and hypertension. Electrodes measure electrical signals in the heart that can find patterns of rhythms and heartbeats that may be a tipoff to problems. The devices have gotten very streamlined and much easier to use, and can spit out results on the spot, so you can get a very quick analysis of your heart health.
  • Exercise Stress Test.  An EKG, though, may not always be enough. Brian Curin, co-founder of the Flip Flop Shops, can thank the exercise stress test for saving his life. An EKG didn’t catch the massive jam in his arteries. Sometimes known as a treadmill test, the exercise test measures the way your heart responds to physical effort, and the extra demands can ferret out issues other tests can’t. This test pinpointed an array of problems so serious that Curin was advised to go directly into surgery, where he had to have a quadruple bypass at the age of 39. Do yourself a favor, and take the time for your health and get this test done.

Beyond monitoring and testing, if your office or department has a stress problem, don't ignore it. Fix it. Reach out and contact us, and we can show you how a stress management program can give your team tools to control demands, instead of the other way around. Stress is optional. 

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Tags: productivity and stress, stress management training, stress, job stress, burnout, cost of stress, heart attacks, job burnout, stress management programs, chronic stress, burnout prevention, stress testing, managing stress

The Unspoken Key to Work-Life Balance: Stoplights

Posted by Joe Robinson

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I wouldn’t want to live in Los Angeles, Houston, Boston, or any other city without traffic lights. The roads are loony enough as it is, but without rules of the road, you’ve got anarchy. Yet that is the situation we face at companies large and small these days.

The anarchic flow of messaging and interruptions pour in without rules or any kind of traffic management, causing massive tie-ups that lead to always-on availability, disruptions and distractions that torpedo productivity, overwhelm and a lot of unbalanced characters.

THE GREAT UNSPOKEN

The pattern operates unchallenged, devices calling the tune, with the humans caught up in a kind of learned helplessness. The dysfunction runs the show because of one basic behavior: silence. Employees are afraid to speak up, and swamped managers are too overwhelmed to think or listen. Everyone throws up their hands in futility.

In this realm of the great unspoken, vagueness rules, and with it, no perimeters on availability, device-checking, or expectations on turnaround times. This is especially the case for global organizations, on whose employees the sun never sets.

Everyone knows this doesn’t make sense. The researchers say it’s highly counterproductive—an unbounded world shreds working memory and attention, drives stress and burnout, and leaves staff disengaged and cynical. Yet we remain trapped because we can’t bring ourselves to get the topic on the table. What can you do? It turns out, a lot, if we start talking. Let’s start doing that now.

DEFAULT TO YES

I led a half-day work-life balance program last week for a global organization facing many of these issues. The group of managers, hailing from China to the U.S., to England and Germany, were highly committed to their work—and, prompted to zero in on hurdles, turned out to be hungry to talk about ways to manage the droves of competing demands and time zones and carve out work-life balance for their families and health.

My experience is that it’s not lack of interest on the part of managers that keeps the cycle going. In the course of our session, the consensus was that in the scramble of information overload and exploding to-do lists, there has been a default to Yes too often. Too many of us don’t pause long enough to reflect if we can really take on one more thing right now and don’t say anything if we have misgivings. This autopilot keeps us doing more than we can do well.

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Traffic management in the working world is handled through boundaries. Speaking up about them and identifying bright lines is as logical for business as it is for work-life balance, research shows, because that is how we find out what’s not working. One Harvard report called the word “No,” the office’s “voice-oriented improvement system.” Of course, you’re not blurting out No; you’re just not responding with an instant Yes, as we do when we are in rote mode. It’s a process of asking questions, qualifying urgency, clarifying priorities, and exploring alternatives to see how, if, and when you can deliver the task or project on a schedule that doesn’t blow up on you.

ENGAGEMENT REQUIRES COMMUNICATION

If management knew more about how important communication is for employee engagement, there would be a lot more talking. Studies show that the worst engagement is for employees whose managers never have time to meet with them, while 87% of engaged employees know their managers well.

When no one has a second to communicate, vagueness and anarchy dominate and everyone is left to fend for themselves. Collaboration is the most effective leadership model for employee engagement, and that comes from communication, something that satisfies core psychological needs that make people feel valued. Feeling valued is the driving force behind the discretionary effort of engagement, something that can make employees 28% more productive, according to Gallup.

Reining in the unbounded world can start in any department and organization with a conversation about task bottlenecks, deadlines, overcommitment, and the work-life challenges that come from letting devices and blind frenzy call the shots. The humans can install traffic lights, using the most basic management tool: boundaries.

And that is how the global company I’m working with is proceeding, moving forward with a new handbook on effective-work norms to provide best-practice guidance for regulating devices and interruptions as well as understandings about availability and emergencies.

Solving the traffic-light problem solves many others in the process, increasing productivity, morale, and engagement, as it reduces stress and helps everyone find the space to strike a better work-life balance. Isn’t that worth stopping the traffic for a second so we can go forward without crashing?

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Tags: employee engagement programs, interruptions and productivity, work-life balance training, work life balance speakers, productivity programs, information overload programs, email management, employee productivity, employee training, avoiding burnout, employee development programs, increase productivity, employee engagement, work life balance programs, work life balance

The Link Between Vacations, Productivity, and Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Humans are energy machines. We expend energy over the course of the workday and work year in our body and brains (which use up 20% of the body’s calories), and then we have to replace it, or fatigue sets in, stress and exhaustion build, and productivity plummets.

It’s a basic law of effort: Quality output requires quality input. It’s called recovery in the scientific journals, and one of the best ways to get it is through the recuperative benefits of a vacation.

TIME OFF BOOSTS TIME ON

An innovative conference, the Vacation Commitment Summit, will explore why vacations energize output on June 15 in New York City. Business leaders, health experts, and executives at companies from Go Daddy to MasterCard will make the case for why vacations are an essential tool of recovery, productivity, and work-life balance. I will also be speaking at the event, hosted by Take Back Your Time and Diamond Resorts. The all-day program is open to the public. Everyone in talent management is invited to attend. Click here for more details on the event. 

The annual vacation, which used to be a rite of summer for families in the 1960s and 1970s, has been shrinking ever since, with nearly two-thirds of Americans telling a Harris poll that they won’t be taking a vacation longer than a week. Numerous surveys show Americans giving back vacation days, 169 million days a year, according to a study conducted by Oxford Economics for the U.S. Travel Association.

There are many reasons for these trends—lean staffing, fear of layoffs, technology addiction, crisis mentality from an epidemic of false urgency and frenzy, and certainly ignorance about how our biology works, or doesn’t, when it can’t get the recovery it needs, from the cellular level to the blood glucose that gets spent in the course of staying disciplined and focused on the job. But executives shouldn’t cheer the extra days people spend on the job, since exhaustion doesn’t lead to effective work. Without recovery, employees fall prey to chronic stress, absenteeism, and burnout, the central feature of which is exhaustion.

ENGAGEMENT OR BURNOUT?

Exhaustion is the opposite of what every manager wants: employee engagement. When employees are engaged, they are 28% more productive, according to Gallup data. Engaged employees willingly put out extra “discretionary effort.” They are so committed to the work they do, they go the extra mile. Studies have shown that the key dimensions of engagement are involvement, efficacy, and energy. Engagement takes physical and mental energy, participation. That can’t happen when someone is exhausted and burned out.

The antithesis of engagement, say researchers, is burnout. Instead of energy, the key burnout dimension is exhaustion. Instead of involvement, you get cynicism, which is described as an active disengagement from others. You get depersonalized, demotivated. Not a recipe for interacting with colleagues and customers. And, of course, there's no efficacy when someone is weary and cynical. Instead, you have the opposite: ineffectualness.

Gallup found that only 29% of American workers are engaged. That means business leaves more than $300 billion on the table in lost discretionary effort. Add to that more than $400 billion that American business loses every year due to stress-related costs, according to U. C. Irvine stress researcher, Peter Schnall, and you begin to see that having a recovery strategy like vacations—and making sure your employees take them—is critical.

PERFORMING BETTER ON VACATIONS

The concept of the vacation was invented by companies back in the early part of the twentieth century as a productivity tool. They conducted fatigue studies and found that employees performed better after a respite. The same is true today. In one study by Alertness Solutions, reaction times went up 40% after a vacation.

Work demands build up strain and that causes a loss of energetic resources. That in turn, research by Stevan Hobfoll and Arie Shirom (“Conservation of Resources”) shows, increases stress. Time off helps build lost resources back up again. Hobfoll and Shirom called it “regathering.” They found that it takes two weeks of vacation to get the rucperative benefits to regather crashed emotional resources such as a sense of social support and mastery that go down when we’re burned out.

Vacations shut off the stressors and pressures of work. With the danger signal turned off, the stress response stops, and the body's parasympathetic system can get to work on reparative and maintenance functions. Through the process energy-drained cells get new sustenance. Vacations build positive mood, which crowds out negative experiences/thoughts and “undoes” the physical and mental effects of stress, as Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina has documented.

VACATIONS: THE TALENT INSURANCE POLICY

Since 40% of job turnover is due to stress, consider the vacation then, a proven stress buster, as an insurance policy against losing top talent and the high costs associated with replacing an employee. Some studies show that it can cost up to two times an annual salary to replace a valued salaried employee.

Charlotte Fritz and Sabine Sonnentag (2006) found that “health complaints and exhaustion significantly decreased during vacation,” and that there was a performance increase when employees got back to the job. Employees reported less effort needed to do their work.

LEADING THE WAY

Some companies are starting to put two and two together and are emphasizing vacations as a key component of productivity and workplace cultures that walk the talk on work-life balance. Highly successful inbound marketing firm Hubspot, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, offers unlimited vacations to its employees and mandates they take at least two weeks of it.

Another major company, Evernote, also has an unlimited vacation policy. To make sure people take time off, Evernote pays employees $1000 to take at least a week of vacation. Go Daddy offers three weeks of vacation the first year on the job, something Go Daddy employee benefits director Laurie Brednich will speak about at the Vacation Summit on June 15 in New York.

Many of the companies leading the charge to a new understanding about the role of recovery/vacations in productivity and work-life balance policies are technology companies. They are embracing a belief they see in evidence in an information-overloaded age that in the knowledge economy, it’s not how spent your gray matter is that that leads to productive results, it’s how fresh your brain is. A focused, energized brain gets the most work done the fastest. Policies that keep minds in the red zone of chronic stress and see endurance as a measure of commitment undermine productivity and fly in the face of all the data. 

There is a word on the other side of the hyphen of “work-life” balance. The life side is essential to resupply the resources needed to get the work done well—and, is, after all, the point of all the work, isn’t it?

If you’d like to attend the Vacation Commitment Summit and learn from leading companies and health experts, click here.  

June 15, 9 a.m.

Sheraton New York Times Square

810 7th Avenue 23rd Floor

212-581-1000

Tags: employee engagement training, wellness, productivity and stress, employee productivity, vacation, avoiding burnout, leisure and stress, increase productivity, productivity, employee engagement, work life balance programs, stress management, cost of stress, reducing stress, stress management programs, stress and vacations, vacations and productivity,

The Antidote to Job Stress and Overwhelm: Conscious Work

Posted by Joe Robinson

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No doubt, we are creatures of habit. We put on the same shoe first, sit in the same chair in class or meetings, and drive the same route to work so often we don’t remember passing any exit signs or landmarks. We just show up at the office, as if we had one of those Google cars that drives itself. This is because we are often on autopilot, unconscious to present awareness, letting muscle memory and the rote part of our brain run the show.

Habits make the world safe and familiar and remove potential threats from our day, but they also prevent us from thinking, planning, managing demands and stressors, growing, excelling, or even being gratified. It turns out that gratification comes from two things that habit rules out: novelty and challenge. That’s what we really want, says neuroscientist Gregory Berns, author of Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment.

The brain stops paying attention to things we do over and over, preferring to focus on new data. The result is that we operate on rote reflex most of the time, particularly in a tech-dominated workplace, in which we react to devices and others’ crisis mentality all day and chase our own tails. This plays right into the hands of stress and burnout, mistakes, overwhelm, anger, and a host of other unconscious and unhealthy behaviors. Attention is the chief productivity tool, and when we don’t have it because we are operating on rote mechanical momentum, the work takes longer and feels harder, studies show.

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RAT RACE OF HABIT

Some habits can be helpful—brushing teeth, practicing piano—but a lot of our habits at work aren’t. The thing about habits is that we continue to do them even when they don’t work for us. An MIT study trained rats to run a T-shaped maze. In the first test, they got rewarded with chocolate milk if they turned left at the T. With that incentive, the rats doggedly ran left, even after the researchers mixed their chocolate milk with a substance that caused light nausea. They lost their taste for the milk and stopped drinking it, but kept running to the left, even without a reward.

Human habits are just as reflexive, relentlessly pursuing courses that don’t get us anywhere—going ballistic when someone pushes our buttons, reacting immediately to a visual notification on your screen. The good news is that, unlike rodents, we can choose to turn off bad habits by activating the higher brain, the prefrontal cortex to overrule the reflex.

The MIT study discovered that when they turned off certain cells in the rats’ IL cortex, that the rodents stopped their habit of running to the left. They concluded that automatic behaviors dictated by the lower floors of the brain, mainly in the hippocampus region, can be bypassed by our higher command and control center, the cortex.

ACTING CONSCIOUSLY

In other words, we can opt out of habitual behavior that gets in our way and the way of our work by bringing back the thinking. Acting consciously is something essential for time management, information management, and stress management, or events run us, instead of the other way around, which drives stress. I did a 30-minute interview on this topic as part of an online conscious leadership summit that runs through May 25. You can catch my comments at Boost Your Company’s Bottom Line, presented by Allison Gaughan of Corporate Prana, at: http://www.boostyourcompanysbottomline.com.

Gaughan’s company provides meditation and yoga wellness services, techniques that help build attention and focus, which help make us more conscious. It’s when we’re not paying attention that the default behavior pops up in the form of stress, burnout, and overwhelm. All that stuff happens as a reflex reaction. We have to build in a step-back to catch ourselves.

We can do that by rehearsing rational reactions to common buttons that set us off, by building attention to counter reflex through techniques that train our brains to focus on a target, by cutting stress, which drives robotic, blind action, and by making adjustments to how we work that allow us to manage demands, instead of the other way around. Full attention is the definition of employee engagement as well as optimal experience, when we are at our best. It puts the driver, you, back at the wheel of the runaway, unconscious train.

If you are interested in learning how to override autopilot and build attention and engagement for your team or organization, our productivity, work-life balance, and stress management programs do just that. Click the button below for more information:

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Tags: productivity training, crazy busy, avoiding burnout, employee training programs, corporate training, increase productivity, employee engagement, work life balance programs, stress management, job burnout, stress management programs, conscious work

The Hidden Heart of Wellness: Leisure Activities

Posted by Joe Robinson

Hikers

What goes through your head when you have an unoccupied moment outside the office? Most likely it goes something like this: Get busy! I really should be doing something!

The reaction isn’t just based on habit, but something that is drummed into our heads that couldn’t be more hare-brained: Leisure is a lesser realm that has no value. In fact, quality and frequent leisure time is vital to health and life. It IS our life, the thing we’re working for. We don’t get that message, though, and as result, many of us feel squirmy about stepping back, as if only a slacker would partake.

This is what the psychological world calls a “false belief,” an uninformed notion held dear that holds back health, happiness, and the truth.  If you look at the science, getting a regular dose of leisure is as important to your health as eating the right foods or getting exercise. Recreational activities are the missing piece of wellness, the overlooked antidote to entrenched stress and pessimism.

BEYOND BOREDOM

A new study from Matthew Zawadski, a psychology professor at the University of California, Merced, found that people who took part in leisure activities reported they were 34% less stressed and 18% less sad. “When people engage in leisure activity, they have lower stress levels,” he reports on the UC Merced website, “better mood, a lower heart rate and more psychological engagement—that means less boredom, which can help avoid unhealthy behaviors. But it’s important to immerse in the activity and protect leisure time from external stressors.”

In other words, to get those benefits, you have to be engaged in the activity. That doesn’t mean it has to be aerobic or muscle-flexing, though those work great too. Quieter pursuits, such as listening to music, doing puzzles, or sewing can also shift minds out of tension and into the positive space where recovery and flourishing begin.

It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? When you’re having fun and fully immersed, it crowds out stress and negative mood. Why is this so hard to get? One of the reasons is that we have been taught to feel guilty unless we are on task and that productivity is a function of endurance and stamina, a triathlon in pants. All the research tells us this is bogus.

FATIGUED BRAINS LOOK SOUND ASLEEP

Brains that are fatigued look like ones that are sound asleep, MRI scans show. The true source of productivity in the knowledge economy is recharging and refueling and brains that are fresh. Leisure activities have an amazing ability to provide that refreshment, not just because play and doing things we like energize us, but also because these activities satisfy core psychological needs, such as autonomy and competence. That makes us happy. Princeton’s Alan Krueger led a study that found that people are at their happiest when they are involved in engaging leisure activities.

The tonic of engaged leisure acts as a rumination-buster. Rumination—thinking over and over again about our problems—is a core driver of stress. Stress constricts the brain to perceived emergencies that lock us in to loops of doom and gloom, or “awfulizing,” as it’s known in the psychological trade. Leisure activities preoccupy the brain with challenge, learning, and fun, which push out worries and allow a reset.

The University of North Carolina’s Barbara Fredrickson has shown that positive emotions can reverse even the physical effects of stress. They can “undo” a high heart rate and disrupted digestion. They also build resources, in this case of positive emotions that have been shown to buffer stress and help us withstand setbacks.

BUILDING POSITIVE MOOD

If you don’t break up the self-propelling loop of tension and danger in your head, the stress can develop into chronic stress, which can set off a host of medical conditions, and ultimately, morph into burnout, the last stage of chronic stress. That means a mode of continuous fight-or-flight, which suppresses the immune system, and increases the bad cholesterol and decreases the good kind.

We can escape this rut through psychological detachment from the day’s events in the form of that thing right next to us we think is only permissable for kids and retirees: leisure. Making a psychological break from the strains and pressures of the day is an essential stress management tool. It unleashes the positive emotions that turn off the danger signals and bring us back to our core selves and the things and people we enjoy. 

Without a diversion from the day’s preoccupations, we’re left in a morass of negative thoughts and tension. Researchers have shown that leisure activities after work counter the stress loop and negative affect (grouchy, angry, tense, irritable, a non-pleasure to be around) that comes with it. Studies show that people who engage in leisure activities, whether it’s chess, dancing, reading, and especially any activity that involves a mastery experience, wake up the next morning with positive affect and more energy.

PUT PLAY ON THE CALENDAR

Stress is a huge energy-drainer. It forces your organs to work overtime under duress, and that is the opposite of employee engagement, whose main domains include vigor and dedication. Recreational activities refuel that energy, which is why they are a significant piece of wellness and enagement programs.

One of the challenges to unlocking this amazing resource is that stress and the belief it sets off in your ancient brain that you are about to die suppresses the play equipment in the brain. Who wants to have fun when you’re about to kick the bucket? The way around this vise-grip is to plan activities, put them on the calendar, and commit to doing them no matter what negative frame of mind you’re in. Moods are transient, so the false emergency of stress will disappear within a few minutes of doing something fun.

Another way to trick the brain so it doesn’t freeze fun out of your life is to take up a hobby or leisure pursuit. This insures that you engage in the experience on a regular basis and allows for a steady dose of psychological detachment and increasing opportunities to build competence and social connection, core needs. Studies show that a passion can add eight hours of joy to your week. I’m betting that’s something you would consider valuable—even if it comes from that slackery world of leisure.

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Tags: wellness, awfulizing, catastrophic thoughts, leisure and stress, life balance, stress, positive thinking and stress, work life balance programs, work life balance, stress management, stress at work, burnout, stress management programs, wellness programs,

When Working Memory Is Overwhelmed, You Are Too

Posted by Joe Robinson

Overwhelm and working memory

Everybody hates a nag, and that especially goes for the one inside our heads that keeps bugging us about all the to-do’s that have to be tackled NOW. The unfinished items swirl around and around, like a cloud of flies orbiting the cranium, interrupting focus and helping to fuel a belief that we are overwhelmed.

Productivity is a function of how much attention we have on a single task at a time, so any time our thoughts are straying to other projects or hurry-worry to get to the next task, we’re not paying full attention, and that undermines performance. The human brain was designed to do one thing at a time, to use our brains as processing centers, not storage devices.

THOUGHT LIMITS

One of the keys to getting anything done is working memory. Also known as short-term memory, working memory is a temporary holding pen for ideas/thought “chunks” that we are actively using to complete an action at any given time. It has very limited storage capacity over a very brief period of time, thought to be a matter of seconds. It was once thought that we could keep seven thought “chunks” in the brain at one time for working memory use, but researchers now believe the real capacity is three to five items, a core known as the central working memory faculty.

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In a study examining how much subjects could retain in short-term memory in a visual test of shapes and squares, researchers J. Scott Saults and Nelson Cowan (2007) found that subjects could hang on to no more than four items at a time. It’s important to point out that we are not talking about the capacity to do four separate actions at one time, as in multitasking, which is impossible for mortals, but merely to hold that many thought elements in mind while at work on a task.

Researchers aren’t sure why working memories are so limited, but theorize that it was too expensive, in both energy and time, to have excess information getting in the way of processing and action. Evolution appears to have selected out the reverse of information overload—focused selection—as a survival instinct.

Of course, just about everything these days is conspiring against focus, from information overload to stress, which can seriously reduce working memory performance by sidetracking your immediate attention to a perceived emergency.

THE INCOMPLETE LOOP

With working memory so constrained, it’s easy to see how the to-do nag can interfere with the task at hand as it interrupts short-term memory and plays havoc with recall of our primary task. Productivity guru David Allen noticed that “incompletes,” as he calls them, were a big drag on performance, and it led to the central principle of his “Getting Things Done” organizing system. He observed that unfinished tasks will harass in a constant loop unless the item is finished—or the brain is persuaded that you are on the way to completion.

It was the inspiration for his concept of the “next action.” The best way to keep to-do nagging at bay, he argues, is to let the mind know you’re on the case by jotting down the next physical action for each item on your list, breaking tasks down into a series of specific steps. That stops the loop and the brain lets go.

In recent years Allen’s gut instinct was confirmed by science. Florida State University researchers E. J. Masicampo and Roy Baumeister found that unfinished goals interfere with the ability to complete tasks and that writing down plans to finish a task released subjects so they could do their jobs undistracted by to-do nags.

Improving time management has a lot to do with how we manage short-term memory, that brief period of focus within which we get stuff done. That means sealing it off as much as possible, not just from our own incompletes, but also from the siege of electronic intrusions and interruptions, which studies show fracture working memory, and, therefore, productivity.

Interruptions blow up the tenuous hold we have on the three to five items in working memory. We forget thought associations we had before the interruption, or where we were going.

AVOIDING DISRUPTIONS

This is known as a ‘disruption,” when performance plummets because it takes longer to complete the task as you try to piece together the vanished items that were in short-term memory. Think how many disruptions you go through in a day and the downtime and mistakes that result when you try to piece together again what you were doing. 

If you have to take an interruption, finish the task or thought you are on first, and make a note about where you are going with the thought train. That prevents disruptions and helps you get back to where you were without a long backtrack.

Other keys to retaining working memory and avoiding overwhelm are setting the terms of engagement with devices—checking manually at set times, turning off noisemakers and notifications—as well as keeping distractions, such as that bowl of Haagen Dazs or the conflict you had with someone out of your precious few-second realm of working memory. 

When we break away from distractions and intrusions through better planning, organizing and prioritizing and dive deep into the absorption of the moment, we find a realm of focus far from the frazzle of overwhelm and self-badgering where we can be on the same page with, well, ourselves.

If your company would like to avoid the frenzy and frazzle of overwhelm and work less harried and more effectively, click here for more on our productivity trainings and a smarter way to work.

 

 

 

 

Tags: stress management and change, employee engagement programs, increasing productivity, overwhelm, productivity programs, managing interruptions, email management, employee training, stress, information overload, productivity, stress management

Crisis Mentality: The False Emergency Driving Overwhelm and Job Stress

Posted by Joe Robinson

Crisismentalityshot

Crying wolf is a behavior frowned upon by society at large, but celebrated in the workplace. Did you get that email I sent two minutes ago? We need that report by noon! Or what, apocalypse now?

How about that person who sends every email with a giant red exclamation point on it. New cat video!

Granted there are deadlines and competitors to reckon with and work that must be done in a swift way, but that doesn’t mean everything is an emergency every minute of the day, as has become the norm in most organizations caught up in the Crazy-Busy Model of performance. Time panic has become the order of the day, setting off a vicious cycle of clenched necks, churning stomachs, absenteeism, and dismal productivity.

SIEGE OF INDIVIDUAL HEROICS

Harvard management professor Leslie Perlow found in a study she did while at the University of Michigan that nonstop rushing sets off a state of “crisis mentality,” that in turn triggers “individual heroics,” which cause people to believe they can interrupt anyone at any time, which drives more time panic as the interruptions make people fall behind in their work.

Technology has played a large role in amping up the hyperventilation, creating an illusion that the speed with which communications travel can be duplicated by the humans on the other end of them. Devices and the interruptions they rain down on us have also undermined attention spans, and with that the ability to regulate impulse control. Without self-regulation, we have no ability to resist interrupting others or practice patience, which requires self-discipline. We want what we want NOW!

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Perlow found that crisis mentality had a huge impact on performance and engagement at a technology company she studied, reducing both.  The engineers tasked with designing new products were so inundated with interruptions, they would have to work nights and weekends to get anything done. It took longer to finish tasks. The obsession with speed above all else caused people to focus on individual needs over group goals and sapped any commitment the employees may have had for the company.

WHEN EVERYTHING IS AN EMERGENCY, NOTHING IS

It was all-emergency, all the time—even though the emergency was false. Everything became life-and-death, which is a perfect description of the stress response that crisis mentality sets off. It's a false emergency, unless you are literally about to die. You’re not going to expire from a deadline or 300 emails, but time panic can convince your ancient brain otherwise. When everything is an emergency, nothing is.

The frenzy at this company was toxic to deadlines and quality work. One of the insidious things about interruptions is that they make you believe the work you’re doing is more difficult than it actually is.  Studies show that interruptions can increase annoyance and aggravation more than 100%. That makes it easier for irritation to click over into anger, increasing the stress load further.

QUIET TIME

In her study, “Finding Time, Stopping the Frenzy,” Perlow argued that blind rushing is counterproductive and countered it with an intervention at the company that cut crisis mentality and dramatically boosted performance. Her solution, Quiet Time, mandated two periods during the day free of all interruptions and contacting. From 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. in the morning, the engineers couldn’t be interrupted. Normal contact and messaging resumed from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Then it was back to an interruption-free zone from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Performance increased 59% in the morning no-interruption zone and 65% in the 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. focus slot. With minds more focused, productivity even shot up 42% in the period with normal interruptions. The engineers created a new product on time without needing to work every night and weekend for months on end.

Crisis mentality undermines intellect, since stress constricts thinking to the perceived emergency of the moment. That means poor decisions, snap decisions, emotional decisions, and an inability to see beyond the latest crisis—no planning, in other words. It means colleagues at each others’ throats. And it means lots and lots of exclamation points on the emails in your in-box.

We can do better by learning how to qualify urgency, setting boundaries on messaging, respecting others and being judicious about interruptions, getting clarity on what a true emergency is, resisting the hurry-worry of others, and practicing the hidden weapon of excellence: patience.

If your company would like to lose Crazy-Busy Overwhelm and work less harried and more effectively, click here for more on our productivity trainings and a smarter way to work.

Tags: effect of stress on productivity, overwhelm, productivity programs, productivity and stress, employee productivity, productivity training, interruptions, false urgency, increase productivity, stress management, job stress, burnout, chronic stress, time frenzy,, crisis mentality,

Feeling Overwhelmed? You Could Have Attention Deficit Trait

Posted by Joe Robinson

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The woman gabbed on her phone as the clerk rang up her items. The cashier asked if she knew that the shirt and pants she bought were not part of the sale, but the customer was oblivious, chatting away about the nonphenomena of her life as if eight other customers were not in line behind her.

For a second time, then a third, the cashier tried to get the woman’s attention without success, then sent another clerk off to get the correct sale items.  The customers in line simmered. The phone yakking continued. After an interlude of a few minutes, the staffer came back with the items, the woman paid her bill, gathered up a bag of purchases, and then left, forgetting the shirt and pants. The clerk told me it happens all the time with distracted screen zombies.

INSTANT GRATIFICATION

Technology is as addicting as any substance, studies show, and has a similar effect on the brain. Its ceaseless distractions and interruptions erode a critical part of the executive attention function known as effortful control, which regulates impulse control. Without the ability to regulate impulsivity, instant gratification becomes the go-to default. In the case of technology, that means constant message-checking, texting—and the shorter attention spans that come with the disruptions. It becomes difficult to stay on task without self-interrupting for another task or a social media distraction. 

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Adding to the attention problem is the sheer volume of information overload, which is outstripping human bandwidth, undermining productivity and engagement, and driving a malady known as Attention Deficit Trait, or ADT. Identified by Massachusetts psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, ADT mimics the conditions of Attention Deficit Disorder, a neurological disorder that is mostly genetic. ADT, though, is a byproduct exclusively of environment—too many interruptions and excess data overwhelming brain neurons.

Author of Driven to Distraction and a specialist in learning disabilities and ADD, Hallowell sees more and more clients who think they have ADD, but it’s actually Attention Deficit Trait, which is proliferating as the crush of email, texts, social media, Internet data, Instant Messages, and notifications overwhelm gray matter. The information avalanche drives work stress and habits like multitasking that further compromise attention, forcing neurons to do what they weren’t designed to do—simultaneous thinking tasks. As studies from the University of Michigan to Vanderbilt have proven, we can’t do two or more high cognitive tasks at one time.

We may think we are having a phone conversation and doing an email at the same time, but, in fact, we are switching back and forth between tasks. In the process, attention is kicked from the top floor of the brain, the cerebrum, home of the rational and analytical, to rote and irrational floors such as the hippocampus and amygdala, headquarters of mistakes, fear, and emotional decisions.

DISTRACTION DERBY

People with ADT are highly distracted, impatient, and flit from one thing to the next.  They feel overwhelmed and unable to get anything done. They stand back at the end of the day and don’t see outcomes, just incompletes and the undertow of more to-do’s than they can get handle. A sense of falling behind makes them rush through the day to catch up, and that fuels stress.

In fact, they aren’t getting much done, because they can’t stay on task for very long, since impulse control is on the blink. The more they check email, the more they have to check it. Some 44% of interruptions are self-interruptions, and for those with ADT, the number is no doubt higher than that.

The interruptions slow down performance and, as a study by Brian Bailey, Joseph Konstan, and John  Carlis at the University of Minnesota showed, make you think that everything you do is more difficult than it actually is. That jacks up annoyance, impatience, anger, and fear that you can’t keep up, which in turn triggers a false belief that you won’t be able to cope with all the demands on your plate. The perception that you can’t cope sets off the stress response and the panic of fight-or-flight, which constricts the brain to crisis mode. It’s as if your very survival was at stake with each task.

“When you are confronted with the sixth decision after the fifth interruption in the midst of a search for the ninth missing piece of information…and the 12th impossible request has blipped across your computer screen, your brain begins to panic, reacting as if the sixth decision were a bloodthirsty, man-eating tiger,” Hallowell wrote in an article for the Harvard Business Review.

So what can you do to avoid the shortcircuiting of ADT? Here are six ways to take back your brain:

1. Recognize Your Limits. The first step is understanding that the brain has limits—data volume, neural channels, working memory. Overload capacity, and you have blowback, from errors, to stress and burnout, to ADT.

2. Set Boundaries on the Incoming. Boundaries are the key ingredient to keeping ADT at bay—managing interruptions, devices, and priorities. Set the terms of engagement with devices, such as checking messages at designated times three or four times day, as researchers from U. C. Irvine and Oklahoma State recommend.

3. Carve Out No-Interruption Zones. Find times in the day when you can set aside an hour or more to do your high-concentration work without interruption. Maybe it’s the first hour at work. Skip checking email and go right to the tasks that demand the most attention. Shut off email software and your phone.

4. Practice Patience. Turn off the racetrack mind, take a breath, and focus entirely on the task at hand. Get other to-do’s out of mind by writing them down, along with a next-action for each. Don’t be run by self-deadlines that no one else but you are holding yourself to. Impatience is the tripwire for a pattern that leads to irritability, anger, and the stress response.

5. Increase Attention. One of the best ways to combat attention deficit is to increase your ability to concentrate. The key here is focus on a target. Studies have found that Buddhist monks have some of the best powers of attention, due to intensive meditation practice. Meditators improve focus by watching the breath or through a repeated mantra.  Meditation, or the relaxation response, as it is known in lay form, is highly effective at building attention, as are hobbies from chess to salsa dancing, that make you pay attention to rules and action to the exclusion of all else.

6. Take Breaks.  Humans are energy machines. Energy we use to complete tasks and stay self-disciplined has to be replaced in the form of breaks, nutrition, exercise, hobbies, and mental resets of even a few minutes. Attention fades with fatigue, so make sure to keep your chief productivity resource charged and energized.

ADT is not something that happens to slackers. It’s a byproduct of doing too much and cramming the brain with more data than it can process. Therein lies the way out. Make adjustments so that you're not doing more than you can do well, and you keep ADT and its frenzied work style at bay. After all, the humans are in charge, aren’t they?

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