Working Smarter

How to Get Employees to Buy In to Change Because They Want To

Posted by Joe Robinson

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For all its myopia, homo sapiens has stuck around for millennia because of its ability to survive all sorts of environments, climates, skullduggery, and duress. We have a talent for adapting and bending to new circumstances, matched only by how we resist the new world initially.

We can go from hating kale to almost liking it, because it’s good for us. We can be convinced that a haircut that shaves one side of the head is not the unfortunate result of brain surgery but, in fact, looks edgy, because it’s cool.

REFLEX RESISTANCE

We are the adaptable species that doesn’t like to change but will— given an appropriate amount of reasoning or illogic via peer influence. In fact, as much as most of us like to hang on to the old way, our real nature is change. We’re changing from our toes to the tips of our hair every day we are alive. The world and people around us are changing. The work we do changes, and we have to adapt, or get left behind.

Teams and divisions get consolidated, shrunk, merged, purged. People who have been doing things one way now have to do them another. The reflex is to resist the new way. What is it that unsettles your team about change? Are there ways to get sign-on to new policies and systems without an insurrection? How do minds come to accept a shift away from what's always been done?

The surprising key for anyone involved in change management is that we are all of distinctly two minds. The defensive equipment in the brain wants things to stay the same. There’s less chance of something calamitous happening that way. On the other hand, our brain neurons want two things more than anything else for long-term fulfillment: novelty and challenge, both of which have to do with stepping into the unknown and unpredictable.

It’s a battle the defensive brain usually wins, at the cost of growth and moving forward invidually and employee engagement and employee morale at the organization level. To get people to sign on to change, we have to appeal to the higher realms of the brain that want to learn, take initiative, and make progress. That’s something we can do when we get them involved in the process and understanding the rationale behind the changes.

THE RATIONALE FOR CHANGE

The research of Ed Deci and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester shows that when you give someone a reason for doing something, they’re more inclined to do it willingly. Even if they don’t want to do it, if you give them a rationale for why they should, they internalize the task, which increases its importance and, as a result, the willingness to do it. It’s like the kale. People buy into the health argument, and suddenly, it’s less like chewing alfalfa and more digestible.

Letting people know why they have to do things is essential to digesting change. This is because the higher brain equipment that seeks challenge and growth wants us to satisfy key psychological needs, such as autonomy and competence, that require we be more than mannequins. Commands and control may get acquiescence but not agreement, and that fuels disengagement, the opposite of what both manager and employee want.

We are all designed to be engaged, to make choices and be involved in things that affect our world, job, life. When we feel self-responsible and a participant in the change, that activates the core needs that make us feel true to our aspirations and goals. We feel part of the change, instead of part of the order-taking.

Since we have the equipment built-in for change with our latent desire for novelty and challenge, all we have to do is appeal to it by seeking out the input and assessment of those who are going to experience changes. The more transparent about the change we can be, the better. Have everyone make suggestions about how to implement the changes. Get them to help chart the path forward.

This creates the perception of choice, and with that, resistance turns into shared redesign. Use the opportunity to ask for thoughts on other changes that could help the work process move smoother. They can win new process improvements, and you get people feeling a part of the team enough to help move the change forward.

I’ve found that work-life-balance trainings are a great way to introduce process upgrades and fixes that make everyone feel they are, not only a part of the initiative, but also being listened to and valued during the process of change. Our work-life balance trainings, for instance, help people embrace change, because they see the concrete benefits that come from them, making work and life less difficult. This paves the way for the larger change issue or reinvention. Doing them in tandem builds trust.

CHALLENGE DRIVES SATISFACTION

The language of change is critical. The phrasing should be informational, not controlling. Instead of relaying an edict and that you “have to” do this, lay out the scenario and ask the team for their suggestions. How can the new situation move us all forward? How do we implement it?

Progress is one of the key levers for employee satisfaction, so people want to move in that direction. They just need to feel they play a part in making it happen. That’s the autonomy piece.

The fear of change, is, of course, about security, ego, doing new things that you might not have done before, exposing a learning curve. Try to move the issue from the personal to a group participation project. Have everyone contribute something to the process, so everyone is learning and a part of charting the new course.

Research shows that development programs are one of the big levers for employee engagement, no doubt because of the novelty and challenge mandate of our brain neurons. Satisfaction, brain scientists say, is a byproduct, not of doing what’s easy, but of doing things that make us stretch. We can’t satisfy our need for competence by doing what’s easy.

Since it comes with challenge, change, then, can be a key route to job satisfaction—when people know why they’re doing it and that through their active participation they are the change they are making.

If changes are affecting engagement for your team, click the button below for details on our work-life balance training or employee engagement programs, which can turn attitudes and engagement around and open the door to change.

 

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Tags: work-life balance training, employee engagement, change management, employee morale, managing change, participation and morale

The Science of Work Recovery: How to Leave Work Stress at Work

Posted by Joe Robinson

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IN THE BEST stress management advice ever delivered in a pop song, Paul McCartney gave it a good try. Though tens of millions heard his plea, few “let it be.”

McCartney had it exactly right. So much angst in life has to do with the inability of the brain to let go of things. A schnauzer or a tabby is adept at this, dropping a stressful moment like it never happened. Humans, unfortunately, did not get this talent.

DETOXING BY DETACHING

Stress is a byproduct of exaggerated fears and thoughts we give life to by hanging on to them and ruminating about them incessantly. Rumination entranches false beliefs and makes them appear real. It’s pretty darn masochistic, but most of it comes from autopilot behavior programmed by an overactive defense system. We can opt out of reflex cling mode with awareness.

One of the keys to managing a major source of circular worries, job stress, as well as creating better work-life balance, is leaving work at work. That shuts off the day's stressors and allows the body to repair itself from the effects of strain and tension. It’s called work recovery by researchers, a process of detaching from work thoughts and engaging in experiences that help restore the body to pre-stressor levels. It's a reset button that flips the switch on stowaway stress with proactive recovery strategies.

Initiating leisure and recuperative strategies is something few of us are equipped for in a culture in which idle time is the devil’s time. As a result, most of us go home without a plan for how to let go of the day’s events and shift over to another mindset. And managers would never imagine that they  can play a major role in the process simply by encouraging staff to recharge after work in whichever way they enjoy—exercise, to meditation and hobbies.

The science shows that psychological detachment from work through relaxation and recreation isn’t something to feel guilty about—it’s essential for attention, engagement, and health. Without recovery from the strain that results from unmanaged demands, any number of medical issues, from cardiovascular disease to irritable bowel to burnout can occur, as well as poor performance, cynicism, presenteeism and absenteeism.

RECOVERY IS A TWO-WAY STREET

Research by Sabine Sonnentag and Charlotte Fritz and others has documented that a break from the work state of mind allows recovery from strain and ends the pattern of negative affect that drives pessimism and chronic stress. Studies show that people who are able to detach from the day's work tensions are more likely to report positive mood in the morning and a reduction in stress. No doubt, these folks are also having a lot more fun, since stress suppresses the play equipment in the brain.

New research shows that turning off the stress replay machine after work is as critical for employees and leaders as it is during work hours, and that managers can play a key role in helping employees restore well-being at home. A study that looked at the intersection of supervisor signals and norms around recovery (Bennett, Gabriel, Calderwood, Dahling, Trougakos) found that when employees are encouraged by managers to unwind after work, they are more likely to do just that, leading to a healthier staff and workplace. “If supervisors adopt norms supporting employees leaving work at work, employees will seek to meet these expectations,” the authors wrote. 

Supervisors who are supportive of exercise, recreation, and pastimes have a big influence on the employee’s ability to shift out of the work mind and get the relaxation, social interaction, or detachment they need for recovery. Job strain and time pressure over the course of the day tax mental resources, requiring extra effort to get anything done. If energetic and self-regulation resources burned up over the course of the day aren’t replaced, it comes out of our performance hide the next day and the next in the form of fatigue, researchers have found. The toll has to be countered on a daily basis. 

READING THE SIGNALS

When managers don’t signal that it’s okay to step back after work, the Bennett, Gabriel study found that employees are more prone to take work home with them and to ponder work issues. This tends to occur when supervisors and employees have a very tight connection, which is usually a good thing, especially for employee engagement. But when people are very close to their leaders, they want to help them out more, even to their detriment of not being able to let the office go after work and doing more than they can do well.

It starts with something as basic as asking what a staffer is doing to recharge and refuel. Inquire about hobbies. What do they do for exercise? Open the door beyond shop talk. Let them know that performance is the sum total of the whole person—energy, health, optimism, and mood. People who go home with negative affect and stress that is not alleviated come back to work the next day with negative affect. Let employees know you want them to leave the workday at the office and live a healthy life outside it, since a fresh and energized mind is the key to productivity in the knowedge economy.

So what can we do to restore resources at the end of the day and shut off the stress loop? Let’s look at the four main routes to work recovery: psychological detachment, relaxation, mastery, and control. Studies show that these recovery processes can reduce fatigue, increase work engagement (Brummelhuis, Bakker) and improve health and well-being (Sonnentag, Binnewies, Mojza).

 FOUR RECOVERY KEYS

1. Psychological detachment. This is a fancy description of something pretty logical. Stop thinking about work and the worries that flow from it. It's easier said than done, though, when the adrenaline is high after a tough day and/or commute, and the rumination parade of projected anxieties is under way.

Continuing to think and talk about work issues keeps you mentally still at work, so find ways to change the subject. Another option is to create physical and electronic barriers to prevent the default to a desk or work emails and help separate work and home. Imagine yourself flipping a light switch off as you leave work. You’ve switched over to another job now, your life.

2. Relaxation. There is a false belief in our work culture that you have to be at the threshold of pain or near collapse before you are entitled to relax. Taking care of yourself needs no justification. Relaxation is built in to the human physiology. Activation periods of stress are meant to be followed by the reparative parasympathetic system of rest and maintenance. Relaxing is essential to recover and restore the body and the brain's equilibrium to pre-stressor levels. 

Create a buffer zone when you get home from work of 30 minutes or more if you can to do what you like to do to relax—go for a run, meditate, hit the gym, listen to music (one of the best stress shifters since stress is dependent on dire mood). Make it a routine. 

3. Mastery. Research shows that mastery experiences are one of the best ways to promote recovery and knock out stress. These are activities done outside of work that allow for personal growth, skill-building, and learning. We all have three core needs--autonomy, competence, and conection with others. Mastery experiences put us in touch with these needs and get us aligned with who we are. 

Whether it’s cycling, salsa dancing, learning a musical instrument or a language—studies show that the mastery process can shut off stress activation even in the middle of work, at lunchtime, as well as at home. Identify things you want to learn, potential passions, and you crowd out negative affect with positive autonomy and competence. A passion can add eight hours of joy to your week, the ultimate antidote to stress.

4. Control. The activating ingredient in stress is control, or rather, the lack of it. The more control, or latitude, we feel we have over a stressor, the less perceived stress. There are two sides of the control issue, control at work, i.e., having the ability to make some decisions about work processes, not the work itself, and leisure control, deciding how to spend your off-hours. Find ways during the day to experience more choice over how you work, or get a shot of it on a break. One study found that playing a computer game on a break increases recovery (Reinecke). 

Increased leisure control reduces strain by helping you feel more in charge of your life and able to put aside a bad day with something that lifts you up and is autonomous. The idea here is to identify what you, not others, like to do for fun and recreation and indulge it regularly. You have to be entrepreneurial about your leisure activities. No one can choose them or make them happen but you. Most of what we do outside of work is ad hoc, minus thought or planning. Put leisure ideas and activities on the calendar, or they don’t happen. Take your life as seriously as your work.

The strain-stress cycle is pretty simple in its insidiousness. It goes off automatically and we react on reflex, fanning the false alarms with rumination and helplessness. The solution is getting off autopilot,  contesting stress, and engaging in recovery processes that help us get back to the pre-stress state. Work recovery science shows us the way forward, that managing stress is both a proactive work AND life process in which we learn how to put McCartney’s advice to work. And let it be.

If you would like to learn more about our stress mangement programs for your team and organization, click the button below for more details.

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Tags: stress relief, stress management training, stress management, burnout, work stress, work recovery

The Cure for Retention Problems in Lean Times? Changing Minds with Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

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One of the more frequent retention issues I encounter with clients is how to keep employees engaged and happy in a lean and mean era. Typically, the organization is losing top talent to higher pay elsewhere, often across the country where incomes are higher. It’s a challenge I see a lot in the healthcare and government arenas. How do you keep your people on board when you can’t offer more money?

Without a solution, cynicism and presenteeism grow, along with disengaged employees. Morale plunges in a downward spiral of frustration and futility. Nothing is going to change, and employees who feel this way are only too happy to keep broadcasting that mantra incessantly, dragging down the whole team. Humans are designed to pick up on the emotions and expressions of others, so gloom and doom spreads through the organization like a virus.

MIND OVER MONEY MATTERS

Financial constraints make options limited, at least in the paycheck department, but there are other tools available. Research tells us that if you change the way someone thinks about their work, they can go from actively disengaged to engaged. This, then, is the way forward, reframing the single most important piece to employee engagement and job satisfaction—the thoughts that determine attitude, motivation, and belief that employees are able to satisfy core psychological needs that make them feel gratified in what they do every day. This is what we do through our work-life balance programs and employee engagement training.

Money definitely matters, but there are factors that go deeper than that. Studies show that more than half of Americans, for instance, would take more time off, instead of more money. Clearly, this is something that is doable in almost any organization. An extra week’s vacation can make a huge difference in outlook and retention. People feel valued and highly grateful when they get more time off. Cincinnati firm, Jancoa, saw their retention problems disappear when they added an extra week of vacation, going from two to three weeks. Staff turnover dropped from 360% to 60%. Sales increased 15%.

People want to feel valued. This sensation is the essence of engagement, a belief that because you are valued by the organization, you are going to work longer, harder, and forego the big bucks in return. Engaged employees are 28% more productive (Gallup), so finding ways to make people feel respected, competent, and a key member of the team is essential. Engaged employees don’t leave. Their needs are being met, and then some.

Employee morale is a complex dance in which you have to supply the choreography. That comes from understanding what makes employees want to dance in the first place. Researchers have discovered that what drives us all is something very different than what we once thought. It was believed that we all acted or not based on rewards or punishments, that we were little different than a horse cart driver dangling a carrot in front of the mare. We were motivated by the treat or by the stick of the angry driver.

JUST DO IT TO DO IT

It turns out that there is a more sophisticated and potent motivation, one that drives us from the inside out, instead of the pursuit of external yardsticks, such as money, status, and what other people think. The most powerful engine of motivation is internal goals, known as intrinsic motivation. You act for the sake of it, the inherent interest, not to get some instrumental gain. You do it to do it, and that’s enough, because you are advancing internally through goals such as excellence, challenge, learning, fun, or service.

A study by Harackiewiez and Elliott found that “intrinsically motivated employees are continuously interested in the work they’re doing.” When the focus is on the work itself and satisfying core psychological needs through it, people can focus on the excellence or service of their work in the moment and not be focused on an external payoff. Not only does this make employees feel better about themselves and their jobs, it drives attention, the chief productivity tool. Studies show that intrinsically motivated people are more focused on their tasks, like them more, and remember them longer.

How can you get people to act more intrinsically and less extrinsically (for the payoff only)? That piece comes through an understanding of what your employees really need. As Ed Deci and Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester have detailed, we all have three core needs: 1) autonomy, 2) competence, and 3) relatedness. We have to feel that we are not being forced and controlled all the time and have some choice. We have to feel effective. And, as the social animal, we have to have close connections with others.

WORK-LIFE BALANCE TRAINING REFRAMES THE GAME

Through our work-life balanceand employee engagement programs we help your employees satisfy all those needs by giving them tools to exercise more freedom in how they do their work. They all have a job they have to do, but how they do it is how we can build in autonomy and choice. That makes people feel a part of the process, a valued team member, and more competent too. Firms with the highest employee involvement have a 19% higher return on investment. That’s the dividend of the discretionary effort that comes from engagement.

Work-life balance and autonomy support practices keep eyes on the internal prize, instead of on what others are doing or getting, or the next reward that the research tells us fades very quickly. The thrill of a job promotion, for instance, is gone in two weeks. Then you’re back to how you felt before the promotion. Working in pursuit of core need gratification promotes teamwork, dialogue, self-responsibility and innovation.

Unleashing the power inside your employees to work for intrinsic goals of craft, excellence, or service to others, in tandem with practices that make the workday much easier and less stressful, gratifies employees with the real arbiter of worth and valuation—their own self-scripting and purpose equipment. It’s a potent package that lasts way longer than a raise, which, though very nice, is ephemeral.

One of my favorite bits of research, detailed by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow, shows that for any new money we add to our budgets, we then need 40% more to feel like we have enough. It’s a treadmill on which our wants never catch up to our needs. Because they’re not our real needs.

If you would like to get details on our work-life balance and employee engagement employee training programs, click the button below for details. Make a quantum leap.

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Tags: employee engagement training, improve employee engagement, employee retention, work life balance programs, work life balance, employee morale, employee motivation

Five Ways to Unleash the Antidote to Work Stress and Overwhelm: Control

Posted by Joe Robinson

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WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME you saw someone freaking out because they were completely in control of their work? I’m going to take a wild guess: never. Feeling that you have control over demands means that the demands are no longer a threat, and, as a result, they can’t turn on your ancient defense equipment, the stress response.

Control is the difference between managing work and life pressures and being at the frayed mercy of them. It’s a critical distinction in an unbounded world of devices and distractions, where so many things are intruding into working memories and limited bandwidths that it seems we have no control over anything. As the unmanaged email and interruption count skyrockets, so does overwhelm, which explodes when there are more demands than we think we can keep up with.

THE FUEL OF JOB STRESS

When things are out of control, you can bet stress and work-life balance are too. Work-life balance is itself an exercise in control, trying to ensure that both work and home responsibilities are being handled.

Researcher Robert Karasek of the University of Massachusetts identified the central mechanism in work stress as the level of demands versus the amount of control over them. The more decision “latitude” you have, the ability to affect the work you do and how you do it, the less stress. High demands and low control add up to high stress. High demands and high control, though, mean the work is manageable, even enjoyable as a challenge.

How to Stop the Hidden  Engine of Stress: Rumination

Karasek’s job strain model demonstrated that employees with the least decision-making options had more exhaustion, depression and sleep issues. These unhealthy impacts of little latitude have been vetted by scads of research over the years, including the landmark British Whitehall Studies, I and II, which examined some 28,000 civil servants altogether. Those investigations found a clear connection between stress and the position of the person in the organization hierarchy. The lowest ranking people, who had the least decision-making discretion, had a mortality rate three times higher than administrators.

Interestingly enough, this dichotomy is also what Stanford University scientist Robert Sapolsky found in his research with apes. Those on the bottom of the social totem pole were the most stressed and least healthy. Helplessness is stressful, and in humans it leads to a downward spiral of pessimism and depression.

LATITUDE ADJUSTMENT

Having the ability to control the work environment makes a massive difference in how brains process demands. When we can’t do anything about job demands mental strain develops. That in turn can set off the body’s defense equipment, since you aren’t able to take actions to cope with the demands. Not being able to mitigate a demand that is perceived as a threat is the definition of stress—and a fight-or-flight trigger.

Control isn’t just key to managing demands, it’s also the essential element of attention, performance, and doing the tasks that need to be done. It’s a managing partner with self-regulation in discipline and willpower to keep you focused on task. Stress undermines intellect and constricts the brain to perceived crises and rumination in tenses other than the one you’re trying to work in, which shreds focus and concentration. The same is true of missing work-life balance, the lack of which is an ongoing source of concern and guilt, taking minds far afield when home issues aren’t being handled.

Obviously, we can’t all be control freaks on the job. We are there to do what others want, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be more flexibility in how individuals choose to do and think about the practices they are tasked with and how managers frame the tasks to be done. This is the dynamic behind autonomy support, one of the most effective systems for increasing employee engagement, when people willingly put forth extra effort. It’s based on tapping into core human needs such as autonomy and competence, which bolster perception of self-control by increasing employee involvement and responsibility.

Getting more control over your work-life is a matter of taking many practical steps to better organize, plan, and manage an unbounded world. It comes down to something that all humans are primed to do for their own safety and well-being—make life more predictable. Threats are manageable when we have wrestled them into more predictable paths and outcomes. I’m not saying you have to be a psychic, but you do have to take steps to harness the bucking broncos in your life and minimize the possibility of being thrown.

Here are a few steps that can help you feel more control:

1. Control Email and Devices. If you have your email on autopilot, with incoming every five minutes, that’s a potential of 96 interruptions over the course of the day. Unbounded email is a great way to drive overwhelm. Check your email at designated times. Three and four times a day is the most productive, say U. C. Irvine and Oklahoma State researchers. Keep your email and phone turned off and check them manually when you decide, not the startle response set off by device noisemakers.

2. Interruption Management. Disable the visual alerts on your screen. Set aside times, 30 minutes here, an hour there, for no-interruption zones. Put a message on your autoresponder that you’re on a deadline. Researchers say that when you’re being interrupted, it makes anything you’re doing seem more difficult, i. e., out of control, than it actually is.

3. Stop Multitasking. Circus clowns can juggle bowling pins, but you can’t do more than one cognitive task at a time. There’s only one neural channel for language to go through. You are not talking on the phone and doing email at the same time. You are switching back and forth. In that switching there’s a cost: stress, as brain neurons try to figure out where they were before they jumped to the secondary task.

4. Ask for a Rationale. Studies show that when we ask for a rationale for doing a task or give one to someone we’re asking to do something, the task gets internalized, and it becomes something more important and makes us feel we are exercising choice, autonomy, latitude. This undercuts hierarchy and order-taking strain.

5. Time Estimation. Take time and figure out how long it takes you to do each of your primary tasks. When you are asked to do one of them, you then have a hard time estimate, instead of wishful optimism, about how long it’s going to take to do it.

And finally, Karasek pinpointed demands that drive low control and strain—time pressure, reaction time needed, pacing, amount of work, having to wait for others to do their part of the task, interruptions, and concentration needed. How could you and your team adjust these demands to make them more manageable?

Propose alternative ways of doing a task that would allow you to feel it’s more manageable. Studies show that speaking up doesn't have the whammy we think. It’s how everyone finds out what isn’t working, in other words, what’s out of control.

If you would like to train your team in effective work practices, reduce stress, and increase productivity, click the button below for details on our time management training, stress management training, and work-life balance programs.

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Tags: overwhelm, feeling overwhelmed, stress, stress management, job stress, reducing stress, work stress, job strain model

How to Measure Your Stress: Take the Stress Test

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Possession may be nine-tenths of the law, but perception is ten-tenths of stress. It’s the whole kit and caboodle. The way we view a stressful event determines whether we transcend pressures or fall prey to alarms that set off the fight-or-flight equipment.

We know that’s true at a practical level, since friends, family, or work colleagues experience the same demands we do, but they can react very differently. One person drives the mountain road on the edge of a deep canyon without concern while another goes through high anxiety. Two colleagues get the same work assignment, but one reacts emotionally and ruminates about how it’s all going to get done while another has no alarm and figures it will all get done, as everything always does.

A CHALLENGE YOU ARE UP TO

These differences are great news, because they prove that demands of all sizes and shapes are being managed by some people, so it must be possible for others to manage them too. And it is, because stress is a state of mind, and we can change that and the leap-to-crazed-thoughts in it to reflect a reality that is not a threat, but simply a challenge we are up to.

Stress occurs when we perceive that a threat outstrips our ability to cope with it. But perceptions are only as good as the facts and reality behind them. Stress-triggering perceptions aren’t based on either, but, instead on rash, panicked thoughts from way back on the family tree.

It’s not the stressful comment or deadline that causes stress; it’s your reaction to it/perception of it. Your thoughts and interpretation of the event are the problem, fed by the story of an outmoded brain that doesn’t know how to compute the social stressors of the modern world. It misperceives the threat and activates your ancient survival equipment to fight or run from too many emails, a colleague’s high-decibel voice, or an upcoming presentation. None of these are life-threatening moments, but your mind, controlled by the irrational thoughts of a brute in Flintstones garb from 100,000 BC, perceives that the situation is more than you can cope with.

To avoid being played by misperceptions, we have to be able to catch ourselves when stressful events go off and contest the false life-or-death signal with a spin based on the reality of today. The problem with stress is that it’s an automatic reaction, the signal going off before we have time to think. The key is to catch ourselves when stress bites, step away from the triggering event and change the story by bringing back the 21st-century brain.

As soon as you feel stress go off or that you can’t cope with something, take a deep breath and try to classify a category of stressor—ego hit, change, overwhelm, setback, interpersonal conflict, overload. This forces you to think rationally, which helps bring thoughts out of rote emotionality and back to the modern world. This is how the perception starts to shift, from autopilot, unconscious panic to analysis and reason.

FIND THE STRESS BOTTOM-LINE

Now go to the root of the stress. What’s at the bottom of it? When you find a culprit, find out what’s under that. Keep digging until you get to the bottom line, which is going to be a variation on an all-or-nothing belief such as “I’m going to lose my job or house” that ultimately comes down to “I won’t be able to handle it.” It’s that perception that determines whether your thoughts trigger stress, and then hang on to it for hours, weeks, or even years. The fact is, you can handle it, as you have always handled everything else.

There are a number of proven stress reduction processes that can help you dispute false perceptions, cut obsessive thoughts and rumination that drive catastrophizing, and let you cognitively reach a rational assessment that a demand or pressure can be handled. Our stress management training and coaching gives you the tools to flip perceptions and contest them. Is it an emergency or a false perception? We work to build in behaviors to counter knee-jerk perceptions that have no basis in fact.

A good place to start on reframing misperceptions and reducing stress is to identify the level of stress in your life. Here are a some questions from a cognitive stress test that can help you determine stress levels. To download the whole test and scoring information, please click the button below.

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  1. In the last month, how often have you been upset because of something that happened unexpectedly? 0 – Never 1 – Almost Never 2 – Sometimes 3 – Fairly Often 4 – Very Often
  1. In the last month, how often have you felt that you were unable to control the important things in your life? 0 – Never 1 – Almost Never 2 – Sometimes 3 – Fairly Often 4 – Very Often
  1. In the last month, how often have you felt nervous and stressed? 0 – Never 1 – Almost Never 2 – Sometimes 3 – Fairly Often 4 – Very Often

As much as we are run by our instant reactions to stressors, we are not at their mercy, since we have the power to control our reactions and perceptions. It’s a choice we can make to either buy the catastrophic thoughts and exaggerated emotions or to confront them and cut off the engine of stress and burnout.

Tell yourself, I don’t react to stowaway perceptions from hunter-gatherer days. I create my own, based on facts. One of those facts can overpower the fight-run rut: It’s not life or death. It’s just life. And I can handle it.

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Tags: stress, stress management, stress test

The Call of Risk: Fear Is Momentary, Regret Is Forever

Posted by Joe Robinson

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If fear was gold, we’d all be millionaires. Unfortunately, the payoff is mostly less than zero for this ancient and epidemic human emotion. In the epic battle in your brain between the forces of safety and growth, the comfort zone usually wins, keeping at bay a skill essential to the full expression of your non-work life: risk-taking.

You’d never know it in a world of alarmists and nay-sayers, but we weren’t built to cling to the Barcalounger. The biochemistry is designed for the exact opposite, to go where we haven’t gone before. Comfort is your enemy.

Risk is the central piece of forward progress—and the life satisfaction that springs from it. Without managing fears we can’t satisfy the mandate of our brain neurons for novelty and challenge, the keys to long-term life fulfillment, say brain researchers, not to mention avoiding the regrets that rush in when fear squelches our progress.

Without risk, we can’t gratify core psychological needs that require that we step off the moving sidewalk and chart the path we're here for.

ITCHY SECURITY TRIGGER

Fear is the power of what doesn't exist to control what does. It has the upper hand most of the time, thanks to an itchy security trigger from our days back on the savanna and our habit of not disputing the emotional backwash in our brains. If it’s in my head, it’s gotta be true. The research shows we can outfox fear’s vise-grip on risk by modifying our behavior and thoughts and changing the terms of risk evaluation.

What risks has fear overruled for you? Maybe a trip someone convinced you wasn’t safe, an activity you didn’t want to look like a fool doing?Looking back, you’d make a different choice, because, with time you see that the “fears” were false, momentary blips of projected anxiety that stepped on the neck of your life.

How to Stop the Hidden  Engine of Stress: Rumination

Fear is momentary; regrets are forever. The reality is that fears that paralyze us today will be long forgotten tomorrow, and we’ll be left with the after-effects of opting for safety — life unexperienced, progress unmade, a truckful of regret. All because of irrational neuron burps in your brain. For nothing, in other words.

It’s the opportunities we don’t act on that cause the most regret, say researchers, known as “the inaction effect.” Instead of looking back years later at what we wished we would have done, why not look back now in the moment of risk, and use regret to transcend autopilot fears?

IRRATIONAL PROJECTIONS = REGRET

Regret is a built-in insurance policy to make sure we don’t leave too much life on the table. It forces us to see the big picture fear obscures. Think how mad you’re going to be later that projections in your brain of things that don’t exist kept you from the life you could have lived. Instead, let the prospect of future regret fortify your courage to act now.

We pay for the safety default with boredom and stir-craziness, items born of something built into the DNA — adaptation. We’re made to get tired of reruns. This anti-rut device is designed to make us change things up. Core psychological needs, such as autonomy and competence, can only be satisfied when you demonstrate your capacity to take on new things 

We can improve risk-taking ability by changing attitude, increasing competence and through a process of reframing fears called fear extinction. Researchers have found that people in a positive frame of mind tend to see risk as an opportunity, not a threat. Stress management is key, since stress keeps your brain constricted to the perceived crisis of the moment, i.e., negativity. Intrinsic goals are another way to disarm fear. Acting for the sake of the experience itself removes the expectations that give us pause.

Risk is about managing uncertainty. The more that uncertainty is managed, and the more you feel competent to handle the risk, the easier it is to step forward, instead of back. Competence makes you see potential benefits, instead of threats, say researchers.

Fears can also be weakened by exposure to threatening stimuli. You can change fearful images by altering your memory of them. Each time you recall a memory and add or subtract from it, you are defanging the initial fear.

More of us could take the risks we need by changing the equation from potential loss to gain. Try viewing the unknown, not as a threat, but as exploring, exactly what your brain neurons want you to do.

Researchers call the release of the brain’s party chemical, dopamine, at the mere expectation of something novel the “exploration bonus.” You can get your bonus through incremental risk, one step at a time 

GET TO THE BASE CAMP 

Mountaineer Ed Viesturs, the first American to climb the world’s 14 tallest peaks, made a practice of not looking at the summit when he climbed a daunting peak. Too intimidating. “You see this rock in front of you and say, I’m going to go to that rock and then I’m going to stop,” he told me. His goal for the day is the base camp, not the summit.

In the course of doing a book on the power of engaged experience, Don't Miss Your Life, I met a host of folks who have applied the spirit of exploration to risks in their personal lives that have transformed their lives. Psychotherapist Sheila Gross turned the jitters of performing with a group of strangers into the most important feature of her week — singing in a community choir. Accountant Marty Herman transcended his social fears by becoming an ace salsa dancer in his 50s.

Breast cancer survivor Cindy Roberts overcame her battle with the ultimate fear through the power of dragon boat paddling. She knows the truth behind risk: There’s no such thing as security anyway. “There is no later. Live it now,” she says.

Mountaineers call the initial climb of a peak a “first ascent.” There’s an extra incentive in bagging a “first,” a distinction we can use to turn the discomfort of doing something new to its flip-side: excitement.

What can you do for the first time this week? Next week? It could be anything from trying an exotic fruit for the first time to signing up for a dance class. Consider your “firsts” progress, and the route to a life of no regrets.

If you would like to get fear, anxiety, and stress under control, we offer programs for individuals and companies. Manage demands and thoughts, instead of the other way around. Click on one of the buttons below for more details on our stress management training programs.

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Tags: avoiding regrets, fear, risk-taking and fear, risk, regret, stress and fear

6 Ways Remote Workers Can Get on Top of Boundaries and Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

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REMOTE WORKING is one of the most popular employee perks. Employers should be fans of it, too, since it does wonders for performance. One study (Pitt-Catsouphes, Marchetta) found that productivity increased 10% to 30% for those working from home offices.

That’s a big payoff and a compelling reason to do more of it. More companies are doing just that. Some 37% of Americans (Gallup) are now working at least some of the workweek at home. Contrary to the image, though, of teleworkers slacking around the house, they actually work more than their colleagues at the corporate office. It’s adding up to a growing downside for virtual workers, whose work-life balance dreams are not always paying off the way they thought.

Remote staff have been shown to work 50-75 hours per week (Doherty et al, Pratt), averaging consistently longer days than their coworkers at headquarters.

THE PROXIMITY FACTOR

And therein lies the irony of telecommuting. As much as remote workers like the increased freedom, lack of commute, and fewer interruptions, a practice chosen for better work-life balance can make it worse. A Center for Work and Family study found that only 24% of telecommuters rated their work-life balance as very good, compared to 38% of those who worked at the office but used daily flex time.

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It’s not the remote option itself that’s driving long hours and a trip down the burnout track. The culprits are the lack of boundaries and self-management skills and the proximity factor. You can’t drive away from the office at the end of the day when it’s in your house. The three priorities you didn’t get to today are feet away from handling. Why not go back to the desk and polish off one more task?

Remote workers have a problem knowing when to say when in an unstructured environment in which there is added pressure to make it known you are getting the job done even though no one can physically see you. An affliction known as guilt enters into the equation, a need to prove worth from afar by going the next several miles beyond to compensate for the lack of face time.

I recently led a work-life balance training for a remote team at a medical laboratory firm. The company was happy to retain top talent by giving them the option to work from their homes across the U. S. As much as they liked the autonomy that virtual work provided, the group was finding it difficult to shut off the workday, get the mental detachment necessary at the end of office hours, and were too accessible to technology that followed some of them straight into bed at night.

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VOTE OF CONFIDENCE

We zeroed in on the importance of time management, boundaries, and setting the terms of engagement with technology. Companies that allow employees to work remotely are providing a vote of confidence in the ability of their virtual staff to self-manage their day. The responsibility is on the individual to structure the day in an effective way and utilize technology so that it enhances, not overwhelms, the chief productivity tool—attention.

Let’s take a look at six habits that can turn remote work into what it was designed for, an aid to a more flexible life and a better work-life fit:

1. Keep Office Hours. It's the same work, just in a different space. To rein in a default to excessivley long workdays, set office hours for yourself and stick to them. You have the advantage of being able to slot in a child's play or yoga session—just keep them within a set schedule. Don't go off on impulsive distractions—such as social media tangents—that destroy focus and make you fall behind. Simulate the schedule of headquarters at home as much as possible.

2. Set Stop Times. The work is not all going to get done by the end of the day, but you can finish yourself off by chronically going on too long. Long hours have been shown to dramatically increase strain and the stress that results from it. Choose a time at which you can remove fingers from keyboards, put down the phone, and stop for the day. What is a reasonable stop time for you? You are not always going to be able to stop on a dime, but aim for consistencly regular closing hours. Kick out the last person in the office, you, at the approinted time. Set an alarm as a reminder. Turn your coffee mug over to symbolize that the day is done. You're going home. Wait a second, you're already there.

3. Set Boundaries on Technology. The remote employee has to have greater reserves of self-regulation, i.e. discipline, to avoid the temptation of having all communcation with the outside world bombarding and notifying incessantly. That means having a strategy to deal with unbounded technology is essential. Check devices manually at set times. Three or four times daily are the most productive schedules, researchers at the University of California Irvine and Oklahoma State report. Try starting at hourly checks and wean down from there. Turn off visual notifcations on your screens. 

4. Organize Your Desk and Prioritize. It's a lot easier for clutter and distractions to pile up at home. Organize your workspace and remove all distractions from view. Get set up for maximum concentration. Turn off browsers. Prioritize and plan the day's events.  Take 10 minutes at the start of the day to prioritize. Qualify tasks by the urgency of doing them now, and create a next physical action for items on the to-do list.

5. Create Focus Zones. When are you the most alert? If you are a morning person, that's going to be anywhere from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., and if you are a night own, it's going to be in the late afternoon, 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Set aside 30 minutes, an hour, whatever you can spare, and block it off to do your high concentration work. Put a message on your auto-responder that you're on a deadline and will be back at a designated time.

6. Take Breaks and Get Exercise. This is an area that is tailor-made for remote workers—so it's important to utilize it. You have been left to make your own schedule. That means you can create one that allows your brain and body to get the daily recharging they need. It's easy to put the head down and barrel ahead for 10 straight hours, but the work and your health will suffer as a result. Researchers say we need to give the brain a break every 90 minutes to two hours. Set times you can step back for a 10- or 15-minute reboot. Use your breaks to build in exercise, to take a walk, do some stretching, or make your lunch break an exercise break. Studies show that 30 minutes of aerobic exercise at lunch time increases productivity.

Going from the corporate office to the remote office can be a tough adjustment, one that we aren’t really prepared for. Yet the autonomy can pay powerful dividends for those who get organized and prioritized—more opportunity to take care of personal and family issues, easier access to refueling breaks, more concentration, and best of all, gratification of one of our core psychological needs. We all have a need to feel autonomous and to chart our course.

Remote working offers a choice to take on more responsibility, and when we do, our brain neurons like it, and pay it off in the form of job and life satisfaction. As long as we can resist the digital, self-interruptive, and caloric temptations.

Tags: work life balance, telecommuting, time management skills, home office tips, remote working

The Amazing Habit That Fuels Success: Positive Affect

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Forget the power suit and the room full of movers and shakers. The most effective weapon in the success arsenal may be something that appears to be a typo — positive affect.

The word is “affect,” not “effect,” though it has a big one when you deploy it. Positive affect is the body language of happiness, a buoyant and optimistic spirit transmitted via facial expression, tone of voice and demeanor. The research shows that when you have it, the world wants in.

HALLMARK OF WELL-BEING

The scientific literature brims with testaments to the power of positive affect, from success in the social arena to health (less stress, hypertension), job success, creativity and problem-solving. Positive psychology heavyweights Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ed Diener and Laura King demonstrated in a meta-analysis of 225 research papers covering 275,000 participants that this “hallmark of well-being,” as they call it, spawns numerous successful outcomes and “behaviors paralleling success.”

They found that people with frequent positive affect are more likely to be successful in their professional lives, make more money and get more promotions. Those with chronic happiness have better social relationships, more support and stronger friendships.

Studies show that the most cheerful people make $25,000 more than the least cheerful (Diener). Happy people get more raises over time (Shaw) and are evaluated more highly by supervisors (Cropanzano, Wright). 

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“Chronically happy people,” Lyubomirsky, Diener and King report, “are in general more successful ... their success is in large part a consequence of their happiness and frequent experience of positive affect.”

It turns out that a happy state leads to success, instead of the other way around. Obviously, you have to be able to do more than be upbeat to succeed in the world. But the right disposition increases the odds.

VISIBLE VIBRANCY

When you’re in a good mood, energy soars and you have a welcome sign out to the world that you’re available for business or conversation. Visible vibrancy is contagious, thanks to the social circuitry built into our brains in the form of mirror neurons. These cells simulate the actions of others in our minds and emotions. When somebody laughs uncontrollably, your mirror neurons soon have your facial muscles breaking into a smile or chuckle too. When a friend is depressed, your neurons follow the cues and adjust your emotions downward.

I remember boarding a plane for a trip to Africa to do a story on Zimbabwe. My photographer and I were so cranked up about the adventure that it showed, and a flight attendant got caught up in the excitement. After a brief chitchat about the trip, she upgraded us, unprompted, from coach to first class. That’s positive affect, a spirit that’s infectious.

Research has linked positive affect with increased confidence, energy, optimism, self-efficacy, sociability, conflict resolution skills, likability, ability to cope with stress and challenges, as well as reduced cardiovascular events and improved immune function. Studies show that employees with a positive disposition have more autonomy and meaning in their jobs and that work performance is impacted more by well-being than the performance itself.

When you start out on the positive side of the ledger, you don’t have as far to travel emotionally to connect with someone, to enjoy yourself, to be spontaneous and jump into something new. You’re already there. People animated by positive emotions are more apt “to approach than to avoid,” say Lyubomirsky, Diener and King.

We all know people who are stocked with positive affect. Magic Johnson, the genial former Laker great, or Virgin boss Richard Branson exude positive affect, with sunny, outgoing dispositions and no fear of smiling. It’s as if their childhood exuberance didn’t get beaten out of them by adulthood.

YOU'RE NOT STUCK WITH WHAT YOU GOT

That’s what happens to most of us. The school of hard knocks keeps knocking and hardening, and moving us further and further away from what fuels curiosity, aliveness and enthusiasm. Some people come by this trait genetically, but if you don’t, the research shows that positive emotions can work even without a disposition inclined that way. You’re not stuck with what you’ve got.

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The goal isn’t a 24/7 grinning stupor. That’s not how our emotions work. Your mood swings back and forth in repeated cycles every day. The aim is a frequent state of positive feeling and vibrancy that opens you up to opportunity, instead of shutting it out with the default reflexes of cynicism and apathy that dog the protective realm of adulthood. 

You can dramatically increase your levels of positive affect with frequent participation in experiences that boost joy, fun, and social connection, beefing up your reserves of key components of visible vibrancy — physical vitality, pro-social behavior, optimism, expressive body language, flexibility and spontaneity.

You have to be clever about it, since negative emotions are more powerful than positive ones. It requires tricking the inner curmudgeon, which will torpedo anything out of character. Fake it till you make it.

In one study a group of introverts asked to pretend they were extroverts in a job interview performed just as well as the extroverts in making an impression.

Making life come alive, the data is telling us, comes down to skills and traits of self-determination that allow us to create the world we want. Positive affect is one of them. What you mirror is what you get.

If you would like to get a jump-start on positive affect and living the fullest life, check out our coaching page or sign up for one of our online life balance classes.

Tags: happiness, wellness, positive emotions, job success, positive emotions and success, introversion, postive affect, subjective well-being

You Are What You Say: Words That Create Stress and the Best Phrase to Shut It Down

Posted by Joe Robinson

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HOW MANY TIMES have you worried about a future event, only to have nothing dire happen? The answer, I’m guessing, is more than a few. We’ve all been down this path so many times—sweating up a dump truck of angst, only to have zero dreaded results take place. It’s almost disappointing that the bad event didn’t happen, you put in so much hard-fought consternation over it. 

Why do we worry when there’s so little chance of any of it occurring? We’re designed to be worrywarts. It’s part of the defense equipment that has allowed the species to survive this far by erring on the side of the negative—and, as a result, to stories as imaginative as anything penned by Melville or Kipling.

FEAR'S FICTIONAL TALES

Fear makes us all expert storytellers—and not-so-expert predictors. It specializes in creative worst-case scenarios and a stream of fiction that drives stress, "awfulizing," and the chronic anxiety process.

Stress comes, not from anyone else, but from the story we tell ourselves about a stressful event—in other words, from our own thoughts. That story is supplied by an ancient part of the brain that is out of its depth in a world of social stressors and sees everything through the lens it was created for, threats to life and limb. Any threat that overloads coping ability sets off this one-track alarm in the emotional limbic system and its hub, the amygdala.

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Since it believes you are about to be deceased, the brain yells fire in your mental movie theater, concocting stories way out of proportion to the event and awfulizing bordering on the hysterical. But you are not about to expire, you are simply caught in a reflex false belief that can only exist if you take it seriously.

Crucial to the illusion is the language of stress. It produces a vocabulary that reinforces extreme, black-and-white thinking and its stories, which must be true, since they are in your own words. Except they are not.

The first thought that goes off in the brain after a setback is a catastrophic one. The self-talk tells us that it’s the end of ego, job, relationship, life as we know it. This all-or-nothing thinking is made convincing by the language that comes with it, such as, “I’ll never make it,” or “This always happens.” "It's over." Terms like always and never exaggerate the setback, ratcheting up anger, fear, or humiliation into the life-and-death event they are not.

INFLAMMATORY LANGUAGE

The words we speak under the influence of the stress response make the false stories appear real and set up a cycle of rumination, or obsessive thinking, i.e., worrying about the stressful event. The most destructive words are those that explain things that happen to us as permanent and pervasive, such as “never” and “always,” “completely,” “can’t,” “forever,” “finished,” “impossible.” They are a trap, leaving no way out, and they are utterly false.

This kind of language can lead to what's known as a pessimistic explanatory style, describing why events happen to us in a negative way, which has been shown to be very bad for health and performance and success on the job. People with negative explanatory style get major illnesses much earlier in life than those who have an optimistic explanatory style, they are less productive and have less rapport with colleagues.

We are what we say we are. The language of stress inflames the irrational emotions that drive chronic stress and pessimism. Or the words we use can open the door to a response that fosters resilience in the face of challenge.

One of the keys to exiting exaggerated, negative framing is avoiding the phraseology of permanence. Stressful events are not permanent. They are temporary, because the state of life is change.

This is the road out of all-or-nothing catastrophic thoughts—not taking things permanently but merely as a passing storm, after which there will be clear skies again. Words direct the role we play. They have the power to make us either helpless cynics or persistent in reframing stress and making adjustments to stress triggers.

Terms that emphasize the momentary nature of the setback or anxiety, such as “recently” or “lately,” restore the 21st=century brain and rational thinking. It’s the belief that a situation is permanent that fuels the panic that keeps the fight-or-flight response going. We can turn that false belief off by choosing to describe setbacks as momentary and learning how to manage reactions through stress management training something I teach in my stress management training for groups or individuals.

THE POWER OF MAYBE

One of the best terms for doing that is a word that doesn’t get a lot of respect—“maybe” or “may be.” We associate the term with indecisiveness, but in the right context, strategic "may be’s" have the power to defang the false belief of permanence and signal that you’re not out of options. It’s also very useful at keeping expectations in line—another driver of stress—and holding out hope when none is in the picture.

“May be” acknowledges reality as it suggests the potential for better circumstances. It’s a term that recognizes that the indisputable fact of life and mortality is not that situations and people stay the same; it’s nonstop impermanence, a major tenet of Taoist and Buddhist thought. It’s our failure to accept the true nature of things, change, say Eastern sages, that is a key source of human suffering. 

A classic Taoist tale about a farmer’s misfortunes speaks eloquently to how the right phrasing can prevent a rush to the cycle of worry and woe-is-me. In Tao: The Watercourse Way Alan Watts tells the story of a farmer whose horse ran away. “That evening the neighbors gathered to commiserate with him since this was such bad luck. He said, ‘may be,’ The next day the horse returned, but brought with it six wild horses, and the neighbors came exclaiming at his good fortune. He said, ‘May be.’ And then, the following day, his son tried to saddle and ride one of the wild horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. Again the neighbors came to offer their sympathy for the misfortune. He said, “May be.” The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to seize young men for the army, but because of the broken leg the farmer’s son was rejected. When the neighbors came in to say how fortunately everything had turned out, he said, ‘May be.’”

All things pass, especially emotions, which are extremely ephemeral. The goal, then, should be to have words and phrases that counter permanence ready to deploy when setbacks send us down Forever Road. What terms could you practice and have on hand on a Post-It for the next time stress pops up? What about: “It’s momentary.” “It’s temporary.” “It’s not life-and-death.” “I can cope with it.” “I can handle it.” “Stay neutral.” “Recently, these things have been happening.”

These phrases bring back the 21st century brain hijacked by the primitive limbic system. The experience of spoken words can trump unreal thoughts by shutting off the spiral of pessimistic and panicked thinking. The earlier in the stressful event you can fight back with positive terms the better, since extreme, pessimistic thoughts take root the longer they go unchallenged. 

Worrying is a self-infliction. So we have the power to not be masochists, by managing the language that give the false beliefs of stress credence. Counter your inner hysteric with terms of resilience, and you take back the script of your life.

If you would like details about our stress management programs for individuals, click here. For details on our employee stress management trainings, click the button below. 

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Tags: awfulizing, stress management training, stress, job stress, stress management programs, managing stress

Why Work-Life Balance Is the Best Retention Tool on the Planet

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Anyone who has ever waded through scads of resumes or interviewees to fill a position knows something most of us don’t: Talent doesn’t grow on trees. Finding the right skills combined with the right fit can be like staring at a fitting room mirror and wondering whether the new shirt or dress will work on you, or whether you’ll be back in a couple days to return something you have no idea why you bought.

There’s a lot on the line to get it right the first time, every time. Hiring the best talent is a painstaking art, and it’s expensive, replacing the most valuable people even more so. The costs run from recruiting and training to lost productivity while the position in unfilled. The tab to replace an employee earning under $50,000 is 20% of salary, reports a study by the Center for American Progress that examined 31 company case studies.

TURNOVER CONTAGION

It’s a bigger hit when it comes to hiring a new executive. The Center for American Progress found that it can run 213% of an executive’s salary to put someone new in a management chair.

High-turnover companies hemorrhage cash, but they rarely take into account the cost of the revolving door. Poor retention doesn't just hurt the bottom line, it also affects employee morale and commitment, as trusted colleagues leave. It can become a contagious, toxic cycle. 

The way out: Keep your people in the fold. Doing that isn’t rocket science. In fact, we have more knowledge than ever before about job satisfaction and how to keep employees happy—and better than that, engaged. 

First, there are companies that have already solved the retention issue, organizations whose employees love being there and seldom leave. The common thread at these firms is one consistent habit: Companies that take work-life balance seriously and walk the walk don’t have turnover problems.

SAS Institute, a $3 billion software company in Cary, North Carolina, has long topped the best places to work charts. Their turnover rate has ranged from 2% to 5% over the last four years in an industry that averages more than 16%. How do they do it? With exceptional work-life balance policies—37.5 hour workweeks, three-week vacations, on-site fully-paid daycare so you can have lunch with your kids, and on-site fitness center. You would have to have your noggin examined to leave a company like that.

WORK-LIFE FLEXIBILITY = INCREASED COMMITMENT

Policies that help employees take care of their responsibilities on both sides of the work-life ledger make people very loyal. It’s why study after study shows that flexible work programs increase satisfaction and engagement.

Researchers in several studies (Aryee, Luk, Stone; Halpern; and Houston, Waumsley) found that work schedule flexibility resulted in increased organizational commitment and reduced turnover intentions. Teleworkers are so happy with having some control over their schedules that they work longer than colleagues at the office and are 10% to 30% more productive (Pitt-Catsouphes, Marchetta, 1991). People who love their jobs do more willingly. That’s the definition of employee engagement.

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Modeling the behavior of companies that have great retention numbers can help improve loyalty, as can bringing work-life balance programs and practices to your organization, something we do here at Optimal Performance Strategies. The vast majority of management and staff have never received training in how to work in a way that aids work-life, and as a result operate in a retaliatory, reflex mode, which drives the opposite of engagement, stress and burnout.

Human nature is the same at every company. We feel appreciated and grateful when we feel valued. That’s what good work-life balance practices do. They tell employees the organization cares, and, as a result, so do employees.

ASK FOR NO PAYOFF, AND YOU GET ONE

Valuing employees brings us to the second strategy available to help keep talent on board—the science of human need gratification. It’s not widely known, but over the last couple of decades researchers have decoded the mystery of motivation. What makes people want to achieve? What makes them satisfied? If you know the answers to those questions, you're going to have happy employees. 

For a long time, it was thought that motivation was a simple carrot-and-stick affair. Offer an incentive, a bonus or promotion, and people would do what you want them to.

It turns out that, yes, people like money, but monetary and external rewards are not an engagement driver—because they are very ephemeral. The money wears off quickly, since we are all built with a been-there, done-that inner curmudgeon called habituation. We adapt to the new circumstance and get tired of it. The thrill is gone for a job promotion in two weeks, the research shows. Then you have to get another external boost to stay pumped up. Promoting people every two weeks would be great for business card printers, but not so much for the company.

There’s another kind of motivation, though, that lasts, and it’s one of the keys to employee gratification and effort: intrinsic motivation. You do something, not for an external gain but for an internal one—excellence, fun, learning, challenge, service, craft. When employees are intrinsically motivated, they are continuously interested in the work they are doing (Harackiewicz, Elliott).

UNLEASHING SELF-MOTIVATION

This is where human aspiration and company goals come together in work-life balance and engagement. As the University of Rochester’s Edward Deci and Richard Ryan have documented in their pioneering work, we all have three core psychological needs—autonomy, competence, and relatedness, or connection with others. We can only satisfy those needs if we have the right goal, an intrinsic goal.

Help employees satisfy those needs at work with an intrinsic approach, and you have staff more than satisfied; they feel gratified and aligned with aspirations at a core level. They won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

This is something we help organizations do through our employee engagement programs. We show how to unleash the most potent motivation in your employees through the science of intrinsic motivation. We build the behaviors that make people feel valued, engaged, and competent—self-responsibility, initiative, shared decisions, perceived choice, and internalizing the meaning behind tasks.

We all have a job we have to do, but how we do it is where we can build in the flexibility that allows employees to gratify core needs like autonomy and competence. By tapping the needs of employees and communicating in a less controlling and more informational way, we can get employees to do what we want—because they want to do it.

Retention problems flourish when folks are too busy to do any managing or when the managing is based on the opposite of what motivates people. It all boils down to understanding what it is people really want, and the right way to communicate to them and empower them so that they are getting what they’re here for. And what’s that? Participation and involvement. They are not here to spectate.

Great work-life balance unlocks employee engagement, and great employee engagement opens the door to work-life policies that let people feel they can manage the full spectrum of their lives. That gratifies autonomy and competence in a big way, something that touches off satisfaction and its chemical victory dance by the brain’s party drug, dopamine. It's a sensation that makes them think it would be crazy to work anywhere else.

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Tags: employee retention, employee engagement, work life balance programs, job satisfaction, human resources, employee turnover

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