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7 Signs the Office Needs Stress Management

 
By Joe Robinson

Stress drains productivity

You can’t see it or taste it, but chances are good your office is up to its workstations in it—the colorless, odorless toxin of stress. It’s so widespread a U.N. report called it the “21st century epidemic.” Yet stress is so invisible that most organizations have a hard time realizing the threat and may not know what and when to do something about it.

The symptoms don’t manifest physically as with the hacking cough of a flu. Stress is a silent stalker, with employees and managers leery to speak its name. This is exactly what stress thrives on, adaptation to stressors that lead to stewing about, instead of resolving stress, with entrenched tension leading to chronic stress and very high costs for the company and individual.

TENSION AND PANIC FOR ALL

The reality is, stress is as contagious as any bug, spreading through pass-along strain and crisis mentality throughout the organization. Humans are born with an amazing capacity to mirror the emotions of those around them through what are known as mirror neurons, which mimic the facial expression and movements of others. We easily pick up on the emotions of others, and that translates into anxious, crisis-prone, unproductive organizations—not to mention, $407 billion a year in lost productivity, absenteeism, and medical costs, says U.C. Irvine’s Peter Schnall.

Every organization can prevent huge hits to the budget each year by spotting the signs of stress and knowing when it’s time for a stress management program to get this hazard to critical thinking, rapport, and productivity under control. Despite the interior nature of stress, there are many signs that can tip off the problem. Let’s take a look at seven key indicators:

1. Absenteeism and retention problems. Since discussing stress is seen as taboo or a sign of weakness, health problems set off by chronic stress, which suppresses the immune system, the tissue repair system, and digestion, multiply along with sick days and absenteeism. If employees know how to manage stress, and management understands what fuels it, absenteeism is no longer the only coping option. When employees feel there’s no possibility of stressors changing, and the health bills mount, they may decide to quit. Forty percent of employees leave because of stress. If your company is seeing more people heading for the exits, look closely, and stress may be the driver.

2. High pressure and tension. Everyone can feel it when tensions are high. For certain deadlines and projects, pressure is a given, but when high tension is the normal day-to-day, it can overwhelm coping abilities and productive output, since relationships suffer, cynicism reigns, and exhaustion guts engagement. High demands can be handled with some control. Without it, chronic stress rules. Managers can measure stress levels with a cognitive survey that can be managed on Survey Monkey. Once the data is in, you can see the extent of the problem and have the evidence to bring a stress management program forward.

3. Doing more with fewer resources. Almost every organization is having to make do with fewer resources today. At the same time, there are physiological limits to how much individuals can do. Are your troops maxed out? Is your top talent teetering on an exit strategy because there’s not enough support? High-demand workplaces more than most need to have their employees trained in stress management and sustainable performance practices.

4. A recent merger or restructuring or preparation for one. The most stressful organizations today tend to be those that are getting ready for a sale and want to show off the highest profitability, but which don’t have the resources to get the outcome they want. That turns up the pressure on everyone. A stress management program is paramount in this situation, as well as in the aftermath of the restructuring, when insecurity, convulsive change, and a new culture create high stress loads. Don’t scrimp on staff development funds if your organization fits this bill.

5. The word burnout is being tossed around. This is a red flag for high stress. The term “stress” is seen as a word to avoid, so often the problem will manifest with staff citing burnout, which tends to be more acceptable. Those mentioning “burnout” are usually are on target. The terminal fatigue and cynicism that comes with it allows them to surface the issue. Again, a survey can be a great way to measure the extent of the problem and arm managers with the data needed to bring in a stress management solution.

6. Productivity is down. In the knowledge economy, the source of productivity is a refreshed and energized brain. Employees with high stress have an extremely limited cognitive function, with the brain constricted to a narrow field dominated by the perceived crisis of the moment. Rumination on the stressor distracts from attention on the task at hand, not to mention future planning. In addition to cognitive issues, chronic stress saps the physical vitality of employees, as stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline deplete the body’s energetic resources. It’s not working harder and longer that will pick up productivity (which plummets in hours beyond eight a day); it’s working smarter through programs that help employees control stress, recharge brains, and then get more done in less time.

7Intense emotional pressures. Some professions by their very nature require a high level of involvement in intense emotional domains, such as caregiving, social work, community healthcare, and law enforcement. Employees in these arenas are particularly susceptible to burnout from lack of support and reward. If you’re a manager in these realms, you know that it is essential to have regular, comprehensive development programs to manage emotional pressures and tough workloads. The job of staff isn’t to take on all the stress and demands of clients and customers. It’s to show them a way out of intractable issues, which they can’t do convincingly if they themselves are caught up in a crisis. 

Of course, there are many other signals and settings that translate into high stress levels, from intense deadlines to develop a new product, to global competition and/or offices across multiple time zones, to workaholic leadership. Whatever the cause, a solution is at hand: knowledge and strategies to handle stress and the autopilot behaviors that keep the dysfunction going.

If you’d like to learn more about our stress management programs, click the button below. 

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Tips and Tools to Make Work Work

Copyright © 2012, Joe Robinson

Work-Life Balance: A Break Dance for Brains and Bodies

 
By Joe Robinson

Trances work for some people

A few people perform fabulously in a trance, like the Whirling Dervishes, the dizzying Turkish dancers who spin themselves into human tops, but for most of us a trance-like, mechanical work style doesn't deliver a transcendent outcome. It produces a a rote commotion and busyness that fuels stress, undercuts productivity, and keeps work-life balance on the sidelines.

Nonstop motion makes everything seem urgent when we haven’t taken the time to think about what is urgent and what isn’t. Mindless frenzy is not the same as forward movement and mobility. The default is to acting before we think, kicking decisions down to the rote parts of the brain that don't have our full attention. 

The mechanical momentum, can't-stop-for-a-second approach, plays to the autopilot of stress, which is itself all about reflex action before thought. The more we are driven by default behavior, the less control we have and the more stress. 

With the proliferation of devices and information overload, it’s easy to wind up on mechanical output, devoid of the input needed to tailor the right effort to the job. Just because there’s activity doesn’t mean it’s the right activity. Most of the action in this state is reflexive, coming from a defensive posture. That’s not a prescription for critical thinking. 

In the tunnel vision of reaction, there’s no time or inclination for proactive managing, planning, or even the upkeep of health. We get so far on task that there is little maintenance of the equipment. 

ARE YOU A HARD DRIVE WITH HAIR?

And there needs to be, because our physiology prepared us for hunting and gathering, not for hours on end at workstations. Sitting at a computer monitor for eight to ten hours a day is an act loaded with reasons to take a breather. Repetitive motion injuries—carpal tunnel, back problems, neck problems, stress—thrive on the continuous motion loop. Unlike the computer we're working on, we don't have Pentium procesors.

A study by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found that brief but frequent breaks can reduce the risk of a host of injuries. Four five-minute breaks a day for walking or stretching resulted in less discomfort in the neck, arms, shoulders, and back for study participants. Workers also reported less eyestrain. Short walks at regular intervals buoyed energy and helped people recover from fatigue, which enhanced performance.

Cutting stress and improving work-life balance is a "break" dance, knowing when to step back and energize on a regular basis to charge up full engagement.

Time-outs rejuvenate brains and break up rigid postures. They can help prevent an assortment of back injuries, from bulging discs to lumbar strain. Medical experts advise frequent breaks and exercise to prevent and treat carpal tunnel syndrome, the painful and sometimes disabling inflammatory disorder that affects wrist, hands, and fingers, now an epidemic among office workers.

COMPUTER VISION SYNDROME

Another injury triggered by unbroken sessions at the keyboard is computer vision syndrome, a complex of eye and vision problems caused by staring for hours at computer monitors and screens. The syndrome afflicts 90% of people who use a computer for more than three hours a day, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Chances are very good that includes you. 

The problems include eyestrain, dizziness, blurred vision, headaches, change in color perception, excessive fatigue, and double vision. Sitting at the computer for hours can also aggravate existing conditions, such as farsightedness, nearsightedness, and astigmatism. Scientists have found that we blink less when we’re zoning into the glow, which creates dry-eye problems.

Since humans were designed to spot dinner on a savanna off in the distance, not Internet fine print, the muscles of the eye are in their most relaxed state when looking at faraway objects. The eyes need to stretch, which is why excessive close-up duty can disrupt distance vision. People who have been in a submarine for a while have trouble with distance vision when they emerge from close quarters. Their eyes have adjusted to see only short distances.

Ergonomic experts recommend frequent brief breaks for those with intensive computer usage—30 seconds every 10 minutes, or if you can’t do that, five minutes every hour. One study showed that microbreaks every 15 minutes were very effective in reducing physical discomfort at computer monitors (Balci, Aghazadeh). During the breaks, get up and move around, gaze out the window, do some stretches, walk down the hallway. Once your body starts aching, you concentration has already left.

POPPING BLOOD VESSELS

The traditional approach to fighting mental fatigue has been to press harder and pop those blood vessels to the finish line. But the evidence shows that brains don’t respond well to this approach. On study found that mental fatigue took hold after three hours of continuous attention (Boksem). Mistakes and false alarms increased with time on task, and goal-oriented planning decreased. Other studies show that too much time on task reduces the ability to prepare future actions.

Jim Goodnight, CEO of North Carolina software giant SAS Institute, believes software developers can’t do more than two hours of great work a day. As mental fatigue increases, so do the number of errors.

As logic would have it, the way around the fatigue factor is to step back and recharge the spent mind with a Strategic Pause. Never fear, it’s only a “pause,” not a dereliction of duty. You are coming back to the action, refueled.

Since physical movement drives energy and creativity, it’s important to get away from the desk and out of the office to get the most out of your Strategic Pauses. Take two 10-15 minute pauses in the morning and two in the afternoon. Use the time to make a mental break from the work. Walk a few blocks. Listen to some music you like, plan your weekend. These are energy opportunities to fortify flagging gray matter.

Recharging throughout the day increases vitality and productivity. Studies show that breaks from a few seconds on the assembly line to 15 minutes to vacations increase productivity. Response times go up and fatigue goes down. 

It's easy to get caught up in the action and forget that we're not on a sprint to the death. It's a marathon. We have to allow bodies and brains to refuel regularly to avoid breakdowns and brownouts. 

Tips and Tools to Make Work Work

Copyright © 2012, Joe Robinson

Burnout Hits the Best and Brightest

 
By Joe Robinson

Chronic stress leads to burnout

The perception of burnout is that it’s something that happens to those who are somehow deficient, people who can’t take the heat, who have less stamina than others. In fact, it’s the opposite.

Burnout strikes the most dogged and conscientious workers, people who may even pride themselves on how much more they can handle than others. That's something that should set off alarm bells for any manager or organization. Burnout is a path of mutually assured destruction—for talent, staff, and productivity, which diminishes to a fraction of normal output.

The most driven, most inclined to ignore limits can wind up going past where their physiology can take them. Engineers know that even the strongest materials pull apart subjected to the right amount of force and load.  

The good news about burnout, if there is any, is that it’s something that doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a cumulative condition that builds up over a long period of unrelieved stress, also known as chronic stress. If the stressor that switched on the stress response is identified and resolved, there is no burnout. That’s where burnout has to be cut off at the pass. Burnout is seven times more costly to treat than the average workplace malady, according to Ron Goetzel of the Health Enhancement Research Organization.

When the source of stress continues to fuel perceived danger, though, the stress becomes entrenched—day after day, week after week, month after month, perhaps year after year.

That is highly destructive, since the stress response drains resources to keep the body in a heightened state that enables it to fight or flee. The stress response was meant to go off only for a brief time, until we are out of harm’s way, since it does some very unhealthy things to us in the interim—suppressing the immune system, shutting down digestion, jacking up the blood pressure.

END OF THE ROAD

Chronic stress overtaxes the system, and gradually your resources are drained away. Burnout is the last stage of chronic stress, when all energetic resources have been depleted. It’s the end of the road that leads to places no one wants to go—depersonalization, no pride in accomplishment, constant fatigue and worse: depression, stroke. If you think you might be headed down that road, take the Burnout Test here.

Because it takes a while to develop, burnout can be prevented and shut down—if we know what we’re looking for. The problem is that burnout plays to rugged individualist strengths—endurance and stick-to-itiveness—that can be our undoing if taken too far.

In the process of gutting it out and never saying die, we wind up aiding and abetting the cycle. The adrenaline set off by the stress response to hyperactivate our defenses, masks the effects of stress and creates a feeling of transcendence. We think we’re handling things, but we’re not.

This adaptation is why a workaholic will die before an alcoholic. An alcoholic can live for years with cirrhosis of the liver, but it’s often a stroke or heart attack that kills the workaholic.

Over time, people accustomed to being able to take on huge demands, suddenly can’t anymore. They don’t have the energy. They’ve suffered a loss of resources—mental, physical, and emotional—too great to replace. And not only that, they don’t have the drive or motivation they once had anymore. Neither the spirit nor the flesh is willing. They don’t understand it. They had always been gung-ho. And now they don’t care.

KNOWING WHEN TO SAY WHEN

To keep burnout out of the office, we have to make it okay to know when to say when and resolve stress triggers. Burnout, then, is fueled by stress, something that has to be taken seriously, not as a nuisance. Stress is a factor in five out of the six leading causes of death in the U.S. When someone has permission to shut off stress, they are saving the company a prolonged drain of medical bills and lost production.

Just keep going until the paramedics arrive is not a sustainable work style. Staying off the burnout treadmill means being proactive about ferreting out stress and burnout triggers, and adjusting work practices and thinking to shut off the chronic danger signal. It’s not life-or-death, though an ancient part of the brain is making it seem so.

Burnout triggers include excessive workload, lack of reward or support, loss of control, interpersonal conflicts, and emotionally demanding work. When someone is caught up in a cycle of stress from one of those triggers, it's crucial to be vocal about the problem. Failure to speak up can lead to serious health consequences.

I spoke with a community health worker who had been overwhelmed by her workload but said nothing, not even to her husband. The concern for being seen as weak can override even the fact that the body is going down. She brought more work home and tried to catch up there. The rubber band stretched as far as it could until it broke. She had a nervous breakdown and was in the hospital for two weeks.

If it were any kind of communicable disease, there would be no second thought to finding a solution pronto. Yet burnout and stress are as contagious as a virus. The crisis mentality, cynicism, and emotional triggers of stress quickly spread around the office, impacting decision-making, planning, and eroding rapport and relationships.

REBUILDING RESOURCES

Changing schedules, adjusting workload and increasing support can help reduce burnout triggers. Burnout is marked by the absence of positive emotions, so part of the way back is adjusting work and lifestyle to regather some of those crashed emotional resources, such as a sense of social support and mastery.

Learning how to reframe stressors and the self-talk that creates false beliefs that drive stress triggers is essential. Our stress management programs give people the ability to change the false story that fuels the danger signal perpetuating chronic stress. From there, we provide tools to set boundaries, ask for help, and communicate effectively to adjust task practices that are counterproductive for the team, organization, or individual. 

Everybody has a lot on their plates today, but it doesn’t have to lead to burnout. The real home of the brave, and productivity, is not a depleted mind and body but one vitalized by a sustainable work style. 

For information about our stress management programs, click the button below.

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Tips and Tools to Make Work Work

Copyright © 2012, Joe Robinson

Beat Email Overload with the Email Etiquette Rulebook

 
By Joe Robinson

Caffeine break to fuel more email triage

There are a lot of reasons why email has overwhelmed capacity to deal with it, but the main one is that it’s easy. It’s easy to click the send button, easy to not get up from your seat, easy to avoid speaking with someone in person about an issue. But that convenience is an illusion, because we don’t see the cumulative blowback. As we discussed in the Working Smarter blog last week, every email results in six emails—three going, three coming back, so we need a few more gallons of caffeine every day to triage through the mess. 

Cutting email tonnage, not only opens up more time to get our work done, it also reduces the damage to the chief productivity tool: attention. Managing email is really about managing the interruptions that fracture attention, as we’re forced to shift from primary task to secondary items, most of the time unrelated to what we’re doing.

The inability to keep attention on a task for longer than a nanosecond, not surprisingly, affects the quality of our work. Distracted minds don’t see the big picture, make decisions too quickly, send curt messages, can’t focus enough to produce innovative solutions, and have little semblance of work-life balance.

Download Article: "Email & Attention Def

Growing stacks of unread email also fuel overwhelm and a belief that things are out of control. That drives a perception you can’t cope with the avalanche, which sets off the stress response. Taking back control over email shuts down the feeling of chaos and with it, stress that drives poor decisions and health problems. So controlling email is a key stress management strategy.

SET THE TERMS OF ENGAGEMENT

We can get control back by choosing when we interact with email—by setting the terms of engagement with our devices, by checking email manually and turning off all the dingers and noisemakers. That means creating some boundaries—rules in a world where there are none. The way forward is determining limits/norms for information management in every team, department, and organization.

Unlike the telephone, which was adopted over a long enough period that we were able to develop rules for how to use it, e-tools arrived so suddenly and overwhelmingly that they were running the show before anyone knew how to use them effectively. But the good news is that, since there are no rules, they’re up for grabs. That means we can set some.

It’s amazing what can happen with a little law and order. Harvard’s Leslie Perlow did an experiment with a software company whose employees were working nights and weekends to get products completed on time. She instituted a program there called Quiet Time. For four hours a day, two in the morning, two in the late afternoon, there was to be no messaging, so people could concentrate and get their work done. The rest of the day people could revert to messaging as usual. The program resulted in productivity increases of 59% and 65% in the two message-free zones, and jumped 43% even in the period with normal interruptions, because minds were more focused and less harried. The company was able to complete a new product in record time without staff needing to work nights and weekends.

THE SECOND LAW OF EMAIL REDUCTION

Last week's blog introduced the first Law of Email Reduction ("Spay and Neuter to Cut Volume"): Do more in-person messaging. Our second email law is:

Rules for etool use control the abuse of email.

It holds that rules for e-tool use rein in the chaos and reduce the amount of time blown on messaging. It’s not hard to come up with ideas for email rules. We all know the stuff that drives us crazy about email. When I asked what rules they would like to see placed on email usage, managers at a large aviation firm licked their chops and gave me this list, which you may want to take some notes on:

• Deactivate the ‘reply-all’ function

• Develop a weekend code of ethics restricting email to emergencies

• Disable the ghost email alert notification

• Never expect an immediate response from an email

• Pick up the phone and call

• No emails between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.

• Only send email if there’s an action required

• Don’t send one-line “thank you” and “got it” messages

 

THE MOST IMPORTANT RULE OF EMAIL MANAGEMENT

No doubt, there are more than a few rules on that list you’d like for your own e-tool handbook. Here’s one of the most important rules that should be a part of any email etiquette book:

Keep email software turned off and check messages manually at set schedules.

There’s no reason to have computers and devices chiming like deranged glockenspiels all day, or blinking those annoying notifications in the corner of your monitor. Turning off message software will shut down the sound and light circus and keep intrusiveness to a minimum. You choose when you’re going to be interrupted, rather than leaving it to anyone with a random thought.

Some 68% of folks keep Outlook or Entourage on autocheck all day, checking continuously. One study (Jackson, 2003) found, that if you keep your system on autocheck every five minutes, you have a potential of 96 interruptions in the course of the day! You can slash that down to 11, if you check mail manually every 45 minutes.

That’s still a lot of checking. You can put a fence around email by restricting yourself to a few retrieval and sending times each day. Manual checking at specific schedules offers the least interruptions and maximum productivity. Try using what researchers have identified as the most optimum email schedules. Holding email to two checks a day results in significantly fewer hours worked daily compared to processing email continuously (Trafton, 2003, Jackson 2003). The most productive schedule is twice or four times a day, according to researchers at Oklahoma State.

When we control the checking, we stop the anarchy. There are a number of other rules that can be easily implemented in any team, department, or organization.

If you would like more rules to help manage email and are interested in an information management workshop at your organization, click the button below for more details. And send me your thoughts on email rules you would like to see.

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There is light at the end of the email in-box.

Tips and Tools to Make Work Work

Copyright © 2012, Joe Robinson

Email Overload: How to Cut the Volume Now

 
By Joe Robinson

Down for the count with email overload

The confessions began to tumble out. One woman at a work-life balance workshop I was leading in New York raised her hand and said sheepishly, “I take my smartphone to bed.” 

“So do I,” chimed in another consultant quickly. “I’ve been sleeping with my phone for years,” offered a third woman.

This is what I call unrequited love. You give your devices undivided love and attention, and what do you get for it? The attention span of a gnat. Constant interruptions. And chronic stress that suppresses your immune system and takes your body down.

No matter what line of work you’re in these days, chances are good there’s only one business you’re really in—the clicking business—checking, sending and receiving piles of email from anyone with a random thought in their heads. How many hours of your day are sucked up by out-of-control messaging?

SPAY AND NEUTER YOUR EMAIL

It’s worth doing the calculating, because your best years are disappearing down the black hole of unbounded email. The average corporate user burns up three-plus hours a day on email, 133 emails and 77 Instant Messages. That adds up to a total of 100 DAYS a year doing nothing but email. That spills over into the nights and early mornings, making any semblance of work-life balance a mirage.

And then there’s the financial cost of email overload—all that lost productivity. Intel estimates that for a company with 50,000 knowledge workers the tab is $1 billion in lost productivity from email overload. Intel, along with Google, Microsoft and Xerox, formed the Information Overload Research Group to fight what they call “email pollution,” a good term for this blight blocking out work and life and cranking up stress.

The approach to email overload so far has been to just react to all the incoming. Get up earlier, stay later. But that’s not viable in a 24/7 world where the avalanche keeps on coming. As any engineer could tell you, we have structural limits.

To cut down on the deluge, you have to make changes that will actually reduce the volume of email. Email is the electronic rabbit, multiplying like oversexed cottontails. Every email has offspring, and they have offspring. A single message creates six messages—three going, three coming back, say researchers. Even at the standard rate of three minutes an email, that’s 18 minutes down the tubes for every email you send. Add it up. We have to spay and neuter our email.

I talked to a VP at a major technology firm in San Diego who gets more than 250 emails a day. He starts at 5 in the morning with two hours of email at home before going to work, then spends several hours more on message duty after he gets into his office. “It just seems like I can never catch up,” he told me, looking completely drained.

The sooner we can see email for the rabbit it is, the quicker we can keep the population down. Email plays on the social animal’s need for positive reinforcement, even if it’s just a canned reply-all mail or spam on the other end of the line. We have to understand how we are being played by this dynamic and use but not abuse the technology.

THE MORE YOU CHECK EMAIL, THE MORE YOU HAVE TO CHECK IT

In a study on email addiction, Rutgers University researcher Gayle Porter found that technology can be just as addicting as chemical or substance abuse. Have you ever had that feeling that you have to check email though you just checked it five minutes ago? That’s your impulse control out of control, thanks to the interruptions, which erode a part of your executive attention function that regulates impulsivity. The more you check email, the more you have to check it.

With friends like yourself around, who needs enemies?

Download Article: "Email & Attention Def

To actually cut the volume of email, we have to start reducing the tonnage. There are three ways to do that. We’ll cover the first law of email reduction in this blog.

Email Law # 1: Do More In-Person Messages

More phone and face-to-face contact seems like heresy, but the evidence at companies such as Deloitte & Touche and U. S. Cellular, which are mandating less email and more phone and face-to-face messaging, shows that reduced email increases productivity and builds rapport and relationships. Even former email addicts have come around to become true believers and are increasing their productivity through in-person messaging with co-workers.

Email is a handy tool to set up a phone conversation, in which you can handle all the issues in one go, instead of going back and forth in the usual volley of trying to extract the piece of information you need from someone who keeps sending fragments of the answer you’re looking for. You fire off an email to coordinate a time to speak on the phone or meet live. You can mention, if you like, that you’re on an email reduction drive and that this is a way to save both of you multiple emails.

This method combines the best of both worlds, using email for a specific and limited reason, and the phone to nail down all the back and forths that would normally be perpetuated by the email cottontails. You are respecting your colleagues’ time this way, and they will appreciate it.

RISING TO THE IMPORTANCE OF A PHONE MESSAGE

Email has overwhelmed our lives because it’s convenient. We don’t have to physically interrupt someone with a call or pop-in. In the old days, the message had to rise to the importance of a phone call before it entered the universe. It helped to limit messages to the most important ones. There are zero inhibitions to clicking email.

A manager at an aerospace company told me at a work-life workshop I conducted that he’s gotten his email-checking down to twice a day, while colleagues are indulging 20 times that often. He makes it clear that his preferred mode of communication is the phone and that an email needs to be worth sending before clicking. When he volunteered his solution before a group of fellow managers, their jaws hit the floor. He looked calm, unbeleaguered, in control of his destiny. He’d reined in the abuse with boundaries that worked.

If most of your mail is coming from outside your office, add “No Reply Necessary” to the subject line or body of the message to let the other person know they don’t have to get back to you. If the bulk of mail is coming from your team or department, use the 100-Foot Rule. Get up from your desk and deliver the message in person to anyone within 100 feet of your desk, and then expand it to 200 or 500 feet for a little extra exercise.

For every email you don’t send, you save 18 minutes (at the standard rate of three minutes an email). How many messages can you resist sending today and much time can you save?

If you'd like to know more about email management programs that can help your or your organization control information overload, click the button below:

Click for Program Info, Quote

Tips and Tools to Make Work Work

Copyright © 2012, Joe Robinson

Work Life Balance Taboo: Speak Up About Stress

 
By Joe Robinson

Highly stressed employee

When I lead work-life balance programs for organizations across the country, I invariably meet folks who take me aside to tick off a litany of meds and health conditions — all due to something that is highly preventable: chronic stress.

A manager at an aviation company told me about the heart attack he'd had five months earlier. A woman at a drug company in the prime of her life listed seven meds she was on, for everything from depression to insomnia. I met a woman in her twenties at a government agency who had the ailments of a 70-year-old.

It's tragic, and none of these health issues had to happen if the individuals knew how to manage stress and communicate about it, and if the organizations knew how costly it was to their bottom lines, so it was permissable to resolve it when it popped up. Health costs for employees with high stress are almost 50% higher. Unmanaged stress costs employers $5,000 per employee.

Yet the cost of a stress management or work-life balance program for the whole staff is less than the stress costs for one employee. The hurdle is getting around the taboo about talking about the issue. If the condition were the flu or a knee injury, it could be shouted from the rafters, but stress, which is many times more dangerous than those conditions, feels like a personal failing or a not sufficiently rugged individual. The reality is that the people most susceptible to burnout, the last stage of chronic stress, are the hardest workers.

When we don't talk about stress, that actually inflames the catastrophic thoughts behind it because then we think about it and ruminate. Rumination leads to locking in the false beliefs of the stress response. 

The result: lost health, money, productivity, and sometimes lives. More than three-quarters of the 956 million visits to physicians every year are estimated to be the result of stress-related problems. Job-related stress costs American business more than $400 billion a year, according to U. C. Irvine researcher Peter Schnall. Chronic stress kills more people every year than traffic accidents, nicotine, or alcohol yet we hear next to nothing about it —no anti-stress ad campaigns like the anti-smoking spots.

ITS THE REACTION

A massive stress education program could go a long way toward addressing the problem and letting everyone know that we hold the key to creating stress or dumping it. Yes, there are plenty of demands in a warp factor 9 workplace, but it's not the deadline, what a customer says, or the conflict with a colleague that's causing your stress. It's the story you tell yourself about the negative event or the stressor that's causing the stress. We all have the ability to change the stories that create our stress, if we know how the dynamic works.

The problem is a design flaw in our brains that leaves us prone to false emergencies. We were made for life-and-death struggles on African savannas, not overflowing in-boxes or sales quotas. That's especially true for the part of your brain that sets off the stress response, the amygdala, a hub of the emotional brain, the ancient limbic system, which ran operations before we evolved the higher brain organs that can make decisions based on reason and analysis, not raw emotion.

In times of perceived danger the amygdala hijacks the 21st century brain and takes the helm again. This ancient alarm system is as good at measuring threats in the workplace as a yardstick is at calculating the distance to the sun. A hundred and fifty emails a day is a hassle, but it's not life-or-death. But if an overloaded inbox makes you feel you can't cope, off goes the signal that sets off the stress response, which floods your body with hormones that suppress your immune system to help you fight or run ... away from your computer?

CONTROLLING THE STRESS RESPONSE

Researchers have discovered that there are a couple of keys to controlling the stress response (which can be shut off in four minutes, as soon as the brain can see the danger is over): increasing "latitude," the amount of control you have in your work — possible through changes in how you do your tasks — and the story you tell yourself about the problem.

The first story we get when the stress response goes off is supplied by the caveman brain, the amygdala. Since it thinks those 150 emails will overload our coping ability, it interprets the matter as life-and-death, unleashing the stress response and the panicked thoughts that come with it. The initial thoughts of a panicked brain are exaggerated. We get swept away by a surge of emotion from these distortions, buy the false beliefs, and go down the irrational track, causing any number of consequences, all based on a fantasy.

Stress constricts the brain to the perceived crisis and inhibits things that can reduce the stress, such as relaxation and recreation. Stress shuts off diversions, leaving us to obsess about the perceived emergency. 

We're never taught to speak up about stress, or to contest the distorted beliefs of stress, so the catastrophic stories stick. If we don't dispute them with the 21st century brain, the stress response spirals in intensity, locking in a false crisis mentality. Since the process suppresses the immune system, we become vulnerable to any number of health problems — adrenal dysfunction, back pain, chronic fatigue syndrome, hypertension.

THE HEALTH THIEF

The biochemical changes increase the bad cholesterol and decrease the good kind. The stress response steals from various body systems to pump more blood to your arms and legs to fight and run. It was intended to last for the minutes or perhaps hours it took to get out of harm's way, not to pump 24/7, day after day, month after month, as it does with modern, chronic stress.

We can exit the stress trap by identifying the triggers, getting it out into the open by speaking about it with a supervisor or family member, by increasing control over the work environment through adjustments that make us less stressed, and by changing the false story of the caveman brain to one based on the facts of the situation.

There are a number of great techniques that reframe the stress story and reduce the anxiety. Some processes, which involve deep breathing and reframing, are good for situational stress. They let you step back when the going gets tense and create counter-stories that can stop the stress spiral in its early stages, before the catastrophic thoughts become entrenched. The stress spiral is weakest at the very beginning of the cycle, so that's when you want to contest it.

It takes time and effort to change reflex behaviors, but we can learn to reframe stressful situations. We can build in the thinking and catch ourselves before we rush headlong down the irrational track. But it all starts with a refusal to take stress and a commitment to speak up, and for organizations, a proactive approach to rooting out this talent and productivity killer.

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Tips and Tools to Make Work Work

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How Optimism Boosts Productivity and Work-Life Balance

 
By Joe Robinson

Optimism trumps the negative for high performers.

Oscar Wilde once said the difference between an optimist and a pessimist is that the optimist sees the donut, the pessimist the hole. I guess that means pessimists are better calorie-counters.

Seriously, though, there’s a big difference in these two viewpoints, one that can have a huge impact on your work, health, and life. Research shows that optimism can prevent depression, increase social connection, boost performance on the job, increase success, and make you more resilient in the face of setbacks.

That's not bad. Pessimism does have its place, since we don’t want to be Polyannas, but too much negativity can undermine work, friendships, and health. And dwelling on the negative, a specialty of humans, increases stress. The recipe for depression is pessimism meeting failure and then ruminating endlessly about it.

Who would you rather work with or hang out with, someone who lightens up the day and supports you, or someone who habitually complains and blames.

It's no wonder then that a more positive approach fuels more positive results. It energizes, broadens opportunities, uncovers solutions, vastly improves work-life balance, and, best of all, makes you feel a lot better.

The Dark Side Default

Unfortunately, this common-sense mode is not our natural wont. Humans are born with a default to find the negative. It’s a survival instinct, the reason the species is still around. We survived because of a well-developed impulse to look out for trouble. Today, though, it’s no longer life-or-death every day, so we need to make some adjustments to bring our ancient brains into the modern world. 

The good news is that we don't have to be at the mercy of reflex funks and slides after setbacks. We can adjust how we think about what happens to us. It’s a talent that can come in handy, since we have to negotiate a mood roller-coaster every day. We’re up, then down, up, down throughout the day, throughout the week. It’s part of the normal rhythm of emotions.

Negative mood, such as sadness, guilt, and hostility, is highest on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. Positive mood rises on Thursday and is at its highest point on Friday and Saturday. Now why in the world would that be? 

Then there’s mood variation over the course of the day. Positive affect, the sign of optimism in our demeanor, is lower in the morning and rises to a peak throughout the day, then weakens at night. Mood is better the more energy and alertness we have.

Mood also rises and falls based on our 90-minute alertness cycle, known as the ultradian rhythm. When we’re at the beginning of that cycle, we are in a better mood, feel like initiating things and attack the to-do list. At the end of the period, we feel sluggish, lose focus, and the minds wanders.

Most of the mood dance is out of our consciousness. We are tugged this way and that without really steering the course. But we don't have to be bystanders to our minds. We can take charge of the ebb and flow of emotions, because nurturing the positive and warding off negative benders can have a big effect on our lives and careers.

Researchers have found that positive emotions can dramatically improve the decisions we make, the opportunities we pursue or not, the people we connect with or don’t, the direction of our careers, the work-life balance we feel we’re achieving, and the level of performance at work.

A study by mathematician Marcial Losada looked at the effect of negative emotions in the work setting. Losada and his team observed behavior in company meetings behind a two-way mirror. He measured positive v. negative statements, self-focused or other-focused, or people who favored inquiry or advocacy.

High Performers Are Optimistic

He found that high-performance teams have a 6 to 1 ratio of positive to negative statements, while low performing teams were under 1 to 1. That gap makes a huge difference to the organization and the individuals in them. The best performers scored high on profitability, customer satisfaction ratings, and evaluations by others.

High performance teams were more flexible, resilient, and not stuck in self-absorbed defensive behavior. High performance teams asked questions as much as they defended views and had attention outward as much as inward. Low performance teams had lower connectivity, asked no questions, and had almost no outward focus.

Negative teams got stuck in negative, self-absorbed advocacy. Negativity causes teams to lose good cheer, flexibility, and the ability to ask questions. Each person defended their views and became critical of all else.

We get very rigid when we’re in a negative or pessimistic state. Negativity constricts thinking, puts us in a defensive crouch, and prevents us from seeing the bigger picture.

Positive emotions broaden and build. Negative emotions hold you back. Positive emotions make you more curious. You explore more, take more initiative. You’re looking outward, open to connection and trying new things. Negativity constrains your experience. A negative frame of mind puts you in “leave me alone” mode, bunker mode. You’re on alert. 

Negative emotions change the way you feel about the world, interact with others, they reduce your possibilities, and undermine esteem. They also affect your relationships in a big way. When you’re irritated and grumpy, you get less interest in your ideas, cooperation, and support.

The 3-to-1 Ratio

The negative side is much more powerful than the positive. The University of North Carolina’s Barbara Fredrickson has found that we need three positive to one negative event to stay in the positive camp and flourish. Only one in five people meet the 3 tio 1 ratio. Failed marriages, by the way, have a positivity ratio less than 1 to 1.

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 or jump into something new.

How can we shift our moods so that we can limit the negative sway over our thoughts and emotions? We can do it by:

1) reducing the negativity in our lives

2) changing the way we react to events

3) having more positive experiences

4) choosing intrinsic goals that bring the most satisfaction

Reducing negativity is the fastest way to increase your positivity ratio. Some negativity keeps us grounded, but we don’t want it locking us into incessant cogitating over problems. As Mark Twain once put it, “Drag your thoughts away from your troubles...by the ears, by the heels, or any way you can manage it.” 

Negative emotions tend to overwhelm the rational brain with raw emotional power. The tendency is to ride the emotional wave without questioning whether the belief driving the negativity is valid. Stress sets off false beliefs constantly that appear to be a threat but aren’t.

Avoid Rumination

We have to learn how to dispute negativity and stress and not reflexively buy in on autopilot. When negative thoughts pop up, dispute them like a good lawyer would. Are they based on anything valid, or it just awfulizing? Round up the facts and put them to the test.

When you fail to dispute negative thinking, the false beliefs become entrenched and can lead to days or weeks of ruminating over a setback or comment. Rumination is dangerous. You go over and over the same story, locking in a false belief as well as negativity, which then dredges up other negative thoughts.

You can exit the rumination track by avoiding replay mode and letting go of the thought loop.

—DISTRACT YOURSELF. Find healthy distractions—the gym, meditation, music—that force you to focus on something else. 

—MINDFULNESS. Learn to accept a thought as just a thought. You observe without judgment and refuse to grab the thought just because it’s in your head. Only experience is real.

—REFRAME PROBLEMS. Reappraisal is the secret of people who can keep setbacks from turning into prolonged blues. The choice is yours: half-full or half-empty.

—REFUSE THE MANIPULATION OF DIFFICULT PEOPLE. Resist responding with negativity to their negativity by turning the beat around with hope, humor, personal interest.

Increasing the positive in your day doesn’t happen on its own. You have to consciously deflect the negative, let it go, and proactively do positive things, from hobbies to exercise, recreation, listening to or playing music, and reaching out to others.

We may not be in charge of much in an unpredictable world, but we can control our minds and how we think about what happens to us. And that controls everything.

 

Tips and Tools to Make Work Work

Copyright © 2012, Joe Robinson

How to Stay Calm in the Job Stress Storm

 
By Joe Robinson

Stressed-out manager needs work-life balance

You might remember the Jet Blue flight attendant who melted down a few years back after a passenger wouldn’t apologize when his luggage came down on the attendant's noggin. The attendant went on the intercom shouting obscenities, grabbed a couple beers, and slid down the emergency escape chute. How many of you secretly cheered?

It may have felt good for a moment, but in retrospect, he would have handled things differently. When we act on fight-or-flight impulse, we do dumb things, because our brain isn’t thinking, it’s simply reacting with the raw emotion of a cornered animal.

Freak-outs don’t solve the immediate problem and cause a bunch of others. Some people are much better at managing transient emotions than others, and that tells us something very important. That means that there is a way to manage pressure, because some are able to do it.

Eye of the Storm

Staying calm is a good idea because that's when we have use of all our faculties, when the 21st century brain, not our caveman/woman brain that thinks it's the year 150,000 B.C., is in charge. The storm may be raging all around us, but the goal is to avoid getting swept up in it, to stay in the eye of the storm, in it but not of it.

Letting the storms set us off isn’t productive or healthy. As soon as the stress response goes off, we are not in control of our brain anymore. It’s been hijacked by the raw emotions of the amygdala. Stress undermines intellect. We make decisions from fear, panic, or rage. Bad decisions.

With emotions on a hair-trigger, we send curt emails, snap at people, lose focus, and push any semblance of work-life balance further from reach. Stress suppresses the play equipment in our brains and locks in a danger signal that suppresses the immune system until you turn off the false signal. The reality is high-pressure situations are challenging, but they're not life-or-death as your ancient brain thinks. Our stress management and work-life balance programs provide tools to reframe the thoughts that drive stress and unbalanced characters.

Bend, Don’t Break

The better course is to bend, not break under pressure, a concept in Eastern thought known as wu-wei. Flexibility, not rigidity, allows us to turn the aggression around. It’s the same concept in martial arts like jiu-jitsu or aikido—turning the negative energy that comes at you to your advantage, in this case by keeping your ego out of the equation.

A good example of wu-wei is how two trees handle the pressure of snow on branches during the winter. The pine branch is rigid and can snap with the weight of too much snow. But the willow tree yields to the weight and bends. It has give.

It's the idea of doing through nondoing, not forcing things, making adjustments to how we think about the demands. Resentment and resistance are brittle and break like the branch of the pine tree.

We can change the thoughts that turn demands into pressures our clueless ancient brain makes us think we can’t cope with. The pressures are as out of control or as manageable as we think they are.

The definition of stress is high demands and low control over them. That’s also the definition of being overwhelmed. When we feel we can’t cope, that triggers the stress response, which causes everything to feel more overwhelming, since it exaggerates the threat. When you believe you can’t cope, your ancient brain misinterprets that feeling as “I’m going to die.” Off goes the fight-or-flight response.

We have to change the I-can’t-cope self-talk when we are under the gun. What are your thoughts when you're overwhelmed?

•Too much to do

• Everything has to be done now

• I'll never get it all done

• I won't be able to cope

I won’t be able to cope is the bottom line of all fear. I won’t be able to handle it. What will happen? Apocalypse Now?

You CAN Cope

The solution is letting your brain know you can cope. That means coming up with another story than the one being supplied by the panicked brain.Yes, I have 200 emails, but I can handle it. It's not life-or-death and doesn't warrant your body's emergency system being activated.

The strategy we all need is Value Questioning. Don’t feed the mental accelerators by making everything urgent. Qualify it. Ask two questions:

What’s the urgency of doing it now?

What are the consequences of waiting?

Power of Patience

Patience is the key to staying calm in the storm. Patience is a word we usually hate to hear, because when it comes up, it usually means we’ve lost it.

It’s really about self-regulation. Patience gives us impulse control. We’re not children. We don’t have to go off when something flares up. Patience is the exercise of maturity, managing pace, ego, and emotions.

Patience isn’t passive. It’s a state of active non-reaction. We have to call it up consciously, and use it to override our emotional reflexes—and put the 21st century brain back in charge of the runaway train.

To learn more about how to manage stress, click for a copy of our report, "Stress Is Optional."

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Tips and Tools to Make Work Work

Copyright © 2012, Joe Robinson

The Engine of Productivity and Work-Life Balance: Vitality

 
By Joe Robinson

Vitality: the hidden link to work-life balance

There are truckloads of apps that claim to boost productivity, but the biggest bang for your effectiveness buck may come from something that is seldom on the radar in a 24/7 workday: physical vitality. You can’t get a whole lot done, say brain scientists, when you’re at the cognitive equivalent of being drunk, the condition we’re in when we don’t get enough sleep.

A recent study reported in the International Journal of Workplace Health found that besides a good night's sleep, exercise is another productivity tool at our disposal. People who get exercise during the day are 23% more productive at work. This backs up other studies, including one at Stockholm University, showing that people who exercise during the workday get more done. The Stockholm research found that people were more productive taking 30 minutes for exercise during the day than if they worked straight through.

It’s proof that quality of hours counts more than quantity, particularly in the knowledge economy, where the main productivity tool is attention. Exercise builds new connections between brain neurons and helps increase attention and focus.

More Energy Available to the Self

Exercise also energizes, providing one of the little-known keys to productivity and work-life balance—physical vitality. The University of Rochester’s Richard Ryan has done a host of fascinating research into the realm of vitality, which he defines as “energy available to the self.” You know it when you’ve got it. And when you don’t. Vitality is an ongoing status report of feeling up to the day or not.

How much more effective are you when you have a tide of physical energy at your back, a feeling you can take on anything? Do you have that now? Do you feel vital and alive on a daily basis? That’s a difficult state to find when we work in a nonstop style that drains energy and doesn’t replace it through refueling breaks in the action.

Vitality is a conscious feeling of energy, aliveness, interest, and enthusiasm, the definition of engagement. Vitality helps keep us energized throughout the day and push through the rough patches. It’s been linked in Ryan’s research with many well-being traits—self-motivation, positive mood, good self-esteem, life satisfaction, autonomous behavior, all of which are hallmarks of work-life balance.

Tension, Anger Decrease Energy

Energy for output comes from input that keeps our batteries charged, something we need just like iPods and smartphones. Where do we get energy? From doing things that restore and energize us—exercise, play, rest, music, intrinsic motivation—doing things for the inherent interest—eating nutritious food. Tension, anger, and depression decrease vitality.

Humans are not hard drives with hair. Our energy is limited to the supplies we provide it. There’s a belief that we can go all day and night, because we’re just sitting on our butts. But the brain scientists I talk to tell me that it’s just the opposite. The brain goes down well before the body, and that's when we have productivity outages.

Stepping back is essential to going forward with the vitality needed to get the job done effectively. We all know the declining level of performance that happens when we feel exhausted. After a certain amount of time on task, brains need a reset.

Rebooting the Brain

Brains have to reset every 90 minutes, or they start fading. Jim Goodnight, CEO of one of the top organizations for work-life balance in the country, SAS Institute, a software company in North Carolina, believes his employees can’t do more than two hours of continuous time on task without making mistakes, especially coders.

He’s right in tune with how our minds and bodies work. We have a built-in rest cycle designed to replenish the energy we burn up. It’s a pattern known as ultradian rhythms, recurrent 90-minute cycles that take us from high to low alertness during the day and through the various stages of sleep at night.

Sleep researcher Nathan Kleitman called this pattern the rest-activity cycle. When we get to the end of the period, alertness wanes. We feel fidgety, find it hard to focus, get drowsy. That’s when it’s time to get up and refuel.

Psychobiology researcher Ernest Rossi says we are programmed to want to take a 20-minute break after every 90 minutes of intense focus or time on task. And it’s not just that we want a break, says Rossi, we actually need one if we hope to operate at peak effectiveness and efficiency.

Mind Your Ultradian Rhythms

Ignore your ultradian rhythms long enough, and you’ll be on your way to what Rossi calls “Ultradian Stress Syndrome,” which can lower your immunity and seriously diminish your ability to accomplish anything.

Researchers have repeatedly demonstrated that productivity increases after breaks in the action, since the respites allow us to recover from fatigue and sustain higher levels of effort. Breaks reduce stress, injuries, and absenteeism, all of which make us more productive. You get a lot more done when you’re at work than sidelined. Mandara Savage and Darren Pipkins found that recovery periods reduce fatigue and decrease decline of productivity

It's pretty simple: Physical vitality keeps the tank full and determines how much we get done, how fast, and whether we are satisfied with what we've done afterwards. I can't think of a better productivity tool. And there's no app to download. 

 

 

Tips and Tools to Make Work Work

Copyright © 2012, Joe Robinson

10 Easy Ways to Cut Work Stress in 2014

 
By Joe Robinson

Stressed out from too much email

Happy 2014, everyone! I hope it’s a great one for you. One way to help make it that way is to use that precious window of openness we have at the beginning of the year when we are receptive for a nanosecond to new things  and resolve to do something different this year: not take stress but turn off the danger signals that drive it.

Hiding in plain sight, this toxic saboteur can ruin your work and health with a trip to the ER and a sinkhole of medical bills. You may think you're handling it, but that's usually an illusion, supplied by the adrenaline released by the stress response, which masks the damage to your body by giving you a sense you're powering through it.

Brian Curin, 39, thought he was managing risk well as president of footwear retailer Flip Flop Shops, which has more than 90 locations. Yes, he had pressure, but he exercised and ate well. He could handle it. He did feel a little off, though, and had a faint ache of something resembling heartburn.

Curin decided to pay his doctor a visit. Blood work, a resting EKG and a respiration test were negative, but a stress test and an angiogram turned up a big problem: four blocked arteries, one of them at 100 percent—not what Curin expected at his age. Without open-heart surgery, he could have been dead within weeks.

"I was extremely lucky," says Curin, whose wake-up call prompted him to start a campaign, The Heart to Sole: Creating a Stress-Free America, to lobby for stress-testing at all companies and to support the American Heart Association's My Heart, My Life program. "If something doesn't feel right, it's probably not. Get it checked out."

Because the human brain's fear central, the amygdala was built for life-and-death scenarios 100,000 years ago, it doesn't know how to process the social stressors of the modern world. As a result, we react to stressful events as life-and-death before we think and become easy prey for chronic stress, which compromises the immune system, increases the bad cholesterol and decreases the good kind. Bravado and busyness can keep us in denial mode until the paramedics arrive.

You're not much good to your work and family from six feet under. This year, let’s make a vow to keep the sirens at bay with these essential stress-reduction strategies.

1. Pay attention to your body. Insomnia, heart palpitations, anxiety, bowel issues--they're trying to tell you something. See your doctor.

2. Make stress-testing as routine as dental checkups.

3. Cut stress by reducing time urgency. Every minute is not life or death.

4. Identify the story behind the stress and reframe it from catastrophic to a new story: "Yes, I've got 300 e-mails, but I can handle it."

5. Build stress-relief techniques into your schedule—meditation, progressive relaxation, exercise, a hobby.

6. Set boundaries. Sixteen hours of work a day is not sustainable. Find the "just enough" point in a given day or project.

7. Check email at designated times. Four times a day is the most productive email checking schedule.

8. Delegate or get help. Doing it yourself can cost well more than the price of a helping hand.

9. Step back. Brains have to reset every 90 minutes. Breaks increase mental functioning and interrupt stress.

10. Get a life. The best stress buffer is a life beyond work. Remember that?

If you would like to get yourself and/or your organization off to a great start for 2014, a stress management program can be one of the best investments you make all year. Our stress reduction tools pay off many times over in dramatically less medical costs and higher productivity and engagement. Click below for more information and prices.

 

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Copyright © 2012, Joe Robinson

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