Working Smarter

The Science of Why We Burn Out and Don't Have To

Posted by Joe Robinson

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JOB BURNOUT is an accident. No one aspires to a state of exhaustion so complete you don't want to get out of bed. If we knew ahead of time that we were headed down this road, we could change course. But we don’t know that, because the chronic stress that drives burnout directs us down an unconscious track of mechanical momentum.

We don’t think about managing the demands that are pushing our buttons, we just keep reacting to them on autopilot on a route I call the burnout treadmill. Just keep going until the paramedics arrive. Unfortunately, they are arriving so we need a healthier approach to how we work and react to pressure, stress, and other people, and that means a conscious understanding of how we respond to burnout triggers and how certain personality traits and habits factor in to the equation. Stress management has to be as routine as brushing teeth.

BRAKE FOR BURNOUT

To prevent auto crashes, we moderate speed and make sure the brakes are working. To keep the accident of burnout at bay, we have act preventitively too, by putting the brakes on uncontested stress and perfectionism, and what researchers call self-undermining, from bad coping habits to lack of communication 

Most of the people I work with in my coaching practice suffer from burnout. They come to me after a long period of extreme work hours, workloads beyond their capacity, and high chronic stress from demands that have overwhelmed their coping systems, touching off anxiety, cynicism, and fear about what the future holds.

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They are not slackers; in fact, they are the opposite. They have worked so hard that they have gone beyond what’s healthy or needed to be productive in their work. They may think they are the only one who can get the job done right and don't delegate. Often, they associate endurance, quantity of hours on the job, with performance, when in the knowledge economy, it’s all about how fresh the chief productivity tool—attention—is. I meet them when the exhaustion, drop in performance, and medical issues tell them they can’t go on anymore like this. 

Burnout is what happens when chronically high demands meet low to no resources or support. The final stage of chronic stress, burnout is a condition of accumulation, unresolved stress that piles up day after day for months and years until it drains all coping resources—emotional, physical, and mental. It’s easy to get caught up in because chronic stress floods the body with adrenaline that masks the physiological impacts and makes us think we’re handling it, at least for a while—until we’re not. 

We're left in a state of chronic exhaustion, futility, and feeling a lack of personal accomplishment. Not only do you not have energy to do the job or live your life with joy, but you also feel like there’s no point to doing either. Cynicism and emotional distancing, withdrawal, and a host of medical issues follow.

CONTEST THE STRESS

Studies show a high incidence of depression, anxiety, and alcohol dependence in burnout cases (Ahola, 2007). Burnout is also a factor in cardiovascular disease, diabetes (Melamed, Shirom, 2006), gastro-intestinal problems, and stroke.

On the performance side, burnout triggers higher absenteeism and turnover (Maslach 2001), and presenteeism. The body’s at the office but not much else. It takes longer to get tasks done because of low energy and attention levels, so productivity is reduced.

There are situational factors that trigger burnout—the structure of the work, unrealistic deadlines, excess workload, and insufficient reward or support—but also individual causes rooted in personality traits and our own responses (or lack of them) to demands. The key to not fall prey to reflex burnout triggers is to be aware of the daily issues that drive stress, and resolve, dispute, communicate, and adjust them so they don’t push your buttons.

We all have a job we have to do. Nothing we can do about that. But how we do our tasks is something we can change. When we make adjustments to how we do our tasks and how we respond to others, we turn off the engines of burnou, which thrive on lack of control. When we make little and big changes, delegate, ask for help, control devices, and find ways to feel more autonomous, we eliminate the festering root of burnout—helplessness.

Research shows that when we exercise acts of choice and flexibility, we satisfy one of our core needs, autonomy, an antidote to burnout (which thrives on futility and lack of agency). One study (Bakker, Demerouti, Euwema, 2005) found that employees who communicate often with supervisors, get regular feedback (something you can ask for), have social support, and feel more autonomy as a result can have high demands but not get burned out.

DO EXTRAVERTS GET BURNED OUT?

The key to managing the stress that drives burnout is increasing control over demands and the thoughts and self-talk that undermine us. That’s where we gain autonomy and make work-life less difficult. But we have to set boundaries, which are a success tool, studies show (Nash, Stevenson, 2004). We can’t be doing two hours of work email at home. We can’t reflexively do 12-hour days without asking what’s wrong with workflow, delegating, or time management. 

And we have to speak up. We have to let others know the situation is untenable. One of my clients told her boss that though she loved her job, the toll of burnout on her and her family was no longer something she could accept. Something had to change. The boss agreed and removed a person driving high stress from contact with her and gave her a month off with pay to regather her crashed resources.

Proaction is the way out of burnout. Keeping everything inside is the way to keep burnout going. This client is an introvert, but she was able to step up and communicate her needs. Studies show, by the way, that extraversion is negatively associated with burnout. So if extraverts tend to have less burnout than introverts, that is instructive data. People more inclined to talk about challenges and ask for adjustments feel more control over events, and that control reduces the helplessness of silence.

EXHAUSTION LEADS TO MORE EXHAUSTION

In a fascinating study, Arnold Bakker and Patricia Costa examined the individual side of burnout. They found that, “Employees with higher levels of daily exhaustion show self-undermining behavior…Chronically burned-out employees are less able to manage their own emotions, and more likely to encounter conflicts at work. These self-undermining behaviors all contribute to higher daily job demands.”

Bakker and Costa found too that high levels of daily exhaustion resulted in mistakes that had to be done over, which pushes schedules back, creates more time urgency, and more pressure in an ever-repeating cycle.

Researchers have found the best antidote to burnout is something every employer wants: employee engagement. People who feel they are valued and participants in the way the work is done don’t get burnout out. Burnout scholar Christina Maslach has reported that the key dimensions of burnout—exhaustion, cynicism, and lack of professional efficacy—are the polar opposite of engagement's main domains: vigor, dedication, and absroption. 

The autonomy support framework created by the University of Rochester’s Edward Deci and Richard Ryan is an ideal antidote to burnout. It brings more teamwork, satisfaction, and something else critical for anyone to do something that’s hard—the right kind of motivation, intrinsic motivation. When we work, not for the external payoff, but for internal goals such as service, challenge, excellence, or craft, we satisfy our core needs of autonomy, competence, and connection with others and don’t go down the track to isolation, alienation, and catastrophic thoughts that lead to burnout.

Attention, then, is our exit off the burnout treadmill. The more attention we have on how we work, the fewer emotional reactions and mechanical momentum that can self-undermine us. There is nothing more important to pay attention to than your health, so let’s all make sure we jump on the triggers that set us off and not give stress a pass or buy the bravado that we can “take it.” Or one day, you get taken by burnout.

Tags: work overload, stress management, burnout, job burnout, burnout causes

Do the Thing You Fear the Most

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Fear is overrated. We know that because time and time again its catastrophes don’t come to pass. The plane doesn’t crash, and the odds of that happening are infinitesimal. We get up to dance, and the whole room doesn’t break into laughter. Everyone else is too caught up in their own anxieties to notice you.

The track record of fear is absurdly bad. We would fire anyone whose predictions were as consistently wrong as the fantasies and false beliefs in our head. At the minimum, we wouldn’t pay attention to their yammerings anymore.

BORN TO WORRY

Unfortunately, we are outfitted with a brain prone to imagine worst-case scenarios, and the one thing it’s better at than that is nagging about its various dreads. We are born to be worrywarts, and that default has worked to the extent we are still around on the planet. Yet unless we know how to manage this default and separate out the bogus from the real threats, we wind up being played by our hyper-tuned amygdalas to the tune of missing out on the whole point of being here: engagement with our life.

It turns out that what our brains really want is not to stew all day and night about things that don’t exist in a tense we are not in but novelty and challenge, as brain scientist Gregory Berns has pointed out. Our mandate is to participate in our experience and do things that the fear police don’t want us to do.

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It’s one of the great, or maybe not so great, paradoxes of the human condition. In your brain every day the forces of safety and comfort are hard at work trying to squelch your craving for growth, otherwise known as progress. The security default seems like the way to go, but it’s completely at odds with the progress you need to be happy.

The source of gratification, the science tells us, are core psychological needs that express fear-busting aspirations such as autonomy and competence. We need to feel like we are writing our own script. To do that, we have to step beyond the comfort zone and fear’s flashing red lights. Not acting on the core needs leads to stagnation, boredom and vital life sources sealed off from our reach. You might be safe, but you’re sorry, because you are not moving forward.

REFLEXIVE FANTASIES

When a perceived risk appears in our consciousness, the primal impulse in the defense hub of the amygdala reflexively triggers the danger signal. Enter catastrophic thoughts of what might happen if you do something outside the bubble. You’ll be a wimp if you speak up about the stress or health issues you have. Other people would judge you a failure at pottery or painting. You might get mugged if you travel to another country. There’s no end to what the amygdala can concoct to keep you in a box.

We buy into these false alarms, because the thoughts are in our head. If we’re thinking them, they must be true. No! Thoughts aren’t real. Only experience is. Fear is a projected anxiety, a figment of imagination that shuts down opportunities for growth, aliveness, and meaning. Who’s in charge here? You or an automatic thought that’s as accurate as “the earth is flat.”

There is no progress without risk, so giving our brain neurons the novelty and challenge they want means not being able to predict what will happen when you take a leap. That’s okay, since the fear equipment has a horrible track record in the prophecy department too. Fear is even more inept when it comes to decision-making. No good choice is ever made from the desperation and panic of fear.

Most fears that dominate our days fall into the social realm. The projected anxieties boil down into the dread of others’ disapproval. Since humans are not born with the cues of how to behave like Arctic terns, we look to see what the majority is doing and try to do that, but that’s a bad yardstick when it comes to satisfying your core needs—since no one can do that for you. We have to look to our own affinities and what is meaningful to us to gratify our self-determination equipment.

THE VISE-GRIP OF SOCIAL FEAR

Fear of looking foolish is one of the top blocks to learning and progress for adults. We had no problem jumping in to try things as kids, but adults are supposed to know everything already and sweat not appearing omniscient. Yet foolishness is merely the state of not-knowing on the way to skill and knowledge. It is the act of learning, in other words. Fools have more fun, which is why kids have more fun. They don’t feel foolish when they jump into something new; learning is their job. It’s our job too, if we want to keep our brain neurons happy.

A young man approached me after I delivered a recent keynote address on empowerment for the staff of Pasadena City College. He wanted to thank me for the talk. In it, I had sketched out a couple of fear scenarios, which hit home for him. “I was at a club and a girl asked me to dance, but I said No, because I’m shy. I really regret it. I won’t be doing that again,” he said with a big smile. He was more in charge of his thoughts now, not the other way around.

Fear is momentary. Regret is forever. Breaking out of the clutches of the fear factory in our heads means stepping into the non-life threatening fears in our life. “Do the thing you fear the most, and the death of fear is certain,” Mark Twain said.

What keeps fear activated is avoidance. We don’t want to go there with fear, so we step around it or try to ignore it, but it actually becomes the guiding hand in the form of aversion. We don’t realize that under all social fear is one not-so-big deal, a belief we wouldn’t be able to handle it. Guess what? We always handle it. The belief is bogus.

A JOURNEY OF SECONDS

Ditching the paralysis of fear means noticing the butterflies in the stomach and moving anyway. A few seconds of dripping armpits is worth it, because on the other side is exhilaration, competence, skills, autonomy, new friends and opportunities, and the victory of having overcome an impediment to your potential. It’s a journey of mere seconds through the self-imposed barricades that keep out the life we want.

For many, the fear that holds progress back is the fear of making a mistake, again an external approval metric. Even philharmonic musicians dread messing up and playing a wrong note. The answer for those with performance anxiety is the same as it is for anyone wanting to do something that pushes their envelope in some way—understanding that non-life-threatening mistakes are survivable, human. Be okay with mistakes. It’s the fear of mistakes that causes them, as our attention is diverted from the task at hand to thoughts of dread and what might happen.

The more you step through irrational and catastrophic thoughtsto engage with your life, the more you strengthen competence and mastery needs, which cut down on the security reflex. Studies show that people whose self-worth is based on intrinsic goals—acting for the sake of it, for no external reward—are much less in the defensive posture.

The more we push past fear thresholds, the more we see that calamity is not around every corner. We are emboldened to embrace the new and unknown, and brain neurons applaud with a celebration of dopamine, their party drug.

The world of play is particularly good as a place to confront fears, because it’s a no-judgment realm where nothing is on the line except fun and enjoyment. If you want to make the safety equipment cringe and your challenge need celebrate, jump into a new hobby. Learn how to make a ceramic pot, play saxophone, or dance mambo. When you do, you’ll see how easy it is to take on the next challenge and do what a part of your brain said you couldn’t.

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Tags: gratification, catastrophic thoughts, stress management, fear and risk-taking, fear, empowerment

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 music 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? 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 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.

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

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.

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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.

For information on our stress management training for organizations, click the button below.

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Tags: stress, stress management, stress test

Managing Stress Is Managing Non-Vulcan Reactions and Emotions

Posted by Joe Robinson

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It would be so much easier to be a Vulcan. Pure logic, no emotion or egos to get in the way at work. Pressure? What pressure? We could handle it all with the serene nonchalantness of Mr. Spock.

No taking things personally. That would be illogical. No obsessing about yesterday's woes or what had to be done tomorrow. That was/would be then. The only tense we can rationally be in is the present. And if we couldn’t get on the same page with somebody, we could just do a Vulcan mind meld. Now I see what you’re thinking.

IT’S THE REACTION

Sure, it would be a little dull, if not a crashing bore, but at least we wouldn’t have stress to worry about, because we wouldn’t have the bane and also boon of human existence, emotions, to get in our way. It’s our reactions to the events of the day and the emotions they set off that create, produce, and direct the stress script. 

Without the ability to manage emotional reactions, we self-inflict false beliefs that lead to rash decisions, impulsive behavior, time urgency, crisis mentality, conflict with colleagues, distraction, disengagement, cynicism, and a host of physical byproducts, from high blood pressure to strokes, irritable bowel, and depression.

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The fallout from stress on any team or organization is so massive—from retention (40% of people who quit their jobs cite stress as the main reason) to profits (23% higher when stress is managed)—that it would be illogical to not have ways to counter it.

The good news is that organizations don’t have to be a breeding ground for unmanaged reactions. You can manage demands and control emotional responses. That's what we teach here at Optimal Performance Strategies in our stress management training programs and classes.

Very few of us are ever equipped with the skill of managing our default emotional reactions. It’s like never being told that we had to brush our teeth to fight off cavities. Just let ‘em rot. 

Managing emotions is that basic to healthy brains and behavior. It's a daily practice we have to do, or wind up with a lot worse problems than cavities.

We are born with a mind that is easily hijacked by irrational emotions when it believes something has overloaded ability to cope, which happens often in a world of social stress that an outmoded portion of the brain has no idea how to deal with.

EMOTIONAL QUAGMIRE

The tide of dysfunction set off by the stress response is a tsunami that can overtake any team or organization with fight-or-flight behaviors. Suddenly, everyone is snapping at each other. Stress is highly contagious, spreading secondhand stress through what are known as mirror neurons, which make us simulate the emotions and expressions of others. 

We pick up on the emotions of others through facial expressions and tone of voice. Mirror neurons are a social bonding tool. Positive emotions can sweep people up in a buoyant mood that is infectious and that research shows results in increased productivity and rapport, but stress and cynicism bury everyone in a toxic quagmire of anxiety.

Negative emotions are more powerful than positive ones. It takes three positive to every one negative event to stay on the positive side, according to University of North Carolina researcher Barbara Fredrickson. Studies show that negative affect drives down productivity, sales, and rapport for those caught up in it.

The key to managing emotions is managing reactions. That’s because it’s the reaction, or the story we tell ourselves about what somebody said or a project that didn’t go well, that sets off the stress response and a wave of raw emotions unhinged from the rational higher brain. The ancient limbic system takes over at this point, flooding our brains with irrational emotions—fear, anger, embarrassment—and the all-or-nothing, catastrophic thoughts that come from them.

The reaction usually goes off unconsciously, as the early warning system, the amygdala, detects within milliseconds a perception that something has overloaded coping capacity. When that happens, it triggers an intense emotional reaction, since a part of your brain thinks you are about to be deceased.

CONTESTING DIRE THINKING

As a result, the thinking is dire, catastrophic, black-and-white. It’s hard to resist grabbing these strong emotions and thoughts because they are in our brain after all, so they must be true. Well, no. They are false beliefs. You are not going to die. The alarm and reaction itself are bogus.

This is where we make our stand against repeated mind hijackings, by not automatically reacting and becoming aware when we do go off and cutting off the stress response before its false beliefs are allowed to spiral and entrench in the brain. We have to do something we’re never told to do: contest the stress. That means challenging the false story behind the alarmist thoughts and becoming resilient in the face of challenges.

Often, we don’t know what that bogus story is. We simply get sucked under by the real-seeming catastrophe and fan the emotional flames by ruminating about irrational reactions like these: 

  • I’m going to lose my job
  • I’m never going to make it
  • It's all going to fall apart
  • I can’t handle it 
  • I'm a failure
  • I’ll never recover from this
  • I’m going to wind up on the street

Focus on irrational thoughts constricts the brain to the perceived crisis, shredding attention and driving mistakes and conflict. It can put teams, clients, patients, and organizations at high risk to have people in the altered state of stress-driven emotional reactions.

In our stress management programs at Optimal Performance, we train participants to recalibrate reactions and reframe the false stories that drive the emotional machinery behind stress. Studies show that we can prime our brains to respond to habitual triggers with new behaviors.

We can manage demands and emotional intensity. We can turnr reflex reactions into responses that keep emotional surges at bay and bring back the 21st century brain—and the voice of reason, our very own inner Mr. Spock. 

If you would like to find out more about how to train your team or organization to manage emotions and reactions, click the button below for details. Or give us a call at 310-570-6987.

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Tags: catastrophic thoughts, stress response, stress management, stress management programs, managing emotions

The Most Important Stress Management Weapon We Don't Know We Need

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Contrary to what we all instinctively believe, stress is not caused by anyone or anything else. No, the culprit is you. I hate to tell you, but you’re stressing yourself out.

The danger signal that trips the stress response is triggered, not by outside events, but by what you think about those events. It’s your reaction to what happens to you, namely, the story you tell yourself about what happened that activates stress.

WHY BAD THINGS HAPPEN

It’s called “explanatory style,” how you explain bad things that happen to you, and it’s one of the most important things we can know for healthy human functioning on this planet. The problem is that few outside the medical and research world have ever heard of the term.

No wonder stress is a factor in some 75% of doctor visits, and 40% of employee turnover. Stress-related costs for American business add up to a colossal $407 billion a year, reports U. C. Irvine researcher, Peter Schnall.

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Explanatory style isn’t hard to grasp. I see the light bulbs going on right away for participants in my stress management programs. Our thoughts are the problem, not what anyone else is doing to us. Manage the thoughts set off by the default stress reaction, and you control the demands, instead of the other way around. Turn off the danger signal, and the stress response stops in four minutes.

CATASTROPHIC SELF-TALK

The first thought that appears in the brain after a stressful event is a catastrophic one, an irrational distortion. It’s a false belief that comes from an ancient part of the brain that believes your life is in danger.

When a threat overloads capacity to cope with it, whether it’s an argument with a colleague or 300 emails, it activates ancient survival equipment in our defense hub, the amygdala, which hijacks the modern brain and turns over command to a stowaway from the year 100,000 BC. The so-called caveman/woman brain then locks in irrational thoughts driven by the false belief of imminent demise.

That triggers dire and pessimistic self-talk, sometimes known as 'awfulizing"—“I can’t handle it,” “I’m going to lose my job and be out on the street.” Pessimistic explanatory style entrenches the false belief that the sky is falling or that nothing will ever work out. We buy the catastrophic story because it’s in our heads—it has to be true! No, not when the ancient brain is in charge of your faculties. They are mere thoughts, and thoughts aren’t real. Only experience is real.

There is another explanation for what happened other than the black-and-white, all-or-nothing frame of negative explanatory style. Positive explanatory style reframes the reaction by bringing back the rational 21st century brain. Something simply didn’t work out. A mistake was made, and it’s survivable. You’ll do better next time. It’s hard, but you can cope.

PESSIMISTIC STYLE: HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH

Explanatory style isn’t just key to controlling stress. Researchers who tracked the health of a group of Harvard students from college through their sixties (Peterson, Seligman, Vaillant) were able to show that a pessimistic explanatory style is a serious risk factor for poor health in midlife and late adulthood. The way we interpret why things happen to us can literally make us sick, set off major health conditions, and shorten our lives.

The reason is that the stress response was only designed to be active for a short period of time, since it does serious damage to our bodies in longer doses.

It suppresses the immune system, shuts down the digestive and tissue repair systems, and increases the bad cholesterol while decreasing the good kind. All this is intended to harness the body's strength and push blood to the arms and legs to help us fight or run during the brief time we are in harm's way.

This is why chronic stress that goes on day after day, week after week, sometimes year after year, is a factor in the leading causes of death and why it leads to absenteeism and presenteeism. Stress ravages bodies, brains, and productivity. It constricts brains to the perceived emergency, so the chief productivity tool, attention, goes missing in rumination.

It’s no wonder, then, that programs that teach people how to control stress with an optimistic explanatory style have an immediate impact on health and performance. Stress management training programs, for instance, have been shown to increase company revenues 23% and cut absenteeism 24% (Munz, Kohler, Greenberg). 

BEYOND LEARNED HELPLESSNESS

The right explanatory style can make all the difference for an under- pressure organization, team or personal life. The pessimistic style sees negative events as permanent, pervasive (affecting every aspect of life), and personal. It can lead to what the University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Seligman identified as “learned helplessness,” a belief that there’s nothing that can be done.

That fuels pessimistic self-talk and terms that lock you in to the darkness—things “always” turn out bad, you’ll “never” make it. Seligman discovered that pessimistic explanatory style is a road that leads to depression.

Optimistic explanatory style reverses the negative self-talk with terms that reframe the situation from permanent to temporary. It’s a passing storm, like all storms. It’s not pervasive but specific to a certain situation. Therefore, it’s not going to affect everything you do for the rest of your life. And you don’t take the event personally. That takes the ego out of the equation and the emotions that gush irrationally from it.

The optimistic style brings back the analytical brain that was hijacked by the primitive emotional brain, the limbic system. You can start to weigh pro and con again. The sky is no longer falling.

The power to manage stress is within us all when we shut down the false story of stress and reframe it with the right explanatory style. This skill can transform lives and workplaces. Without an understanding of how to frame pressure, pace, and workload, the default is to the reflex catastrophic story. With it, you can manage any challenge. 

Stress management training can put your team on the path to effective performance. If you are interested in a program for your organization, click the button below for details on pricing and content. Reframe the overwhelm game.

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Tags: awfulizing, catastrophic thoughts, stress management training, stress, stress management, stress management programs, explanatory style, self-talk

Control Email Overload and Overwhelm by Setting the Terms of Engagement with Devices

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Face-to-face conversations these days more often than not mean a face-to-scalp session, as you speak to the hair or pate of the person looking down at their phone. You can almost say anything, because they’re really not paying attention to you. “Hey, your car just got towed.” “Uh-huh.”

They hear human sounds in the world beyond their screen, but ask them to repeat it back, and they would be stumped. It’s not just the device that is impeding discourse, it’s the type of attention that is being brought to bear—divided and directed by the device, not by the device holder’s brain.

MULTITASKING SLOWS BRAIN NEURONS

The reflex is to try to both look at the phone and listen to the conversation, but doing both things at once is impossible. You can’t do more than one high cognitive task at a time, especially anything involving language, because there is only one neural channel for language to flow through. As a result, you are either doing one or the other task and switching back and forth between them. That switching has costs—time to figure out where you were on the other task each time there's a switch, fractured attention, inability to retain information, and rote behavior that operates on autopilot, i.e., the past, instead of focus on the present.

Multitasking forces attention down from the top floors of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, to the rote realms, like the hippocampus, which act on muscle memory. Thinking is sidelined for default action. Operating on rote mode is highly unproductive, as the data on multitasking shows. Productivity can drop from 40% to more than double that, according to David Meyer, a multitasking expert at the University of Michigan.

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Why would you want to work so ineffectively and scatter-brained? You wouldn’t—if you were thinking about it. But, alas, you’re not thinking about it. Almost none of us are. We are simply following orders from devices and interrupters. That means we are using a form of attention, bottom-up attention, that undermines focus and engagement and drives loss of control, stress, and overwhelm.

THE NOISEMAKER DEFAULT

Bottom-up attention is a survival instinct. When a car backfires, we stop whatever we’re paying attention to and focus on the source of the threatening sound. Blood pressure increases, thoughts are constricted to the intrusion, and we lose the fragile thought chunks held together in short-term memory that we need to get our work done. Then we have to reconstruct later what it was we were doing before the interruption. Research by U. C. Irvine’s Gloria Mark shows that it can take up to 25 minutes for your thoughts to get back to wherever they were before bottom-up attention took hold. Think of the hit to productivity that delivers multiple times a day.

The reason so many feel overwhelmed today is that attention is being driven, not by what our brains were designed for—selecting one thing to attend to—but by the bottom-up world of the noisemakers and flashers. The chimes, dings, chirps, and pulses, along with visual notifications (impossible to resist flashing lights; could be a threat) keep us in startle response mode, a defensive posture, instead of on the attention offensive.

The key to restoring focus and productivity to the day is bringing back the kind of attention we need to get work done and concentrate: top-down attention. How do we do that? By setting the terms of engagement with the bottom-up brigade. That means creating strategies that put top-down attention in charge as much as possible. When we use the ability we are programmed with, to select and pay attention to one thing at a time, studies show we have more focus, less stress, we like what we’re doing more, and we remember it longer.

BOTTOM-UP DICTATOR

All of that good stuff comes from full absorption in what we’re doing, from something that used to be known as undivided attention. Reclaiming it requires that we deploy perimeters around the unbounded realm of bottom-up intruders. Like a city without traffic lights, a workplace without boundaries on the incoming is anarchy, a field day for bottom-up dictatorship.

When we’re not choosing what to pay attention to, and just reacting all day, we feel out of control, which is the root cause of overwhelm—a belief we can’t cope with demands. This is all your ancient brain needs to flip the danger switch of the stress response. It’s a huge attention saboteur, exploding working memory for a false emergency that constricts thoughts to the perceived crisis that isn’t one. The definition of stress is high demands and no control, what’s known as “latitude,” over the work environment.

When we select what we pay attention to and when, we have command and control to keep overwhelm at bay. We can set the terms of engagement with adjustments to how we work, by checking email at designated times and keeping it turned off otherwise, by shutting off the noisemakers on our email and phone, by creating no-interruption “focus” zones that allow us to concentrate by using 100%, undivided top-down attention, and by many other strategies that restore control and attention.

The average corporate email user gets 109 bottom-up emails a day and dozens of Instant Messages. Business texts are up 67%. An interruption of just 4.4 seconds can triple the risk of errors. How sustainable is this path for your team or organization? There is a better way than terminal startle response all day. By putting the humans back in control.

If your team could use more top-down attention and less bottom-up, more focus and less overwhelm, we can get you there with our Information Overload and Managing Crazy-Busy Workload training programs. If you would like to learn more, click the button below for more details. Proactive self-management is the answer to overwhelm and growing attention deficit.

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Tags: email overload, increasing productivity, interruptions and productivity, overwhelm, information overload programs, information overload, stress management, attention management, productivity and attention

The Secret to Productivity: Time to Recharge

Posted by Joe Robinson

(This is a feature I did for Entrepreneur Magazine and for people everywhere, struggling to balance work and life.)

As a college buddy was recounting a great trip to Europe, something snapped inside Jeff Platt. "It was like all of a sudden I woke up," recalls the CEO of Sky Zone Indoor Trampoline Park.

Though only 24 at the time, Platt was exhausted. He'd been working 16-hour days, seven days a week, for two years since launching the Los Angeles-based company's second trampoline park, this one in St. Louis. He had taken no vacations, had no social life whatsoever. In the bootstrap tradition, he was doing it all in the early days of the venture started by his father, Rick. But that habit is sustainable only until the reality of mental and physical limits strikes.

"I felt like I was missing out," he says. "All I was doing was busting my butt. I was tired. I had to slow down. I stepped back and said, it's time to hire some people."

Entrepreneurs are often celebrated for wearing multiple hats and logging numerous hours. But working without letup is a bad habit that can jeopardize business, health and the life you're supposedly working toward.

It's easy to fall into the trap of overdoing it, since capital in the early days is tight, but also because few ambitious achievers understand one of the biggest secrets of productivity--the refueling principle. It comes down to this: You get more done quicker when you step back and recharge the brain and body. Studies show that performance increases after breaks of all durations: from extended vacations down to microbreaks of 30 seconds. .

RUNNING OUT OF JUICE

Continuous time on-task sets off strain reactions, such as stress, fatigue and negative mood, which drain focus and physical and emotional resources. The brain's ability to self-regulate--to stay disciplined--wanes with each exercise of self-control during the day. It's a loss of resources that must be replenished, or it becomes harder to stay on-task, be attentive and solve problems.

"There is a lot of research that says we have a limited pool of cognitive resources," says Allison Gabriel, an assistant professor of management at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies job demands and employee motivation. "When you are constantly draining your resources, you are not being as productive as you can be. If you get depleted, we see performance decline. You're able to persist less and have trouble solving tasks."

Make the Best Work-Life Case: Get the

That's counterintuitive in a culture programmed to believe that it takes near-nonstop work to get the sale, beat the competitor or do whatever is needed to succeed. For most entrepreneurs, rest is considered the province of lesser mortals, put off for a future that never arrives. It's as if each day is an Ironman triathlon that requires one to crawl across the finish line on all fours.

Dan Sullivan, co-founder of Toronto-based Strategic Coach and co-author of The Laws of Lifetime Growth, says it's this mentality that keeps entrepreneurs exhausted, stuck and reaping a fraction of potential profits. He has built a multimillion-dollar coaching business in part by advising entrepreneurs to do the last thing in the world they would ever think to do: take time off. His anthem is that productivity and performance start with free time, which he argues is the fuel for the energy, creativity and focus that lead to success.

"It's not the amount of time you spend working each day," Sullivan says. "Entrepreneurs get paid through problem-solving and creativity. You can create a solution in a shorter period of time if you are rested and rejuvenated."

One of his clients, Jonathan Gassman of the Gassman Financial Group in New York, is a believer. Before Sullivan's program, he was a self-admitted workaholic who each year took maybe a week's "vacation" that wasn't one, since he spent much of it checking in electronically with the office. Since allowing himself free time under Sullivan's guidance, "my personal and company income are up dramatically, and I've started two businesses I wouldn't have otherwise," he says. "More quality time off is what really catapulted things." He now takes off six weeks per year, unattached to the office.

Work-life balance isn't a theoretical frill. It's a necessity for performance. After years on the burnout track, racking up long hours and heavy business travel, Saurabh Bhatia found his normally high energy reservoir tapped out. "I wasn't getting the energy I was used to, and the sense of joy was missing," says Bhatia, co-founder and CEO of mobile video ad company Vdopia in Fremont, Calif. Then he heard a TV commentator talking about how basketball star LeBron James had taken a break to recharge. That, Bhatia figured, was what he needed, too.

Bhatia put together his own program of "boosts," which include daily breaks (walking meetings, lunch with a friend, a swim); unplugged weekend activities such as hiking or driving with family and friends; and home activities, such as cooking, that relieve stress.

"You shouldn't have to slog through every day," Bhatia says. "I'm working smarter now, and finding that doing less is more impactful. My brain is getting more nutrition. On the life side, I'm able to pay more attention to my health and spend more time with my daughter."

As Bhatia has discovered, productivity doesn't come from being glued to the helm every waking moment but from how energized and, as a result, focused and organized your brain is. Humans are just like smartphones or iPods: We have to be recharged, or we run out of juice.

MANAGING MENTAL RESOURCES

Most of us wouldn't think twice about taking a breather after an hour of basketball or Zumba, but mental fatigue is another story. The brain is usually seen as an ethereal realm that exists apart from the body and the laws of physiology. Yet gray matter tires well before the body does. Since almost all of us are doing mental work these days, managing cognitive resources is not a nice thing to be able to do; it's essential.

The brain is "like a muscle. You can strengthen it or deplete it," Gabriel says. "If you let this muscle recharge and replenish, you'll feel better mentally and see improvements in your performance."

Regular refueling--input--is a prerequisite for quality output, because the brain is an energy machine, consuming 20 percent of the body's calories, even though it's only 2 percent of total body mass. Energy that gets expended must be resupplied.

Just like the heart, the brain gets fatigued from too much time on-task. "If you overtax your heart, the next thing you need to do is relax, or you'll die," says Jeff Stibel, CEO of Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp. and author of Wired for Thought, among other books. "The same thing is true of the brain. Do too much, and you'll burn it out. You'll make bad choices."

One study found that mental fatigue takes hold after three hours of continuous time on-task; other scientists say brains need a break after 90 minutes, the length of the "basic rest-activity cycle."

Burning up mental resources without replacing them leads to stress, burnout and poor performance. Stress constricts the brain to a narrow focus--a perceived threat--making it hard to concentrate on anything else, plan or make good decisions.

In the course of staying focused on a task, we use up a key cognitive resource: self-control. Studies show that regulating our emotions is taxing. Known in research circles as ego depletion, this holds that every time we exercise self-regulation--paying attention, suppressing emotions, managing how we act to conform to a cultural norm--we use limited regulatory resources and reduce the ability for further self-control, depleting energy and causing fatigue.

"Engaging in effortful choice and decision-making has been shown to lead to impairments in subsequent self-control," report the authors of a study from Florida State University and Texas A&M University that proved that self-regulation creates a fuel shortage for brain activities. (That fuel is blood glucose.)

From your calf muscles to your brain neurons, the pattern is the same: Activation of energetic resources requires a period of recovery. How? You shut off the flow of demands by stopping or resting, or by building up new resources, such as energy and control, to replace those that have been lost. The goal is psychological detachment from the stress and strain that cause negative activation--feelings of tension, distress, anger, dissatisfaction and fatigue--and engagement in positive activation that drives attention and vigor: fun, pleasure, learning and mastery.

BREAK TIME

Recovery opportunities might range from breaks during the workday to diversions that shut off the work mind when you get home at night, to weekend activities, vacations and sleep.

People who engage in respite activities during workday recovery breaks have higher levels of positive affect (observable expression of emotion) after the breaks, a study led by John Trougakos at the University of Toronto found. That restores regulatory resources that increase focus and resilience. Subjects who used the time for restorative activities--relaxing, social activities, napping--got the benefit, while those who used the time for chores--other tasks and errands--didn't.

As the longest separation from work stressors during the workday, lunch is a big opportunity for restoring energy. Working while eating lunch doesn't aid recovery, one study by Trougakos reports, while autonomy during the break "can offset the negative effects of work" and result in less end-of-workday exhaustion. Exercising during lunch is also effective. Swedish researchers found that taking two and a half hours per week for exercise during work hours increased productivity, even though workers were logging 6.25 percent fewer hours.

Vacations have been shown to lead to significantly higher performance upon return to the job. The energizing ingredients are time away from stressors (you need two weeks to get the recuperative benefits from burnout) and mastery and social experiences while on vacation that build competence and social connection.

Leaving the work at work is one of the most important recovery strategies--and the hardest. If you're still obsessing about work when you're off the job, no recovery can take place. Detaching from work with diversions at night reduces fatigue and promotes positive effects the next morning at work.

What is not an effective diversion? Watching TV. The average state of a TV viewer is a mild depression, according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow. Instead, you should try new hobbies and mastery experiences that satisfy core psychological needs such as autonomy and competence, which energize, empower and buffer job stress.

When you make time off as important as time on and have a plan to use it effectively, it can lead to the kinds of performance gains seen by Sullivan's clients. "We've quadrupled the size of the company," says Noah Katz, co-president of Foodtown/Freshtown markets, a New York firm with 850 employees. Katz has been in the Strategic Coach program for 12 years. "You need to recharge the batteries. You come back like a tiger and get more done."

DEFEATING DIY DISORDER

Even after trampoline impresario Platt had his epiphany that he needed help, actually hiring people was another story. After all the sweat equity he'd put into Sky Zone, it was hard to trust others with his baby. He started to give managers decision-making power, but then would overrule them.

Platt had a classic case of do-it-yourself disorder, an entrepreneurial affliction that burns up precious time and mental space on nonessential, grunt or out-of-skill-set tasks that take you away from the important jobs of innovating and building profitability.

"That's not being entrepreneurial at all," says Waterbury, Conn.-based Don Mroz, president of Post University and founding dean of the Malcolm Baldrige School of Business. "It's what's going to move the organization ahead, what's new and innovative that I can be working on, instead of ticking off the to-do list."

It took three years, the advice of a mentor and the realization that he was getting in the way of his company's forward progress for Platt to relinquish some of the reins. "Work started to pile up. I couldn't respond to people fast enough and lost some work," recalls Platt, whose company now has 71 trampoline parks around the world. "I had to get to the point of the business running itself."

It can take a serious pounding for entrepreneurs to admit they can't do it all, shouldn't do it all and, indeed, are going to flame out if they keep trying to do it all. Sullivan's clients often turn to him after a crisis--a marriage falls apart, they're drained by burnout. Sullivan teaches them that the very activity they thought was necessary for success--putting in extremely long hours--was likely the obstacle to it.

In his program, entrepreneurs create a new calendar in which their weeks are broken down into "free days," when no work or checking in to e-mail or the office is allowed; "buffer days," for planning and preparation; and "focus days," for high-value, goal-oriented practices. It can be shock treatment for folks who haven't had a day off in months or a vacation in years.

But after learning how to delegate, focus on what they do best and use free time to sharpen energy and clarity, Sullivan's clients may wind up taking a month or more off a year.

"By getting away from work and letting the mind get involved in thinking, hobbies and rejuvenation, you come back to the job and produce results faster," Sullivan explains.

Thinking is one of the crucial benefits of stepping back. Just as quality time off fuels energetic resources on the job, reflective time is critical to producing solutions and creative breakthroughs.

"If you don't give your employees time to think and play, you're not going to have the creativity you need to succeed," says Vincent Berk, CEO of FlowTraq, a software company in New Hampshire that solves tough cyber-security issues.

There's a good reason for that. "When you're thinking about a problem, it's confined to one or two regions in the brain," Dun & Bradstreet Credibility's Stibel says, "but the solution may not be in those areas. By resting, the information sits in your brain and then percolates across other sections of the brain."

Stibel practices what he preaches. His approximately 700 employees can choose from amenities and recovery options such as yoga classes, spinning, surfing lessons, massages and significant flextime. His top two refueling tips: get more sleep (seven to nine uninterrupted hours) and take a break every 45 to 90 minutes.

Now that he has made his staff accountable for decisions and learned to take breathers, Platt is feeling better. "Now I can leave for two weeks, and it wouldn't hurt the business," he says. "I can go to the gym every day, eat healthy food. I'm happier and have more energy at the end of the day."

If you'd like information on how to build the refueling principle into your company operations, click the button below for details on our work-life balance and sustainable performance trainings.

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Tags: increase productivity, productivity, work life balance programs, stress management, vacations,, productivity strategies, job bunrout

Job Stress Increases Risk for Strokes

Posted by Joe Robinson

Memory

Dozens of studies have shown the connection between job stress and cardiovascular disease and heart attacks. Now an important new study has found that high job strain also increases the risk of strokes, or brain attacks, by 22%. The risk is higher in women, 33%, and for the most common type of stroke, ischemic stroke, which cuts off blood flow to the brain, job strain increases the stroke risk by 58%.

As much as we would prefer to ignore it or call it something less charged, unmanaged stress has real consequences no one can afford to turn a blind eye to, whether employee or employer. This latest evidence shows that failure to control job strain can blow up the very source of productivity itself, the brain. This is an unforced error that doesn’t make sense. There are enough competitors out there ready to slice and dice. We don’t need to be doing it from within.

Stroke is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S., affecting 800,000 people every year. It occurs when there is an interruption of blood flow to the brain, which prevents brain cells from getting the oxygen and nutrients they need, and they can die as a result. Stokes are caused by artery blockage or narrowing, which happens in the 85% of cases that are ischematic, by blood hemorrhaging in brain arteries, or by temporary blood clots in the brain, known as transient ischemic attack (TIA). Stroke can lead to temporary or permanent disabilities and paralysis.

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DEMANDS VS. CONTROL

The Chinese researchers who conducted the meta-study analyzed data from six prior studies on three continents, including one in the U.S. They looked at the effects of strain on a sizable 140,000 people. Their report measured how the subjects fared over four categories of jobs, each with varying degrees of psychological demand, or strain, and control over demands, the key factors in whether you feel you can cope with a challenge or not. Lack of control in the face of high demands flips on the danger switch in the body's ancient defense mechanism, the amygdala, and the stress response kicks into fight-or-flight mode.

The risk of stroke is least for people in low-cognitive strain jobs, such as manual labor, and highest for people whose jobs have high levels of mental load, time pressure, and management and coordination, but who have little control over their work. Even if you have high demands, if you feel you have some control over events, what's known in the stress literature as "latitude," that creates a sense of coping capacity, countering the strain. High threat-vigilant work has been shown to be the most stressful, which includes bus drivers, taxi drivers, nuclear facility workers and air traffic controllers.

High strain jobs are proliferating with the speedup in pace, inundation of email and interruptions, which slow things down and increase time pressure, and leaner operations, which increase workload and the perception you are overwhelmed. Without strategies to adjust these conditions and the perceptions they create, chronic stress can develop, and that is where the serious health and productivity blowback occurs. 

BUILDING COPING CAPACITY

As has been shown in Japanese studies of karoshi (death by overwork) victims, chronic high stress leads to unhealthy lifestyle choices—eating fatty foods, smoking, drinking, and no exercise, as well as other decisions that increase stroke risk. Meanwhile, chronic stress jacks up blood pressure, lowers the immune system, increases the bad cholesterol, decreases the good cholesterol, and boosts the risk of plaque buildup in arteries, which can lead to cardiovascular disease, a proven risk factor for stroke.

As with heart issues, it's critical to know the warning signs. Symptoms of stroke include numbness of the face, arm, or leg (often on one side), vision problems, headaches, speaking and understanding problems, dizzyness, and unsteady gait. 

The good news is that we don’t have to let high strain develop into stress. We can control it in our bodies and companies by making adjustments to how we work that turn high strain into manageable pressure. Our stress management training, for instance, gives individuals tools to increase their perceived control over tasks and events, which moderates strain and builds coping capacity. Simple changes to processes and operations can dramatically reduce stress triggers within the organization and increase performance along the way. There are few blocks to performance as effective as unmanaged stress, which drives absenteeism, cynicism, conflict, mistakes, crisis mentality, fatigue, and exhaustion.

BRAIN MANAGEMENT

Stress management is brain management, and brain management is productivity management. Stress constricts the brain to the perceived crisis of the moment, so it stifles planning and complex decision-making, which require a leap out of the current worry loop.  Brains under chronic stress make rash decisions, since the faculties of the analytical mind get hijacked by the impulsive, emotional caveman brain.

Most of us individually try to avoid things that make us unhealthy—cigarettes, high-cholesterol foods—but when it comes to stress, we don’t act or ignore the problem. We have been programmed to believe that it’s just the way it is, or that we can take it. Smoking increases the risk of heart disease by 20%. This new study says that job strain is just as risky for stroke, and considerably higher, 33%, for women.

Companies spend heavily to recruit and train the best talent, but then can jeopardize those skilled minds by not being proactive about stress management. The latest scientific evidence shows that job strain is no longer something that can be written off as just part of the day. The activation of stress itself is a signal that something is perceived to be an emergency.

I hope these latest findings can move us closer to a time when we see this threat for what it is—the single biggest threat to the nation’s health ($1 trillion a year in costs annually, according to U.C. Irvine’s Peter Schnall), and to the effective functioning of any organization in a time of digital, 24/7 demands.

If you would like to learn more abou how to control stress in your organization or get details on our stress management programs, click the button below. Manage stress, and unleash performance.

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Tags: stress and productivity, work stress and health, stress management training, stress, stress management, job stress, stress management programs, stress and stroke

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