Working Smarter

Start 2017 with Smarter Work and the Key to Engagement: Progress

Posted by Joe Robinson

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We all go through a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to learn the trade of our craft, but when it comes to how we actually do the task practices that make up our profession, it’s a big zilch. We never learn how to work in a way that’s not knee-jerk reflex mode, reacting to stuff all day. It’s like a high jumper who knows about all the great athletes in the sport and techniques but has never gotten training on how to actually leap over a bar without killing themself.

Today, we have a lot of people quietly killing themselves and their team’s productivity because they’re on autopilot mechanical momentum. They are acting before they think and, as a result, driving time frenzy, crisis mentality, and, of course, the king of reactionary behavior, stress.

ACTING BEFORE WE THINK

Stress is the result of not having control over events to the point where capacity to cope is overloaded. It’s the definition of overwhelm and doing more than we can do well, which is rampant in every organization these days. It’s so widespread because we never get stress management training, either. There’s a tendency to see no stress, hear no stress, speak no stress, when everyone knows it’s shredding performance and teamwork. You can turn stress off, but it takes instruction to make that happen.

This unconscious cycle undermines productivity, since attention is focused on the perceived emergency, instead of the task at hand. It leads to absenteeism, retention problems, health issues, mistakes, and cynicism, the opposite of engagement.

But there is a way to change things in 2017, to have your team work in a way that improves performance as it reduces stress by making adjustments to how they do their tasks that make them more effective, engaged, and less susceptible to stress and frenzy. It all happens by changing work style, something we never think about, from mechanical to full engagement based on the latest tools proven by the research.We do precisely that at Optimal Performance Strategies in our work-life balance development trainings.

Employee engagement is defined as discretionary extra effort. It comes from informed performance, energized performance, not how robotically fast you’re working or how many things you think you’re doing at one time (you can only do one cognitive task at a time, say researchers; multitasking is a myth). Engagement doesn’t happen without training and development. It has to be taught.

DEVELOPMENT DRIVES ENGAGEMENT

Your employees are waiting for you to help them improve their skills. Research shows that development trainings are one of the biggest levers of employee engagement. So just the mere act of outfitting your team with more knowledge makes them more apt to be committed and engaged.

Why is that? Our brain neurons crave two things more than anything else for long-term fulfillment, novelty and challenge. We are born to learn, because we are born to seek progress in our lives. The gratification of growth and forward movement set off a chemical in the brain called dopamine, which rewards us after we acquire new knowledge and makes us want to learn more. Studies have shown progress to be one of the key markers for job satisfaction worldwide.

Your team can make progress that will activate everyone’s brain neurons in 2017 by learning skills that allow them to work smarter, get more done in less time, and recharge the chief productivity tool, the brain, on a regular basis. Our work-life balance programs give them strategies to:

--Manage stress, pressure, and pace

--Control email and information overload

--Manage interruptions and attention

--Improve time management

--Develop prioritization and time estimation/deadline skills

--Navigate the work-life divide

--Improve health and wellness

--Activate the most fulfilling life

The new year is the best time of the year, when minds are receptive to change, to chart new paths and replace what’s not working with what works. Learn how our work-life balance development program can give your team tools they can put to work immediately to improve work effectiveness and quality of life. It’s the “how” of workplace progress.

Just click the button below for details.

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Tags: employee development programs, stress management programs

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

Posted by Joe Robinson

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

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

FEAR'S FICTIONAL TALES

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

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

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

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

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

INFLAMMATORY LANGUAGE

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE POWER OF MAYBE

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

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

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

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

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

Worrying is a self-infliction. So we have the power to manage the language that give the false beliefs of stress credence. Counter your inner hysteric with terms of resilience, and you take back the script of your life.

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

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

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

Job Stress Increases Risk for Strokes

Posted by Joe Robinson

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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

How to Control the Hidden Engine of Stress and Burnout: Rumination

Posted by Joe Robinson

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We all hate repeats, especially of dramas we are starring in. Those come most frequently courtesy of one of the main protagonists of stress, a rehash cycle known as rumination. If we weren’t so prone to repeated obsessing over things that push our buttons, there would be a lot less stress and depression in the world.

It turns out that one of the biggest culprits in the stress battle isn’t what happens to us. It’s what we think happened to us. That’s where rumination, or circular worrying, comes in, with exaggerated thoughts informed, not by facts, but by irrational emotions. It’s the obsessive replay over and over again of events that have overloaded our ability to cope with them that fan stress, entrench it, and convince us that there is a clear and present danger to life and limb, even though there isn’t.

GETTING OUT OF OUR OWN WAY

Turning off the rumination reflex is one of the keys to stress management and preventing your brain from being hoodwinked on a regular basis to believe it’s the end, when it’s simply a neuronic malfunction. All we have to do is get out of our own way, a course we chart in our stress management programs for individuals and organizations.

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Normally, thinking is a good thing. We don’t jump off the 100-foot cliff or floor the gas pedal in a parking lot. But that’s when the 21st century brain is in use. We can use rational faculties to weigh pro and con. The stress response, though, puts an ancient stowaway in charge of your mind in the form of the emotional limbic system.

Over-cogitating with a mind that has been sent back to the future to 100,000 B.C. doesn’t work so well. That is because the survival mechanism that is setting off the alarm bell, the amygdala, doesn’t have a clue about non-life-threatening social threats today. It only knows one kind of threat—imminent death.

As a result, the first thought we have when a stressful event occurs is a false belief, an exaggeration that blows events out of proportion with reality. Remember, a part of your brain thinks you are going to be an ex-sentient being at any second. It routes all thinking through what it believes is total calamity at hand. You can’t be thinking about your email, your next report, or going to the movies when you only have a few moments left on earth, at least in the panicky view of the amygdala.

This sets off a wave of catastrophic thinking, or “awfulizing,” which takes the form of constant ruminating about the situation and fomenting worst-case scenarios. The brain is constricted to the perceived crisis of the moment and stuck on a terminal replay loop. The objective is to get you to pay attention so you can save yourself from the perceived danger. 

ONLY EXPERIENCE IS REAL

Stress loves this total monopoly on thinking. The longer the catastrophic thoughts go unchallenged, the more the false belief is amplified and entrenched. Time and rumination turn mere thoughts that aren’t real into real physical problems, since the stress response reduces the immune system, increases the bad cholesterol and decreases the good kind, and shuts down digestion—and worse. Depending on what you tell yourself about why you think this event happened to you, you can either turn the danger signal off, because there’s nothing there but a false belief, or it can lead to an even bigger problem, depression.

It’s the nature of humans to think that what’s in their brains must be true, because, well, it’s in our heads. But catastrophic thoughts are not real. Only experience is real. The thoughts you have after the stress response is triggered are the byproduct of a hyper-vigilant survival reflex, aided and abetted by what we tell ourselves about the event. “Explanatory style,” as it’s known, is the combustive engine for stress and depression.

What do you tell yourself after a setback? "I’ll do better next time," or "I’m never going to figure it out?" "It’s a one-off," or "I'm going to lose my job?" "I didn't prepare enough," or "There's something wrong with me?"

The all-or-nothing, black-or-white thoughts set off by the ancient brain can either be encouraged by pessimistic thinking or discouraged by an optimistic explanatory style. Even if you have a pessimistic explanatory style, you can overcome it with a bias for action, which is the antidote to rumination. 

CHANGE THE STORY

It’s easy to fall for the pessimistic track at first, since the story and emotions we are being fed are coming from the alarmist ancient brain. Brooding, analyzing, and replaying take the bait and reinforce the false story. If you already are prone to pessimistic thinking, setbacks can serve as evidence for what you already believed, that nothing is going to work out. University of Pennsylvania researcher and author Martin Seligman has written that, “The recipe for severe depression is preexisting pessimism meeting failure.”

So what we tell ourselves about what happens to us is essential to counter the rumination that can lead to chronic stress, burnout, and depression. The sooner we can cut off the bogus story and supply another one—"I’ll do better next time," "Sometimes the bear eats you"—we prevent the false belief from sticking and amplifying itself into an ER visit. Find a phrase that represents a different story like “stay objective,” to keep your emotions out of it, and repeat it like a mantra after a stressful event goes off.

There are two main ways to prevent rumination and its flights of stress-concocting fantasy—distraction and contesting bogus beliefs. The time to strike is as soon as the wave of emotion begins. Whether it’s rage, embarrassment, or fear that is flaring, distract the caveman brain with your alternate story—“I don't react,” “It’s a lot of work, but I’ll get it done,” “I move on.” Repeat it for several minutes.

DISPUTING THE BOGUS STORY

The one thing that’s seldom done when stress blows up is to contest it. Disputing stress is one of the most effective ways to shut it down. It’s a thinking process, but unlike the wallowing that takes place with rumination, there’s a point and action to the analysis. In rumination, the thoughts circle in a loop of helplessness.

Disputing the story reactivates the rational mind.  The analytical act of finding reasons why the catastrophic story is false requires the 21st century mind to spring back to life. Bring out the facts of the case and put them down on paper or screen, pro and con. Try to step outside yourself and be objective. Lay out the case like a lawyer would by focusing on the facts.

No, it’s not the end. You CAN cope. The facts are clear. But it is the last stop for wasting hours, weeks, and months of life in the false beliefs of rumination.

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Tags: awfulizing, stress management training, optimism and work, stress response, stress, stress reduction, stress management, job stress, burnout, stress management programs, rumination, explanatory style

The Cure for Zombie Phone Staring and Email Checking: Impulse Control

Posted by Joe Robinson

Phone_addiction

There’s a reason it’s hard to stop checking your email and why everyone around you is staring at screens like zombies. The more you check email, the more you have to check it. 

It turns out that constant interruptions erode impulse control. We lose the ability to regulate our impulsivity, which is to say, we lose self-discipline, essential to getting things done and warding off addictive behavior—which includes technology. Your devices have been shown to be as addicting as any substance.

People who have gone off the rails of digital interruption and distraction are more inclined to interrupt you, suffer from a bad case of crisis mentality, call you to see if you got the email they sent two minutes ago, and have difficulty focusing on tasks to completion or concentrating, the latter leading to a condition known as Attention Deficit Trait. The lack of control also drives stress and aggravation.

THE ENGINE OF SELF-CONTROL

It all makes a crazy-busy world even crazier. What every office could use is the return of something that used to be a crucial element of functioning adults: willpower. Willpower is the engine of self-control, the ability to manage thoughts, emotions and harmful habits and override momentary desires. Not much gets done without it.

In a world of instant gratification, delaying payoff isn’t a popular choice—not surprisingly, because self-regulation is hard. It’s hard for brain neurons to resist an easier path. Since early humans didn’t know where their next meal was coming from, the species developed a habit for going for the bird in the hand.

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The use of willpower also burns up resources. To stay on task, resist an impulsive action, or remain disciplined expends mental energy. That has to be replaced. Self-regulation expert Roy Baumeister, author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, has documented that after long hours of staying disciplined, the self-regulation equipment tends to flag at night.

Luckily, researchers say willpower is something we can all build like a muscle. We can improve our ability to hold off temptations at hand and persevere for a later reward. 

A 2000 Florida State University study found that mental resources are depleted by self-regulating processes such as resisting temptation, restraining aggression and coping with fear. The research suggested that self-control is a limited resource that must be resupplied regularly; each act of self-regulation makes it harder to perform another, because it eats up precious mental resources needed for discipline.

PERSEVERING IS BELIEVING

But more recent data indicates that willpower is not so limited after all. You have enough to meet any challenge—if you believe you do. It’s all about mindset. 

“We don’t say it’s unlimited. At some point you do need to replenish,” says Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychology professor and a leading motivation researcher. But willpower, she says, “is a much larger resource than previously thought. You can get tired, but it doesn’t mean you’re out of gas.”

Dweck and her colleagues have found that people who believe their willpower is limited feel tapped out after a strenuous mental task, while those who believe they have abundant willpower are able to push on. “Those with an abundant view aren’t monitoring themselves. They’re just kind of carrying on,” she says.

And once you resist temptation, it’s easier to resist it in the future. You can build willpower over time, in other words, by using it—something you can do by deploying the right motivation and belief systems, priming persistence and sidelining the quick-fix ego.

EFFORTFUL CONTROL

Achievement takes effort, and effort requires command of a brain function known as “effortful control.” Part of the executive attention function system, a disciplined effortful control mechanism is essential to self-control and the ability to resist temptation. It regulates impulse control, which prevents you from checking email when you’re trying to complete a task. 

Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman notes that people who are simultaneously challenged by a demanding cognitive task and a temptation are more likely to yield to the temptation. Similarly, people who are “cognitively busy” are more likely to make selfish choices. (He points out that a few drinks have the same effect, as does a sleepless night—the self-control of “morning people” is impaired at night, and vice versa.)

Other researchers have found that self-regulation depletes energy in the brain in the form of blood glucose. Subjects given sugary drinks were able to replenish resources to take on hard tasks that demanded self-control. Yet as Dweck discovered, there is another energy source: one’s own belief system and the motivation that drives it. Priming yourself with a realistic expectation of a rough road and the belief that you are up to it can get you through.

When motivation is driven by intrinsic goals that align with one’s inner goals—learning, challenge or the thought of making a difference—one has more staying power. When motivation is external—money, fame, praise, status—it’s harder to stick with it. 

In one study, Dweck found that college students who were concerned about grades and self-validation (external performance goals) weren’t as interested in tackling difficult goals with the possibility of failure, showing “substantial decreases in intrinsic motivation” after a significant setback. On the other hand, students who were in it for the learning—who want to work harder to increase their understanding—persevered.  

Researchers have found that rehearsing in one’s head the reaction to setbacks can help subjects resist temptation and overcome anxiety. Instead of reacting with autopilot panic and stress when the going gets tough, you can teach the brain to have a different reaction.

People “who persist have the idea that they can improve their abilities,” Dweck says. It comes down to “recognizing that you have more willpower than you think and finding strategies to put that into practice.”

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

Posted by Joe Robinson

Head_down_on_desk

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

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

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

STRESS KILLS

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

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

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

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

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

ASSESS YOUR STRESS

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Joe Robinson

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

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

TIME OFF BOOSTS TIME ON

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

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

ENGAGEMENT OR BURNOUT?

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

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

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

PERFORMING BETTER ON VACATIONS

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

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

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

VACATIONS: THE TALENT INSURANCE POLICY

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

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

LEADING THE WAY

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

Another major company, Evernote, also has an unlimited vacation policy. To make sure people take time off, Evernote pays employees $1000 to take at least a week of vacation. Go Daddy offers three weeks of vacation the first year on the job.

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

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

 

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The Antidote to Job Stress and Overwhelm: Conscious Work

Posted by Joe Robinson

Work-life balance act.jpg

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

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

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

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RAT RACE OF HABIT

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

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

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

ACTING CONSCIOUSLY

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

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

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

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

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