Working Smarter

The Best Employee Retention Strategy Ever: More Vacation Time

Posted by Joe Robinson


Most companies spend a lot of time building customer loyalty and usually know what to do to get it. Yet there is a lot less attention paid to another kind of loyalty that is just as important: employee commitment, and the much less known routes that make that happen. That's a big mistake in a strong job market with a couple of generations that have well-known commitment issues. 

Take a look at these numbers from a 2018 Deloitte survey. Some 43% of millennials don’t plan to stick around for more than two years and almost two-thirds of Gen Z, 61%, want to bolt within two years. Only 28% of millennials want to be at their company five years.

This is a ticking turnover time bomb, but there is a hidden tool to stem the outflow and improve the morale of employees to such a degree that they feel so respected, they don’t think about going anywhere else: more vacation time.


Mary Miller, co-owner of Jancoa, a cleaning firm in Cincinnati, says adding a week of vacation to her two-week policy reduced a 360% turnover rate to 60% in two months and lower as time went on. “The three-week vacation has been the most successful retention program we have ever had,” Miller told me. Productivity shot up, as did sales and profits.

“We realized that, with the money we were putting out for recruiting, training, and background checks for new employees, the extra week of vacation really cost us nothing.”

Stats from the Society for Human Resource Management show that it costs 90% to 200% of an employee's salary to replace them with somebody else.

How can another week of vacation make the difference in someone staying, instead of plotting to leave? It might have something to do with the fact that researchers (Hershfield, Mogliner, Barnea) have found that people who value time more than money are happier.

Click for "The 7 Signs of Burnout"

When companies offer three weeks, for instance, over the standard one or two, it’s a perk that pays off in better work-life balance, which increases life satisfaction, and that in turn boosts job satisfaction. You need time to get recuperative benefits (two weeks to cure burnout) and go anywhere out of the country. Talk to people who have good vacation policies, three or four weeks, and they don't want to go anywhere else and lose that benefit.

People feel valued by a generous vacation policy, and that is the most important factor in employee engagement, which can result in the team working 21% harder, according to the Corporate Executive Board.


When Bart Lorang, CEO of Full Contact in Denver, Colorado, wanted to increase the appeal of his company to top software engineers so he could compete with tech hubs in California and Seattle, he decided to offer a sweetened vacation pot. Not only would he offer unlimited vacation time, but he would also give his employees a $7500 stipend to pay for their vacation. Recruitment and retention concerns solved.

The kicker on the $7500, though, is that you can only collect the money if you really take your vacation and stay unplugged the whole time you’re on it. He wants brains reset when they come back, because he knows it results in better work and fewer mistakes.

Competition for the best coders and computer geniuses in the tech world is fierce, so they have to provide serious perks to attract the top people. One of the most popular is the unlimited vacation policy. Employees can take the time they need, as long as all the work gets done. It is becoming commonplace for tech firms to adopt unlimited vacation. It attracts the best people and helps keep them there.

Millennials and Gen Z employees are particularly attuned to vacation policies. They value work-life balance and travel more than baby boomers, but they have less vacation time than boomers to take vacations. Additional vacation time goes a long way to give these two cohorts the sense they can have a life as well as a job.


The appeal of vacations may seem self-evident. Turn off stress, cure burnout (Hobfoll, Shirom), cut heart attack risk (30% in men, 50% in women who take two vacations; Brooks, Gump), relax, have fun, explore new places and foods, and live your life as fully as possible.

Yet there are deeper reasons why vacations can have a profound impact on outlook, attitude, and commitment. Humans have three core psychological needs that are paid off on a vacation like nowhere else: autonomy, competence, and connection with others.

We need to feel like we are writing our own scripts, the research of Ed Deci and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester shows, and vacations give us that opportunity to determine the content of our lives to the max. We choose where we’re going to go, what we’re going to do.

We get from here to there using skills that make us feel competent. And we spend quality time with family and friends and make a host of new friendships that satisfy the need to connect with others. These are powerful souvenirs that make us feel intrinsically gratified. They translate to the positive outlook that we bring back to the job, and make us feel good about ourselves and the company that provides time to recreate, recharge, and discover our lives.

The energizing nature of a trip loaded with fun, positive emotions, and powerful new experiences increases productivity on return. You have more focus, and it takes less effort to get the job done. Reaction times have been shown to increase 40% after a vacation (Rosekind) and productivity along with them. Attention is the chief productivity tool, and a holiday restores it to working condition in the same way that a good night’s sleep rejuvenates an exhausted body or a charger brings your cell phone back to life. 

Ron Kelemen of the H Group in Salem, Oregon told me that he doubled his income when his company switched to more vacation time, as he took a month off himself each year to go snowboarding or visit Costa Rica. Relaxed and energized brains do more focused work.


Adding another week of vacation isn’t that hard to do. It starts with a quick change of the vacation policy. It has to be followed up, though, with organization. Employees should choose their vacation times at the beginning of the year, so that everyone knows when coverage will be needed. When holidays are figured in to the workflow and operations of the company, it all runs much more effectively than the seat-of-the-pants approach, where nothing is planned and there's no contingency for when it's time for someone to go on holiday.

Another key part of smoothly run vacations is crosstraining. Have teams learn each others’ jobs, so they can fill in when colleagues are out. This works when people are ill too. That’s what Kelemen does in his company. He says crosstraining builds incredible teamwork, since you owe your vacation to others filling in for you and vice-versa.

So the vacation strategy brings stellar teamwork, more productivity and focus and a feeling that the organization values employees’ lives. That makes you feel a part of the team, not apart from it. It's human nature that people want to stick around where they feel they belong. 

If you would like to learn more about how to cut stress and increase work-life balance for your team, and the role that time for life plays in increased productivity, please click the button below for details.

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Tags: vacations and work-life balance, vacation time, vacations and employee retention

6 Bogus Excuses Why We Don't Take All Our Vacation Time

Posted by Joe Robinson

Beach couple-1

We can come up with excuses for just about anything. Inventing false justifications is a talent for which all humans are Picassos of creativity, and it can extend to things that seem downright unbelievable—like why you can’t take a vacation.

This particular excuse is an American talent, if you can call handing back the best time you have all year to live freely and fully a talent. It’s more like self-sabotage, aided and abetted by instant technology, time urgency, and a belief that if you aren’t in contact with the digital world for 15 minutes, you might miss something earth-shattering. Yet when we fall prey to this reflex, what we really wind up missing is our lives.


A survey by Project: Time Off showed that more than half of Americans (55%) left vacation days on the table. That amounts to handing back your paycheck and working for free. That doesn’t add up.

That’s certainly true for the rest of the industrialized world, such as Europe and Australia, where not taking all your vacation time would be certifiable. “You’d be considered stupid, if you didn’t take your vacation,” Zurich, Switzerland native Sybille Hartman told me. “Leisure is like a people sport in Europe. It’s very important that you take this time. It’s something you’re proud of. The topic at work is often about holidays.”

Small Travel girl Slovenia

In Europe, people are either talking about the trip they just had or the one they are planning. It doesn’t really go that way in American offices because of a variety of false beliefs and myths about productivity, technology, and identity that drive real-appearing reasons to avoid living your life—like I might get laid off if I take all my vacation days, or there would be too much email when I return, or I might miss something.


The latter is one I get in my coaching work with people whose chronic stress has developed into burnout. I find out that the person hasn’t taken a vacation in years. Why? Something important might happen while they are gone. They worry everything would fall apart if they took a holiday.

What’s falling apart, though, is their health. The human physiology is designed for rest and maintenance to counter the activation and demands in our life. When there’s no interruption of the demands driving the stress response and a chance to recharge lost energetic resources, major medical blowbacks occur.

This is why vacations have been shown to be such a great stress management strategy. They cure burnout (Hobfoll, Shirom) over a two-week period of regathering crashed emotional resources. Vacations reduce the risk of heart attacks in men by 30% (Gump, Mathews) and in women who take more than one vacation a year by 50% (Framingham Heart Study). There is no health food that can give you that benefit.

It’s time to dispense the smelling salts and come to our senses. Excuses that keep us from living DON’T MAKE SENSE. What is the work for, if not for allowing us to live our lives to the fullest and participate in experiences of recreation, relaxation, and exploration that satisfy one of our deepest needs—autonomy, the feeling that we are determining the content of our life.


This is what researchers say our brain neurons want more than anything else for long-term fulfillment—writing our script to search out novelty and challenge. Nothing delivers those two qualities like a vacation. So why would anyone want to forego this awesome payoff?

Well, it turns out that some pernicious and bogus excuses are pretty darn good at holding back our lives. Let’s detonate them now:


1. Might Miss Something. The fear of missing out is part-worry about an emergency or problem happening not on your watch, but mostly these days it’s about technology addiction. Constant email checking and interruptions erode impulse control, leaving more and more of us with no ability to regulate impulsivity to check constantly. That leaves the thought of not checking mail for a week or two terrifying. Some 62% of Americans check work email on vacations (Travel Leaders), while 77% of British holiday-makers don’t, according to a new survey by Panoramic Villas.

The fear of missing something is a projected anxiety that fuels overwork and burnout when we don’t have clear understandings about what constitutes an emergency as well as contingencies to take care of problems while we’re on vacation. Emergencies should always be handled by phone, not email, so we don’t have to be checking messages every five minutes even when we are home. The key is to plan ahead and designate someone else to take emergencies while you are on holiday. Put that person’s contact info on your email autoresponder so work problems don’t preempt your living time.

The key to work recovery, the physiological and mental recuperation from stress and tension, is psychological detachment from the sources of stress and work thoughts. That can’t happen if you’re checking in on holiday.

2. Things Will Fall Apart. This is another baseless fear. It stems from the center-of-the-universe false belief that you are holding the world together and that your departure would spell doom. This comes from deep in the American identity, the performance identity, which makes us believe we are our jobs. In fact, the job is just part of your ID and not even the lion’s share. It’s what psychologists call a persona, your social handle. It’s hard to pull away from the job for a vacation, when you believe that worth comes only from performance.

We can’t live our lives to the fullest unless we have identities outside the job as well as on. What are your interests, enthusiasms, affinities? Start identifying them now and head for the direction your brain wants: curiosity and exploration. And keep in mind the thought of things falling apart is just that, a thought, and thoughts aren’t real. Only experience is.

3. Too Much Email. It’s hard to believe, but I hear this one a lot. I can’t take my vacation because there’s too much email when I get back. Try saying that one more time, only thinking about what it is you’re saying. You are going to give up your best living time of the year because of EMAIL? The solution: Put a message on your email autoresponder stating that no email will be read by you or even received by you until you return from your trip. Leave the name and number of someone people can get in touch with while you’re gone, if an issue pops up.

4. Too Busy. This all-purpose excuse is very effective at getting people to be so consumed in the next to-do that they are willing to waive their just rewards for working their tails off for a year. It’s a self-infliction that comes from a brain addled by time urgency and overwhelm, i.e., the stress response, a false alarm that makes every minute of the day an emergency and forces us to make every minute on and off work jammed with productive endeavor. We can’t relax, because we’re too busy.

The mental block of “I’m too busy” is another false belief. There is no emergency, unless you want to consider the abdication of life as one. The way around this block is to remember that it’s not an emergency; it’s a speed trap. Ask yourself the real question: AM I TOO BUSY TO LIVE? Plan your vacation at the beginning of the year. Get it on the schedule for yourself and the company. This is one of the secrets of European vacation time. Everyone plans their big holidays well in advance, and everything is figured out in advance into the workflow of the company and the life plans of the individual, so it’s not the interruptive obstacle it’s made to seem here.

5. Too Guilty. Some of us fall prey to the bravado displays of workaholics around us or feel guilty about the burden we might inflict on others if we take our vacation. Schedule your time off for a less hectic time in the schedule, give plenty of notice, and there is no reason for guilt. You earned the vacation, and that vacation is on the books of your company’s policy for some reason, say, like permission to actually take the time off. Refuse to shave a minute off your vacation time because someone wished you “happy loafing.” The fact that some people choose to be work martyrs and miserable as a result is not your problem.

6. Might Get Laid Off. We live in a time of high job insecurity. It has made some feel that taking a holiday could be a strike against them and mark them for the next layoff. Giving up your vacation in the hope that defensive overworking will protect you from future cutbacks is a false belief standing on the neck of your life. I have talked to and interviewed many who were laid off even though they didn’t take their vacations. Trying to control what can’t be controlled is a futile exercise. The most memorable example of this is a woman at a large Texas tech company who barely took a week of her four-week vacation she had accrued after 15 years at the company. Then she got laid off. “Where did my life go?” she asked me, looking back over the years of untaken vacations.


All of the excuses for not taking vacations are byproducts of the biggest false belief, that time off is substandard to time on, and therefore, indulging in it is a waste of productive endeavor. All the research, not to mention common sense, tells us that this is not true. Time off is the engine of time on, providing the energy, focus, and fatigue-busting that helps us get the job done faster with less effort and the life satisfaction and positive emotions that make life worth living and increase job satisfaction along the way.

Part of the process of blowing up excuses to not take vacations or all the time we have on them is understanding the value we are walking away from. Vacations are nothing less than the time of our lives, which I’m sure you would consider a valuable thing. And you would consider it more valuable once you got out on a holiday for a couple of weeks of fun and head-clearing.

Push past the irrational fear and see how wrong the thoughts in your head are. An account executive I talked to in Lansing, Michigan, Anita Salustro, hadn’t taken a real vacation in years because she thought everything would implode while she was gone. A friend of hers at another branch of the office took a three-week vacation, so she decided to take a one too. She had an amazing time, and when she returned, the world was still spinning on its axis. 

“It was all in my head, as it’s in the head of so many people I know. I survived it, loved it. I realized that there’s life outside of work. My company didn’t fold.”

Tags: vacation time, vacations and excuses not to take all our time

Risk Factors for Burnout: The 6 Burnout Triggers

Posted by Joe Robinson

Woman with burnout

In an unbounded, lean-staffed world, burnout is never too far from jumping up and taking down any of us. What used to be the domain of mostly the people industries—education, social work, and health care, burnout has become a problem for everyone.

The last stage of chronic stress, burnout is the final stop after a prolonged bout of excessive stress that drains energetic resources until there is no remaining capacity to cope. All that remains are the signal dimensions of burnout: complete exhaustion—mentally, physically, and emotionally—depersonalization and cynicism, and an inefficacy that comes with reduced productivity and low morale.


It’s a strange, mysterious state to be in for most people who wind up with it, since they tend to be the hardest workers, the achievers, the most conscientious. They have always been able to bring more to the job than the average person—more endurance, stamina, intensity. But now it’s gone. What happened?

In a nutshell, their coping resources were drained over a prolonged period during which the stress response remained activated 24/7, unleashing a tide of defensive resources, from hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to jacked-up blood pressure velocity. At a certain point, the backup energy supply runs out, and the resulting fatigue is so startling that the burned-out can hardly recognize the person whose name is on their driver’s license.

Click for "The 7 Signs of Burnout"

The bigger secret of burnout is that, yes, it can be set off by an individual overdoing it in the face of severe demands, but it’s often the byproduct of structural and organizational factors too. Researchers have identified risk factors in organizations—burnout triggers—beyond individual stress reactions that play a prime role in burnout.

The more we can become aware of these warning signs, or imbalances between the person and job, the more individuals can avoid the burnout treadmill and organizations can keep their talent from flaming out and running up health and retention costs. Some 40% of people who leave their companies cite stress as a factor.


Humans are the social animal, and that’s certainly true at the office as everywhere else. We are designed to connect, relate, and support and when that doesn’t happen in overloaded organizations people operating in isolation beyond coping resources can get trapped on the burnout treadmill, where pessimism and negative emotions fester. Burnout scholars Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter have documented that when we don’t pay attention to the human side of work, there are consequences—bad health to bad performance.

“People who are burning out are likely to withdraw from the job, both psychologically and physically,” she and Michael Leiter report in The Truth About Burnout. They invest less time and energy in their work, do only what is necessary, and are absent more often. In addition to doing less, they do their work less well. High-quality work requires time and effort, commitment and creativity, but the burned-out individual is no longer willing to give these freely. The drop in quality and quantity of work produced is the occupational bottom line of burnout.”

What they are describing is a decline in attitude and output that comes from disengagement in the work. It turns out that the main dimensions of burnout are the opposite of employee engagement—energy, commitment, and effectiveness. No management team would knowingly order up a prescription for burnout if they knew it would gut engagement.

Yet in a world where autopilot reflex is the driving force, action precludes thought and burnout triggers can become entrenched while everyone is up to their eyeballs in mechanical momentum. Let’s take a look a look at how group and interpersonal dynamics in the organization can create burnout triggers. Here are six warning signs identified by Maslach and Leiter, known as the Areas of Worklife Model, that can transform stressors into a much bigger problem: burnout.



Excessive workload is always the aggravating factor for burnout. When demands constantly push physiologies beyond capacity, energy sources are overloaded. Nobody wins when we do more than we can do well. If you are bringing home work and leaving late chronically, this doesn’t end well. You might be able to handle the work of an ex-colleague who hasn’t been replaced for a little while, but you and managers need to insist on getting the support, or the department will soon be down another person. The risk of heart disease and diabetes increase threefold with workweeks more than 51 hours. Excessive hours keep you from recharging and recovering from stress, allowing chronic stress to entrench, which crowds out positive emotions, which are absent in burnout.


Researcher Robert Karasek identified the chief driver of workplace stress, lack of job control, or latitude. Stress is a function of how much perceived control we feel we have over the demands coming our way. The goal for managers who want engaged staff should be to encourage more autonomy in how people do their jobs. More flexibility leads to more sense of control and more self-responsibility. More micromanaging leads to less latitude and more stress. Discuss ways you might be able to play a bigger role in how you manage email, deadlines, your schedule, or other stressors that create a work environment that feels out of control.


Extreme workload wears away at the energy and loyalty of employees. When overload becomes the expectation and there is no compensating reward for the extra effort or even a sense of gratitude, it is human nature to feel you’re on the short end of the stick. This is the breeding ground for disengagement. Having to make efforts continually beyond the call of duty or job responsibilities without recognition or reward deepens loss of trust and lack of commitment. People who put in a lot of effort and get inadequate rewards are twice as likely to have heart disease (Siegrist).


There is an implied contract for most of us that we will be treated in good faith. When that trust is broken, cynicism grows. As workload grows along with profits that don’t get spread around, loyalty fades and bitterness sets in. In the era of downsizing and restructuring, many feel their efforts are not valued, promises are not being kept, and everyone is replaceable. This climate added to chronic overload can ramp up the withdrawal and cynicism of burnout.


High-turnover, mergers, and constant changes within organizations can hollow out support systems and leave employees estranged as they try to do more than they are equipped for. Alienation is the route to cynicism, a main dimension of burnout. People feel more depersonalized when there is a sense that no one cares, and engagement disappears. The risk for burnout grows as trust fades. Be as proactive as you can and communicate with managers and lobby hard for support. Finding teammates and mentors who care can provide a critical buffer to the forces of overload.


People are more likely to embrace the vision of the company they work for when it reflects their values. Having a good fit on values can spur people to go beyond the extra mile. But when those values are contradicted by policies or behaviors that are at odds with deeply held values, the mismatch can lead to an acceleration of disengagement and withdrawal.

Burnout, then, is often a two-way street. The chronic stress that sets it off may start with incessant high demands that drain an individual’s coping resources. The experienced burnout, though, can be deepened by the social layers of organizational distrust and lack of support and reward.

Since the damage of burnout to individuals and teams is super-costly, from absenteeism to cardiovascular treatment, to depression (which is seven times more costly to treat than the average workplace malady), to tanking productivity, the status quo has to be challenged and solutions found. There is a healthier road to success.

Tags: burnout, social support and burnout

Wakeup Call: Bad Sleep Leads to Bad Mood and More Stress

Posted by Joe Robinson


Get only four hours of sleep, and you're not a happy camper the next day. Irritable. Cranky. People don’t want to be around you. You don't want to be around yourself.

Sleep, an endangered species in the glow of digital screens, is critical for so many things in our day, from physical vitality, to memory, to something that plays a major role in what we can get done and how well we get along with others: mood.


It turns out the quality of our sleep predicts the kind of mood we’ll be in that day. Poor sleep increases anger, anxiety, and nervousness (Watson, Clark, Tellegen) and inhibits positive emotions (Walker, Thurani). We’ve all seen it in action the day after a sleep-deprived night. The next morning you are upright under protest and the grump state follows you like a shadow.

You have become a prime exhibit of what’s known as negative affect, the display in your body language of negative emotions—irritability, impatience, testy. These are not winning qualities in the working world or anywhere. They cause conflict, time urgency, and drive stress. Impatience leads to irritability, which leads to anger, which leads to clogged arteries.

Click for "The 7 Signs of Burnout"

On the other hand, when you get the quality sleep you need for real restoration of your faculties, the opposite occurs. You have more positive affect, an elixir that has been found to be key to goal-setting, innovation, problem-solving, rapport with others, and success.

As Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ed Diener, and Laura King put it in their fabulous study on positive affect, “Happy people are more successful, and their success is in large part a consequence of happiness and frequent PA (positive affect).”


Your brain is only 3% of your body weight, but it sucks up almost a quarter of your energy. That energy has to be replaced, and that happens when you sleep. Sleep is like charging your phone or electric car. It gives you the juice to operate. It restores needed glycogen, cleans up toxic junk like tao, and primes your mind to meet the challenges of the day. Sleep also shapes how you take on those tasks by coloring your mood.

There's just no comparison in daily effectiveness between a positive and negative attitude. Positive emotions broaden and build us, promoting initiative and receptivity, while negative emotions keep us in a reactive bunker. Which is going to do you more good during a day of demands and stressors pushing your buttons?

Positive emotions are an insurance policy against the vicissitudes of fate. When you have enough positive emotions in your mental bank, negative withdrawals don’t bring you down to zero or below, where self-reinforced pessimism can reign.

Another very important thing positive emotions do is help us see things with an optimistic lens. Research shows that optimism is the engine of resilience and not falling for the woe-is-me false apocalypse of pessimistic thinking.

We get a lot more done when we are in a good mood, less so when we’re feeling miserable and having attention split by perceived slights and crises.


Since sleep plays such a large role in determining which mood state we’re in, you could say it’s one of the most important productivity tools. There’s no app for it. We have to make that shuteye happen, or we’re not nearly as effective.

That’s hard for many today. Minds are tricked by the light of devices into thinking that it’s time to be awake. We eat late and have sugar and caffeine percolating in our veins. And, most often, we are at the mercy of stress, which is a massive stimulant telling the physiology that you can’t nap, because there’s imminent demise on the agenda.

Not surprisingly, insomnia is rampant these days. Some 75% of insomnia cases are the result of stress. Stress turns on the internal alert system, and it doesn't shut down when you’re sleeping.

When a threat is detected that overloads perceived coping ability, a hormone called CRH (corticoid-releasing hormone) flashes to the pituitary, where it activates ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone), which sets off a flood of adrenaline and cortisol, among other arousing agents, including the raw emotions of fear and anger that want to keep you awake lest your mortal end be met.


The activation mechanisms of stress make it hard to stay asleep. Fears keep intruding into a space meant for rest and maintenance. One woman I coached who had severe job stress had been getting only three hours of sleep a night. She was barely able to function at her job, a position that desperately needed the positive affect that comes from a good night’s sleep. She was a real estate agent. Uptight or grumpy agents—You wanna sell or not?—make few sales.

Stress sets off a cycle of rumination, circular thinking about a catastrophic thought that is generated by a belief in the ancient brain that you are doing to die. It comes out in the form of, I’m going to lose my job, or I can’t handle it, I’m a loser—bogus fantasies ginned up by obsessing about a false story set off by the caveman brain.

Your thinking at this moment is hostage to the irrational emotions of the primitive limbic system, the original brain that had the run of things before we developed the higher brain and prefrontal cortex that could weigh pro and con. We have to restore the 21st century brain and its rational thinking, something quality sleep helps us do.

My client and I took a closer look at the fears propelling her insomnia, held them up to the light of facts and evidence, and they crumbled. She was able to get back on a normal sleep cycle and got a promotion to boot. But when we started, her mood was high anxiety and fearful, a state that makes whatever job you have harder to do, because your intellect is undermined by anxiety and with it clear thinking.


Stress wrecks sleep in a number of ways. You sleep fewer hours, the sleep you do get is more shallow, with lots of bouts of waking up, and you get much less of the chief restorative phase of the sleep process. The real damage is done by a loss of what's known as "slow wave" sleep, which is the deep sleep that restores energy. 

It’s easy to see how we get crabby and easily ticked off when we aren’t getting quality sleep—at least seven to nine hours per night. Besides the role that stress plays in interrupting and reducing sleep time and quality, the lack of shuteye itself adds to stress levels in a vicious cycle.

“Poor sleep worsens the negative outcomes associated with stress by making us individually cognitively, emotionally, and physiologically more vulnerable to stressful events,” note Jessica Blaxton, Cindy Bergeman, Brenda Whitehead, Marcia Braun, and Jessica Payne, summarizing their study, “Relationships Among Nightly Sleep Quality, Daily Stress, and Daily Affect.”

The study found that sleep quality decreased the impact of daily stress on negative affect, but that midlife adults with more severe stress may need several nights of quality sleep to keep stress at bay. In other words, we need to make good sleep habits as automatic as brushing our teeth.

They also discovered that daily positive affect buffers the impact of daily stress, something University of North Carolina researcher Barbara Fredrickson calls the “undo effect.” Positive emotions can literally reverse the symptoms of stress. Blood pressure slows down, digestion starts up again. 

“An individual experiencing high amounts of positive affect was less affected by stress than an individual with low amounts of positive affect,” Blaxton and company conclude.

This mild-mannered, unremarkable-appearing thing called sleep is an amazing resource, a built-in stress management system, capable of turning around our attitude and the outcomes that result from it. It can buffer the calamitous, ruminative thoughts that set off the destructive consequences of fight-or-flight chemicals run amok.

And it can restore an asset we all had as kids but that goes AWOL amid disappointment and setbacks—the positive spirit written on our faces.

If you would like to inspire your team or organization with tools to manage stress, overwhelm, and burnout, click the button below to find out about my stress management and resiliency keynotes and employee trainings.

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Tags: positive affect, sleep and mood, mood and performance

Increase Employee Engagement with the Most Potent Performance Tool: Self-Motivation

Posted by Joe Robinson

Business meeting Small

POPEYE HAS SPINACH. Managers and leaders have something that bulks up employee effort, except they don’t know it. It’s the hidden potential that lies within each employee when self-motivation is turned up to warp factor eight, something that happens with employee engagement.

When employees are engaged, they are willing to put out effort beyond the call of duty without anyone badgering them to do it. Work units in the top quarter of employee engagement in a Gallup meta-study of 192 firms and 1.4 million employees had 21% higher productivity outcomes, 22% higher profitability, and a 25% lower probability of high turnover. 


In my experience leading employee engagement training programs, engagement is something every leader wants, but few know how to get it. That is because it involves an approach to leadership that is the opposite of the norm—command-and-control, rewards-and-punishment. The carrot-and stick-approach has long been thought to be the only motivational model. Want more sales? Offer a bonus. Want more engagement? Provide a perk.

Motivation research pioneered by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester, shows, though, that external rewards only motivate a need for more rewards. External payoffs are ephemeral, because they are about what others think. That doesn’t last.

It turns out that the most potent motivation comes from a burning core within, from intrinsic motivation, acting for the inherent interest in the activity itself, not for a result. Employees who are intrinsically motivated are continuously interested in the work that they are doing, because they are driven by goals such as excellence, challenge, or craft that place the emphasis on the activity for its own sake.

Intrinsically motivated people have been shown to be more persistent and will stick with difficult tasks longer, because their aim is the task, not to get done with it.

Employee engagement “is not about pay or ping-pong tables,” says Marcus Buckingham, author of First, Break All the Rules and strengths-based strategy book, StandOut. Buckingham tracked engagement at Gallup for two decades and now heads his own consulting firm, TMBC. “It’s employees asking, Do I have a chance to use my strengths every day? It’s about getting to know your people and focusing on them every week.”


Employee engagement is a kind of jiu-jitsu in which leaders unleash the energy of others and get out of the way. Engagement can’t be commanded, only enabled, because the discretionary effort that defines it has to be self-generated by the employee.

The shift from commanding employees to enabling their intrinsic engines doesn’t come automatic for leaders brought up on motivating through external metrics—promotions, money, bonuses. “They think motivating is something management does to employees,” says Deci, author of a great Penguin paperback, Why We Do What We Do, and a psychology professor whose research led to a new framework for motivation and need gratification.

“Motivation is something that employees do to themselves. The job of managers is to create the conditions so employees will do that.”

What makes employees want to work harder than they have to for no external gain? Researchers have found many engagement levers, from open communication with managers, to employee development opportunities, to trust, a chance to contribute, and recognition. In a nutshell, people are engaged when they feel valued and a have a sense of purpose in what they’re doing.


Employee engagement has three main dimensions: vigor, dedication, and absorption or focus, which are the opposite of burnout’s chief qualities—exhaustion and cynicism. If you want to kill the productivity and profitability gains of engagement, burn out employees.

Engagement goes beyond mere job satisfaction. You can like your job, but that alone is not enough to generate effort beyond the call of duty. In fact, studies show there is a low correlation between job satisfaction and performance.

The trigger for engagement is another order of satisfaction—“higher needs satisfaction,” as Deci describes it, something that is rooted in participation and involvement, not just a job title, and that is self-propelled when leaders allow employees to satisfy certain basic psychological needs.

For millennia, humans haven’t had a clue as to what we really need. We’ve had to rely on peers, desires, and billboards, which has led to a lot of heartburn. Deci and Ryan’s breakthrough research, though, uncovered three specific psychological nutriments that everyone needs, as opposed to desires, to thrive—autonomy, competence, and relatedness, or social connection with others. “They have to be met for people to perform optimally,” says Deci.

Each of these needs can only be gratified if the goal behind the activity is intrinsic, a force potent enough that it has been called Motivation 2.0. All three are realized through initiative and involvement, keys to engagement, and help people feel as if they are determining the content of their life.

Known as self-determination theory, or SDT, the basic needs framework developed by Deci and Ryan means that we all have a need to write our own script. It’s also a universal human need across cultures, races, and continents. Your employees also need to feel a sense of choice and have opportunities to demonstrate initiative and competence.


Leaders can help employees gratify their basic needs through a model Deci created to take SDT into the workplace: autonomy support. How can employees feel autonomous working for someone else? “A lot of people take the word autonomy as independence, as doing something on their own. In SDT what autonomy means is a sense of volition, willingness, that, yes, at this moment I choose to be doing the activities I am doing,” explains Deci.

That feeling comes in the work setting from the autonomous decisions employees can take in how they do their job, process it in their minds, and communicate with their supervisors. Autonomy support is a style of managing in which leaders understand and acknowledge the employee perspective and encourage self-responsibility and initiative in goal-setting, decision-making, and work planning.

Autonomy support encourages free flow of communication between employees and leaders and has several main components: offering a sense of choice within limits, giving people a rationale for doing a task, and letting employees acknowledge feelings about a task. 


When you hear a rationale for doing something, it helps you feel like you are part of the team, more autonomous, competent, and connected to others. You internalize the reason, and the task becomes more important as a result, triggering buy-in/choice. The same thing happens when you are able to acknowledge how you feel about a task, even if it’s not positive. The expression of your view activates a sense of choice and autonomy and you are inclined to do it more willingly.

Key to autonomy support is communication and language. Everyone is encouraged to speak up and leaders try to make dialog more informational than controlling. “Stop using words like should, must, and have to,” says Deci. “Don’t tell them they did just what you expected.” That doesn’t go to their competence need. Instead, say ‘I like the way you did this.’"

Deci has demonstrated how autonomy can get employees more involved and engaged through interventions with companies such as Xerox, and  studies measuring self-determination theory in the workplace have found similar results.

One, led by Fordham’s Paul Baard, measured SDT in workers at an investment banking firm. They found that autonomy supportive managers activated employees’ intrinsic need satisfaction, which in turn resulted in the best performance and performance reviews.

“When managers are more autonomy supporting, employees are more engaged in their work, get better evaluations, are better adjusted psychologically on the job, and are sick less often,” says Deci.


Nihal Parthasarathi, CEO and co-founder of, a portal for arts, business, and recreation classes in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, found that he needed to change his management approach when the company went from six to 12 employees. He wanted to build a company he would want to work at, where people had the freedom to solve problems and not be micromanaged.

“Managers default to telling other people what to do,” says Parthasarathi. “It’s easier, but it leaves a lot on the table in terms of human potential.”

After talking with his employees and advisors in the tech world, he and his partner, Katie Kapler, decided to make autonomy and self-responsibility the core of a management style designed to motivate and clear obstacles out of the way. Each employee decides the work they’re going to do on each goal and how they’re going to do it, which builds autonomy and competence.

There’s a high level of transparency, with performance metrics they can check every day to see how they and everyone else are doing. If someone isn’t hitting targets, they work with the founders to realign the goal. “They absolutely set their own agendas,” says Parthasarathi.


Since he rolled out the autonomy program, his staff “feel like they’re having a bigger impact. They’re happier when everyone shares autonomy. It’s like everyone has each other’s backs. The quality of engagement is much better.”

Another reason every company needs engaged employees is that the talent pool is shrinking and very used to having autonomy in the digital era. The biggest employee demographic, millennials, are accustomed to doing things on their own through apps or startups.

They want to know, “Are you going to help me achieve my dreams and goals?” says Bill Jensen, a management consultant and author of Future Strong. “If not, I can go to Kickstarter and start my own company.”

Jensen says only about 10% of employees at small companies feel they can achieve their goals. Across all companies, only 31% of employees are engaged, according to Gallup. Millennials are the least engaged demographic, at 28%. Jensen says managers need to engage their people with training and development programs that help them grow and give employees a cause or mission to believe in. That is crucial to develop intrinsic goals of purpose and meaning.

“Silicon Valley sets the standard on this. They get people to work very hard because they want to achieve the goals of the company.”

For those of you who think you don’t have enough time, that excuse won’t cut it. It’s about seven to eight minutes per person per week, says Buckingham. It boils down to two simple habits, listening and support, repeated on a weekly basis. “Check in with every employee every week. Ask, What are you working on and how can I help.”

If you would like to learn more about unleashing employee engagement on your team and how to roll out the motivational power of autonomy support, click the button below for details on my employee engagement training.

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Tags: employee engagement, intrinsic motivation, self-determination theory, leadership, autonomy support, Edward Deci

Major Survey on Work-Life Balance Shows It Boosts Performance 

Posted by Joe Robinson


STUDIES OVER THE YEARS have consistently found that work-life balance policies are a fabulous thing for performance, morale, and commitment. So why aren’t more people and companies benefitting from these policies? That’s also a very consistent answer: Few employees feel they have enough support from leadership to actually participate in those policies, from telework to flexible schedules and wellness programs.

This finding gets new support in a major new work-life balance survey of more than 64,000 federal workers, the first-ever Governmentwide Federal Work-Life Survey in the U.S., conducted by the Office of Personnel Management. In the survey, which included employees and supervisors, only 35% of respondents said senior leadership support work-life balance practices, while only 45% thought supervisors have their back on WLB policies.

The lack of management support is a very counterproductive bottleneck, since offering employees opportunities to reduce the conflict between work and home responsibilities pays such big dividends. In the new report, employees who utilized telework and wellness programs were 76% and 74% more likely to get performance ratings that exceeded their last rating. Those who participated in work-life balance programs were also 75% - 80% more likely to be satisfied with their jobs. 


Even when there are telework and flex options on the books, unless employees see credible support from leaders, they don’t feel the permission is there to partake. I hear this time and again in my work-life balance employee trainings. If leaders don't walk the walk and expressly encourage the policies, the team gets the cues to tread carefully.

Work-life balance is a topic hard for many managers to talk about. There's a belief that the message is at odds with performance, when it's just the opposite. All the data shows that work-life balance drives productivity and employee engagement. Too much remains unspoken in the balance realm, and as a result, people are reluctant to go out on a limb. When they do, and arrange a schedule around a child’s play or an elder’s care, they don’t feel good about it and it adds to stress levels.

As a result, in the OPM survey 83% said they experience work-life conflict. There’s a big difference in the numbers between those who would like to telework, 58%, and those who actually do it, 35%. While some 83% of workers want flex schedules, only 54% have them. Fifty-five percent said they would like to use the employee assistance program, but only 13% actually do.


One of the reasons that it’s difficult for leaders to talk directly about work-life balance and let their team know it’s okay to telework or adjust a schedule is the ambivalence we have in the culture about anything that could be perceived as letting up or not undeviated, flat-out, nose-to-the-grindstone mode. The reality, though, is that adjusting schedules to reduce conflict, cuts stress, increases concentration, and more attention results in better performance.

The Corporate Executive Board, which is made up of 80% of the Fortune 500 companies, found that employees who feel they have good work-life balance work 21% harder. That’s the dividend of employee engagement, willing extra effort, when people feel they are valued and supported.

In the knowledge economy and digital world, productivity is not a function of brute stamina, a triathlon in pants. It’s about the level of attention and engagement in the mind of the employee. Anything that is undercutting attention, such as the saboteur of stress and the guilt it drives when work-family issues are top of mind, is counterproductive. When the brain gets signals that it’s overwhelmed by home pressures it can’t address, working memory is impaired by intrusive thoughts, attention spans shrink, and it takes longer to get the work done. Absenteeism and retention problems increase.

One of the major side effects of telework, for instance, is that it increases focus by decreasing the distractions of the office. In the survey, the number one reason people cited for teleworking was to minimize office interruptions and distractions; the second most popular was maximizing productivity. That productivity helps people feel good about their work and provides the mental space to take care of the home front without guilt.


When managers get the topic of work-life balance into the open and talk to employees about their own work-life struggles or hobbies outside the office, studies show it makes a big difference in the success of work-life programs. A study that measured the ability of employees to recover from work stress (Bennett, Gabriel, Calderwood, Dahling, Trougakos) reported that employees whose supervisors encourage them to unwind after work are more likely to do it. Without that permission, the study found, people are more likely to take work home with them and ruminate about work problems, preventing the mental separation that allows bodies and minds to recover and come back to work the next day in a positive frame that enhances productivity.

Most of us have grown up with the idea that facetime is essential for productivity, yet surveys of teleworkers have found that being able to have a day or two a week to work at home minus distractions increases productivity—and even the hours employees work. The data shows teleworkers put in more hours at home without time lost to commuting and because they have more control over their schedule.

Despite the increase in employee performance ratings in the OPM report, only 55% of the federal supervisors in the government study thought telework improved performance. This may be because of a very telling finding, that just 48% of managers felt they had the ability to manage and assess teleworkers.

This leads us to one of the essential ingredients of effective work-life balance policies: education. Leaders need to be shown the evidence that WLB programs make their teams more productive and get training in how to assess employees when staff works from home. As the data in the new survey shows, work-life balance practices make everyone’s jobs easier, managers to staff.

All we have to do is follow the science (for more studies, visit our Work-Life Balance Research page) to a healthier and more open approach to full-life performance. We are human resources, after all, and when we acknowledge human challenges, we increase the connective tissue that transforms individuals into teams.

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Tags: work-life balance policies, work life balance and performance, work life balance and telework

Why Stress Makes Us Fat and Eat Junk

Posted by Joe Robinson

Impulse control.jpg

YOU MAY HAVE noticed something peculiar when you are under a lot of stress. Free will vanishes, and you become a refrigerator magnet, pulled to the doors of your Frigidaire, where the likes of Haagen Dazs and Sara Lee beckon. The metallic handles of your cupboards reel you in like a tractor beam for the Doritos. You are no longer in control of your ingestion system. Stress is.

It turns out that chronic stress can not only lead to cardiovascular disease, strokes, irritable bowel disease and a host of other health problems, it also increases your appetite, and, in particular, your craving for the most fatty foods. It’s a phenomenon that should make stress management one of the top diets on the planet. I call it the Stress-Free Diet in my stress management training programs, which show how to reduce reflex weight gain without counting a single calorie, simply by managing our reactions to demands. 


In laboratory experiments, stressed rats are more gung-ho to run mazes in search of food and will overdo their feasts on sweetened milk and pellets, leading to excess weight compared with their relaxed counterparts. Research on humans shows that stress also beefs up our food consumption (Epel, Lapidus, Mc/Ewen, Brownell). And the food we reach for in larger quantities when we’re stressed is high-fat and high-sugar fare, as reported in a University of Michigan study (Habhab, Sheldon, Loeb).

Of course, stress also creates other behaviors that contribute to weight gain and poor health—more alcohol use, less exercise, and negative emotions that lead to what’s known as emotional eating. With stress levels rising in an always-on, leaner workplace, understanding the connection of stress to something as visible and annoying as a bulging waistline could be a real opportunity to take on the stress in our lives that too often remains an invisible saboteur in veins and organs, out of sight and mind.

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How does stress makes us fat? When something overloads your ability to cope with it, setting off the stress-response, be it 300 emails, a boss directive, or traffic, an ancient part of your brain takes command to prepare your body to fight or run from the danger. It sends out signals through a cascade of chemicals that marshal all the body’s energetic resources to push blood to the arms and legs for battle.

Stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline flood through your system. Fats, sugars, and other sources of fuel are diverted from parts of the body that aren’t crucial to the moment of survival.

There’s no need for energy storage, digestion, tissue repair, or even immune function. Those systems are all put on hiatus, while the body makes its final stand against the crisis. So in the first minutes of a stressful event, appetite is actually suppressed. Digestion is shut down. You need all hands on deck to power through the danger. That burns up resources as long as the danger signal remains turned on.


Since this is the 21st century, the stress triggers are almost always social in nature, not a threat to life or limb, but our physiology knows only one drill—keep the resources burning full-tilt until we are out of harm’s way. Work and family stressors, unlike the kind of dangers our brain was built for—encounters with tigers or cavemen strangers—aren’t brief affairs. They tend to hang on day after day, week after week, or we have a series of stressors during the day. Each bout has to be followed by a recovery phase, in which the sympathetic nervous system steps in to move the body back into balance. It wants work-life balance, or homeostasis in physiology-speak, all systems stabilized.

Herein lies the stress-fat nexus. The energy we burn up has to be replaced. And how do we do that? When the danger has passed, the body shifts into consuming and storage modes again. We get appetite cues that it’s time to eat—or at least two-thirds of us do—and time for storage of fuel, such as fat, for future needs. Long-term stress sets off a chronic need to replenish coping resources, so appetites are going to get ongoing stimulation.

Let’s take a look at how we are designed to eat our way back from danger and crisis. There are two basic phases of the stress-response. In the first phase, activation, a chemical known as CRH (corticoid-releasing hormone) is dispatched from the hypothalamus. It, in turn, triggers the release of ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) from the pituitary, which results in, among other things, the release of glucocorticoids from the adrenal glands.

The adrenal medulla unleashes stress hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline, while the adrenal cortex releases steroid hormones—cortisol and cortisone, known as glucocorticoids, which will steer the regenerating processes of the second phase, post-stress.

A typical stressor may have a period of minutes for the activation phase, followed by several hours of recovery. As the CRH component fades, it leaves glucocorticoids in charge. Their goal is to get the sympathetic nervous system to step in and replace lost resources, store fat for the next emergency, and pound calories.


“Glucocorticoids act on the hypothalamus to stimulate appetite,” report researchers Luba Sominsky and Sarah Spencer in a study titled, “Eating Behavior and Stress: A Pathway to Obesity.” Glucocorticoids boost food intake by their effect on several appetite-regulating agents. They reduce the ability of appetite inhibitors such as leptin and insulin to regulate eating, and they cause excess fat deposition, particularly in the spare-tire department.

Chronic stress increases a key hormone in the appetite equation—ghrelin, sometimes called the hunger hormone, which makes us want to eat, according to a study at Utah Southwestern (Sakata, Rovinsky, Anderson, Jung, Birnbaum, Yanagisawa, Elquist, Nestler). When ghrelin calls, so does the refrigerator.

A stressful event that touches off a couple of hours of appetite craving once a month, isn’t going to drive massive weight gain, but chronic stress as well as repeated events daily that set off a cycle of glucocorticoid waves that make us want to fill our faces with not just any food, but Twinkies and burgers are the real problem. That’s most of us today.

Stanford University biologist and primate expert Robert Sapolsky in his book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, pinpoints the troublemaker as frequent intermittent stressors. He cites the example of a typical morning in the life of a working person. "He sleeps through the alarm clock first thing in the morning, total panic. Calms down when it looks like the commute isn’t so bad today, maybe he won’t be late for work after all. Gets panicked all over again when the commute then turns awful. Calms down at work when it looks like the boss is away for the day and she didn’t notice he was late. Panics all over again when it becomes clear the boss is there and did notice.”

Each one of those incidents is followed by a glucocorticoid wave that lingers for hours, and with it, the need to recover resources. “Guess who’s going to be scarfing up Krispy Kremes all day at work,” says Sapolsky.


Stress management, or as you can think of it, the Stress-Free Diet, prevents the constant activation of the stress-response and follow-up calorie-bingeing, fat storage in the abdomen, and all the other hazardous outcomes of chronic stress, including those that can come from excess weight gain—including diabetes and cardiovascular issues. There are no unpleasant foods to eat.

Instead, we learn how to manage our emotional reactions to events, turn off the false danger signals behind stressors, and argue with ourselves and the false beliefs in our head set off by an ancient defense mechanism that thinks it’s 100,000 B.C. Turn off the danger signal, something we learn how to do in my stress management training, and the stress-response stops in four minutes—along with the glucocortisoid cycle that fuels the trips to the vending machine, Starbucks, or kitchen.

In exchange for not biting when a stressful event happens and going off on an autopilot appetite stimulant track, we eat, not when trouble calls, but when we are actually hungry.

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Tags: stress and weight gain, stress and obesity, stress and eating

Break the Silence: Communication Key to Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

Speaking about hobbies increases work-life balance

IN A WORLD of hyper-texting thumbs, there is no doubt record levels of communicating going on, but perhaps never before has there been so little real communication between the humans doing the conversing.

Going beyond a few sentences is a luxury few think they have, and that’s especially true at the office, where the communication has always focused on the succinct professional to the exclusion of getting to know the whole person behind the administrator or engineer.

It turns out, though, that one of the most potent drivers of engaged work and life is going beyond office-speak and communicating often. Gallup data, for instance, shows that 87% of people who know their manager well and communicate regularly are engaged at work. The average level of engagement is 32%, by the way, while 68% of employees are disengaged.


Speaking up is also critical when it comes to stress. Sharing the impact of stress on your health with a manager and family member is essential to reducing stress and burnout, and it can save your life. Not talking about stress is what fuels it. Instead, we think and ruminate about it, making the false beliefs of stress appear real.

And lastly, talking to managers about your life, affinities, hobbies, and kid's Little League games is a major ingredient in creating work-life balance, say researchers. It seems that in the exchange of real life enthusiasms and challenges that there is more willingness to see the whole worker, not just the slice on the job. This makes adjusting schedules to see a child’s play or taking a vacation part of a person’s normal full-life schedule, instead of an intrusion into an inner sanctum in which everything outside the office is off-topic.

No doubt, many would feel reluctance to disclose the shocking fact that there is life beyond the day’s work. Yet, the evidence shows that communicating more of your life can provide the reasons, enthusiasms, and demands that make it easier to understand and support a more flexible approach to work-life balance. Strangers, which is who all of us are when we enter the workplace, have a limited basis for rapport. However, when you tell a story about your child’s soccer game or the adventure you had on your vacation, connections are made.

We all have a very strong need to be known and to belong. Both of these are satisfied when we share interests. Deeper communication is a powerful tool to build relationships and the practical application of work-life balance. Instead of a theoretical concept, work-life balance becomes something whose evidence is out in the open, living, breathing, and self-propelling employee engagement.


One study (Bennett, Gabriel, Calderwood, Dahling, Trougakos) found that, when the communication is two-way, with managers sharing how they use their free time, it gives permission to their teams to recharge after work. Employees get the okay to leave work at work.

Another study (Moen, Kelly, Fan, Lee, Almeida, Kossek, Buxton) concluded that getting past the presentation self and being able to talk about home needs with managers gave people a sense that a work-life balance policy could be acted on and wasn’t simply window dressing. They tracked a large group, 867 IT workers at a couple of units of a U.S. company. The goal of the investigation was to see what happens with more employee control over schedules and supervisor support for family and personal life.

Half the employees in the program were given flexibility over their schedules and where they worked, known as flex-place, and were encouraged to talk about their work-life issues and successes, while the control group did business as usual.

One of the innovations of the study was that researchers expressly trained managers how to be supportive of their team’s work-life efforts. They were told to talk about their own issues of balancing work and home, from an ill parent to wanting to attend a child’s soccer game. Common ground leads to understanding and understanding leads to acceptance of new behaviors, when the results are clear that the change is a winner.

The group that practiced work-life balance flexibility and made it an out-of-the-closet, non-secret mission talked about casually with managers reported significantly higher levels of job-related and general well-being. In addition, both employees and managers in the flex plan had reduced psychological distress, less burnout, and were happier. 


The message the researchers drive home again and again with these results is, not only that it’s in everyone’s best interest—manager, employee, organization, family—to practice work-life balance, but that having open communication about it from managers is key to making the policy credible and adopted widely. Teams take their cues from leaders. If there’s a work-life initiative, but your manager acts as if he or she isn’t part of it, then there is going to be reluctance to practice even the stated policy.

Of course, you have to use some discretion in what you say to whom, but in general communicating more and letting others know about pastimes and the person beneath the business card will be a plus. More human interrelating leads to better rapport, teamwork, friendships, and best of all, to the intrinsic act the social animal is designed for, reaching out to others in the real communication of interests and needs.

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Tags: work-life balance and flexible schedules, talking about work-life balance, leaders and work-life balance

Work Stress Increases Risk of Heart Attack Even in Your Twenties

Posted by Joe Robinson

Stressed out guy.jpg

IF THERE WAS A KILLER loose in your neighborhood, you would no doubt be doing everything possible to stay safe. Yet there’s a killer inside many of our bodies that we blithely ignore even though it cuts down more people each year than cancer and nicotine combined. It’s called stress. And it’s not your friend. It's a serial killer.

Sarah Speck, a cardiologist at Swedish Hospital in Seattle, calls stress “the new tobacco.” Like tobacco, it constricts arteries, but it does it much faster than smoking. Stress also kills people much more quickly than alcoholism, since the damage it wreaks on your cardiovascular system causes heart attacks and other cardiovascular issues than take you down swiftly in the prime of life.

And a major factor in those quick demises is job stress, something that can be managed by individuals and companies. It happened to an executive at a consulting firm where I led a work-life balance program. It came out that a colleague had a heart attack a few months earlier. This hard worker was found dead on the bathroom floor of his hotel room on a business trip. He was only in his thirties. I've talked to people who have had stress-related heart attacks in their twenties.

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Impact of high blood pressure.


Chronic stress takes a massive toll on personnel and bottom lines, which is why stress management is so critical. Some 40% of employee turnover is due to stress. Meanwhile, the tab paid by American business due to employee stress—medical bills, recruiting, training, absenteeism—amounts to $407 billion per year, reports Peter Schnall, a clinical professor of medicine at U. C. Irvine and author of Unhealthy Work.

In a study that tracked subjects for 14 years, researchers at Columbia University found that people who feel anxious and overwhelmed are 27% more likely to have a heart attack. We will learn a few paragraphs down why that is. The scientists on this study said that stress is equivalent to smoking five packs of cigarettes per day.

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There are two main reasons why stress flourishes: 1) We simply never get the information on how to prevent and contest stress. Why isn’t this taught from grade school on? How many more important things are there than how to manage our minds so that autopilot emotional reactions don’t turn on our ancient defense machinery for nothing and the physiological changes that wreak havoc on our bodies?

And 2) We can’t see stress or the damage it’s inflicting inside us. It’s the Invisible Epidemic. We don’t talk about it sometimes even with those closest to us. A social worker in Pittsburgh told me about how chronic stress from work overload touched off a nervous breakdown and hospitalization for her. She hadn’t even told her husband about the pressure that had driven her body to the brink.


To put some imagery behind the secret agent of stress, let’s start with the impact stress has on the cardiovascular system. The central problem with stress is that, if it goes off for a few minutes or an hour, that’s not a problem for your health. The danger from stress comes from having the stress response activated all day every day for days, weeks, months, or years because of chronic stress.

This is because in the short-term interest of pushing blood to your arms and legs to fight or run from a threat to life and limb, your body has to do things that over a prolonged period subject your body to major health damage.


Plaque pinches blood flow.


When the stress response is activated, one of the immediate effects is an increase in blood pressure. If the trigger driving the stress response isn’t turned off, then that blood will continue to rage through your system in what we know as hypertension, chronic high blood pressure. That causes damage down the line to an array of cardiovascular functions.

The blood doesn’t just move faster; it gushes like a flood, distending and ballooning blood vessels into fire hoses. If this goes on for a long period of time, arteries and veins suffer severe wear and tear. To manage the torrent, the body grows additional muscle tissue around the blood vessels, helping to regulate the extra load. In time, this muscle starts to tighten around the vessels, restricting the flow. This causes blood pressure to rise further to push blood through the narrower passages.

The force of the blood flow eventually takes a toll on the heart, as it plows into the heart muscle wall. In response to the repeated impacts, the heart muscle thickens, leading to left ventricle hypertrophy as one side of the heart is now larger than the other. This can cause an irregular heartbeat.

Meanwhile, within blood vessels, other hazards are developing. Like anything overused, the lining in the veins gets worn out and starts to break down in little crater-like spots. This activates immune cells to swarm in and cluster around the injured areas, as well as platelets that promote clotting. The stress response also cuts loose all the energetic resources in your body, from fat to the bad cholesterol, and they can contribute to clotting in blood vessels and the buildup of plaque that leads to atherosclerosis. Stress increases the bad cholesterol and decreases the good kind.

Continued stress leads to more gushing of blood and damage inside the arteries, as pieces of plaque are ripped away and sent traveling through the system. If one of them clogs the coronary artery, it sets off a heart attack.


This is but a small slice of what stress can do to us, if left unchallenged. That is what happens most of the time. While we hear constant advice on what foods to eat to avoid cardiovascular disease or diabetes, another condition stress can incite, we hear next to nothing about the much bigger role stress plays.

That can change, when we can talk about stress and impacts we may feel physically or mentally like any other health issue or work performance obstacle, proactively seek out stress management solutions, and use the proven tools to get healthy and work smarter.

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Tags: stress management, work stress, job stress and heart attacks

6 Signs Your Team Needs a Work-Life Balance Intervention

Posted by Joe Robinson

Stress and control copy

SLEEPING OVERNIGHT at the office and wearing the same clothes for a couple days would be a decent signal that some work-life balance might be in order. Ditto for missing persons reports with officers showing up at the company in search of AWOL family members.

But there are also many less obvious signs that the time is ripe for a work-life balance program or initiative, and if they are overlooked, performance, retention, health, and engagement take a hit.

Overstretched and overwhelmed organizations tend to operate like the humans within them, reacting to more demands with stamina and endurance, when the studies show that doing more than you can do well undermines the chief productivity tool, attention, and creates the conditions for top staff to go elsewhere for a better work-family fit.


The default reaction is to grind on, to stress, overwhelm, and burnout, instead of a system of sensible and sustainable performance. We have to check this reflex by identifying and understanding the alarm bells that go off when we are not paying attention to how we work.

Awareness is hard to come by in a world of unbounded technology, where the autopilot is output and we don’t bring the input of thought needed to get the job done in the smartest way and put the life side on the calendar.

So let’s take a look at the signs that organizations need a work-life balance reset. They range from high stress levels, to fears about burnout, to serious medical problems, workload challenges, retention issues around family needs, poor work-life survey scores, absenteeism, and shrinking productivity.

—High Stress Levels. It’s a topic few like to talk about, since no one wants others to know they can’t "take it." Yet the signs are there to see—the frenzy and short fuses of time urgency, absenteeism, conflicts and issues with others, cynicism, dissension, chronic long hours, pressure-cooker conditions, and sometimes severe health issues. Watch out for medical absences. I found at several companies I’ve done work-life balance programs for that the impetus for the program was that an employee had died recently, from heart attack to suicide. This is serious stuff!

Having more on your plate than you can handle is the automatic trigger for the stress response. So are unrealistic deadlines and unspoken expectations. To get things under perceived control, the key to managing stress, requires adjustments to the task and operations side as well as self-management strategies to reframe reactions and emotions.

—Burnout. Though burnout is the last stage of chronic stress, I’m including it as a separate warning signal of its own because it compounds the problems of stress—impulsive behavior, rash decisions, mistakes, cognitive problems—with burnout’s distinct dimensions of exhaustion (mentally, physically, and emotionally) and cynicism. Neither does much for the bottom-line or the individual’s health. Burnout leads to depersonalization and withdrawal, further impediments to productivity and teamwork as well as more costly medical issues, from stroke to depression. Burnout tends to be expressed more often than stress concerns, maybe because the physical toll is so complete, they don’t care about disclosing it anymore. Listen for the burnout comments. I’m burned out. We’re on a burnout track. My doctor says... Pay attention to them.

Along with burnout come disengagement, withdrawal, absenteeism, and pessimism. Burnout is a serious medical condition that can affect the output and stress levels of everyone on the team and certainly everyone in the individual’s family and needs to be addressed before even more serious repercussions occur. Chronic stress triggers have to be resolved and crashed emotional resources need to be regathered for normal functioning to begin again.

— Work-Life Survey Scores. A common way for stress and burnout to surface is through anonymous employee surveys, in which people feel they can address the issues without being seen as weak. When survey scores come in low for work-life balance, that is a cry for help. Often, the work-life score sticks out like a hippopotamus compared to the other metrics. This shows that talent is struggling to juggle demands. They are reaching out with concerns about their continued performance and staying power under the current conditions. They are also saying that the personal and family-time piece of work-life needs attention. When leaders respond to this heads-up by offering work-life strategies that help staff manage their work and busy lives better, the research shows that performance, retention, and job satisfaction increase.

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— Retention Problems. Chronic stress and burnout can take such a big toll on talent physically and emotionally that the individual sees only one way out, leaving the company. Some 40% of employees who leave cite high stress as the reason. Beyond stress, though, any organization concerned about retaining top performers has to be concerned about those who leave because of work-family conflicts. Companies from Deloitte to Ernst and Young and the Boston Consulting Group were compelled to start work-life balance initiatives to stem the tide of vanishing personnel, many of them women, leaving for a better fit with family and children. Each company has saved millions of dollars through programs and policies that are work-family friendly. Custom-made flex-time and flex-place solutions can solve the hemorrhaging of talent that happens when parents feel guilty that they aren’t doing either enough work when they’re at home or enough parenting when they’re at work.

--Workload. Another sign that help is needed is when excess workload is driving a high state of overwhelm. There’s just not enough time in the day to get everything done. Interruptions and devices are unbounded. The effect on the team is growing stress, no time for recharging, and impacts on thinking and impulse control, such as Attention Deficit Trait, which shrinks attention spans due to information overload. Instant technology and the always-on culture have ratcheted up the hours for most of us these days. Without norms and boundaries, overwhelm grows until some of the critical functions of attention, such as working memory and impulse control, are damaged.

The key to productivity in the knowledge economy is not how much data can be crammed inside our brains, but how energized and focused the mind is to process the task at hand. Brains have limits, from neural channels to data volume to working memory. We short-circuit when we ignore those limitations. To help correct the overdoing-it default, the Boston Consulting Group started a program called the Red Zone to flag employees who are working chronic 60-hour weeks. The program is the result of losing too many people to overload mode and family dysfunction as a result.

— Performance. Stress, burnout, and unbounded technology drive aggravation and fatigue, which has an impact on performance. Falling productivity is another sign that a work-life balance intervention is needed. Highly stressed teams are less engaged by definition, since their brains are focused on a perceived crisis that has nothing to do with the tasks they are working on. They are also more fatigued because of the physiological rejiggering that the stress response causes by channeling all energetic resources to muscles to fight and run, instead of to the brain to carry out a task.

The fatigue is cumulative. Today’s 16-hour day comes out of our hide the next day and next if the body’s activation and arousal system triggered by stress isn’t turned off. Both fatigue and stress undermine intellect and decision-making, causing what’s known as System 1 thinking—rash, instant, and subject to errors. People I’ve worked with tell me they were so burned out from doing too much for too long and getting too little sleep that their speech was slurred, as if they were drunk. Costly errors were made and projects had to be redone. An interruption of 2.8 seconds can double the risk of errors, research shows; one of 4.4 seconds can triple the risk of a mistake.


The signs are there that a work-life program is in order—if we are looking for them, and better yet, asking about them. Talk to your employees more often. Take the stress and work-life temperature. What’s not working? What do people need to be doing less of or more of to keep the best talent engaged and satisfied? Do a work-life balance survey to find out the hot buttons and engagement levels. 

I talk to engineers a lot, and they can tell you, even the strongest materials break apart subjected to the right amount of force and load. That can happen to your talent without safeguards and a sustainable approach to managing the 24/7 that can come from the kind of work-life balance program we offer. Let’s talk, and keep the missing persons officers away from the office door.

You can find out more about our work-life balance programs by clicking the button below. I look forward to speaking with you.

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Tags: work-life balance and productivity, why have a work-life balance program, when a company needs work-life balance

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