Working Smarter

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

Posted by Joe Robinson

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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

Burnout Hits the Best and Brightest

Posted by Joe Robinson

Chronic stress leads to burnout

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

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

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

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

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

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

END OF THE ROAD

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

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

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

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

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

KNOWING WHEN TO SAY WHEN

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

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

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

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

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

REBUILDING RESOURCES

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

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

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

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Tags: chronic stress, burnout, burnout prevention, work stress, stress management programs, reducing stress, reducing burnout, burnout programs

How to Stop Job Stress Before the ER

Posted by Joe Robinson

To the outside world, Catherine Thompson England seemed to be handling the pressure of her job as a caseworker for abuse victims well. Though she had told her boss that stress was mounting, it didn't appear to be a problem, since she was getting the job done. But the Pennsylvania social worker was staying late and working at home to do it, a growing trend in a world of tight budgets and understaffing.

Things weren't going well at all. One day the pressure exploded and Thompson England had a breakdown. She was hospitalized for 10 days.

"People don't want to hear about stress, because everybody has it," says Thompson England, who has a five-year-old son. "You will deal with a lot of stress before you reach out, because it's not taken seriously."

Stress has become such a normal part of the day-to-day that it has become a kind of adrenalized wallpaper. Bringing up the subject is to point out the obvious—or that you are a wimp, unable to take it in a bravado world that feigns invincibility. Fear of being wimpy, though, leads to real weakness—physically, since stress plays a role in five out of the six leading causes of death, and financially, since stress costs the nation a boggling $1 trillion a year.

Chronic stress triggers conditions that kill more people every year than cancer and nicotine combined, but it's treated as if it's no more serious than excess gas or bloating. Take a pill and deal with it. Americans certainly do, consuming $16 billion worth of antipsychotics each year and $11 billion in anti-depressants.

There's a disconnect between stress and the conditions it sets off—hypertension, stroke, coronary artery disease, diabetes, insomnia. Many of us watch our cholesterol, get exercise, keep sugar under control, and yet don't do anything to manage the switch linked with the diseases we're otherwise trying to prevent: stress. That's because we've never been taught to take stress seriously—until a heart attack or burnout.

I come across this every day in my work as a stress management educator. There was the manager at a government security agency who had a stroke in his 40s. The real estate agent with panic attacks. The CEO leveled by a heart attack. 

Unlike more exotic bugs and conditions, there is a cure for stress: knowledge. Science knows how to prevent and manage it. The stress response is activated when a perceived threat overloads ability to cope with the danger. It's an early warning system that worked well in hunter-gatherer days when threats to life and limb were frequent, but it doesn't know how to compute the social stressors of the modern world. A number of proven stress management processes can turn off the false alarm of stress. Once the danger signal has been shut off, the stress stops in four minutes.

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Job stress is serious business for business leaders who want to cut medical costs and absenteeism, increase performance, and maybe save lives, including their own. Brian Curin, president of Flip Flop Shops, which sells sandals and a casual lifestyle at 80 stores around the country, discovered that he took too casual of an approach to his own health. Though he exercised and ate well, years of stressful business-building had taken a hidden toll. Curin failed a treadmill stress test, and a follow-up angiogram revealed that his heart was starving for oxygen. He had four major blockages, one of them 100 percent—at the age of 38.

"It was years of running as fast as I could go at the speed of business," said Curin. "It really shows the effect that stress can have on you. They said if I had had a heart attack, they wouldn't have been able to help me."

He had to have a quadruple bypass to repair the damage. Curin was so shaken by the experience he decided to do something about it. His company started an initiative with the American Heart Association, My Heart, My Life, to advocate for stress tests at companies and educate customers on stress prevention.

Stress testing, whether by exercise test, ECG, blood pressure testing at work (one out of five people have elevated readings at work but not at home) or other modalities, has to become as routine as dental or cholesterol checks to identify people like Curin, who are unaware of the problem, or England Thompson, who fear reaching out might mark them as a wimp or burden to others.

England Thompson learned she has to speak up more, set boundaries, and share the load with others. "We need to normalize the fact that stress is a very real thing and you don't have to deal with it on your own," she said.

Stress testing, coverable mental health counseling, and social pressure to change macho attitudes can make it acceptable to get help and overcome the shame, bravado, and willful ignorance that feed the chronic disease mill of stress.

Tags: job stress, stress management, chronic stress, burnout, burnout prevention, work stress, stress and heart attacks, managing stress, stress reduction, stress and health care costs, smash stress, Joe Robinson

How to Avoid Burnout

Posted by Joe Robinson

Humans are known for their legendary adaptability. We survived Ice Ages, droughts, and the pre-medical care and grocery store eras, even Twinkies. We’re so good at adapting to our circumstances, though, that it can actually be hazardous to our health.

Doctors say that when patients arrive with burnout symptoms, there is always a long prelude to the problem. Heart palpitations, headaches, back pain, insomnia, irritable bowel, hot flashes, exhaustion. All the signals of stress pave the way to burnout, since burnout is the final stage of chronic stress. If we don’t pay attention to the signals leading up to burnout, we can wind up adapting to the stress until our resources are gone, no forwarding.

That’s burnout in a nutshell. After months and years of chronic stress flooding your system with adrenaline and cortisol and suppressing your immune system, you simply run out of coping resources. That’s not something you want to adapt to, since it can lead to stroke, depression and other very serious conditions, not to mention reduce the contribution, achievement, and joy in your life to zero.

Burnout is a three-way shutdown—mind, body, and emotions (see our Burnout page). It marks the depletion of all your energetic and emotional resources, something you can feel in the total exhaustion that saps enjoyment from anything you do, work or life. The result is dramatically lower productivity, guilt, shame, cynicism, falling behind, not caring, confusion, little concern for yourself and the people around you. Overcoming job burnout is critical for all concerned, employee, family, and employer. If you think you might have burnout symptoms, take the Burnout Test here, created by one of the foremost scholars on the subject, Dr. Arie Shirom.

The irony of burnout is that it tends to happen to the hardest workers—the most conscientious, the go-getters, the ones with the most endurance. This makes burnout a serious threat to any organization. Productivity tanks for anyone with burnout, a cause of presenteeism—you’re there physically, but not mentally—and the sick days mount. Burnout creates disengagement, not a prescription for performance.

Preventing burnout takes a vigilant mind, paying attention to the stress signals and doing something about them, not simply adapting to them. You can avoid burnout by dedicating yourself to an ongoing stress management system. Start by identifying the stressors and habits that are driving it—typically, excessive overwork without breaks for recovery, perfectionism, unviable schedules, chronic conflict and giving too much of yourself emotionally without reciprocation.

Then make adjustments to turn down the stress by altering the way you do your tasks and expend yourself emotionally. Everyone needs to develop recovery strategies to buffer stress and chronic exhaustion, which can be the start of the withdrawal from life that marks the burnout downward spiral.

Basic health maintenance is essential to ward off and recover from burnout. Make sure you exercise regularly, get plenty of sleep, and build regular stress relievers, such as recreational and social activities, into your week.

Researchers have found that a brief intervention, such as a six-hour counseling session and courses, can have a dramatic effect in cutting chronic stress, reducing the number of subjects on sick leave in one study from 35% to 6%.

One of the best remedies for burnout is getting support, so don’t hesitate to reach out and send burnout packing. You can start by clicking the button below for a free consultation. Taking care of yourself, so you can take of your family and work, is the real home of the brave.

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Tags: work life balance, job stress, productivity, work life balance programs, stress management, chronic stress, burnout, avoiding burnout, job burnout, how to prevent burnout, burnout prevention, I'm burned out

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