Working Smarter

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

Posted by Joe Robinson

Head_down_on_desk

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

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

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

STRESS KILLS

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

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

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

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

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

ASSESS YOUR STRESS

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

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

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

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

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

Crisis Mentality: The False Emergency Driving Overwhelm and Job Stress

Posted by Joe Robinson

Crisismentalityshot

Crying wolf is a behavior frowned upon by society at large, but celebrated in the workplace. Did you get that email I sent two minutes ago? We need that report by noon! Or what, apocalypse now?

How about that person who sends every email with a giant red exclamation point on it. New cat video!

Granted there are deadlines and competitors to reckon with and work that must be done in a swift way, but that doesn’t mean everything is an emergency every minute of the day, as has become the norm in most organizations caught up in the Crazy-Busy Model of performance. Time panic has become the order of the day, setting off a vicious cycle of clenched necks, churning stomachs, absenteeism, and dismal productivity.

SIEGE OF INDIVIDUAL HEROICS

Harvard management professor Leslie Perlow found in a study she did while at the University of Michigan that nonstop rushing sets off a state of “crisis mentality,” that in turn triggers “individual heroics,” which cause people to believe they can interrupt anyone at any time, which drives more time panic as the interruptions make people fall behind in their work.

Technology has played a large role in amping up the hyperventilation, creating an illusion that the speed with which communications travel can be duplicated by the humans on the other end of them. Devices and the interruptions they rain down on us have also undermined attention spans, and with that the ability to regulate impulse control. Without self-regulation, we have no ability to resist interrupting others or practice patience, which requires self-discipline. We want what we want NOW!

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Perlow found that crisis mentality had a huge impact on performance and engagement at a technology company she studied, reducing both.  The engineers tasked with designing new products were so inundated with interruptions, they would have to work nights and weekends to get anything done. It took longer to finish tasks. The obsession with speed above all else caused people to focus on individual needs over group goals and sapped any commitment the employees may have had for the company.

WHEN EVERYTHING IS AN EMERGENCY, NOTHING IS

It was all-emergency, all the time—even though the emergency was false. Everything became life-and-death, which is a perfect description of the stress response that crisis mentality sets off. It's a false emergency, unless you are literally about to die. You’re not going to expire from a deadline or 300 emails, but time panic can convince your ancient brain otherwise. When everything is an emergency, nothing is.

The frenzy at this company was toxic to deadlines and quality work. One of the insidious things about interruptions is that they make you believe the work you’re doing is more difficult than it actually is.  Studies show that interruptions can increase annoyance and aggravation more than 100%. That makes it easier for irritation to click over into anger, increasing the stress load further.

QUIET TIME

In her study, “Finding Time, Stopping the Frenzy,” Perlow argued that blind rushing is counterproductive and countered it with an intervention at the company that cut crisis mentality and dramatically boosted performance. Her solution, Quiet Time, mandated two periods during the day free of all interruptions and contacting. From 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. in the morning, the engineers couldn’t be interrupted. Normal contact and messaging resumed from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Then it was back to an interruption-free zone from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Performance increased 59% in the morning no-interruption zone and 65% in the 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. focus slot. With minds more focused, productivity even shot up 42% in the period with normal interruptions. The engineers created a new product on time without needing to work every night and weekend for months on end.

Crisis mentality undermines intellect, since stress constricts thinking to the perceived emergency of the moment. That means poor decisions, snap decisions, emotional decisions, and an inability to see beyond the latest crisis—no planning, in other words. It means colleagues at each others’ throats. And it means lots and lots of exclamation points on the emails in your in-box.

We can do better by learning how to qualify urgency, setting boundaries on messaging, respecting others and being judicious about interruptions, getting clarity on what a true emergency is, resisting the hurry-worry of others, and practicing the hidden weapon of excellence: patience.

If your company would like to lose Crazy-Busy Overwhelm and work less harried and more effectively, click here for more on our productivity trainings and a smarter way to work.

Tags: effect of stress on productivity, overwhelm, productivity programs, productivity and stress, employee productivity, productivity training, interruptions, false urgency, increase productivity, stress management, job stress, burnout, chronic stress, time frenzy,, crisis mentality,

Guilt and Perfectionism: Opting Out of Burnout for Engagement

Posted by Joe Robinson

 Driven by guilt to overdo it

As if there aren’t enough stressors in the workday, here’s one more you may not have been aware of that is a very effective driver of pulse rates: guilt. Specifically, work guilt, a condition that drives perfectionism, employee friction, low job satisfaction, and bad work-life balance. It makes people do more than they can do well, put their health at risk, and undermine productivity. 

Unlike engaged employees, who willingly bring extra effort to the job, with vigor, absorption, and dedication, people driven by guilt do the work unwillingly, because they “should,” not because they want to. They bring resignation, resentment, and self-defeating heroics to the task and cause others to do the same, setting off conflicts with colleagues who feel they have to go beyond what’s productive to keep up. These are not hallmarks of engagement, which is characterized by self-driven, self-propelled effort.

Perfectionists spend longer than they have to on a given task, reducing performance, and have a hard time delegating, because no one can do the job as well as them. Not trusting others results in slower turnarounds, more burnout, and resentment.

UNREAL GUILT

Work guilt falls into the category of what psychologists call “unreal” guilt. You haven’t punched anyone in the face or slashed their tires, committing real harm. Like the imagined dreads of a blind date, unreal guilt is an anticipatory anxiety.

“Most of our guilt is a result not of fear but anxiety,” say Lucy Freeman and Herbert Strean in Guilt: Letting Go. “No one menaces your life when you feel anxious. There is only ephemeral danger, one that does not exist in the real world but in your fantasy.”

We wind up at the mercy of unreal guilt because we get it confused with the other brand of guilt, “real” guilt, which forms the basis of the conscience we need to be able to function in society, something selected out by nature to prevent us from making mistakes. Real guilt helps you to be trustworthy and not strangle parking ticket officers.

But unreal guilt is a pretender, passing itself off as bona fide as it inflicts your life with needless and time-consuming agonizing. The guilt feels like it’s coming from your true inner compass, but it’s actually a composite of the nags in your life commanding that you “should” or “should not” do a given thing and that, if you don’t follow the badgering then you’ve committed an infraction.

PRODUCTIVITY IS THE LOSER

Bosses get it as bad as employees. One CEO of a major media firm told me that at the end of the day he’s waiting for his staff to leave so he can leave, and they’re waiting for him to leave, so they can leave. It’s a standoff. And productivity is the loser.

Guilt can drive people to go beyond the usual cues of mental and physical fatigue, increasing stress, myopic decision-making, and heath problems, such as burnout, which is seven times more costly to treat than the average workplace malady.

These are a few of the reasons smart managers have told me they don’t want their talent flaming out from guilt-driven overperformance or driving colleagues bonkers. The most effective approach with staff is to encourage quality and excellence for its own sake, for intrinsic goals, not for the external goal of perfection, which fuels insecurity, dissatisfaction, and low work-life balance survey scores.

THE THOUGHT-AS-DEED WHAMMY

To understand how unreal most guilt is, it helps to know the bizarre way some of these bouts of optional angst come to us. One of the quirks of the way the mind works is that it interprets thoughts or wishes as if they were deeds. As far as your brain is concerned, if you think it, it happened.

This comes from way back on the human tree before the species had rational thought. For the earliest humans, action immediately followed thought. Random thoughts—eat acorn, kill stranger—became instant deeds. Though evolution moved on, one corner of our minds didn’t, leaving us with the thought-equals-action, guilt hangover. We feel as guilty at the wish to do what we shouldn’t than if we actually did the deed.

Most of the guilt we lug around is not based on what we’ve done, but what we wish. We are being manipulated by a mind that thinks it’s the year 150,000 BC. A more up-to-date and engaged employee actually wishes to do the work.

INHERENT INTEREST BEATS PERFECTIONISM

There are two ingredients in getting the guilt down and the quality of engagement up: intrinsic motivation and choice. A study by Harackiewicz and Eliot found that intrinsically motivated employees are continuously interested in the work that they are doing. People whose goals are the inherent interest of the work itself—or excellence, challenge, craft—are absorbed in what they’re doing, like it more, and remember it better, the research shows.

Those who are driven by external approval are in it to please someone else, not to have 100% attention on what it is they’re doing.

The guilt that drives burnout and non-awareness of healthy limits is fueled by decisions made by others. The voice in our head we think is ours telling us we have to keep at something well beyond the point of the task being finished is actually somebody else’s. It’s a byproduct of the “shoulds” that have come our way via parents, bosses, teachers, peers, coaches, and culture over the years.

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THE POWER OF CHOICE

When we go along with this pass-along guilt without making a decision of our own, we agree to be manipulated by the guilt-inflictor. The way out of the cycle is to make the decision you want to make. You do it or not because you consciously choose to.

This shift in thinking puts you in control of your decisions. You opt out of the guilt-resentment cycle with choice. 

If a friend invites you to a party, and you don’t want to go but you show up, you’re going to feel resentful being there because it’s something you were commanded that you “should” do. However, if you make the decision, tell yourself out loud I’m going to that party to support my friend even though I would prefer not to, you’re not going to feel resentful. You made the decision.

If you stay home from that party, the “shoulds” will make you guilty as charged. If you say, ‘I’m staying home because I’m exhausted, went to a party of hers recently, or just prefer not to for this reason,' you won’t feel the automatic guilt, and the stress that comes from it.

Choice destroys guilt. It says, “I choose,” instead of “I lose” with the decisions of others. Making sure employees are working for the right reasons is not something a lot of management is concerned with. But they should be, because the difference between engaged and unengaged and/or burned-out staff is at least 28% more effort, according to a Gallup survey. Not getting that kind of effort is something to, well, feel guilty about.

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Work Overload: Speaking Up about Boundaries

Posted by Joe Robinson

Boundaries are key to work-life balance

Alarmed that marathon workweeks were driving out too many talented people, the Boston Consulting Group created a program to head off the problem. Called the Red Zone, it flags employees who log more than 60 hours a week for five weeks, citing their exploits on reports seen by partners and managers. “A hero is not someone whose light is on at 10 at night,” says Kermit King, the firm’s head of recruiting for the Americas.

A Red Zone event triggers a meeting with a Career Development Committee sponsor to find out what’s causing the pattern. The manager reviews the project to see where adjustments can be made to prevent an expensive burnout.

Solutions can range from reprioritizing duties, to adding more resources, to changing the timeline and better time management. The program lays down a marker that pushing to the brink isn’t a smart way to work. The Red Zone has increased the number of consultants who feel their job is manageable and, as a result, boosted the number of people who say they want to stay at the company and improved work-life balance. 

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THE GREAT UNMENTIONABLE

Unfortunately, few organizations are aware of the importance of clear boundaries on their bottom lines or talent. One tech firm bases promotions on how much weekend time you work—while struggling with a growing retention problem.

A Red Zone program could have saved Karen Walker, a marketing exec for a large Silicon Valley firm, from herself. An intense case of workaholism drove her to 90-hour weeks, as well as chronic hives, hair loss, and thyroid medication. “I will work something till I feel it’s worthy of the company’s name,” she told me, a dictum that overtook her health.

A few sensible boundaries can save a lot of turnover and medical bills. There’s a reluctance to go there, though, because a very powerful myth makes us think that success requires going to the absolute breaking point. Yet the research and case studies are unequivocal: success depends on boundaries.

Researchers at Harvard Business School found that the key component for successful business executives that gave them true satisfaction was “the deliberate imposition of limits.”

AVOIDING THE INFINITE MORE

“It allows them to say I don’t need to work away at this particular thing until I’m satiated and hate the very sight of it,” said Laura Nash and Howard Stevenson, authors of "Just Enough," in the Harvard Business Review. “This is ‘just enough.’ They recognize the importance of setting their own standards for ‘enough.’ And not falling prey to the lure of the infinite ‘more’.”

That’s what Susan, a Denver financial advisor I coached, discovered when she got to the end of her rope with 70-hour weeks. “I was hating work that I love and, by driving myself harder and harder, I had started to hate myself and my life,” she says. “My productivity was at a standstill, and I was always angry at myself for not accomplishing more."

The problem, she came to see, was that she was trying to be the best, an external goal, instead of focusing on doing her best, which is where the more important internal rewards come from. After shifting her outlook and revamping her schedule, she was able to set boundaries and improve her performance at the same time.

When a client recently asked her to do another loan report after she’d just finished one for this customer, she did something she never did. She said No. “I knew I had done enough,” she says. The client was initially unhappy, but called back the next day and apologized for being out of line.

“It feels great to know you can say you’ve done enough,” says Susan.

Research by Stanford Medical School’s Mark Cullen has uncovered something very revealing about the impact of overperformance on job satisfaction. Even if you love your job, if you do too much of it, you’ll hate it. Overly tasked people, says Cullen, don’t like what they’ve done at the end of the day. It turns out that too much work strips all the accomplishment, and fun, from what you’re doing.

THE SUCCESS TOOL

Over the last couple decades we have become more and more hesitant to set boundaries, but that’s no longer tenable in a 24/7 world. It’s time to reclaim boundaries and see them for what they are, the most basic management tool, a key to work-life balance that allows us to work more effectively. They are also an essential stress management tool.

A small but growing number of companies are recognizing that operating without limits is hurting bottom lines and retention. Two maladies associated with long-hours schedules, stress and depression, are five to seven times more costly to treat than other workplace illnesses. 

We all work more productively when we have a chance to think, plan, and organize. We get that from boundaries. A report out of Harvard on speaking up in the workplace called the word No the “voice-oriented improvement system.” Things get better for employee and employer when we find out what's not working and don’t do more than we can do well.

This same report said that people are speaking up at work—they tend to be extroverts—and there is not the negative repercussions to it that are feared. People live to talk about it.

SPEAKING UP AND LIVING TO TELL ABOUT IT

I do an exercise in my workshops where people who set boundaries share with those who don’t what happens when boundaries are verbalized. Sometimes nothing. Sometimes static, but often the boundary sticks and the person is actually respected more for it. They are not sent to the gulag.

Oftentimes, managers don’t know how many things you’re working on. Clarifying with them the tasks you’re doing, your duties and schedules can help him/her see that it doesn’t make sense to have you do an excessive number of things poorly that don’t reflect the real priorities.

Most people today are in retaliatory mode all day, simply reacting to devices and what comes at them. That drives a lot of action and assignments without thought. You can bring that thinking into the equation by asking questions and offering more productive solutions than the task or the schedule that takes you beyond the capacity of physiology and excellence.

Boundaries give everyone a clear picture of where things stand, which is what you want to be able to do at the end of the day. 

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Tags: chronic stress, burnout, work life balance programs, work overload, overwhelm, workaholism, setting boundaries at work, overtime costs

7 Signs the Office Needs Stress Management

Posted by Joe Robinson

Stress drains productivity

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

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

TENSION AND PANIC FOR ALL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tags: stress management, chronic stress, burnout, work stress, stress management programs, stress and productivity, stress management and change

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

Work Life Balance Taboo: Speak Up About Stress

Posted by Joe Robinson

Highly stressed employee

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

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

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

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

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

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

ITS THE REACTION

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

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

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

CONTROLLING THE STRESS RESPONSE

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

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

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

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

THE HEALTH THIEF

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

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

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

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

If you'd like more information on how to keep stress at bay for your company or yourself, click one of the buttons below for information on my stress management and work-life balance programs

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Tags: work life balance, work life balance programs, chronic stress, work stress, stress management programs, employee engagement, stress workshop

10 Easy Ways to Cut Work Stress in 2014

Posted by Joe Robinson

Stressed out from too much email

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Tags: job stress, stress management, chronic stress, burnout, work life balance programs, work stress, stress management programs, stress and heart attacks, reducing stress

Why Stress Is Contagious

Posted by Joe Robinson

Man with chronic stress headaches

Even the most independent person is born to conform. When others laugh, our mouths upturn into smiles. When the person next to you yawns, chances are you’re going to break off a tonsil-rattling exhale too. And when your stressed-out colleague is demanding a meeting right now, the alarmed face quickly incites yours to mimic it. Now you’re stressed too.

So much for free will. We all have a copycat streak, thanks to social circuitry that makes us yawn and panic when others do. As a social animal, we are built to relate to others, so much so that we physically reflect back their expressions and movements. The urge to echo is triggered by what are known as mirror neurons, brain cells that mimic the actions or emotions of others. While they help the species learn, understand, and bond, they can also be your undoing when the channeled behavior is the emotional contagion of stress.

THE MYSTERY OF THE STEREO YAWN

Mirror neurons were first identified in the 1990s by Italian scientists studying how the brain controls mouth and hand movements in macaques. Researchers found that a distinct batch of cells lit up when the monkees performed or even observed specific movements. 

Mirror neurons are thought to operate similarly in humans. Located near motor neurons responsible for movement, speech, and intention to act, they simulate the actions and emotions of others or give us the impulse to do so—thus, one of life’s great mysteries, the contagious yawn. You’re not remotely sleepy, but you cut loose with a jaw-popper after the person next to you has done the same.

A study in Switzerland using fMRI scans found a connection between the mirror neuron system and higher cognitive empathic functions. When subjects in the study were shown photos of people yawning, a region in the mirror neuron system was activated.

Even if we’re not physically imitating what we see, mirror neurons still fire off a simulated version of the activity in your head as if you actually did it. It’s all designed to help us learn, understand, empathize, and connect with what others are doing and feeling. Too often, though, what’s mirrored is the stress of coworkers, managers, and significant others. 

PASS-ALONG STRAIN

Researchers have long known about the infectious nature of stress. Pass-along strain runs rampant in relationships and work settings. Studies have shown that there is "crossover" stress from one spouse to the other, between coworkers, and "spillover" from the work domain to home. The stress contagion effect, as it’s known, spreads anxiety like a virus. Our mirror neurons help suck us into the emotional eruptions of others.

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Emotions are highly contagious, and that can be highly dangerous when the emotional storms of others reflexively trigger the stress response in us. Stress is a factor in five out of the six leading causes of death, according to the CDC.

Stress suppresses the immune system, lowers the good cholesterol, increases the bad, and leaves decision-making up to a hysterical corner of your ancient brain that can’t compute the social stressors of the modern world. It can lead to any number of illnesses and conditions, from insomnia, to cardiovascular disease, to heart attacks. It’s a national health emergency that kills more people than traffic accidents or nicotine and could be alleviated with proactive stress screening, advice doctors seldom prescribe.

But you don’t have to buy anyone else’s stress—or the alarms of your own overwrought stress response, which are equally false (unless you are in a true life-or-death moment). The key to resisting the emotional contagion of stress is overriding the double-team autopilot of the stress response—reacting before you think—and your mirror neurons.

OPT OUT OF EMOTIONAL CONTAGION

When someone dumps emotional toxins on you, you can choose not to accept the incoming by catching yourself when the bogus, catastrophic story of stress goes off and activates a wave of stupefying emotion. Instead of latching on to the fear or panic because it’s in your head, contest it by reframing the irrational story to what’s actually the reality. You are not about to die, as the clueless ancient brain thinks.

Stress is the result of the story we tell ourselves. That requires that we dispute the stress of the addled colleague who expects an instant response to her email. She will hear from you—when you’re able.

Refuse the frenzy of someone else’s deadline by stepping back and identifying the real story—it’s not an emergency, it’s not your stress, it’s not a crisis—and by using proven stress management processes, you can turn off the false danger signal. Instead of mirror neurons reflecting stress, you can use them as a tool to better understand why a person is going off, and, as a result, why you don’t have to.

We can let others know that we would prefer to be dealt with in a way that doesn’t treat every event as Apocalypse Now or threaten our health. Others don’t know they’re as much of a conduit for stress as a fiber optic cable is for data. Let them know.

Reduce the interactions you can with the stress conductors in your life. And put a selection of photos on your computer or smartphone of people in the act of yawning to use your mirror neurons to treat the false alarms of others with the response they deserve.

 

Tags: stress management, chronic stress, work life balance programs, work stress, stress management programs, reducing stress, stress, contagious stress

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

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