Working Smarter

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

5 Reasons Stress-Denial Trumps Stress Management

Posted by Joe Robinson

Woman with job stress

Some companies won’t even use the word “stress,” hoping that avoiding the term will make a very toxic problem go away. Meanwhile, many imploding professionals are equally in denial about their stress. “It’s part of the territory.” “Got to suck it up.” Meanwhile, their purses or desk drawers look like pharmacies.

It’s no wonder that unmanaged stress costs American business $344 billion a year in medical bills, absenteeism, and recruiting and retention bills, according to a study at Middle Tennessee State. And no surprise, either, that more than three-quarters of all doctor visits are stress-related. Ostrich-mode is making us sick and unproductive.

Why do so many companies, big and small, ignore the time bomb of stress, the crisis mentality, frenzy, dysfunctional teams, anger, resentment, and panicked thinking that comes with it?  Habit. That habit is to look the other way, because stress is 1) the employee’s problem, a personal issue; 2) not that big of a deal; 3) something that only happens in tyrannical companies; 4) an admission that something’s not working; and last and most importantly, 5) lack of information on what stress is and how it spreads through a company to make everything more difficult and costly.

The reality is that in a time of hyper speed-up and lean staffing, stress—triggered by a perception of not being able to cope with demands—is at epidemic levels, and it’s a threat to every organization. If stress was an infectious disease, it would be the Center for Disease Control’s public enemy number one.

Yet too many believe stress isn’t all that serious, or something only wimps succumb to. Talk to Tom Row, a hard-charging scientist with a 70-hour a week schedule, who one day found himself leaving his office on a stretcher after a massive heart attack. He didn’t even know he was stressed, because the adrenaline flowing through his body made him feel transcendent.

Or hear it from an entrepreneur I spoke to recently who had a heart attack in her twenties. Or from the host of folks whose marriages have disintegrated because of the hair-trigger emotions, fear, and exhaustion set off by stress and burnout. Stress can turn you into someone you’d normally run from.

Contrary to the denial reflex, chronic stress has real health and business consequences. Ignore it, and it won’t go away. It will only get worse. When the stress response is activated, the immune system is suppressed, digestion processes are upended, blood pressure rises. The longer that goes on, the more physical problems erupt. Ignoring stress is like working with one hand behind your back, and one foot at the doctor’s doorstep. The longer we buy the false emergency, the more our thoughts come to believe the distortion of events is real.

If companies knew how damaging stress is to anything the organization is trying to accomplish, they wouldn’t put up with it for a nanosecond, because that would be like burning money. They would make stress management and work-life balance programs as much of a priority as the next quarter’s earnings, because those earnings depend on healthy, engaged minds and bodies.

Stress guts the chief productivity tool, attention, which is hijacked by an ancient part of the brain that can’t see beyond false crises—not good for planning, conversation, innovation, anything that requires concentration and openness. Stress is plenty good, though, for mistakes, rash emails, and disengagement.

The failure to nip stress in the bud means that this toxic cell spreads through the organization. Stress is highly contagious and is transmitted easily through pass-along strain and the mirror neurons that make our bodies echo the emotions of those around us.

Unlike a lot of diseases for which there is no solution, there is a cure for stress. The stress response is set off by a false story that can be shut off, and when it is, the stress stops in four minutes. How valuable would that be, to be able turn off the source fueling anxiety, conflict, and disengagement? More than 40% of employee turnover is due to stress. The cost to recruit and train top talent can range upwards of $100,000.

How much better could work and life be without the vise-grip of fear and anxiety caused by stress? Without the churning stomach, headaches, high blood pressure, and insomnia?

I can tell you, "a lot," because I see it regularly after our work-life or stress management trainings or in my coaching work. Teams go from wits end and overwhelm to a workday they can manage. Individuals move from fear and frenzy to a calm firmness amid chaos. It's day and night when you have the tools to keep stress at bay.

There’s nothing to deny or feel embarrassed about with stress. It’s part of the funky brain architecture we’re stuck with. It’s part of organizations, even the best ones. It’s part of a volatile world. But when it persists, it’s also a very clear signal that something is wrong with the picture.

If your organization or you would like to change that picture, click below for a free consultation and learn how fast you can transform your team and life.

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Tags: work life balance programs, stress management, job stress, work stress, chronic stress, managing stress

Job Stress Doubles Heart Attack Risk in Women

Posted by Joe Robinson

Job stress impacts women's hearts

Most of the research on job stress has looked at men, but a new study of women finds the stress process very democratic in its toll on the old ticker and its supporting systems. The study, from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, found that women who report high job demands and stress levels are 67% more likely to have a heart attack and 38% more likely to have a heart problem—stroke, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease—than women with low stress.

It’s another sign that work stress is not a trifling case of nerves, but a health hazard, one that requires stress management skills few of us are taught. The belief is that we can live with stress, that it’s just part of the professional territory—and that we can’t discuss it or try to resolve it or we'll be a wimp.

We do live with a lot of stress. Life is chock full of it, but not all of it is a threat. When demands are low, or high but you have some measure of control over them, events can be perceived as challenging or exciting. But when demands are high and you don’t have control over them, it’s another story—which is why more than two dozen studies show the connection between work stress and heart problems. That’s the kind of stress that is risky to live with.

Chronic high strain triggers the stress response. It creates a sense of not being able to cope, which is misinterpreted by the ancient hub of our emotions, the amygdala, to be a life-and-death threat. Off goes the stress response and a flood of hormones that suppress the immune system, increase blood pressure, and can lead to cardiovascular problems and a host of medical issues, from insomnia to irritable bowel disease.

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The study followed 22,000 women in the healthcare field for 10 years and found the high-strain group (including managers, who were high risk) with an elevated risk for heart problems. Lifestyle issues—smoking, weight, etc.—accounted for only one-quarter of the increased risk. The research supports data found in a Finnish study of 48,000 women, which found that job stress can double the risk of cardiovascular disease.

If you or your organization fall into the chronic, elevated strain category, stress management strategies are crucial to prevent the toll on health, decision-making, productivity, and pocketbooks. Since the stress beast runs on knee-jerk reactions and “explanatory style”—what we tell ourselves about stressful events—changing the response to stress can change everything and lead to vastly improved work-life balance.

The stress process is so ingrained it takes a concerted effort to retrain the brain to react differently than autopilot fight-or-flight. Our stress management programs reframe stress so it can be cut off before it spins out of control into chronic activation that takes bodies and businesses down with it.

A two-pronged approach is needed, tools that we can use to put out the fires as stress pops up—both mental and physical techniques—and then stress management strategies outside the job to counter amygdala activation and release the tension. It's part of the body's natural work-life balance system, the parasympathetic system of recovery restoring the body to rest and maintenance.

Study co-author Michelle Albert singled out the importance of having ways to unwind after work. Regular recreational and exercise outlets are essential to relieve work stress, or it continues to fuel anxiety, muscle tension, and cortisol release. That requires planning, a different skill-set than the work mindset, and the right motivational strategy—all of which are part of our training program.

One of the hallmarks of stress is obsessive thinking about the perceived crisis of the moment. Pastimes and aerobic exercise buffer stress as well as increase positive mood and confidence, which helps switch off the false emergency signals in the brain and create the vitality to perform better on the job.

It's all about coping with demands. If they push us beyond our ability to cope and nothing is done to increase coping resources, non-android bodies and performance pay the price. The good news is that coping strategies can become the best parts of the day, from relaxation techniques to recreation after work—if we can override the "I'm too busy" mental block fueled by stress to take care of ourselves, that is.  

Tags: women and stress, work life balance programs, stress management, job stress, stress at work, stress and heart attacks, stress management programs, work stress, chronic stress, managing stress

Increase Productivity, Take a Vacation

Posted by Joe Robinson

Vacations increase productivity

There’s a lot of buzz about a company in Denver offering to pay their employees to take a vacation. Yes, pay them to go away. We’re not talking about simply paid vacation time, but a bonus on top of that--$7500 to split for a holiday. Bart Lorang, CEO of Full Contact, which produces software to manage address books, needs to attract and keep software engineers in a very competitive market, so he came up with the vacation payday brainstorm.

He’s struck paydirt, getting a goldmine of media coverage, and no doubt he won’t have much trouble retaining employees now. Other companies, such as the H Group in Salem, Oregon, and Jancoa in Cincinnati, have used extra vacation time to build loyalty and improve productivity. Jancoa's Mary Miller says adding a week of vacation "has been the most successful retention program we have ever had." Jancoa slashed its retention problems from 360% to 60% in two months after adding a third week of vacation. Sales increased 15%.

If more companies knew how beneficial vacations were to the bottom line and productivity, many more CEOs would be standing in line to make sure every last person welded to their workstation took some time off.

The research shows that far from being a brake on performance, that vacations actually increase productivity. Humans are simply more productive when rested. Researcher Mark Rosekind of Alertness Solutions found that the respite effect of a vacation can increase performance by 80%. Reaction times of returning vacationers increased 40% in his study. 

It’s all part of the recharging process, something I call the Refueling Principle. Brains and bodies need maintenance just like copy machines. Refueling increases physical vitality and mental focus.

Respite research has shown that some very important things happen on a vacation that rejuvenate brains and bodies. The University of Tel Aviv’s Dov Eden, one of the foremost experts on how refueling affects performance, has documented that respites ease “the effect of stress on well-being by punctuating the otherwise constant aggravation caused by incessant job demands.”

Click for "The 7 Signs of Burnout"

With stressors removed, the body has a chance to recover from the toll chronic stress takes on the immune system, even helping us recover from the last stage of the stress process, burnout. Vacations have been shown to cure burnout by regathering crashed emotional resources, like a sense of social support and mastery. The time away from stressors and immersion in recreation “re-create” us. Recreation increases positive mood, builds confidence, and connects us with others—all of which adds to the recovery process.

The shared experience of vacations brings families and friends closer together and introduces us to a host of new folks we actually have the time of day for. You can get to know people you meet while traveling better in a few hours than people you’ve known for years at home. It’s called “the stranger on the train effect,” a face-value experience without fear of revelations coming back to haunt you. It’s a powerful experience that restores your faith in the human race. The first birthday greeting I get every year is from a German couple I met in Belize 16 years ago.

The vacation tradition was started by companies back in the early 20th century as a productivity strategy. They found that employees came back from their holidays reinvigorated, and they got more work done as a result. It’s a lesson that has been forgotten over the years and especially recently, but it’s never been more relevant than in the era of 24/7 information overload.

There’s a belief that, because we are not in the factory era anymore, we don’t need to step back. The only hazard is hemorrhoids.  The science reveals just the opposite. Brain scientists I’ve talked to say the brain goes down way before the body. An overtasked, stressed brain has no ability to focus, plan, solve complex issues—to pay attention, one of the chief productivity tools.

Paying attention is something we do expertly on a vacation, since everything around us is new and novel. We learn how to be in the moment of engagement, the key to optimal performance and life.

Tags: improve employee engagement, how to prevent burnout, vacation, increase productivity, work life balance, job stress, burnout, chronic stress

The Yin-Yang of Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

Life balance in nature

A recent study confirmed a missing key to work-life balance in a hyperventilating 24/7 world. It found that constant connectivity—sending, receiving, and checking messages to the exclusion of a moment to think about any of it—makes it hard to remember the incoming or make any complex decisions based on the information. The problem: too much output and no time for brain neurons to absorb the input or its meaning.

We need time to process the work we do and to step back to determine the best course ahead. None of that’s possible when we are in continuous output mode. Our brain neurons need comprehension of the day’s events to process them and incubate the data during sleep to build the associations that lead to solving problems.

There’s a duality to work, as there is in life, a yin-yang dynamic that is essential to balance and the engaged minds that comes from it. Quality input is mandatory for quality output. Without input, time to process what’s coming at us, our output is missing analysis and reflection and driven by mechanical momentum. That, in turn, drives job stress, which thrives on reactivity and emotional frenzy devoid of thought.

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Researchers have found that the brain has to step back every 90 minutes, or it fatigues and defaults to rote mode. We make a lot of mistakes when flying on autopilot output, send emails with the wrong names on them, forget to send attachments, plow ahead on projects without knowing what our objectives are. Where are we going? Why are we going there? We have no idea when autopilot output controls all.

We all seem to know instinctively that being unbalanced doesn’t add up. Millennia ago Chinese sages held that we are complimentary, not exclusionary, characters. Yang and yin referred to the dark and sunny sides of a hill, and came to be associated with the positive and negative, male and female, two sides of the same coin.

“The art of life is not seen as holding on to yang and banishing yin, but as keeping the two in balance, because there cannot be one without the other,” wrote philosopher Alan Watts.

When you're all-output, all the time, physical maintenance and stress management are non-existent, and that affects performance. Cumulative fatigue comes out of your hide the next day and the next, lowering productivity as output overrules the input of recharging, researchers tell us.

You can build input into your day by setting aside a few minutes each day to catch up on reading, research, and conversations needed to stay ahead, not behind, the eight-ball. Step back before you take an action and ask what your goal is. What should this task accomplish? Why? Take the time to refuel during the day to allow your brain to reset. Monitor when you are flying on mechanical momentum and being run by commotion, instead of motion.

Input is the engine of productivity, vitality, innovation, and it's the essence of any good work-life balance program. Without it, work and physiologies head down a dark, slippery slope.

 

 

Tags: increasing productivity, improving productivity, productivity, work life balance programs, work life balance, stress management, job stress, chronic stress

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

Contest the Stress for Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Stress, we’re led to believe, is something we just have to take. It’s merely a nuisance. The reality is that our bodies are no match for chronic stress.

Nor are our minds. Anxiety subverts the intellect, and, as a result, performance too. By constricting the brain to perceived emergencies (that are false alarms almost all the time), stress reduces complex decision-making and puts emotions on a hair-trigger. That’s not a good basis for informed decisions or rapport with colleagues or clients.

Denial is the usual way we treat stress, but that is precisely what fuels it. When we don't deal with stressors, we think about them. Ruminating on the exaggerated beliefs set off by stress drives the process. The stress response is fed by distorted thoughts that spiral into false beliefs if left uncontested.

Instead of allowing stress to spiral and fester by ignoring it, it's critical to contest the irrational thoughts it kicks up and resolve them. Or your health and performance pay the price.

The smarter policy for every organization is to slash stress, since it undercuts the work of everyone affected by it, is highly contagious, and increases presenteeism, retention problems (40% of employees who leave companies cite stress as the cause), and medical costs.

“Stress isn’t just a nuisance. It’s as much of a risk factor for heart attacks, stroke, and cancer as any of the other known carcinogens,” says Dr. Steven Lamm, of New York University Mount Sinai Medical School.

Few of us are trained to understand the stress-burnout cycle, which is a byproduct of something we can all change, how we frame the stress. Stress management programs have been shown to dramatically cut stress and the problems that come with its irrational thinking.

A stress prevention program in a study by St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance reduced medication errors at one hospital by 50%, and in a separate study cut malpractice claims by 70%.

Think of it this way. Those in chronic stress mode are in a fight-or-flight state. They’re ready to fight or run. Neither lends itself to gold-medal performance on the job or off.

Arm yourself with the tools to defeat stress with a "Managing Crazy Busy Work" productivity training or a Stress Management workshop. Get started with our report on the best case for stress management for your team or organization. 

"Best Business Case for Stress Management"

Tags: work-life balance program, effect of stress on productivity, productivity, work life balance, stress management, job stress, stress at work, chronic stress

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