Working Smarter

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

Posted by Joe Robinson

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

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

TIME OFF BOOSTS TIME ON

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

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

ENGAGEMENT OR BURNOUT?

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

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

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

PERFORMING BETTER ON VACATIONS

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

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

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

VACATIONS: THE TALENT INSURANCE POLICY

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

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

LEADING THE WAY

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

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

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

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

 

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The Antidote to Job Stress and Overwhelm: Conscious Work

Posted by Joe Robinson

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

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

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

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RAT RACE OF HABIT

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

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

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

ACTING CONSCIOUSLY

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

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

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

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

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Employee Training Drives Number One Motivator: Progress

Posted by Joe Robinson

Employee training programs build morale

Raise your hand if you like feeling stuck. Let’s hear it for going nowhere! What, no takers? I thought so. Humans don’t particularly like suspended animation. Boredom isn’t high on the to-do list. Instead, our brain neurons crave movement, learning, and growth.

One multiyear study measuring employee motivation found that the number one factor in driving effort was progress, tangible movement on a project, a sense that you’re making headway, even if incrementally, on your work. Harvard Business School's Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer analyzed daily reports from hundreds of workers and discovered that forward motion, such as getting closer to completion on projects and removal of obstacles, was the top component in motivating performance. Small wins yield a big payoff in morale and satisfaction.

THE MOTIVATOR OF COMPETENCE

The need to see progress also extends to skill-sets. One of the consistent top levers of employee engagement, for instance, is employee development—right up there with managers who have an open door policy and communicate expectations, according to data from the Corporate Leadership Council.  

People want to improve their skills, learn new ones, and when they do through mentoring or training programs, it feeds a core psychological need: competence. The need to feel effective is essential to self-worth and to satisfy what brain neurons want more than anything else for long-term fulfillment: novelty and challenge.

We are programmed to search out and explore new horizons, so much so that just the anticipation of something new sets off a chemical reward in our brains in the form of the chemical dopamine. We feel good when we increase knowledge and capabilities, which make us want to acquire more information and new experiences—evolution’s built-in incentive to improve ourselves, and our odds of survival. 

TRAINING PROGRAMS INCREASE ENGAGEMENT

Employee training programs provide one of the most concentrated doses of learning in the workplace, and play a key role in boosting engagement levels. A Corporate Leadership Council survey found that general skills training programs can increase the discretionary effort of engagement by 17.5%, more than 7% to 10% higher than on-the-job learning opportunities. How much of a difference could an additional 17% of effort make for your team or organization? What could that mean for productivity and project completion speed, since engaged employees bring with them more attention, focus, and dedication?

The Corporate Leadership Council reports that employee training programs send “a message of credible commitment to employees.” Development programs back up organizational goals for engagement or work-life balance with action, with tools and strategies that employees can use to make their workday more effective, less stressful, more manageable, and more successful. Employees reciprocate with their own demonstration of commitment, going beyond the call of duty in the effort department.

Progress in the workplace is usually seen as a metric of job titles and positions. I spoke with the CEO of a large tech firm, who has to get very creative to keep coming up with job titles that indicate movement upward for his millennial staff, who expect advancement every few months. Everyone wants to move up, but there are a limited number of rungs at the top. 

POWER OF INTERNAL YARDSTICKS

The possibilities for advancing skills, though, are limitless. Employee training programs can have a bigger impact on competence and self-esteem than job titles, because they are internal metrics, which research shows is more powerful than the external yardsticks.  They gratify those brain neurons that want challenge and align with the intrinsic need to feel effective.

Employee training programs are a very cost-effective way to provide the tools that make staff feel competent, supported, and engaged. You make big gains in skills and enthusiasm very quickly.  When was the last time your team had a training session? What kind of training could your team benefit from right now? Time management? Interruption management? Stress management? Productivity training? Email and information management? Reining in crazy-busy time urgency?

Our training programs provide tools to handle all of the above, to help employees help themselves through better self-management, and in the process provide the spark of progress for individuals, the team, and the whole company.

Something happens when people stop growing. They stop caring. Training programs let employees and managers know that the organization cares, by providing skills to to ease burdens, simplify processes, self-manage any challenge. Learning is its own reward, one that promotes the best engagement resource: our own competence and need for mastery.

If you would like more information on our training programs, please click the button below for more details on programs ranging from productivity, to work-life balance, employee engagement, stress management, and email management.

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The 3 Engines of Employee Engagement

Posted by Joe Robinson

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FOR MOST OF the lifespan of the field of psychology, scientists focused on the dysfunctional, the haywire, and failings of the psyche, but a few decades ago some researchers said, Hey, enough already. What about the other side of the ledger? What makes things go right? If we know the answer to that question, there’s liable to be fewer of us on the fritz.

The positive psychology movement changed the one-track focus from doom and gloom and reactivity to the building blocks of well-being and effective functioning. A similar switching of lens happened in the work realm, as researchers began to investigate what led to flourishing employees, instead of burned-out ones.

Researchers Wilmar Schaufeli, Arnold Bakker, Marisa Salanova, and Vicente Gonzales-Roma set out to find a measurement for employee engagement by exploring the positive antithesis to burnout. The key markers of burnout—exhaustion and cynicism—it turned out, are the opposite of two of the three dimensions the scientists found that mark the state of engagement: vigor and dedication.

BURNOUT KILLERS

Flipping the emphasis relieves the rear-guard action of trying to prevent the negative (fatigue, pessimism). Instead, smart managers can go on the offensive by creating conditions that allow positive burnout killers to thrive. It’s the difference between waiting for the roof to fall in and making that roof invulnerable to sudden collapse.

Schaufeli and company defined engagement as a “positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind that is characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption.” Absorption is the third element of engagement, which has a strong component of attention and focus.

The resulting high morale isn’t a momentary affair that can fade in a blink. Engagement is a broad and persistent engine that has staying power even amid setbacks.

Learn the 5 Keys to Engagement

Let’s take a look at the three main dimensions of engagement, how they operate as an antidote to burnout, and how they trigger the extra effort that can increase productivity by as much as 28%, according to Gallup.

1. VIGOR. It’s the veritable definition of an engaged and proactive person—someone who has not just the willingness, but the physical energy to go the extra mile, or, as it’s known in the trade, “discretionary effort.” The key element here is vitality, or energy available to the self, as the University of Rochester’s Richard Ryan has called it. When you have it, you have interest and aliveness, and feel the well-being that triggers positive affect, a magnetic force that can propel you and others beyond obstacles. You are willing to draw on that energy to go beyond the normal level of effort.

This is the polar opposite of the chief marker of burnout—exhaustion, mentally, physically, and emotionally. Someone with energy and vitality can’t be burned out because there are energetic resources to replace those that are used. Keeping the physical energy up, through strategies that help brains and bodies recharge on a regular basis, is an automatic hedge against fatigue and resource overload.

Getting regular exercise and enough sleep, 7 to 9 hours a night, is essential to refueling energy and, researchers are finding, cleaning out the toxic junk—beta-amyloids and tau—left over from the day’s mental workouts.

2. DEDICATION. This is the commitment piece of employee engagement. You want to do more because you are enthused about the organization, its mission, and your ability to make a contribution to the team and larger goal.

It’s the opposite of the cynicism that comes from burnout, which sees any self-initiative as futile and naïve. Burnout can’t coexist with the passion and loyalty of dedication.

The need to feel effective is critical to self-worth. Dedicated employees feel valued, because they have opportunities to contribute and make a difference. They feel a sense of significance, and as a result, derive meaning from what they do, and that intrinsic reward makes them want to do more.

Feeling effective counters another burnout characteristic, lack of efficacy. Employees who are committed to what they’re doing will keep at it, even if it’s challenging. They have internalized the importance of the product or service to the client or customers. As a result, they find satisfaction in handling difficult assignments.

3. ABSORPTION. When someone is engaged in their work, they are engrossed in it. Engagement brings another gear of concentration to the task, powered by intrinsic motivation, inherent interest in doing the task. The goal is not to get done with the work as soon as possible, but to do it in the best possible way.

Some researchers think that engagement is more about proactive attention than anything else. It’s a decision to immerse yourself in the task for its own sake, not for any external reward. The more attention you have on what you’re doing, the more you like it, remember it, and derive intrinsic pleasure from it, say researchers. 

Absorption is the definition of optimal experience, also known as flow. When your skills meet a challenge in the moment, there’s a sense of mastery, a loss of self-consciousness, and a clear focus, not to mention a sense of competence and autonomy, and that satisfies two core psychological needs.  

Detachment and withdrawal are hallmarks of burnout. There’s no detachment when you have full absorption in the task at hand, making it a bulwark against burnout behavior.

Burnout is extremely costly to organizations, from lost productivity, to absenteeism and medical bills. And it leaves nearly a third more performance on the table. Managers can inoculate themselves and their organizations against the downward spiral of chronic stress and burnout with the antidote of engagement, the vaccine of effort.

Our employee engagement programs can help you unleash the three engines of effort. If you would like information on our programs, click the button below for more details and rates.

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Attention and Employee Engagement

Posted by Joe Robinson

Focused team demonstrates employee engagement

With the growing advances in brain research, we’re getting a much better picture, literally, of when our command center works and when it doesn’t. Researchers say MRI scans of fatigued brains show so little activity, they look like they are sound asleep.

I’m sure you know that feeling around 4 p.m., when it seems like you’re swimming in molasses, and you have to expend twice the effort to get something accomplished that you need when you are fresh. The reality is that there is a limited period that the brain can stay focused without wandering or going into brownout mode. Researchers say 90-minutes to three hours of time and task, and the brain has to step back from task to reset.

The instinct to never pause and go to the mental wall may be admirable, but it’s not productive—and it’s one of the best ways to kill employee engagement. Studies show that engagement is not so much an attitude as a state of motivated attentiveness.

FULL ABSORPTION

One of the key hallmarks of engagement is absorption, full concentration in the moment. Pushing gray matter to the edge insures there won’t be much of that. Fried, overloaded brains are characterized by tension, inability to focus, slower processing, and an inability to handle complex tasks.

Even if dedication and commitment are there, engaged employees can’t deliver extra effort when mental resources are spent. Fatigue and exhaustion also undercut another key metric of engagement, the physical, energetic resources of vigor.

There is a fallacy in the knowledge economy that, because we are just sitting on our behinds, that the brain is a kind of unlimited well. We’re not being physically taxed, so the mind can just keep going. Brain scientists I’ve spoken with have told me that the brain goes down well before the body. That means, so does the chief productivity tool, attention, and the prospects for engagement.

FRACTURING FOCUS

Any organization that wants engaged employees has to have attentive employees, yet everything about the nature of work today undermines that—unbounded interruptions, information overload, social media intrusions. It’s not how much volume we can cram into our heads, but how we manage demands that leads to the focus necessary for engaged performance. Yet few organizations have tied shrinking attention to engagementm si more and more intrusions pour in.

It’s often thought that engagement can be measured by the amount of commitment to the organization, but that’s not enough to drive engagement, which is a function of the specific effort an employee brings to the task. As Alan Saks at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto put it in one study, “Engagement has to do with how individuals employ themselves in the performance of their job,” not attachment to the organization.

It’s great when people are dedicated to the cause, but, if they have the attention span of a gnat, there won’t be much in the way of engagement. Disengagement is more like it, and, in fact, that is the trend these days as attention spans shrink, thanks to nonstop interruptions and information overload.

Leaders need to be alert for the signs of disengagement—withdrawal, absenteeism, personal conflicts, falling behind schedule, burnout—when attention vanishes in the face of excessive demands without compensating latitude or choice. Researchers say that burnout is a marker for the opposite of engagement’s dedication, absorption and vigor. Instead, there is estrangement from the goals of the organization and a downward spiral of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and futility.

THE OPPOSITE OF BURNOUT: ENGAGEMENT

That leads to the logic that less burnout can promote more attentive employees who have the potential to be engaged. What areas do organizations have to adjust to reduce the burnout track and promote more focus? Saks points to research from burnout scholar Christina Maslach and associates. “Job engagement is associated with a sustainable workload, feelings of choice and control, appropriate recognition and reward, a supportive work community, fairness and justice, and meaningful and valued work.”

People who have a sustainable workload are naturally going to be able to bring more focus to the task than if they have depleted their coping resources. Choice and control keep stress away, which prevents the brain from having focus constricted to the narrow fixation of a perceived false crisis. Recognition and supportive work means that attention is appreciated and nurtured, while fairness and meaningful work internalize the importance of doing quality, attentive work.

So much of the way we work today is simply autopilot, reflexively responding to the demands without managing them. The research shows that engagement, and productivity, are not the result of brain drain, of cognitive feats of endurance, but the opposite, promoting behaviors and policies that allow minds to find the space to focus.

That’s hard to engineer when most people are in a state of triage all day. Yet there are other choices than triage, other approaches to the way we do our work that are actually based on the evidence of what has been proven to be productive. From no-interruption zones to email management to the power of full-absorption goals, there are a wealth of tools that can bring about the gains in commitment, attention, and motivation that prime the pump for engagement.

This is where development programs can make a big difference, providing a path out of reflex mode to practices that are the most engaging and productive. If you are interested in increasing the attention, engagement, and productivity of your employees, click on the button below for more details.

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Employee Engagement: The Secret of Involvement

Posted by Joe Robinson

Employee engagement delivers attentive troops

IF THERE'S A SECRET to the universe that's not generally known, it's that the magic in work and life comes, not from being a spectator, but from being a participant. You'd never know it, of course, given how much time we spend staring at digital screens.

The consensus of behavioral scientists is that humans are designed for action. The two key elements for long-term fulfillment are novelty and challenge. No wonder, the average state of someone watching TV is a mild depression, as research from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has found—especially given what’s on TV, Dog the Bounty Hunter, Worst Tattoos. Depression is more than a natural reaction to superb fare like this.

Nobody wants to sit at the office and watch others participate or be a cog in a wheel. Everyone wants to feel like they can use their talents to achieve results, be effective, and have a sense of contribution. We were not born to sit on the bench. Our brain neurons are designed for us to be in the game and contributing. When we participate, we satisfy core psychological needs crucial for gratification. Lack of involvement fuels boredom, cynicism, and learned helplessness. 

INVOLVEMENT INCREASES PROFITS

Management studies testify to the importance of employee involvement. USC’s Edward Lawler studied the performance of a number of large firms and measured them on various financial indicators—from sales and equity to assets and stockholder investment. He found that companies that invested in employee involvement had a return on investment of 19.1%, higher than any other metric. Greater employee involvement also increased job satisfaction and work-life effectiveness.

Lawler wrote that, “Employee Involvement, if well implemented, changes the fundamental relationship between individuals and the organization they work for. It really builds [employees] in as a business partner, so they know more and they do more to make the organization successful, particularly in industries where the human component is important—most knowledge work, high-tech, and many kinds of service industries."

When people participate, they feel a part of the process and team. They feel trusted and valued, which are key to employee engagement, which is another way of saying employee involvement. With a vested interest and more self-initiative, the effort level increases and along with it performance. Data from Gallup, which has been tracking engagement metrics meticulously for a number of years, shows that engagement can result in employees being  28% more productive. 

LEAVING MONEY ON THE TABLE

Yet few organizations encourage employee involvement or engagement. Lawler estimates that only 12% of employees are highly involved in their work. The command-and-control style of management still predominates when the research shows the opposite, that collaboration, self-responsibility, and self-initiative are much more effective at generating employee engagement.

Over the last two decades scientists have discovered that the most potent motivation is not fear, external payoff, or even bonuses, but something completely different, intrinsic motivation. That comes from within, as does the discretionary effort of engagement. Intrinsic motivation can’t be commanded; it can only be enabled and encouraged through involvement and internal goals such as excellence, service, challenge, learning, or inherent interest.

EFFORT DRIVES SATISFACTION 

Researchers Judith Harackiewicz and Andrew Elliot found that intrinsically motivated employees are continuously interested in the work that they’re doing. When employees feel they have a stake in the process and can make contributions, they are self-motivated, self-managed, self-propelled. That satisfies core needs such as autonomy, feeling that you are not being forced and controlled, and competence, a sense that you can be effective. Satisfaction is not something that comes from doing something easy. It’s the result of effort. Participation sets up a cycle of effort followed by the internal payoff of satisfaction.

How can managers unlock the power of intrinsic motivation and create more employee involvement and engagement? The answer lies in promoting more self-responsibility and self-assessment, including employees in on decisions, and providing feedback that satisfies the competence need. It’s not “great job,” but “I love how you did that project,” which plays to their effectiveness.

Allowing for more choice in how people do their work invites more involvement. We all have a job we have to do, but how we do it can tap the autonomy need as it creates a feeling of competence for doing tasks or projects in a smarter way.

MULTIPLY PROBLEM-SOLVERS

Managers don’t give up final decision-making power. They simply spread the wealth around to bring in contributions across the company that can help create better outcomes. How much better off, nimbler, and quicker, is a company with a highly skilled roster of people at all positions capable of making decisions, instead of having everything left to a handful of overstretched executives?

Every company’s main resource is its people. Unleashing them to participate to the fullest degree is the best long-term strategy for increasing productivity, sales, innovation, and retention. Otherwise, there’s a lot of money and effort left on the table. Gallup estimates American businesses drop $300 billion a year in lost productivity due to unengaged personnel.

If you would like to activate the untapped power of an engaged staff, click the button below for rates and details on our engagement programs. 

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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.

Tags: guilt, work guilt, perfectionism and work, guilt and stress, employee engagement, work life balance programs, burnout, work stress, chronic stress

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.

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

The Engine of Productivity and Work-Life Balance: Vitality

Posted by Joe Robinson

Vitality: the hidden link to work-life balance

There are truckloads of apps that claim to boost productivity, but the biggest bang for your effectiveness buck may come from something that is seldom on the radar in a 24/7 workday: physical vitality. You can’t get a whole lot done, say brain scientists, when you’re at the cognitive equivalent of being drunk, the condition we’re in when we don’t get enough sleep.

A recent study reported in the International Journal of Workplace Health found that besides a good night's sleep, exercise is another productivity tool at our disposal. People who get exercise during the day are 23% more productive at work. This backs up other studies, including one at Stockholm University, showing that people who exercise during the workday get more done. The Stockholm research found that people were more productive taking 30 minutes for exercise during the day than if they worked straight through.

It’s proof that quality of hours counts more than quantity, particularly in the knowledge economy, where the main productivity tool is attention. Exercise builds new connections between brain neurons and helps increase attention and focus.

More Energy Available to the Self

Exercise also energizes, providing one of the little-known keys to productivity and work-life balance—physical vitality. The University of Rochester’s Richard Ryan has done a host of fascinating research into the realm of vitality, which he defines as “energy available to the self.” You know it when you’ve got it. And when you don’t. Vitality is an ongoing status report of feeling up to the day or not.

How much more effective are you when you have a tide of physical energy at your back, a feeling you can take on anything? Do you have that now? Do you feel vital and alive on a daily basis? That’s a difficult state to find when we work in a nonstop style that drains energy and doesn’t replace it through refueling breaks in the action.

Vitality is a conscious feeling of energy, aliveness, interest, and enthusiasm, the definition of engagement. Vitality helps keep us energized throughout the day and push through the rough patches. It’s been linked in Ryan’s research with many well-being traits—self-motivation, positive mood, good self-esteem, life satisfaction, autonomous behavior, all of which are hallmarks of work-life balance.

Tension, Anger Decrease Energy

Energy for output comes from input that keeps our batteries charged, something we need just like iPods and smartphones. Where do we get energy? From doing things that restore and energize us—exercise, play, rest, music, intrinsic motivation—doing things for the inherent interest—eating nutritious food. Tension, anger, and depression decrease vitality.

Humans are not hard drives with hair. Our energy is limited to the supplies we provide it. There’s a belief that we can go all day and night, because we’re just sitting on our butts. But the brain scientists I talk to tell me that it’s just the opposite. The brain goes down well before the body, and that's when we have productivity outages.

Stepping back is essential to going forward with the vitality needed to get the job done effectively. We all know the declining level of performance that happens when we feel exhausted. After a certain amount of time on task, brains need a reset.

Rebooting the Brain

Brains have to reset every 90 minutes, or they start fading. Jim Goodnight, CEO of one of the top organizations for work-life balance in the country, SAS Institute, a software company in North Carolina, believes his employees can’t do more than two hours of continuous time on task without making mistakes, especially coders.

He’s right in tune with how our minds and bodies work. We have a built-in rest cycle designed to replenish the energy we burn up. It’s a pattern known as ultradian rhythms, recurrent 90-minute cycles that take us from high to low alertness during the day and through the various stages of sleep at night.

Sleep researcher Nathan Kleitman called this pattern the rest-activity cycle. When we get to the end of the period, alertness wanes. We feel fidgety, find it hard to focus, get drowsy. That’s when it’s time to get up and refuel.

Psychobiology researcher Ernest Rossi says we are programmed to want to take a 20-minute break after every 90 minutes of intense focus or time on task. And it’s not just that we want a break, says Rossi, we actually need one if we hope to operate at peak effectiveness and efficiency.

Mind Your Ultradian Rhythms

Ignore your ultradian rhythms long enough, and you’ll be on your way to what Rossi calls “Ultradian Stress Syndrome,” which can lower your immunity and seriously diminish your ability to accomplish anything.

Researchers have repeatedly demonstrated that productivity increases after breaks in the action, since the respites allow us to recover from fatigue and sustain higher levels of effort. Breaks reduce stress, injuries, and absenteeism, all of which make us more productive. You get a lot more done when you’re at work than sidelined. Mandara Savage and Darren Pipkins found that recovery periods reduce fatigue and decrease decline of productivity

It's pretty simple: Physical vitality keeps the tank full and determines how much we get done, how fast, and whether we are satisfied with what we've done afterwards. I can't think of a better productivity tool. And there's no app to download. 

 

 

Tags: productivity and exercise, vitality and productivity, wellness at work, employee engagement, work life balance programs, work life balance

The Secret of True Productivity: Employee Engagement

Posted by Joe Robinson

The look of employee engagement

The usual approach to increasing engagement is to demand it and bump up the quantity of work. That can have the opposite effect, say researchers. To really motivate people, it has to come from within each individual, through intrinsic motivation.

A study by Judith Harackiewicz and Andrew Elliot found that employees who are intrinsically motivated are continously interested in the work that they are doing. Inherent interest in task leads to more attention and extra effort.

"It's an illusion that the harder and faster we work, the better our solutions will be," says Diane Fassel, founder of Boulder, Colo.-based Newmeasures, an employee survey firm. "The mindset is that more is better. They're not thinking that effectiveness is more productive than quantity," she says.

It's a focus that can lead to a major dysfunction: disengaged, burned-out employees, simply going through the motions.

Fassel, a Harvard grad, sounded the alarm on the unsustainable workplace in her books The Addictive Organization and Working Ourselves to Death. She discovered that an addiction to busyness drives a contagious loop in which company leaders model bravado behavior that undermines productivity and engagement. To break out of this counterproductive reflex, leaders must gather information about how people work—and how they feel about their work and turn that into the engine of a more productive office: employee engagement.

Engaged employees are more energized, dedicated and committed to their tasks and to the company than folks operating by rote. The oomph they provide, or "discretionary effort," has been shown to increase performance and profits.

The Towers Watson 2012 Global Workforce Study measured 32,000 people in 29 global markets, focusing on engagement brought about in the following areas: leadership (leaders show sincere interest in employees' well-being and earn their trust and confidence); stress, balance and workload (stress levels are manageable, there's a healthy work-life balance and enough employees to do the job); goals and objectives (employees understand how their job contributes to achieving company goals); supervisors (managers assign appropriate tasks, coach employees and behave consistently); and image (the company is held in high regard by the public and displays integrity in business practices).

The study found that companies with the highest engagement levels had an operating margin of 27 percent, while those with the lowest were at less than 10 percent. At disengaged companies, 40 percent of employees were likely to leave in the next two years; at the most-engaged firms, the number was 18 percent.

Employee engagement is a major concern among large companies and human resource professionals, but the proven benefits can't be realized unless concrete steps are taken to change the way management and employees relate to one another. Engagement is the X-factor managers would be wise to harness.

The key is appealing to core psychological needs, such as autonomy, competence, and connection with others that are at the root of the most potent motivation: intrinsic. When people act for the sake of it, for the excellence, craft, service, or challenge, they feel more interested and gratified and deliver extra effort.

When the connection element is improved, with quality communication taking place between manager and employee, the employee feels more trust and value, another key element to eliciting the self-propulsion of engagement.

Feeling valued means that the work culture supports the employees' growth and development, removes obstacles to getting the job done and allows employees to use all of their gifts in the service of the organization. If they don't feel valued, they can burn out quickly. But if they feel valued, they tend to work hard and cope well.

Recognizing value requires effort from leaders to find out what people really think, by taking time to dialogue solutions and showing a willingness to communicate beyond mouse clicks. That means offering positive feedback, looking employees in the eye and affirming that they are doing a good job. Recognizing a good idea or dedication to a project fuels engagement, particularly when it goes to a person's sense of competence, rather than just results. ("I like how you handled that.") A sense of competence is a core psychological need that drives intrinsic motivation and a continuous interest in the work at hand.

A personal touch can go a long way to building an engaged team. It's not just, 'What a great job you did,' but 'When I saw you solve this problem, I realized what a wonderful asset you are to the team, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate that.'

If you would like to unleash the power of engaged effort in your organization, click the button below for details on our employee engagement program and visit our Employee Engagement page. Get the latest tools to unlock your X-factor.

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Tags: employee engagement programs, increasing productivity, employee retention, employee training, productivity, employee engagement, work life balance programs, burnout

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