Working Smarter

John Lennon's Path to Stress Management: Reach Out

Posted by Joe Robinson

John Lennon reached out in "Help"

The Beatles made reaching out respectable as far back as 1965 with the iconic strains of “Help.” John Lennon said he wrote the song as a cry for help to escape a depressive period in his life.

Nearly 50 years later, it’s still not easy in a culture of rugged individualism to ask for a hand. That’s especially true when it comes to work-related issues. We’re supposed to suck it up in silence, and keep on going till the paramedics arrive. Unfortunately, they are arriving, so we need a smarter approach.

I met one manager at an aerospace firm who was back at work after a heart attack. He was already worried he was going to have a recurrence. A scientist in Tennessee told me how he was hauled out of his office on a stretcher after his myocardial infarction and remembers his panic as the siren wailed in the ambulance on the way to the hosptial.

A social worker told me about her nervous breakdown, set off by an overwhelming caseload.  She didn’t even tell her husband how serious her stress had been until she was in an ER bed. At one training I did for a large consulting firm, staff members reflected on the heart attack death on a hotel bathroom floor of one of their hardest road-warrior workers, someone who was only in his 40s.

FEAR AND EGO

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a problem, and we have to face up to it as organizations and professionals. All the tragic events above could have been avoided if people had just asked for help—if individuals had reached out when things got beyond their capacity, if managers had reached out to staff or to leadership for training in stress management or time management.

It’s hard to be productive when you’re in an ER or six feet under. So why is it so hard to ask for help? Fear and ego override common sense and even self-preservation. We don’t want to let managers or peers think we can’t handle our responsibilities, fearing we’ll be thought of as lightweights or that we will jeopardize career or promotions. Egos tell us that admitting we need help would be a failure. Like all fear, these are projections that something will happen that almost never does. Irrational self-talk locks in false beliefs that put your health and even maybe your life in jeopardy.

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Denial fuels more stress, because it keeps the false belief driving the stress entrenched through rumination. The more we think about the false belief the more it feels true. Health consequences from your work are flares from your physiology to examine what’s not working and what you can do about it.

STRENGTH OR WEAKNESS?

Part of the problem of reaching out is that we are led to believe that it’s a sign of weakness. It’s not. It’s an indication that there is a problem that needs to be fixed. One Harvard report about speaking up in the workplace called the word “No,” the voice-oriented improvement system. We move forward when we find out what's not working and remain counterproductive as long as we don’t say anything. Think about dialogue, not as a sign of failure, but of progress—problem-solving ineffective behavior, such as stress and burnout, that can cost you dearly and the company five to seven times more than the average workplace malady.

Fear and ego blind us to the irony that, to appear strong and play the bravado game, we consign bodies and minds to physical weakness. Are CEO’s weak who bring in consultants to chart a new path? No, it’s considered smart to bring in expertise to solve problems.

That’s all we are doing when we speak up and let someone know there’s too much on our plate or a department is too overwhelmed to avoid making serious mistakes. We are solving problems.

Asking for help isn’t a character flaw, it’s a sign of character, of knowing when to  say when, determining when we have diminishing returns, identifying when we have more than we can do well. It’s a sign of strength.

GETTING UNSTUCK

Ignoring health problems is a big lose-lose for employees and companies. Let’s set a new standard to change this. If the way you are working is affecting your health, it’s time to reach out. If the people on your team or department are racking up doctor appointments or citing burnout, it’s time to reach out. If stress and crisis mentality is rampant, it’s time to reach out.

Don’t wait until it’s too late. Most of my coaching clients contact me when they are on absolute fumes, when a small spark could cause a conflagration. It’s no different than going to a personal trainer or music teacher. You move forward through new knowledge, through strategies that take an outside ear and expertise. Our brains generate ideas through associations, putting this idea with that random one. It’s inefficient, time-consuming, and it often leads to an association dead-end. We get stuck in association cul-de-sacs and can’t get out on our own.

The same is true for organizations. If your department is reeling, don’t wait for the entire company to do something, reach out and explore a stress management, work-life balance, or productivity training for your team. Get solutions to overwhelm and burnout that everyone knows are undermining productive efforts, rapport, and future success.

“Help me get my feet back on the ground,” sang John Lennon. Ask, and chances are you shall receive.

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Tags: feeling overwhelmed, work-life balance coach, work stress and health, asking for help, work life balance programs, job stress, stress at work, burnout, stress management programs

7 Ways to Avoid Overwhelm

Posted by Joe Robinson

Feeling overwhelmed by workload

There’s enough on most plates these days to keep an 18-armed Hindu goddess busy. As a result, more and more of us feel overwhelmed by all we have to do and the scant time with which we have to do it. A study by the Families and Work Institute found that more than half of Americans have felt overwhelmed by the amount of work on their agendas.

As a result, “overwhelm” has morphed from a verb to a noun and a growing problem for buried individuals and companies alike. Overwhelmed minds get hijacked by stress and have trouble focusing, planning, and solving problems. It’s a condition I see everywhere in my work-life balanceproductivity and stress management training work, and it’s a serious one, since feeling overwhelmed is a sign that demands have outstripped the ability to cope with them.

When humans tell themselves they can’t cope by thinking or saying they are overwhelmed and, therefore, out of control and helpless, that tells an ancient part of the brain that doesn’t know how to compute non-life threatening social stressors in the 21st century, “I’m going to die.” Off goes the stress response and the fear, anxiety, and crisis mentality that go with it.

PILING ON

Managing overwhelm and crazy-busy schedules is about restoring a sense of control and what the psychology world calls “agency.” You feel you have the ability to act to change things. When you feel overwhelmed, there’s a sense of being a helpless bystander as everything and everyone piles on. The constant barrage of interruptions and email keeps you jumping to their demands, instead of you calling the tune, at the mercy of what’s known as “bottom-up” attention, a survival and startle instinct that fuels loss of control.

The more perceived control you feel you have over your work environment, the less stress you have and the more confidence you have that you can handle whatever comes your way. The University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Seligman showed in seminal research that, faced with an overwhelming threat that appears to have no end, some people give up and wind up in a state he calls learned helplessness, believing resistance is futile.

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This leads to a pessimistic “explanatory style” that locks in futility and ultimately depression. Explanatory style is the way we frame stories in our heads about why things happen to us. It’s the little-known culprit behind everything from stress, to negative mood, to taking things personally, to depression.

CHANGING SELF-TALK

The way out of the overwhelm trap is to change the thinking and actions that drive it. That means telling ourselves a different story, since self-talk drives stress, and, instead of operating on reflex with devices and people around us, getting proactive with boundaries, prioritization, and breaks to refuel minds and bodies.

Let’s look at seven ways we can activate these strategies to keep overwhelm at bay:

1. Change your explanatory style. It’s easy to lock in false beliefs by repeating them often enough. Setbacks and stressors set off catastrophic stories, courtesy of the caveman brain, that aren’t true even though they are in your head. They have to be countered. You can feel less overwhelmed by not telling yourself you are. Also ban language/thoughts such as, “I won’t be able to handle it,” “I can’t cope,” etc., which are easy triggers for the stress response. Tell yourself you can cope, you have coped, you will cope. Yes, you have 200 emails, but you can handle it. The glass is half-full.

2. Get it out of your head. Human brains are not built for storage, but for processing. Trying to keep all your to-do’s sloshing around in your brain fuels anxiety about how you’re going to get it all done. Cut to-do angst by writing down next actions for each task on your list. As Florida State researchers E. J. Masicampo and Roy Baumeister and Getting Things Done guru David Allen have proven, unfinished goals interfere with the ability to complete tasks. Writing them down releases the brain to focus on the moment.

3. Qualify urgency. Time pressure is a huge factor in overwhelm. It drives a belief that everything is an emergency and must be done immediately. Nonstop motion makes everything appear urgent. We need to qualify the urgency of tasks, and take a breath to do so. What’s the urgency of doing it now? Busyness isn’t the same thing as being productive. If you are the type of person who celebrates how busy you are, that can add to the workload and lock you in to overperformance at every moment as essential to your identity.

4. Say, “Let me get back to you.” People who are overwhelmed tend to have a hard time setting boundaries. They are over-optimistic about how much they can get done and how fast. Self-management begins with basic boundaries. You can’t take on more than you can do well. When you get an assignment and you have a big stack on your plate, say, Let me get back to you. Clarify your time lines and priorities, and let them know what's on your plate.

5. Set the terms of engagement with devices. Turn off devices and check them at set times. Shut off the bottom-up attention of unbounded messaging and interruptions, and you feel in control, not at the mercy of an avalanche of notifications, rings, pings, and pulses. Cut the volume of email, and use strategies to do so. Every email results in six emails.

6. Stop multitasking. Multitasking is a myth. A host of studies from the University of Michigan to Vanderbilt show that you can’t do two cognitive tasks at one time, particularly anything involving language. There’s only one channel for language to flow through. Each time you multitask you self-interrupt. That causes it to take longer, some 50% longer, to complete tasks, and the interruptions make your brain feel that tasks are harder than they really are, which fuels overwhelm.

7. Reach out for support. When overwhelm is at a level that is causing serious health issues, say something—to a manager, supervisor, spouse, significant other. Reach out for support. Others can vet our stories and bring fresh perspective. There are always other ways of arranging workflow.

Overwhelm is a cumulative condition. It builds by default without boundaries and systems to work more productively and create more work-life balance. The hardest workers can easily turn into burnout cases when they are doing more than they can possibly do well. That's a lose-lose for organization and employee.

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Tags: overwhelm, productivity programs, multitasking and stress, crazy busy, feeling overwhelmed, information overload and stress, interruptions, job stress, job burnout, stress management programs

The 7 Signs of Burnout

Posted by Joe Robinson

Burnout is a medical condition

I’m a longtime fan of the Candid Camera show. People being themselves can be funnier than the most brilliant comedian. I recently stumbled upon an episode of the show, which featured a woman driving a car minus an engine. She pulls in to a gas station by coasting down an adjacent hill. When the dead vehicle comes to a halt at the station, the woman complains that it won’t start.

The mechanic looks under the hood, and to his surprise, finds a gaping void. “The reason the car won’t go is you ain’t got no engine,” he says. Another mechanic peers in to the vacant space where the engine should be, scratching his head. The driver tells them the car has been working fine.

NO GET-UP-AND-GO

It reminds me of what happens to people whose engines have vanished, their get-up-and-go extinguished by burnout. Burnout doesn’t just kill physical vitality, motivation, and any semblance of work-life balance, it also guts the entire internal combustion machinery. You can’t get the ignition to turn over, because there’s nothing to turn over. 

Unlike with the gag car, we can’t look under the skin and spot the problem. But the void is as real as inside that vehicle, and we have to recognize it and resolve it or pay with serious consequences for work, health, family, and life. 

In an always-on world, many will face burnout at least once in their careers, and once they do and recover from it, they will never go down that road again because of the misery it inflicts on every part of work and life. Burnout can lead to major health issues.

I have coached hard-working people with burnout from every part of this country and from Switzerland to Australia, and helped them cut off the chronic stress that drives burnout. Feeling without energy or drive is an alien feeling for all of them. In fact, it's the opposite of who they have always been, since people who get burned out are not slackers--they're the hardest workers.

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Burnout isn’t just being very tired, which it is (the main dimension is exhaustion). It’s a serious medical condition that can set off other problems—depression, stroke, suicidal thoughts, breakdown. The last stage of chronic stress, burnout occurs when all your energetic resources—emotional, physical, and mental—have been used up.

With no resources left to counter the catastrophic thoughts of stress, it’s hard to contest false beliefs triggered by an ancient part of your brain that thinks you are about to die. Instead of being able to marshal analytical thought or physical willpower to fight back, there’s nothing, a void where the engine used to be. That feels very odd and fragile to people who have always had the ability to bounce back.

DIRE THOUGHTS

Burnout is a cumulative process, in which the alarm signal of stress goes off day in and day out for a long period of time. The stress response is only supposed to go off for a brief time until you can fight or run your way out of danger, because the processes it sets off are extremely harmful in large doses.

The stress response suppresses the immune system, tissue repair, and digestion processes to focus on its task to drive blood to the arms and legs to fight or run from danger, so the longer chronic stress lasts, the more damage it does to your body and the more resources it depletes. The stress response increases the bad cholesterol and reduces the good kind.

The usual response is to soldier on, but that doesn’t work with burnout, since by the time you have it there are no coping resources left. You're left with severe fatigue and feeling that nothing really matters anymore--job, success, people you know, everything. 

The way out of burnout is to reach out. When we are sick, we go to the doctor, but when it comes to stress and burnout, we are reluctant to get the expertise to turn off the stress response and get healthy. Studies show that one of the most effective ways to overcome burnout is through stress management coaching and programs. The courage to reach out unlocks the door to restoring health.

Stress and burnout thrive on silence, not saying anything, because the engine of it all is thinking and rumination. It's ruminating over and over about a stress trigger that keeps the perceived danger alive and making your organs work overtime, even when you are sleeping. If you have burnout, I strongly urge you to reach out. We offer a free initial consultation

When you are burned out, someone who has always hurled themselves into their work can't bear the thought of working. For people who have defined themselves by performance, it feels shameful. But it’s not. It’s a physical condition that has to be dealt with in the same way as other serious illnesses, by rooting out the cause and rebuilding the body and mind.

Persistence is a great trait, but not at the expense of the immune system and organization.  Let’s take a look at seven key signs of burnout that need to be recognized and acted upon to prevent a cascade of physical and psychological issues and bring back the joy of living.

 7 MAJOR SIGNS OF BURNOUT

 1. Severe exhaustion. You can barely get up in the morning. There’s no desire to do anything that involves effort. Just the thought of work, of doing what you do well but have overdone, can make you physically sick.

2. Excessive workload. Excessive workload drives stress and prevents the body from physical recovery and the mind from replenishing mental resources. It leads to little sleep, bad diet, no exercise, and unrelieved stress, and eats away at the immune system. Physical exhaustion leads to mental and emotional exhaustion.

3. Cynicism. There seems to be no point to anything, no sense of accomplishment anymore. What used to fuel you—pride, service, ambition, challenge, even money—seems meaningless. Belief, in the profession, achievement, anyone else, it's pointless.

4. Emotionally draining work. Burnout was first identified in social workers whose clients and large case loads burned up excess emotional resources. If your work involves intense emotional demands, and there’s nothing to replace those resources or help cope with them, the constant stress can dry up adrenal glands, causing severe physical fatigue and a lack of defense chemicals to manage stressors.

5. Absence of positive emotions. This is one of the hallmarks of burnout. A brain on chronic life-or-death watch from chronic stress fixates on the perceived emergency, on threats, resentments, problems. Even what you used to enjoy outside work feels meaningless. 

6. Catastrophic thoughts. Burnout leads to dire thinking. It colors everything dark and strips away the will and effort to change the situation. It sets off awfulizing and worst-case scenarios on a grand scale. “I can’t do this job anymore." "I won't be able to take it." "Why bother?” It’s all coming from an ancient part of your brain that doesn’t know how to interpret the social stressors of the modern world. It feeds false beliefs, and there are no coping resources left to fight them.

7. Depersonalization. The mental and physical exhaustion of burnout drives cynicism and detachment from others. We wind up in a classic burnout symptom of depersonalization, and don't care about colleagues, friends, or family members. This obviously is bad for rapport with coworkers, clients, or patients, and it's bad for you, because it isolates you from the support needed to overcome burnout.

Burnout can happen in any industry, from the legal world, to engineering, to healthcare, to administrative assistants who work for nonprofits or even churches. Take proactive steps to reach out. Burnout can seem like the end, but it’s not. With changes to how you work, think, and take care of yourself, you can make a complete recovery and, by focusing on better work-life balance in the future, put the engine back under your hood.

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Tags: awfulizing, catastrophic thoughts, employee stress management, reducing burnout, burnout coach, stress and burnout, stress management, job stress, burnout, job burnout, stress management programs

Stress Management Training: The Antidote to Fear and Loathing

Posted by Joe Robinson

Posterwoman for a stress management program

It takes a lot to get a human ready for the world. A dozen years, plus kindergarten, followed by all-night cram sessions in college—and maybe more, using every available minute and dime to get through graduate school. And after it all we know…next to nothing about how our minds work and how to manage a daily gauntlet for anyone this side of Zen master status: stress.

We learn the skills of our profession but not how to distinguish real threats from false ones, how to contest irrational thoughts set off by stress, or how to turn off the ceaseless alarms that jack up anxiety and blood pressure needlessly. What’s worse, almost none of the people we work with have received training to manage their false alarms, either.

Add to that the growing demands of an always-on work style, and you’ve got a perfect storm of crisis mentality, conflict, and hair-trigger emotions, which undermine intellect and performance and make a crazy-busy world even crazier.

THE STRESS DIVERSION

With the cost of stress to American business more than $400 billion a year, according to Peter Schnall at U. C. Irvine, and stress responsible for 40% of employee turnover, organizations that make stress management a key part of their development programs stand to gain a big edge on the competition, instead of being on the edge of frenzy and frazzle.

One study, by Nextera Enterprises, found that industries with high turnover, as high-stress organizations are, have 38% lower earnings. Firms with turnover rates less than 3% are 170% more productive than firms with turnover more than 20% (Jusko, Industry Week, 2000).

Stress diverts minds from the task at hand to obsess over perceived emergencies that our ancient brains misinterpret as threats to life and limb. As educated as we may be, the mind reverts to caveman/woman days whenever a threat overloads ability to cope with it. It’s like it’s 50,000 B.C. all over again, with the equivalent state of intelligence.

PERFORMANCE STRATEGY

The reality is that we have some bad brain architecture. Our gray matter wasn’t built for the social stressors of the modern world. Two hundred emails or a stack of to-do’s aren’t life-or-death, but brains not trained to recognize this automatically default to fight-or-flight mode and the fear that comes with it of not being able to cope. The stress response is activated, releasing a flood of chemicals, from adrenaline to cortisone, that cloud judgment, trigger rash decision-making, and unleash a tide of medical bills and absenteeism, since stress suppresses the immune system.

It’s a cycle that saps vitality, motivation, and commitment, and fuels fear and paranoia, yet it doesn’t have to be that way. Yes, there’s always going to be pressure and demands, but with tools to manage stressful situations, we can keep the panic buttons and overwhelm at bay.

Stress management training delivers the knowledge we never got in all those years of schooling to manage the mind and prevent it from being hijacked by an ancient interloper. Development programs to manage stress are an extremely effective performance strategy, taking minds off threats and conflict and focusing them on the task at hand. Stress management programs should be a go-to option for any organization in these turbulent times—and would be more often if management knew how unmanaged stress and burnout shred productivity and talent.

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OUTWIT THE INNER HYSTERIC

The survival default of the stress response thrives on action before thought, on instant, emotional reaction, so one of the things that a training program has to do is counter the reflex autopilot that plays right into the hands of stress and burnout, which are a byproduct of reacting before we think.

Our stress management programs provide the missing tools to contest stress reactions and their apparent signs of imminent danger. Your team learns how to reframe stressful events and control their stories, instead of having the scripts driven by a panic-prone hysteric some 50 millennia behind the times. They learn how to dig out the false story, substitute the real one, and turn off the danger signal driving anxiety. When that happens, the stress response shuts down in four minutes.

Besides a grounding in how the brain works, and doesn’t sometimes, workshop participants also get training in a number of proven stress-reduction processes and techniques to break up the pattern of strain, anxious thinking, and awfulizing. There are a number of techniques, from progressive relaxation to the relaxation response, that have been shown to cut stress and untense the mind and body.

BUILD RESILIENCE

Changing how we do our jobs is another key component of reducing stress. The more control we have over how we do our work—managing email, interruptions, time, and other bottlenecks—the less stress. The more attention we have on the task we’re doing, the less stress. Building attention and self-regulation reduce stress by cutting the sense of overwhelm and increasing what’s known as latitude—demands are high, but there is also some control over the work environment. So increased attention and performance are key benefits that comes from stress management training.

The training helps participants build coping skills to turn down behaviors that cause pressure and conflict. Afterwards, people are less time urgent, rash, and cynical. They understand the important role optimism plays in resilience and effective performance.

Teams can bolster resilience with positive emotions, regular refueling, and mastery experiences—which buffer the setbacks and slings and arrows. As Barbara Frederickson of the University of North Carolina has demonstrated, positive emotions broaden and build psychological resources, while negative emotions shrink them.

Teams that are more other-focused, more apt to frame things in a positive way, and ask more questions, have been shown to be more successful, have better rapport with coworkers, and sell more than their uptight counterparts.

If you would like to learn more about how a stress management training could help your team or organization with practical skills they can use every day, click the button below, and we’ll send you more details as well as a price quote for the program. There are proven tools to beat stress and work smarter. Let us show you how cost-effective they are.

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Tags: productivity and stress, stress management training, stress management trainer, employee training stress, job stress, job burnout, stress management programs

Task Tweaks That Fuel Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

Work-life balanced

It’s repeated so often it’s practically a cliché: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. It’s a popular expression, because it captures a distinctly human talent for knowing something is absurd while continuing to partake in it.

By this definition, there are certainly plenty of certifiable behaviors at the office these days, particularly when it comes to doing things that don’t make productive sense, such as not managing email or conflicting deadlines. The more we are on autopilot, the more we are doomed to repeat the bad habits.

Every team in every company has a habitual practice that makes the work take longer, fray nerves, and drain performance. We know the bottlenecks that make work and life more difficult, but seldom do things change, because it’s believed that it’s just the way it is.

BEATING BOTTLENECKS

The reality is, though, that change is possible, and when the suggestions come in from everyone on the frontlines, not only does work get more effective, it becomes much more economical. Accounting giant Ernst and Young had a retention problem a few years back that had set off alarm bells. A growing number of women at the company were leaving because long hours were incompatible with family and work-life balance.

The company launched an initiative to address the issue. They identified practices that weren’t working and driving people away. The suggestions on how to fix bottlenecks came from all stratas of the company, including those at the bottom of the totem pole best equipped to know what didn’t make sense. From this process Ernst & Young wound up creating a much more family-friendly organization. They also saved $15 million by making tasks more effective and policies more flexible.

The step that’s usually missed on the road to work-life balance starts with the actual nature of the work itself, with practices that take longer, disrupt productivity, spread false urgency, and bleed into the home arena minus boundaries and time management. Identifying and fixing those issues within each team and organization can play a major role in reducing exhaustion and overwhelm and organizing a clearer path to responsibilities on both sides of the work-life divide.

QUIET TIME

Researchers have been doing their best to point the way to a more productive path that also produces more time for family and life. One of the leading academics in this arena is Harvard researcher Leslie Perlow, whose work with companies drowning in interruptions and always-on workweeks has shown that we don’t have to keep self-inflicting habits that make work more frenzied and unsustainable. The key is having the ability to self-examine, look the counterproductive faults in the eye, and then fix them.

Perlow worked a while in management consulting before going back to grad school dedicated to finding a better way to work than the burnout model. At a tech firm having trouble getting new product to market without its engineers working nights and weekends for months on end, she uncovered one of the major drivers of excess hours and unbalanced schedules—interruptions. The engineers were being interrupted so often, they could only get work done at night and on the weekend.

She devised a solution called Quiet Time, in which the engineers would have two periods during the day with no interruptions—8 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. The rest of the day the interruptions could continue as normal. Productivity increased 59% in the morning interruption-free zone and 65% from 3 to 5 p.m. With minds unbesieged, productivity even went up in the period with normal interruptions. The team got a new product designed in record time without the all-nighters.

That simple adjustment to a work behavior made a big difference in work-life balance for the employees of that firm. Perlow took on an even tougher assignment with the Boston Consulting Group. Consultants are among the highest-hours workers on the planet, typically working 60+ hour weeks, weekday nights, and usually decamped in other cities on projects for clients that can take multiple weeks.

Her field research this time uncovered the biggest work-life problem straining retention at Boston Consulting: no predictable time off. When you’re always on, it’s hard to plan off time, which makes it very difficult on families, health, and living.

MORE WITH LESS

Her adjustment was a system that allowed each team member to take one night off per week. It took her several months to persuade a team leader to let her try out the plan. Most thought it was a ticket to disaster and that clients would go ballistic if not every team member was available after hours. The experience proved the doubters wrong.

It turned out the team was able to do its consulting work with each member taking a night off per week. What’s more remarkable, she was able to repeat the experiment with consultants taking a full day off in the middle of the week. Productivity didn’t dive, it increased. The secret was that, with fewer hands to go around, the team had to communicate much more closely and as a result found ways to coordinate better. Boston Consulting was so happy with the program that “predictable time off,” as she called it, is a company-wide program, operating in 32 offices in 14 countries.

Again, because of a sensible adjustment to how people worked, people were able to find a more sustainable way to work and open up a much better work-life balance. Out of that experience Perlow developed a model that any team can use to rewrite the script that drives the burnout track. The formula is Collective Goals + Structured Dialogue, a strategy that zeroes in on a universal problem that’s making life difficult, creates a solution, and through weekly conversation overcomes backsliding and keeps everyone on track with the new behaviors.

The results of Perlow’s research and others who have helped organizations overcome the inertia of bad work habits show that behaviors that promote work-life balance and more energized brains increase effectiveness, cut costs (from stress, longer task practices, redo’s), and dramatically increase collaboration—all of which have a positive impact on the bottom line. Ask Boston Consulting, who have the program operating around the world and a couple dozen people working on nothing but the predictable time off process.

If you would like to make adjustments to the work on your team or in your company that would boost effectiveness and work-life balance as the examples in this story, click the button below for details on our work-life balance and productivity programs. There is a better way.

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Tags: increasing productivity, productivity and time off, interruptions at work, Quiet Time, work life balance programs, work life balance programs, work life balance, job stress, stress management programs

How to Stay Calm in the Job Stress Storm

Posted by Joe Robinson

Stressed-out manager needs work-life balance

You might remember the Jet Blue flight attendant who melted down a few years back after a passenger wouldn’t apologize when his luggage came down on the attendant's noggin. The attendant went on the intercom shouting obscenities, grabbed a couple beers, and slid down the emergency escape chute. 

It may have felt good for a moment, but in retrospect, he would have handled things differently. When we act on fight-or-flight impulse, we do dumb things, because our brain isn’t thinking, it’s simply reacting with the raw emotion of a cornered animal.

Meltdowns don’t solve any problem and cause a bunch of others. Some people are much better at managing transient emotions than others, and that tells us something very important. That means that there is a way to manage pressure, because some are able to do it.

EYE OF THE STORM

Staying calm is a good idea because that's when we have use of all our faculties, when the 21st century brain, not our caveman/woman brain that thinks it's the year 100,000 B.C., is in charge. The storm may be raging all around us, but the goal is to avoid getting swept up in it, to stay in the eye of the storm, in it but not of it.

Letting the storms set us off isn’t productive or healthy. As soon as the stress response goes off, we are not in control of our modern brain anymore. It’s been hijacked by the raw emotions of the amygdala. Stress undermines intellect. We make decisions from fear, panic, or rage. Bad decisions.

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With emotions on a hair-trigger, we send curt emails, snap at people, lose focus, and push any semblance of work-life balance further from reach. Stress suppresses the play equipment in our brains and locks in a danger signal that suppresses the immune system until you turn off the false signal. The reality is high-pressure situations are challenging, but they're not life-or-death as your ancient brain thinks. Our stress-management classes and coaching and work-life balance programs provide tools to reframe the thoughts that drive stress.

CONTROLLING DEMANDS

We can change the thoughts that turn demands into pressures our clueless ancient brain thinks we can’t cope with. The definition of stress is high demands and low control over them. That’s also the definition of being overwhelmed. When we feel we can’t cope, that triggers the stress response, which causes everything to feel more overwhelming, since it exaggerates the threat. When you believe you can’t cope, your ancient brain misinterprets that feeling as “I’m going to die.” Off goes the fight-or-flight response.

We can change the I-can’t-cope self-talk when we are under the gun. What are your thoughts when you're overwhelmed?

•Too much to do

• Everything has to be done now

• I'll never get it all done

• I won't be able to cope

I won’t be able to cope is the bottom line of all fear. I won’t be able to handle it. 

YOU CAN COPE

The solution is letting your brain know you can cope. That means coming up with another story than the one being supplied by the panicked brain.Yes, I have 200 emails, but I can handle it. It's not life-or-death and doesn't warrant your body's emergency system being activated.

The strategy we all need is Value Questioning. Don’t feed the mental accelerators by making everything urgent. Qualify it. Ask two questions:

What’s the urgency of doing it now?

What are the consequences of waiting?

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THE POWER OF PATIENCE

Patience is the key to staying calm in the storm. Patience is a word we usually hate to hear, because when it comes up, it usually means we’ve lost it.

It’s really about self-regulation. Patience gives us impulse control. We’re not children. We don’t have to go off when something flares up. Patience is the exercise of managing pace, ego, and emotions.

Patience isn’t passive. It’s a state of active non-reaction. We have to call it up consciously, and use it to override our emotional reflexes—and put the 21st century brain back in charge of the runaway train.

 

 

Tags: stress tips, work life balance programs, work life balance, stress management, job stress, reducing stress

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

Top 4 Bottom-Line Reasons for Stress Management

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Call it tension, pressure, or overwhelm. Whatever your term for stress, the fact is that just about every office has no shortage of it, and that’s bad news for productivity and profits. Stress costs American business a staggering $407 billion a year, reports U. C. Irvine researcher Peter Schnall. Unmanaged stress is the biggest source of long-term absence at any company.

Studies show that stress undermines intellect, decision-making, planning, motivation, retention, revenue, and just about anything an organization is trying to accomplish. This should make stress management an essential tool at any company. Ignoring stress is far more costly than a stress management program and is compounded daily by the toll of mistakes, medical bills, conflict, absenteeism, and crisis mentality spread by stress.

Few of organizations ever get the hard facts on stress's impact on business. I find that management takes steps to rein in stress and burnout once they have the research data in hand. So let’s do that now with a look at the top four bottom-line reasons why stress management is one of the most cost-effective strategies to improve productivity, engagement, and profits.

1. Stress management programs increase productivity. Chronic stress is antithetical to getting things done. It keeps brains constricted to perceived crises, drives panic mode, and fuels emotional decisions. Stress is a major factor in presenteeism, the phenomenon of being physically at the office but mentally checked out from cognitive exhaustion or anxiety. Presenteeism means lost productive time, from a reduced quantity of work, to time not on task, and conflicts with others. Stress also undercuts innovation and creativity by fixating brain neurons on problems, instead of solutions. Studies show that stress management programs can increase productivity—6% in a study by Kathryn Rost—by restoring mental functioning and cutting absences. Another stress management program increased sales revenue by 23% and reduced absenteeism by 24% (Munz, Kohler, Greenberg, 2001).

2. Stress management provides huge savings by cutting the costs of stress-related illnesses and absences. Injuries tend to be what most people focus on with disability claims, but what’s not generally known is that 90% of workplace disabilities are illnesses (Jauregui, Schnall, 2009). The major driver of chronic illnesses and conditions is chronic stress, which suppresses the immune system, increases the bad cholesterol and decreases the good kind. Stress is a factor in five out of the six leading causes of death, from heart disease to diabetes. More than two dozen studies show the connection between job stress and heart disease, which is very costly for any organization. Costs for stressed workers are five times higher than they are for the average employee (Goetzel). Sick employees produce much less than healthy employees and are often absent. The tab from absenteeism at large companies is $3.6 million per year (Bureau of Labor Statistics).

3. Job stress causes good employees to leave. Stress management makes them want to stay. Forty percent of those who leave their jobs each year do so because of stress (Hoel, Sparks, Cooper, 2001). As I’m sure you know, this is very expensive. Turnover costs average 120-200% of the salary of the employee. The list of retention costs is long—separation pay, the cost of temporary workers, hiring costs, the time spent recruiting and interviewing a replacement, testing costs, training costs, lost productivity during the transition, and impacts on coworkers who may have to do more to pick up the slack. A study by Nextera Enterprises found that industries with high turnover have 38% lower earnings. Manufacturing companies that have less than 3% turnover have been found to be almost 170% more productive than firms with turnover more than 20% (Jusko, Industry Week, 2000).

4. Stress and the last stage of chronic stress, burnout, kill engagement. Stress management builds the vitality and resilience that fuel engagement. Employees with job stress have higher levels of anxiety (Bourbonnais, Brisson, Moisan, 1999), more depression (Mausner-Dorsch, Eaton, 2000) and hostility (Bosma, Stansfield, 1998). Stress, burnout, depression, and hostility are the opposite of engagement’s qualities of vigor and dedication. They drive disengagement, people too distracted, mad, or ill to put the needed effort into their work. Since stress is highly contagious, the crisis mentality and cynicism spread to infect your whole team or organization, dragging down engagement with them. There is a direct line from healthy employees to engagement and healthy bottom lines.

The reflex with stress is to look away or deny it. The evidence says that doesn’t work. Not dealing with stress actually enables it, since stress is fueled by uncontested rumination, something that happens when stress is not taken on and resolved, but, instead replayed over and over.

Stress management programs root out the patterns and thinking that drive stress by reframing stress reactions, building resilience and coping skills, and creating healthy renewal strategies that buffer the pressures that sap emotional resources. At a time when everyone has to do more with less, stress management is as essential to an organization’s earnings outlook as any new product launch. 

If you would like to free up the engaged energy of your staff, increase productivity, and cut health costs, click the button below for details on our stress management program and visit our Stress Management page. Get proven tools to work smarter and more effectively.

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Tags: stress and productivity, stress management training, workplace stress, stress management, job stress, stress at work, stress management programs

How to Stop Job Stress Before the ER

Posted by Joe Robinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tags: 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

On the Road to Work-Life Balance in Colombia

Posted by Joe Robinson

Colombians in traditional dress

I knew I was going to like Bogota when I stepped off the flight and into a cab percolating with salsa music. Though salsa comes from a mix of Cuban, Puerto Rican and New York roots, it’s the national music of Colombia, where I had come to do a keynote address at the Human Talent Summit, a conference for human resource professionals. The spicy horn charts weren’t coming from a CD but from a radio channel serving up salsa around the clock. As a salsa and Latin jazz nut, this was my kind of welcome committee.

The first thing you notice about Bogota is altitude. It’s 8660-feet high. So high that when I went to my hotel door, a staffer asked me if I was prepared to accept the responsibility of an exit row. I’d come equipped with Advil to combat the heights, and it worked well. Researchers say it’s as effective as prescription medications for controlling the inflammation that can come with altitude. 

Bogota splays out below a couple of peaks, Guadalupe and Monserrat, that pitch straight up. From the base of the mountains you can look out over a city stocked with modern high-rises and the most modern shopping malls but also a venerable old town where burros serve as the trash collection vehicle, and many poor districts, or favelas, some tumbling down slopes like those in Rio de Janeiro.

Central cathedral in Bogota

With the long guerrilla war with the FARC largely contained and more security as a result, the economy has been growing in recent years, averaging four percent a year over the last three years, better than in North America or Europe. There’s a feeling of early 1960s America, as more people move out of poverty and into the middle classes.

They may love their salsa, but Colombians also keep their noses to the grindstone. The workweek is 48 hours by law, and like folks everywhere these days, they are dogged by technological leashes and drowning in email. It’s a very small world when it comes to the stress of serving a master who never takes a day off, let alone an hour.

The conference, produced superbly by Mauricio Rodriguez of America Empresarial, a consulting and training firm in Bogota, and the Colegio de Estudios Superiores de Administracion, brought HR administrators from companies in Colombia together with work-life experts from around the world—Argentina’s Alejandro Melamed, Spain’s Roberto Fernandez, who detailed his nonprofit organization’s roadmap for work-life company certification, and from the U.S. myself and friend and resiliency expert, Eileen McDargh.

Before the event I spoke with Luz Stella Bernal, of the Colegio de Estudios Superiores de Administracion, who had selected the work-life theme for this year’s event. “We had gotten more and more feedback from people that work-life was on their minds,” she told me. “The pressures are rising, and people are looking for knowledge to help them cope with the demands of work and create a better balance in their lives.”

Work-life is a relatively new topic for Colombia. The fact that it’s on the radar is a sign of an improved economy and of this family-oriented culture’s concern that their way of life doesn’t get submerged by an unbounded world.

It was a great time to open the conversation about smarter ways to work and how to manage the devices and stressors, instead of the other way around. I talked about changes they could make in how they did their tasks that could make quantum leaps in improving work-life. Stress alone, when it’s allowed to flare unchallenged, keeps focus on perceived emergencies, shoving everything else to the side.

Joe Robinson speaks at work-life balance conference in Bogota

Though I had a brilliant translator doing a simulcast of my presentation, there was no translation needed for our group samba lesson. I knew these salsa and cumbia experts would ace that exercise, and they did. Studies show playfulness increases productivity and attention, and that's why we had 220 people dancing together. It's one big optimal experience.

They were very enthused to learn new things and had a slew of great questions after my session, including how to get their kids off 24/7 devices and social media. Boundaries are key for adults and the kids. Without them, we get sucked into a vortex of attention-shredding technology. It’s as addictive as any substance, undermining your attention span.

After the conference my wife and I checked out the salsa scene at a fabulous spot, Galleria Café Libro. A colorful club with modern art decorating the walls, Café Libro is a great night out in Bogota. The prices are reasonable, a $7 entrance fee, and the music was excellent. Every song played by the deejay and the cooking live band that followed, Charanga New York, was smack in the dance zone.

The crowd was there for the music and fun, not showboating, which isn't fun since it's about other people's approval. A nice group kicking back after a week of work and enjoying what the work's all about. I wanted to put this place and a Colombia barbecue joint in the transporter and beam them back to Los Angeles. A great adventure, and I'll be back.

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Tags: work-life balance trainings, increase productivity, work life balance programs, work life balance programs, work life balance, stress management, job stress

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