Working Smarter

How to Get a Work-Life Balanced in 2013

Posted by Joe Robinson

Balance isn't a problem at Kings Canyon's Zumwalt Meadow

I was on the dance floor at a local restaurant when the New Year kicked in, letting the backbone slip with my wife and a bunch of friendly strangers to an old disco number like “We Are Family.” Dancing makes just about everything better, and about a thousand times more than just watching.

The crowd was thin but animated, a diverse bunch in ages and ethnicities all united in hopes for the coming year—and in shaking it no matter what their rhythm aptitude was. Several had already stepped onto the floor solo without regard to what others thought. Bravo! A great start to a year of no regrets.

Above the band there was a giant TV with ABC’s Times Square countdown. Just before the midnight hour, I caught a glimpse of a graphic showing the Top 5 New Year’s resolutions. Of course, “lose weight” was there, but also “enjoy life more” and “do more things with family and friends.”

In other words, I couldn’t help notice, two of the top five resolutions, the resolution behind the resolutions, had to do with a more balanced life (you can add "exercise more" to that category too). A lot of us know we need to do better in this department, but it can’t happen without a couple of key ingredients that the first weeks of a new year can help us with—time to think and commitment to change.  

At the beginning of the year we do something we seldom do beyond January—take a moment to self-reflect. Usually, mechanical busyness holds off the questions that need to be asked to chart a different trajectory. What is it I really need in my life, as oppose to want? What can I do to make life and work more enjoyable, meaningful, less stressful? Where am I going? Where do I want to go? 

Thinking prevents regrets later. As researchers have found, we regret the things we don’t do more than the things we do. It’s called the “the inaction effect.” That’s why resolutions like “enjoy life more” pop up on a lot of lists. There’s a nagging void when we are caught up in action to the exclusion of the thought that puts life on the calendar.

If you don't make the time and the resolutions, the world does it for you by default. Unconscious mode leads to the kinds of resolutions you don't want: 1) Do nothing about the stressors in my life, 2) Make sure devices and messages can badger me at any second, 3) Do tasks in the most inefficient way, 4) Run myself into the ground by not having any self-maintenance and recharging.

Resolutions get a bad rap, because the concept is excellent—fixing what's not working. The problem is that we aren’t taught how to use the right goals to create or achieve resolutions. Studies show that external goals, such as losing weight or getting rich, don’t stick. They’re about what others think. You don’t really buy these goals, so it’s hard to stay motivated.

Intrinsic goals—for learning, growth, excellence, challenge, fun—are much more effective at helping you commit and persist with an objective. The goal is meaningful to you in and of itself, and that keeps your self-regulation equipment sustaining the effort.

If enjoying life more or having more time for family and friends are on your resolution list, upgrading work-life balance is the intrinsic goal that gives you the best chance of success. Is that really possible? Can you get more life on the agenda and do all the work your job demands? The science says, unequivocally, yes.  

Work in the right way and you get more done in less time, and with a truckful less stress. Work-life balance means that you and your organization are using the research tools available to work more productively, have better time management and prioritizing and more control over devices and stress, deploy regular recharging and refueling, and explore the proven flex options.

Like most resolutions, it’s not easy, but unlike most vague resolutions, there are many practical tools to build a more effective work style and stop stress in its tracks. Key adjustments to how you and your colleagues do your work make all the difference.

It takes courage to change the same-old, same-old. That means speaking up, reaching out, whatever it takes to make things different in 2013. The ability to identify what’s not working and be receptive to another approach is invaluable to any organization. One Harvard study says speaking up results in improved practices and satisfaction. It called the word “No” the “voice-oriented improvement system.”

Doing things differently isn't as much of a stretch as it would seem. In fact, it's something humans were born to do. We get a burst of the brain's reward chemical, dopamine, at the mere expectation of doing something new. So change is who we are. We simply need to find the will and motivation to become who we are. 

As with all resolutions and goals in life, we achieve what we believe we can. We have more belief this time of year, so now is the time to move. Let's jump through the wormhole of change before it closes and work smarter, live better this year.

I'm happy to show you how you can make that happen. Just click on the button below for a free consultation and learn how to put a work-life balance program into action this year, for your organization, yourself, or someone you love. This is the time of your life. 

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Tags: employee engagement programs, increasing productivity, work-life balance trainings, productivity, employee engagement, work life balance programs, work life balance, job stress

The Off-Switch for Job Stress

Posted by Joe Robinson

A red panda's stress-reduction technique

When a horse, badger, or red panda like the one in the photo above faces a stressful situation, they go into a mode we’re all too familiar with, fight-or-flight. The survival instinct is a powerful force across species. Yet when the danger passes, these animals don’t obsess or replay the event over and over like a broken record. They do something very different from humans—they just drop the whole darn thing like it never happened. 

As we know all too well, we hold on to the stress, and, of course, the stress response and its destructive effects on health—reduced immune system, increased levels of the bad cholesterol, and a host of negative effects, because we insist on clinging to the event after it’s gone. The stress response was designed to be momentary, not chronic, because it weakens health the longer it goes on.

If we could be as smart as a red panda, and drop the stress after the adverse event, it could save a lot of trips to the pharmacy and ER. That's the idea behind my stress management classes, training, and coaching. Reframing stress and disputing it is key to catch ourselves in the act of reacting before we think. We can have a differnet response in a stressful moment, one that our body is already prepared to help us with.

It turns out that our bodies have stress deactivation built into the system. It’s called the parasympathetic nervous system, and its purpose is to bring the body back to equilibrium through rest and maintenance.

THE BUILT-IN STRESS COUNTER

There’s no reason to feel guilty in a moment of stepping back. It’s what we’re designed to do! Parasympathetic activity slows the heart rate and blood pressure from the fight-or-flight state, promotes digestion, and puts the mind in a calmer state where it can see the bigger picture, including the fact that we are not about to die and that the stress response is almost always a false emergency. Our brains don't know how to compute the social stressors of the modern world.

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Countering the activation of the automatic stress response with its opposite number, rest and maintenance, is crucial for stress management and any semblance of work-life balance. Since stress activation is so automatic, we have to be able to consciously flip the switch. The goal is psychological detachment from the source of the stress and recovery from a state of activation that makes our system work overtime.

Relaxation is a learned skill. We have to practice shutting off the false alarms and get our bodies and minds used to a state other than hyper-arousal. Tape a photo of a light switch onto your computer or refrigerator and use it to mentally turn your workday off when you leave the office.

MAKING THE BREAK

After the work day is over, try setting aside 30 minutes for an activity that will allow you to shift gears and pressure. It could be yoga, listening to music, the gym, a walk, anything that can put your mind in a relaxing trajectory.

Finding a regular recreational activity to practice is a great switch-flipper. Identify three hobbies or pursuits you would like to try out. It could be anything from dancing to pottery or cooking lessons. Activities like these break the psychological vise grip that work issues can have on our brains. They shift focus to the rules of the game, so there is no room for stressful thoughts. Studies show that active recreation builds positive mood, camaraderie, and self-worth, all of which help counter negative loops.

DETACHING FROM TENSION

Researcher Sabine Sonnentag and others have demonstrated that a break from the work state of mind allows recovery from strain and ends the pattern of negative affect that drives pessimism and chronic stress. Studies show that people who are able to detach from the day's work tensions are more likely to report positive mood in the morning and a reduction in stress. 

Besides activity and exercise, it's also important to make sure to set aside a few minutes here and there to just relax, like the red panda, a pro in this department. When you are relaxing, you are not doing nothing, if I may use that double-negative, as we are led to believe. You are flipping the switch on stress and providing the rest and recuperative services so normal for skillful functioning that they’re built into our physiology.

If you would like to learn more about how to manage stress and end burnout, check out our online stress mangement classes, held every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. or click the button below for a free cocahing consultation. What's your biggest challenge?

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Tags: stress coaching, work life balance programs, stress management, job stress, stress at work, stress management programs

5 Reasons Stress-Denial Trumps Stress Management

Posted by Joe Robinson

Woman with job stress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Born to Stress

Posted by Joe Robinson

Stress strikes with a false emergency

It’s hard enough trying to manage the noise of one mind, but we're all stuck with a two-headed monster. We are of two minds, and that is especially true in situations that feel threatening or stressful. No wonder we get headaches.

In one corner, there’s the ancient brain, the emotional hub known as the limbic system, with the fear center of the amygdala at its core. It doesn’t have the talent of the brain in the other corner, the 21st-century model, but it is lightning fast, quicker on the draw than conscious thought.

It can pick up a sign of fear on someone’s face in two-hundredths of a millisecond, reports Daniel Goleman in Social Intelligence. As a result, the amygdala is in charge a lot of the time, as is the job stress, and life stress too, that comes with it—unless we find a way for the smart brain to get the upper hand with a little stress management.

The amygdala is used to being the boss. It ran the cerebral show before the higher organs of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, evolved to weigh pro and con. Prior to that, decisions were based on whatever raw emotion dictated, as they still are today when the amygdala takes over. It hijacks your brain whenever a perceived threat is detected.

With its keen detection of danger, the so-called “lizard” brain can keep you out of harm’s way, or it can get you into trouble in a world it was never built for with its knee-jerk responses to negative comments, work deadlines, or projections that turn out to be nothing but wild anxiety.

The ancient brain wants to deck the person who took your parking spot. The modern brain intercedes, sometimes. The ancient brain wants the chocolate cake now. The modern brain tries to keep you healthy. The ancient brain freaks out over a new assignment or an overloaded in-box. The modern brain does the analysis and decides that, yes, there’s work here, but certainly no emergency.

In a work life balance webinar I conducted for a client this week, one of the participants talked about how she was starting to get a handle on the pesky ancient brain. She began stopping herself every time something felt stressful or overwhelming. When a sudden project came in that would normally push her button, she paused, and asked, “Why? Why is this making me stressed? Is there a real emergency that should require the stress response?

The mere act of asking questions brings the modern brain back into the picture for reflection and analysis, shoving the reflex fear of the ancient brain out of the way. The higher brain computed in every case that there was no emergency, no threat to this woman's life or limb. She “reframed” the ancient brain’s stress signals from fantasy to reality, shutting off the stress cycle.

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How many times a day does your amygdala set off stress alarms? Reframing these false alarms on the spot can save a lot of needless angst.

To reframe, though, you have to stop, actually shut down output for a moment of input and insight. Stress feeds off fantasy anxiety that is switched on and left to spiral unchallenged. Stepping back from the situation to reflect cuts off the stress cycle, which gets more entrenched the longer it spins its fiction uncontested.

Stop, and you can go again, informed by your modern brain, not the pre-humanoid model.

 

Tags: work life balance programs, work life balance, job stress, reducing stress, work stress, managing stress

Technology Harder to Resist Than Drugs

Posted by Joe Robinson

Email overload erodes impulse control

Exhibit number one for the addictive power of technology has to be the text-walking phenomenon, in which pedestrians glued to their screens walk off curbs into traffic accidents, open ditches, off docks, and wind up in ER’s. The urge to text or check email is so powerful it overrides the survival instinct.

It's always amazing to see people, head down in their phones, inching across crosswalks against full-on red lights, oblivious to the fact that they are exposed to cars that could mow them down like bowling pins. 

This kind of death-wish behavior comes courtesy of an urge stronger, apparently, than the one to stay alive. Several deaths in South Korea have been attributable to video gamers ignoring all sustenance in marathon several-day sessions.

What drives this behavior? Researchers have found that technology obliterates willpower and is the hardest of all urges to resist, harder than alcohol or drugs, according to a German study of 205 adults.

Resisting Facebook, smartphones, and texting is right up there with turning down a margarita for an alcoholic. One of the reasons technology is so addictive is that it plays to one of the social animal’s most powerful needs, the need for positive reinforcement. Send an email and get one back, and you get reinforcement, but it's an ephemeral version, feeding the urge for more validation, because real validation comes from the inside, not external approval.

You can see the hold technology has when you try to engage in a conversation with someone who has a smartphone in hand. Eye contact: zero. Listening abilities: nada. You might as well be talking to a cucumber.

Technology has such a powerful hold on us, because it erodes willpower in several ways. It’s easy to indulge in all day long, the study reports, and unlike alcohol and drugs, it doesn’t have high perceived costs. Yet the damage is being done inside brains, as the constant interruptions and mail-checking erode the self-regulation equipment and drive stress and obliterate work-life balance.

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The more you check email, the more you have to check it, as any smartphone user knows. You lose impulse control and the ability to regulate impulsivity. The result: It's hard to stay on task or concentrate. The urge to check or text, minus impulse control, sets off a cycle of self-interruption. It also makes it harder to regulate impulsive behavior in other areas of life beyond technology that might be prone to habits you could do without. 

When the devices are in charge of attention, the more job stress there is, since the chimes, bells, pulses, and noisemakers play to the survival instinct of “bottom-up” attention, something we are wired to have no resistance to, since that sound could be a threat to life and limb.

We all pay when technology is unbounded, in the form of shrinking attention spans, more time pressure and stress, fractured concentration, frayed relationships, and text-walkers barging into traffic.

If technology is an addiction harder to resist than drugs, it's time for an intervention. A good email overload program or information management system (see our Email Overload page) can save impulse control mechanisms, control email overload, dramatically cut job stress, and cure technology addiction. Manage the devices, instead of the other way around, and you're back in control.

When we set the terms of engagement with devices, not only does it restore willpower, the work gets done faster, with vastly improved stress management, and more attention. And we don’t go off the deep end of curbs and piers.

Tags: email overload, text walking, technology addiction, work life balance, stress management, job stress

Job Stress Doubles Heart Attack Risk in Women

Posted by Joe Robinson

Job stress impacts women's hearts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Increase Productivity, Take a Vacation

Posted by Joe Robinson

Vacations increase productivity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Stop the "Awfulizing" of Job Stress

Posted by Joe Robinson

Screaming woman time urgency

We burn up a lot of time and nerves worrying about what’s going to happen next. The fears almost always turn out to be just that, wild projections. You’re going to get fired because the boss is in a bad mood. You’ll never make the deadline. You'll never have another good idea.

You would think we would know the routine by now, but, no. Our brains love to stew, since they are tuned to a survival instinct that sees things through the prism of imminent disaster whenever possible.

That’s particularly true when stress is at the helm. The stress response turns on the ultimate alarmist, the amygdala, the brain’s primitive emotional hub and fear central, which floods the mind with one overriding theme: catastrophe.

A brain built to keep us alive in 100,000 B. C. hasn’t made the transition to the modern world. We may be carrying 21st century technological devices and wearing duds from Macy’s, but inside our heads, there’s a caveman/woman waiting to freak out at the slightest threat.

Keeping down the panic reflex is the challenge of our lives, and, increasingly our work too. Job stress can do what sabre-toothed tigers never could, keep us in a state of chronic stress, which can have a major impact on health, performance, and bottom lines. More than two dozen studies show the connection between job stress and heart disease.

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When work stress activates the amygdala, the trigger sets off a pattern many of us are too familiar with, known as awfulizing. Since the amygdala believes your life to be in imminent danger, it blows things well out of proportion. The unreturned phone call, the meeting you weren’t invited to, the disapproving tone of someone’s voice, signals impending doom.

Awfulizing is the byproduct of irrational self-talk set off by an activated amygdala. It turns everything into a worse-case scenario, which fuels the stress response and more calamitous thoughts. A few minutes of overreacting can trigger fight-or-flight. The awfulizing default exaggerates mistakes, slights, flaws, and behaviors into apocalyptic scenarios.

It’s pure fantasy, and unless we challenge them, they become the reality, not a pleasant one for any department or company where awfulizers are running wild. It leads to a perpetual state of crisis mentality in any organization.

One of the triggers of awfulizing is the tendency to take things personally. The reality is that things happen in the world, and we can choose to see them in a neutral way or take them personally. That’s not an easy choice, I admit, given the fact we have this thing called an ego, which always wants to have its way and believes it is at the center of the universe. Once the ego is into it, off goes more raw emotion that feeds more irrational thoughts. Irrational self-beliefs also enable catastrophic thoughts, as events seem to validate pet fears—I must never make a mistake; my worth depends on how much I achieve or produce, etc.

We have better things to do than run a fantasy factory all day. The best stress management programs and work-life balance trainings (see ours here) build skills to control the self-talk and the exaggerations that come with it. People learn how to recognize the patterns and shift to realistic self-talk that keeps the horrors confined to the Sci-Fi channel.

The next time your brain starts spinning out catastrophic scenarios, catch the awfulizing and remember the caveman inside your head, a character long past the expiration date.

 

Tags: awfulizing, irrational self-talk, catastrophic thoughts, job stress, stress at work, stress management programs, work stress

The Yin-Yang of Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

Life balance in nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

How to Avoid Burnout

Posted by Joe Robinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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