Working Smarter

Five Ways to Unleash the Antidote to Work Stress and Overwhelm: Control

Posted by Joe Robinson

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WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME you saw someone freaking out because they were completely in control of their work? I’m going to take a wild guess: never. Feeling that you have control over demands means that the demands are no longer a threat, and, as a result, they can’t turn on your ancient defense equipment, the stress response.

Control is the difference between managing work and life pressures and being at the frayed mercy of them. It’s a critical distinction in an unbounded world of devices and distractions, where so many things are intruding into working memories and limited bandwidths that it seems we have no control over anything. As the unmanaged email and interruption count skyrockets, so does overwhelm, which explodes when there are more demands than we think we can keep up with.

THE FUEL OF JOB STRESS

When things are out of control, you can bet stress and work-life balance are too. Work-life balance is itself an exercise in control, trying to ensure that both work and home responsibilities are being handled.

Researcher Robert Karasek of the University of Massachusetts identified the central mechanism in work stress as the level of demands versus the amount of control over them. The more decision “latitude” you have, the ability to affect the work you do and how you do it, the less stress. High demands and low control add up to high stress. High demands and high control, though, mean the work is manageable, even enjoyable as a challenge.

How to Stop the Hidden  Engine of Stress: Rumination

Karasek’s job strain model demonstrated that employees with the least decision-making options had more exhaustion, depression and sleep issues. These unhealthy impacts of little latitude have been vetted by scads of research over the years, including the landmark British Whitehall Studies, I and II, which examined some 28,000 civil servants altogether. Those investigations found a clear connection between stress and the position of the person in the organization hierarchy. The lowest ranking people, who had the least decision-making discretion, had a mortality rate three times higher than administrators.

Interestingly enough, this dichotomy is also what Stanford University scientist Robert Sapolsky found in his research with apes. Those on the bottom of the social totem pole were the most stressed and least healthy. Helplessness is stressful, and in humans it leads to a downward spiral of pessimism and depression.

LATITUDE ADJUSTMENT

Having the ability to control the work environment makes a massive difference in how brains process demands. When we can’t do anything about job demands mental strain develops. That in turn can set off the body’s defense equipment, since you aren’t able to take actions to cope with the demands. Not being able to mitigate a demand that is perceived as a threat is the definition of stress—and a fight-or-flight trigger.

Control isn’t just key to managing demands, it’s also the essential element of attention, performance, and doing the tasks that need to be done. It’s a managing partner with self-regulation in discipline and willpower to keep you focused on task. Stress undermines intellect and constricts the brain to perceived crises and rumination in tenses other than the one you’re trying to work in, which shreds focus and concentration. The same is true of missing work-life balance, the lack of which is an ongoing source of concern and guilt, taking minds far afield when home issues aren’t being handled.

Obviously, we can’t all be control freaks on the job. We are there to do what others want, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be more flexibility in how individuals choose to do and think about the practices they are tasked with and how managers frame the tasks to be done. This is the dynamic behind autonomy support, one of the most effective systems for increasing employee engagement, when people willingly put forth extra effort. It’s based on tapping into core human needs such as autonomy and competence, which bolster perception of self-control by increasing employee involvement and responsibility.

Getting more control over your work-life is a matter of taking many practical steps to better organize, plan, and manage an unbounded world. It comes down to something that all humans are primed to do for their own safety and well-being—make life more predictable. Threats are manageable when we have wrestled them into more predictable paths and outcomes. I’m not saying you have to be a psychic, but you do have to take steps to harness the bucking broncos in your life and minimize the possibility of being thrown.

Here are a few steps that can help you feel more control:

1. Control Email and Devices. If you have your email on autopilot, with incoming every five minutes, that’s a potential of 96 interruptions over the course of the day. Unbounded email is a great way to drive overwhelm. Check your email at designated times. Three and four times a day is the most productive, say U. C. Irvine and Oklahoma State researchers. Keep your email and phone turned off and check them manually when you decide, not the startle response set off by device noisemakers.

2. Interruption Management. Disable the visual alerts on your screen. Set aside times, 30 minutes here, an hour there, for no-interruption zones. Put a message on your autoresponder that you’re on a deadline. Researchers say that when you’re being interrupted, it makes anything you’re doing seem more difficult, i. e., out of control, than it actually is.

3. Stop Multitasking. Circus clowns can juggle bowling pins, but you can’t do more than one cognitive task at a time. There’s only one neural channel for language to go through. You are not talking on the phone and doing email at the same time. You are switching back and forth. In that switching there’s a cost: stress, as brain neurons try to figure out where they were before they jumped to the secondary task.

4. Ask for a Rationale. Studies show that when we ask for a rationale for doing a task or give one to someone we’re asking to do something, the task gets internalized, and it becomes something more important and makes us feel we are exercising choice, autonomy, latitude. This undercuts hierarchy and order-taking strain.

5. Time Estimation. Take time and figure out how long it takes you to do each of your primary tasks. When you are asked to do one of them, you then have a hard time estimate, instead of wishful optimism, about how long it’s going to take to do it.

And finally, Karasek pinpointed demands that drive low control and strain—time pressure, reaction time needed, pacing, amount of work, having to wait for others to do their part of the task, interruptions, and concentration needed. How could you and your team adjust these demands to make them more manageable?

Propose alternative ways of doing a task that would allow you to feel it’s more manageable. Studies show that speaking up doesn't have the whammy we think. It’s how everyone finds out what isn’t working, in other words, what’s out of control.

If you would like to train your team in effective work practices, reduce stress, and increase productivity, click the button below for details on our time management training, stress management training, and work-life balance programs.

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Tags: work stress, job stress, stress management, stress, reducing stress, overwhelm, feeling overwhelmed, job strain model

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

Posted by Joe Robinson

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

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

TIME OFF BOOSTS TIME ON

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

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

ENGAGEMENT OR BURNOUT?

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

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

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

PERFORMING BETTER ON VACATIONS

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

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

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

VACATIONS: THE TALENT INSURANCE POLICY

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

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

LEADING THE WAY

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

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

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

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

 

Tags: employee engagement training, wellness, productivity and stress, employee productivity, vacation, avoiding burnout, leisure and stress, increase productivity, productivity, employee engagement, work life balance programs, stress management, cost of stress, reducing stress, stress management programs, stress and vacations, vacations and productivity,

Stress Management Tricks: Don't Believe Everything You Think

Posted by Joe Robinson

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It’s not enough that we have to duke it out each day with the mercurial Mr. Murphy and his law that insures that all things that can go wrong will. No, we are saddled with an even more annoying pest: the ubiquitous false alarm of stress, time panic, and guilt generated by our own minds. With friends like ourselves around, who needs enemies?

Most of us take the thoughts in our brains at face value. They are in our heads, so they must be true. But the reality is only experience is real, not thoughts. Unfortunately, our brains aren’t built for the time they live in, for the social stressors of the modern world, which they are clueless to compute. Lost in time, they are prone to conflate non-life threatening issues from deadlines to workload as if they are life-or-death emergencies. 

THROWBACK NOGGINS

Humans have the same brain we did back in hunter-gatherer days, 100,000 years ago, when life-and-death events were a daily occurrence. Few things today threaten your life, but your ancient brain makes you think your existence is on the line anytime something overloads your ability to cope. It happens out of your consciousness in a part of your ancient brain that houses your emotions and your ancestral warning equipment, the amygdala, part of the limbic system that once was all we had for gray matter.

This outmoded defense trigger is out of its depth these days. Feel overwhelmed because you have too much to do? That’s enough for the life-or-death signal, the stress response, to go off, because you have overloaded your perceived ability to handle the load. Does that deadline seem impossible? Before you can even think that or verbalize it, the amygdala switches on the alarm.

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Are you going to die if you don’t meet the deadline? Hardly. Two hundred emails in your in-box are very good at setting off the fight-or-flight button. They make you feel you can’t cope. “Can’t cope” for the caveman brain = “I’m going to die.”

Once the danger switch has been pulled, you and your modern brain are mere passengers on the panicked ride of fight-or-flight. The amygdala hijacks your modern brain and its ability to offer rational analysis.

REFLEX AWFULIZING

The first thought you have after a setback or highly stressful event is catastrophic, in line with the part of your caveman brain that thinks you are about to be an ex-living person. This sets off a pattern we know and don’t love so much, that of “awfulizing,” a loop of dark self-talk generated by the fact that your brain is fixated on your imminent demise. You don’t get a specific death message, though, just the racing pulse, churning abdomen, and relentless negative chatter of impending doom or doubt.

Stress management and work-life balance are about managing the false alarms that bombard us every day, thanks to an overreactive amygdala, the brain’s early warning system. The root of the problem is that we are designed to react before we think.

Humans couldn’t be trusted to think their way out of a jam way back on the family tree, so we were equipped with a defense mechanism that goes off first, before we’re even conscious of the threat. How fast? Daniel Goleman reports in Social Intelligence that it can react within .02 hundredths of a second. You’re not going to beat it to the punch, but you can counterpunch.

CATCH YOURSELF

How do you control a hair-trigger reflex like that? You have to stop and catch yourself, when the false emergency, false urgency, and false guilt go off. Stop and ask when the stress erupts, am I going to die? Is it an emergency? Is the frenzy valid, or am I picking up on the panic of someone else? Is it the end of the world if I don’t send this email in the next few minutes? Is the guilt based on real physical harm I’ve committed, or is it just a projected anxiety and manipulation by others?

If you had someone constantly crying wolf about calamities that didn’t exist, you would stop listening. Unfortunately, it’s hard to ignore the wolf cries in our heads, because they seem so convincing. They’re coming from us, after all! But they are almost always false, whether the trigger is a challenge that appears insurmountable or a rush that seems so critical, it’s apocalypse now if we don’t get it done in a millisecond.

CONSTANT CONSCIOUSNESS

The way out of the trap is constant consciousness, being mindful of what it is we’re doing and not lapsing into rote mechanical momentum. Stress and time panic thrive on non-thinking and non-challenge of the events around us. They drive overwhelm and the feeling of a world spinning out of control. Disputing the false alarms as they pop up keeps you in charge of your own mind, instead of at the mercy of a remnant from hunter-gatherer days.

Subject all stressors and hurry-worry to scrutiny. Take a deep breath, then pull out a piece of paper and a pen. What is at the bottom of the stress? What is at the bottom of that? Keep going until you find the trigger. Is it life-or-death? What’s the false story driving the bogus emergency? Tell your brain that you’re not going to die from this particular event, and as a result, that THERE IS NO DANGER.  When you convince your brain of that, the stress response stops in four minutes. Bring out the facts, and the caveman brain has to admit what is already abundantly clear—it’s a drama queen.

If you would like to manage the false alarms of the stress response and keep time panic at bay, explore a stress management training for your department, organization, or yourself. Click the button below and find out how our programs work and how affordable they are.

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Tags: job stress, work life balance programs, stress management, awfulizing, stress management programs, reducing stress, stress and self-talk, time panic

Burnout Hits the Best and Brightest

Posted by Joe Robinson

Chronic stress leads to burnout

The perception of burnout is that it’s something that happens to those who are somehow deficient, people who can’t take the heat, who have less stamina than others. In fact, it’s the opposite.

Burnout strikes the most dogged and conscientious workers, people who may even pride themselves on how much more they can handle than others. That's something that should set off alarm bells for any manager or organization. Burnout is a path of mutually assured destruction—for talent, staff, and productivity, which diminishes to a fraction of normal output.

The most driven, most inclined to ignore limits can wind up going past where their physiology can take them. Engineers know that even the strongest materials pull apart subjected to the right amount of force and load.  

The good news about burnout, if there is any, is that it’s something that doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a cumulative condition that builds up over a long period of unrelieved stress, also known as chronic stress. If the stressor that switched on the stress response is identified and resolved, there is no burnout. That’s where burnout has to be cut off at the pass. Burnout is seven times more costly to treat than the average workplace malady, according to Ron Goetzel of the Health Enhancement Research Organization.

When the source of stress continues to fuel perceived danger, though, the stress becomes entrenched—day after day, week after week, month after month, perhaps year after year.

That is highly destructive, since the stress response drains resources to keep the body in a heightened state that enables it to fight or flee. The stress response was meant to go off only for a brief time, until we are out of harm’s way, since it does some very unhealthy things to us in the interim—suppressing the immune system, shutting down digestion, jacking up the blood pressure.

END OF THE ROAD

Chronic stress overtaxes the system, and gradually your resources are drained away. Burnout is the last stage of chronic stress, when all energetic resources have been depleted. It’s the end of the road that leads to places no one wants to go—depersonalization, no pride in accomplishment, constant fatigue and worse: depression, stroke. If you think you might be headed down that road, take the Burnout Test here.

Because it takes a while to develop, burnout can be prevented and shut down—if we know what we’re looking for. The problem is that burnout plays to rugged individualist strengths—endurance and stick-to-itiveness—that can be our undoing if taken too far.

In the process of gutting it out and never saying die, we wind up aiding and abetting the cycle. The adrenaline set off by the stress response to hyperactivate our defenses, masks the effects of stress and creates a feeling of transcendence. We think we’re handling things, but we’re not.

This adaptation is why a workaholic will die before an alcoholic. An alcoholic can live for years with cirrhosis of the liver, but it’s often a stroke or heart attack that kills the workaholic.

Over time, people accustomed to being able to take on huge demands, suddenly can’t anymore. They don’t have the energy. They’ve suffered a loss of resources—mental, physical, and emotional—too great to replace. And not only that, they don’t have the drive or motivation they once had anymore. Neither the spirit nor the flesh is willing. They don’t understand it. They had always been gung-ho. And now they don’t care.

KNOWING WHEN TO SAY WHEN

To keep burnout out of the office, we have to make it okay to know when to say when and resolve stress triggers. Burnout, then, is fueled by stress, something that has to be taken seriously, not as a nuisance. Stress is a factor in five out of the six leading causes of death in the U.S. When someone has permission to shut off stress, they are saving the company a prolonged drain of medical bills and lost production.

Just keep going until the paramedics arrive is not a sustainable work style. Staying off the burnout treadmill means being proactive about ferreting out stress and burnout triggers, and adjusting work practices and thinking to shut off the chronic danger signal. It’s not life-or-death, though an ancient part of the brain is making it seem so.

Burnout triggers include excessive workload, lack of reward or support, loss of control, interpersonal conflicts, and emotionally demanding work. When someone is caught up in a cycle of stress from one of those triggers, it's crucial to be vocal about the problem. Failure to speak up can lead to serious health consequences.

I spoke with a community health worker who had been overwhelmed by her workload but said nothing, not even to her husband. The concern for being seen as weak can override even the fact that the body is going down. She brought more work home and tried to catch up there. The rubber band stretched as far as it could until it broke. She had a nervous breakdown and was in the hospital for two weeks.

If it were any kind of communicable disease, there would be no second thought to finding a solution pronto. Yet burnout and stress are as contagious as a virus. The crisis mentality, cynicism, and emotional triggers of stress quickly spread around the office, impacting decision-making, planning, and eroding rapport and relationships.

REBUILDING RESOURCES

Changing schedules, adjusting workload and increasing support can help reduce burnout triggers. Burnout is marked by the absence of positive emotions, so part of the way back is adjusting work and lifestyle to regather some of those crashed emotional resources, such as a sense of social support and mastery.

Learning how to reframe stressors and the self-talk that creates false beliefs that drive stress triggers is essential. Our stress management programs give people the ability to change the false story that fuels the danger signal perpetuating chronic stress. From there, we provide tools to set boundaries, ask for help, and communicate effectively to adjust task practices that are counterproductive for the team, organization, or individual. 

Everybody has a lot on their plates today, but it doesn’t have to lead to burnout. The real home of the brave, and productivity, is not a depleted mind and body but one vitalized by a sustainable work style. 

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Tags: chronic stress, burnout, burnout prevention, work stress, stress management programs, reducing stress, reducing burnout, burnout programs

How Optimism Boosts Productivity and Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

Optimism trumps the negative for high performers.

Oscar Wilde once said the difference between an optimist and a pessimist is that the optimist sees the donut, the pessimist the hole. 

Seriously, though, there’s a big difference in these two viewpoints, one that can have a huge impact on your work, health, and life. Research shows that optimism can prevent depression, increase social connection, boost performance on the job, increase success, and make you more resilient in the face of setbacks.

That's not bad. Pessimism does have its place, since we don’t want to be Polyannas, but too much negativity can undermine work, friendships, and health. And dwelling on the negative, a specialty of humans, increases stress. The recipe for depression is pessimism meeting failure and then ruminating endlessly about it.

Who would you rather work with or hang out with, someone who lightens up the day and supports you, or someone who habitually complains and blames.

It's no wonder then that a more positive approach fuels more positive results. It energizes, broadens opportunities, uncovers solutions, vastly improves work-life balance, and, best of all, makes you feel a lot better.

THE DARK SIDE

Unfortunately, this common-sense mode is not our natural wont. Humans are born with a default to find the negative. It’s a survival instinct, the reason the species is still around. We survived because of a well-developed impulse to look out for trouble. Today, though, it’s no longer life-or-death every day, so we need to make some adjustments to bring our ancient brains into the modern world. 

How to Stop the Hidden  Engine of Stress: Rumination

The good news is that we don't have to be at the mercy of reflex funks and slides after setbacks. We can adjust how we think about what happens to us. It’s a talent that can come in handy, since we have to negotiate a mood roller-coaster every day. We’re up, then down, up, down throughout the day, throughout the week. It’s part of the normal rhythm of emotions.

Negative mood, such as sadness, guilt, and hostility, is highest on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. Positive mood rises on Thursday and is at its highest point on Friday and Saturday.  

Then there’s mood variation over the course of the day. Positive affect, the sign of optimism in our demeanor, is lower in the morning and rises to a peak throughout the day, then weakens at night. Mood is better the more energy and alertness we have.

Mood also rises and falls based on our 90-minute alertness cycle, known as the ultradian rhythm. When we’re at the beginning of that cycle, we are in a better mood, feel like initiating things and attack the to-do list. At the end of the period, we feel sluggish, lose focus, and the minds wanders.

THE MOOD DANCE

Most of the mood dance is out of our consciousness. We are tugged this way and that without really steering the course. But we don't have to be bystanders to our minds. We can take charge of the ebb and flow of emotions, because nurturing the positive and warding off negative benders can have a big effect on our careers, especially for anyone who is involved in sales, and our lives too.

Researchers have found that positive emotions can dramatically improve the decisions we make, the opportunities we pursue or not, the people we connect with or don’t, the direction of our careers, the sales we're making, the work-life balance we feel we’re achieving, and the level of performance at work.

A study by mathematician Marcial Losada looked at the effect of negative emotions in the work setting. Losada and his team observed behavior in company meetings behind a two-way mirror. He measured positive v. negative statements, self-focused or other-focused, or people who favored inquiry or advocacy.

HIGH PERFORMERS ARE OPTIMISTIC

He found that high-performance teams have a 6 to 1 ratio of positive to negative statements, while low performing teams were under 1 to 1. That gap makes a huge difference to the organization and the individuals in them. The best performers scored high on profitability, customer satisfaction ratings, and evaluations by others.

High performance teams were more flexible, resilient, and not stuck in self-absorbed defensive behavior. High performance teams asked questions as much as they defended views and had attention outward as much as inward. Low performance teams had lower connectivity, asked no questions, and had almost no outward focus.

Negative teams got stuck in negative, self-absorbed advocacy. Negativity causes teams to lose good cheer, flexibility, and the ability to ask questions. Each person defended their views and became critical of all else.

We get very rigid when we’re in a negative or pessimistic state. Negativity constricts thinking, puts us in a defensive crouch, and prevents us from seeing the bigger picture.

Positive emotions broaden and build. Negative emotions hold you back. Positive emotions make you more curious. You explore more, take more initiative. You’re looking outward, open to connection and trying new things and interacting with others. Negativity constrains your experience. A negative frame of mind puts you in “leave me alone” mode, bunker mode. You’re on alert. 

Negative emotions change the way you feel about the world, interact with others. They reduce your possibilities and undermine esteem. They also affect your relationships in a big way. When you’re irritated and grumpy, you get less interest in your ideas, cooperation, and support.

THE 3-TO-1 RATIO

The negative side is much more powerful than the positive, so we have to be proactive about bringing the positive forward. The University of North Carolina’s Barbara Fredrickson has found that we need three positive to one negative event to stay in the positive camp and flourish. Only one in five people meet the 3 tio 1 ratio. In relationships it's five-to-one positive to negative.

When you start out on the positive side of the ledger, you don’t have as far to travel emotionally to connect with someone, to enjoy yourself, to be spontaneous or jump into something new.

How can we shift our moods so that we can limit the negative sway over our thoughts and emotions? We can do it by:

1) reducing the negativity in our lives

2) changing the way we react to events

3) having more positive experiences

4) choosing intrinsic goals that bring the most satisfaction

Reducing negativity is the fastest way to increase your positivity ratio. Some negativity keeps us grounded, but we don’t want it locking us into incessant cogitating over problems. As Mark Twain once put it, “Drag your thoughts away from your troubles...by the ears, by the heels, or any way you can manage it.” 

Negative emotions tend to overwhelm the rational brain with raw emotional power. The tendency is to ride the emotional wave without questioning whether the belief driving the negativity is valid. Stress sets off false beliefs constantly that appear to be a threat but aren’t.

AVOID RUMINATION

We have to learn how to dispute negativity and stress and not reflexively buy in on autopilot. When negative thoughts pop up, dispute them like a good lawyer would. Are they based on anything valid, or it just "awfulizing"? Is the thought useful? Accurate? Round up the facts and put them to the test.

When you fail to dispute negative thinking, the false beliefs become entrenched and can lead to days or weeks of ruminating over a setback or comment. Rumination is dangerous. You go over and over the same story, locking in a false belief as well as negativity, which then dredges up other negative thoughts.

You can exit the rumination track by avoiding replay mode and letting go of the thought loop.

DISTRACT YOURSELF. Find healthy distractions—the gym, meditation, music—that force you to focus on something else. 

MINDFULNESS. Learn to accept a thought as just a thought. You observe without judgment and refuse to grab the thought just because it’s in your head. Thoughts aren't real. Only experience is real.

REFRAME PROBLEMS. Reappraisal is the secret of people who can keep setbacks from turning into prolonged blues. The choice is yours: half-full or half-empty.

Increasing the positive in your day doesn’t happen on its own. You have to consciously deflect the negative, let it go, and do positive things, from hobbies to exercise, recreation, listening to or playing music, and reaching out to others.

We may not be in charge of much in an unpredictable world, but we can control our minds and how we think about what happens to us. And that controls everything.

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

Why Stress Is Contagious

Posted by Joe Robinson

Man with chronic stress headaches

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

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

THE MYSTERY OF THE STEREO YAWN

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

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

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

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

PASS-ALONG STRAIN

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

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

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

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

OPT OUT OF EMOTIONAL CONTAGION

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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