Working Smarter

How Stress Shreds the Chief Productivity Tool: Attention

Posted by Joe Robinson

 

Phone zombies.jpgIF EACH OF US had a blooper reel, our most forehead-slapping moments would come at times when we were late, rushing, on deadline, under pressure, times when we were under the influence of stress. That’s when brains take leave of their faculties and default to impulsive decisions that make it appear we have the IQ of a panicked wildebeest.

Stress reroutes thoughts from the top floors of the brain to the lower ones—to the irrational emotions of the limbic system and to rote mode. We don’t have command of our chief productivity tool, full attention, when focus and the tenuous grasp of working memory are hijacked by the perceived crisis of stress.

RELENTLESS SABOTEUR

When racing on deadline, we send emails with typos, forget attachments, or overlook important calculations and may have to do the task all over again. When late to a flight, we leave smartphone charge cables behind and worry about whether the front door is locked. When stress sets off sudden anger or rage, we may lash out in ways we regret later.

A raft of studies show that stress is a relentless saboteur of attention, and without the ability to manage it, we subvert intellect and devolve to a state as reckless as someone who’s had too much to drink. We do things under its command that we never would with full, unsidetracked presence of mind. That means stress has a major impact on all the things we need attention for: productivity, engagement, and work-life balance.

“Acute stress impairs the intention-based attentional allocation and enhances the stimulus-driven selection, leading to a strong distractibility during attentional information selection,” note the authors of one study (Sanger, Bechtold, Schoof, Blaszkewicz, Wascher).

The stress hormone of cortisol sends us on a chemical bender, a detour away from goals, focus, and the directed concentration of what’s known as “top-down” attention (you choose what you pay attention to) to “bottom-up” attention, a survival mechanism that hijacks the higher brain in moments of perceived threat.

As Daniel Kahneman reported in his sweeping survey of how wrong our brains can be in “Fast and Slow Thinking,” there are two basic cognitive gears. System 1 thinking is a rapid, if not instant, response to a stimulus, and its triggers include the stress response and danger. It’s marked by rash, impulsive, jump-off-the-cliff, knee-jerk familiarity, and mostly speed. There’s no time for weighing pro and con. There’s just an immediate reaction.

STRESS DUMBS US DOWN

System 1 thinking refers decisions to emotions and feeling. This can help extricate you from a life-and-death event in which you would have no time to think your way out, but it’s of little use when trying to make decisions that require thought and reflection. It shreds focus with intrusive thoughts that fan the flames of the perceived crisis of the moment.

The other type of thinking, System 2, is what we use for thoughtful analysis, complex decisions, planning, anything with a goal attached to it. It’s essential for concentration and decision-making, and utilizes the direction and discipline of the higher brain. You are in charge, not an external event.

Subjects in the study above under the command of stress-induced bottom-up attention made a lot of mistakes. Stressed individuals were prone to mis-weighting the information in the tests they participated in and confusing less relevant data with test targets. This is one of the things stress specializes in, causing us to make decisions without considered examination. Errors for the stress group included “a very large portion of response misses, emphasizing a lack of top-down controlled selection bias toward the less salient target feature.”

Stress makes us reach for quick answers, easy fixes, because it forces us to make decisions before we have adequate information to base them upon and ones clouded by raw emotion. It dumbs us down to retaliatory and reflex behavior in which we react before we think. Our job is to build in the thinking before or after the reaction. The key to that is the very thing stress steals: attention.

Attention is the act of choosing from a stream of information and data what you want to pay attention to. It’s a selection process in which your executive attention function in the high brain screens the incoming data and chooses the information that best matches your goal, task, or the tenuous thought associations at top of mind in your working memory. Stress impairs your brain’s ability to stay focused on the task. The release of stress-fueled cortisol impairs intention-based thinking and, suddenly the tail, external stimuli, is wagging the dog.

Minds that can’t stay on task or focus take longer to the get the job done and may have to do the work over again after errors. Obviously, then, the drain of attention has a big impact on productivity. Highly stressed employees don’t just have lower productivity; they also have poor engagement, a survey by Watson Towers found. 

Instead of ignoring the siege of devices and interruptions that afflict most offices these days and the stress they aid and abet, we ought to be finding ways to bring stress management tools to every office to combat attention hijackers. The more stress we have, the less attention and productivity. The more attention we have, the less stress. It's simple, but yet impossible to achieve unless stress management strategies can take root.

The solution is more absorption in every moment of every task we do. Studies show that when we have full attention and engagement, we get the job done faster, remember it longer, and like it more.

The same goes for life outside the job. The more we can stay immersed in the moment, the happier we are, our problems emanating from the realm of the other two tenses. Harness attention, and we can tap the power of the most potent motivation, intrinsic goals, doing our work for the inherent interest, and find optimal experience, when our skills meet a challenge. 

It all starts with doing things that increase attention--putting limits on device time, participating in activities that build concentration (chess, dancing, learning a language), reading, and strategies such as mindfulness and other forms of target focus that increase the attention center in the prefrontal part of the brain and decrease the self-referential hub, where the thoughts and anxieties of stress live and badger us.

In the era of distraction, you still have the power to direct your mind and reduce stress and increase productivity by boosting top-down attention and reducing bottom-up attention. That's if you can regulate the impulsivity of System 1 and let System 2 take back your mind from the attention-stealers.

If you would like to increase attention and productivity on your team or in your company, please click on the button below for details on our stress management, productivity, and work-life balance programs.

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Tags: stress and productivity, stress and attention, distractions and productivity, email overload, stress management programs

Job Stress Increases Risk for Strokes

Posted by Joe Robinson

Memory

Dozens of studies have shown the connection between job stress and cardiovascular disease and heart attacks. Now an important new study has found that high job strain also increases the risk of strokes, or brain attacks, by 22%. The risk is higher in women, 33%, and for the most common type of stroke, ischemic stroke, which cuts off blood flow to the brain, job strain increases the stroke risk by 58%.

As much as we would prefer to ignore it or call it something less charged, unmanaged stress has real consequences no one can afford to turn a blind eye to, whether employee or employer. This latest evidence shows that failure to control job strain can blow up the very source of productivity itself, the brain. This is an unforced error that doesn’t make sense. There are enough competitors out there ready to slice and dice. We don’t need to be doing it from within.

Stroke is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S., affecting 800,000 people every year. It occurs when there is an interruption of blood flow to the brain, which prevents brain cells from getting the oxygen and nutrients they need, and they can die as a result. Stokes are caused by artery blockage or narrowing, which happens in the 85% of cases that are ischematic, by blood hemorrhaging in brain arteries, or by temporary blood clots in the brain, known as transient ischemic attack (TIA). Stroke can lead to temporary or permanent disabilities and paralysis.

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DEMANDS VS. CONTROL

The Chinese researchers who conducted the meta-study analyzed data from six prior studies on three continents, including one in the U.S. They looked at the effects of strain on a sizable 140,000 people. Their report measured how the subjects fared over four categories of jobs, each with varying degrees of psychological demand, or strain, and control over demands, the key factors in whether you feel you can cope with a challenge or not. Lack of control in the face of high demands flips on the danger switch in the body's ancient defense mechanism, the amygdala, and the stress response kicks into fight-or-flight mode.

The risk of stroke is least for people in low-cognitive strain jobs, such as manual labor, and highest for people whose jobs have high levels of mental load, time pressure, and management and coordination, but who have little control over their work. Even if you have high demands, if you feel you have some control over events, what's known in the stress literature as "latitude," that creates a sense of coping capacity, countering the strain. High threat-vigilant work has been shown to be the most stressful, which includes bus drivers, taxi drivers, nuclear facility workers and air traffic controllers.

High strain jobs are proliferating with the speedup in pace, inundation of email and interruptions, which slow things down and increase time pressure, and leaner operations, which increase workload and the perception you are overwhelmed. Without strategies to adjust these conditions and the perceptions they create, chronic stress can develop, and that is where the serious health and productivity blowback occurs. 

BUILDING COPING CAPACITY

As has been shown in Japanese studies of karoshi (death by overwork) victims, chronic high stress leads to unhealthy lifestyle choices—eating fatty foods, smoking, drinking, and no exercise, as well as other decisions that increase stroke risk. Meanwhile, chronic stress jacks up blood pressure, lowers the immune system, increases the bad cholesterol, decreases the good cholesterol, and boosts the risk of plaque buildup in arteries, which can lead to cardiovascular disease, a proven risk factor for stroke.

As with heart issues, it's critical to know the warning signs. Symptoms of stroke include numbness of the face, arm, or leg (often on one side), vision problems, headaches, speaking and understanding problems, dizzyness, and unsteady gait. 

The good news is that we don’t have to let high strain develop into stress. We can control it in our bodies and companies by making adjustments to how we work that turn high strain into manageable pressure. Our stress management training, for instance, gives individuals tools to increase their perceived control over tasks and events, which moderates strain and builds coping capacity. Simple changes to processes and operations can dramatically reduce stress triggers within the organization and increase performance along the way. There are few blocks to performance as effective as unmanaged stress, which drives absenteeism, cynicism, conflict, mistakes, crisis mentality, fatigue, and exhaustion.

BRAIN MANAGEMENT

Stress management is brain management, and brain management is productivity management. Stress constricts the brain to the perceived crisis of the moment, so it stifles planning and complex decision-making, which require a leap out of the current worry loop.  Brains under chronic stress make rash decisions, since the faculties of the analytical mind get hijacked by the impulsive, emotional caveman brain.

Most of us individually try to avoid things that make us unhealthy—cigarettes, high-cholesterol foods—but when it comes to stress, we don’t act or ignore the problem. We have been programmed to believe that it’s just the way it is, or that we can take it. Smoking increases the risk of heart disease by 20%. This new study says that job strain is just as risky for stroke, and considerably higher, 33%, for women.

Companies spend heavily to recruit and train the best talent, but then can jeopardize those skilled minds by not being proactive about stress management. The latest scientific evidence shows that job strain is no longer something that can be written off as just part of the day. The activation of stress itself is a signal that something is perceived to be an emergency.

I hope these latest findings can move us closer to a time when we see this threat for what it is—the single biggest threat to the nation’s health ($1 trillion a year in costs annually, according to U.C. Irvine’s Peter Schnall), and to the effective functioning of any organization in a time of digital, 24/7 demands.

If you would like to learn more abou how to control stress in your organization or get details on our stress management programs, click the button below. Manage stress, and unleash performance.

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Tags: stress and productivity, work stress and health, stress management training, stress, stress management, job stress, stress management programs, stress and stroke

7 Signs the Office Needs Stress Management

Posted by Joe Robinson

Stress drains productivity

You can’t see it or taste it, but chances are good your office is up to its workstations in it—the colorless, odorless toxin of stress. It’s so widespread a U.N. report called it the “21st century epidemic.” Yet stress is so invisible that most organizations have a hard time realizing the threat and may not know what and when to do something about it.

The symptoms don’t manifest physically as with the hacking cough of a flu. Stress is a silent stalker, with employees and managers leery to speak its name. This is exactly what stress thrives on, adaptation to stressors that lead to stewing about, instead of resolving stress, with entrenched tension leading to chronic stress and very high costs for the company and individual.

TENSION AND PANIC FOR ALL

The reality is, stress is as contagious as any bug, spreading through pass-along strain and crisis mentality throughout the organization. Humans are born with an amazing capacity to mirror the emotions of those around them through what are known as mirror neurons, which mimic the facial expression and movements of others. We easily pick up on the emotions of others, and that translates into anxious, crisis-prone, unproductive organizations—not to mention, $407 billion a year in lost productivity, absenteeism, and medical costs, says U.C. Irvine’s Peter Schnall.

Every organization can prevent huge hits to the budget each year by spotting the signs of stress and knowing when it’s time for a stress management program to get this hazard to critical thinking, rapport, and productivity under control. Despite the interior nature of stress, there are many signs that can tip off the problem. Let’s take a look at seven key indicators:

1. Absenteeism and retention problems. Since discussing stress is seen as taboo or a sign of weakness, health problems set off by chronic stress, which suppresses the immune system, the tissue repair system, and digestion, multiply along with sick days and absenteeism. If employees know how to manage stress, and management understands what fuels it, absenteeism is no longer the only coping option. When employees feel there’s no possibility of stressors changing, and the health bills mount, they may decide to quit. Forty percent of employees leave because of stress. If your company is seeing more people heading for the exits, look closely, and stress may be the driver.

2. High pressure and tension. Everyone can feel it when tensions are high. For certain deadlines and projects, pressure is a given, but when high tension is the normal day-to-day, it can overwhelm coping abilities and productive output, since relationships suffer, cynicism reigns, and exhaustion guts engagement. High demands can be handled with some control. Without it, chronic stress rules. Managers can measure stress levels with a cognitive survey that can be managed on Survey Monkey. Once the data is in, you can see the extent of the problem and have the evidence to bring a stress management program forward.

3. Doing more with fewer resources. Almost every organization is having to make do with fewer resources today. At the same time, there are physiological limits to how much individuals can do. Are your troops maxed out? Is your top talent teetering on an exit strategy because there’s not enough support? High-demand workplaces more than most need to have their employees trained in stress management and sustainable performance practices.

4. A recent merger or restructuring or preparation for one. The most stressful organizations today tend to be those that are getting ready for a sale and want to show off the highest profitability, but which don’t have the resources to get the outcome they want. That turns up the pressure on everyone. A stress management program is paramount in this situation, as well as in the aftermath of the restructuring, when insecurity, convulsive change, and a new culture create high stress loads. Don’t scrimp on staff development funds if your organization fits this bill.

5. The word burnout is being tossed around. This is a red flag for high stress. The term “stress” is seen as a word to avoid, so often the problem will manifest with staff citing burnout, which tends to be more acceptable. Those mentioning “burnout” are usually are on target. The terminal fatigue and cynicism that comes with it allows them to surface the issue. Again, a survey can be a great way to measure the extent of the problem and arm managers with the data needed to bring in a stress management solution.

6. Productivity is down. In the knowledge economy, the source of productivity is a refreshed and energized brain. Employees with high stress have an extremely limited cognitive function, with the brain constricted to a narrow field dominated by the perceived crisis of the moment. Rumination on the stressor distracts from attention on the task at hand, not to mention future planning. In addition to cognitive issues, chronic stress saps the physical vitality of employees, as stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline deplete the body’s energetic resources. It’s not working harder and longer that will pick up productivity (which plummets in hours beyond eight a day); it’s working smarter through programs that help employees control stress, recharge brains, and then get more done in less time.

7Intense emotional pressures. Some professions by their very nature require a high level of involvement in intense emotional domains, such as caregiving, social work, community healthcare, and law enforcement. Employees in these arenas are particularly susceptible to burnout from lack of support and reward. If you’re a manager in these realms, you know that it is essential to have regular, comprehensive development programs to manage emotional pressures and tough workloads. The job of staff isn’t to take on all the stress and demands of clients and customers. It’s to show them a way out of intractable issues, which they can’t do convincingly if they themselves are caught up in a crisis. 

Of course, there are many other signals and settings that translate into high stress levels, from intense deadlines to develop a new product, to global competition and/or offices across multiple time zones, to workaholic leadership. Whatever the cause, a solution is at hand: knowledge and strategies to handle stress and the autopilot behaviors that keep the dysfunction going.

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Tags: stress management, chronic stress, burnout, work stress, stress management programs, stress and productivity, stress management and change

Top 4 Bottom-Line Reasons for Stress Management

Posted by Joe Robinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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