Working Smarter

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.


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.


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. 


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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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

The Engine of Productivity and Work-Life Balance: Vitality

Posted by Joe Robinson

Vitality: the hidden link to work-life balance

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

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

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

More Energy Available to the Self

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

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

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

Tension, Anger Decrease Energy

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

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

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

Rebooting the Brain

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

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

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

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

Mind Your Ultradian Rhythms

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

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

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



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

10 Easy Ways to Cut Work Stress in 2014

Posted by Joe Robinson

Stressed out from too much email

Happy 2014, everyone! I hope it’s a great one for you. One way to help make it that way is to use that precious window of openness we have at the beginning of the year when we are receptive for a nanosecond to new things  and resolve to do something different this year: not take stress but turn off the danger signals that drive it.

Hiding in plain sight, this toxic saboteur can ruin your work and health with a trip to the ER and a sinkhole of medical bills. You may think you're handling it, but that's usually an illusion, supplied by the adrenaline released by the stress response, which masks the damage to your body by giving you a sense you're powering through it.

Brian Curin, 39, thought he was managing risk well as president of footwear retailer Flip Flop Shops, which has more than 90 locations. Yes, he had pressure, but he exercised and ate well. He could handle it. He did feel a little off, though, and had a faint ache of something resembling heartburn.

Curin decided to pay his doctor a visit. Blood work, a resting EKG and a respiration test were negative, but a stress test and an angiogram turned up a big problem: four blocked arteries, one of them at 100 percent—not what Curin expected at his age. Without open-heart surgery, he could have been dead within weeks.

"I was extremely lucky," says Curin, whose wake-up call prompted him to start a campaign, The Heart to Sole: Creating a Stress-Free America, to lobby for stress-testing at all companies and to support the American Heart Association's My Heart, My Life program. "If something doesn't feel right, it's probably not. Get it checked out."

Because the human brain's fear central, the amygdala was built for life-and-death scenarios 100,000 years ago, it doesn't know how to process the social stressors of the modern world. As a result, we react to stressful events as life-and-death before we think and become easy prey for chronic stress, which compromises the immune system, increases the bad cholesterol and decreases the good kind. Bravado and busyness can keep us in denial mode until the paramedics arrive.

You're not much good to your work and family from six feet under. This year, let’s make a vow to keep the sirens at bay with these essential stress-reduction strategies.

1. Pay attention to your body. Insomnia, heart palpitations, anxiety, bowel issues--they're trying to tell you something. See your doctor.

2. Make stress-testing as routine as dental checkups.

3. Cut stress by reducing time urgency. Every minute is not life or death.

4. Identify the story behind the stress and reframe it from catastrophic to a new story: "Yes, I've got 300 e-mails, but I can handle it."

5. Build stress-relief techniques into your schedule—meditation, progressive relaxation, exercise, a hobby.

6. Set boundaries. Sixteen hours of work a day is not sustainable. Find the "just enough" point in a given day or project.

7. Check email at designated times. Four times a day is the most productive email checking schedule.

8. Delegate or get help. Doing it yourself can cost well more than the price of a helping hand.

9. Step back. Brains have to reset every 90 minutes. Breaks increase mental functioning and interrupt stress.

10. Get a life. The best stress buffer is a life beyond work. Remember that?

If you would like to get yourself and/or your organization off to a great start for 2014, a stress management program can be one of the best investments you make all year. Our stress reduction tools pay off many times over in dramatically less medical costs and higher productivity and engagement. Click below for more information and prices.


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

Why Stress Is Contagious

Posted by Joe Robinson

Secondhand stress

When the person next to you yawns, chances are very good that you are going to be breaking into a yawn, too, even if you are not sleepy in the slightest. When someone laughs for a long time, it's very hard to resist a grin or chuckle.

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 us learn, understand, and bond, they can also be our undoing when the channeled behavior is the emotional contagion of stress.


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 and 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, and that is bad for teams and organizations, as triggers get passed down the line. 


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.

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, and undermines decision-making, judgment, and thinking. 

But you don’t have to buy anyone else’s stress—or the alarms of your own 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 reflex stress response and your mirror neurons.


You can reduce 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. It's what is in someone else's head. 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 are as much of a conduit for stress as a fiber optic cable is for data. Let them know.

Reduce interactions 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 catch yourself when the false alarms of others set you off. Yawn, and move on.


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

How Positive Thinking Makes You a Better Problem Solver

Posted by Joe Robinson

Positive thinking improves work-life balance and performance

Bouncing back: Punching bags are good at it; humans, less so. A growing body of evidence, though, suggests you can ward off tailspins by building up your reserves of the best antidote to adversity: positive emotions, the hidden engine of resilience.

"We call it the 'undo effect,'" says Barbara Fredrickson, author of Positivity and a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, whose research has upended our understanding of a group of emotions that were once considered trifling but are now seen as central to persistence, innovation and success.

"Positive emotions help speed recovery from negative emotions," Fredrickson says. "When people are able to self-generate a positive emotion or perspective, that enables them to bounce back. It's not just that you bounce back and then you feel good--feeling good drives the process."

Negative emotions undermine the brain's capacity to think broadly and find creative solutions. The vise grip of fear and stress and the emotions they generate--anger, blame, panic, resentment, shame--limit thought to a narrow field that obscures options. In the work environment, negativity causes teams to lose flexibility and the ability to be curious. Positive emotions act as a seldom-used stress management tool.

"Losses loom larger than gains," Fredrickson explains. "Our mind is drawn into this mental time travel, and we're obsessing about something negative that happened in the past or we're worrying about what will happen in the future."

She has determined that you can reframe adversity and be more effective every day by countering negative loops with a buried resource--the well of joy, hope, amusement, gratitude, interest, appreciation, awe and other buoyant emotions we can call on as needed. These low-key assets have the power to calm blood pressure and operate as a kind of reset button for stress-addled minds and bodies. It's a kind of built-in well of work-life balance.

In one of her studies, test subjects whose anxiety was driven sky-high by an impending public speech were able to reverse negative cardiovascular effects in less than a minute by viewing relaxing imagery. They were shown a tranquil film clip of ocean waves, a puppy playing, a sad film or a neutral screen saver depicting an abstract display of lines. Sensors tracking heart rate, blood pressure and artery constriction showed that those watching the seemingly positive imagery recovered the fastest. Another study, this one based on daily reports of positive and negative emotions, found that the more positive emotions people experienced, the more their resilience levels grew, enabling them to let go of negative events faster.

A report Fredrickson co-wrote on bouncing back from business failures ("Beyond hubris: How highly confident entrepreneurs rebound to venture again") suggests that the resources generated by positive emotions can help people overcome setbacks and start new ventures. In fact, the report contends, positive emotions have been shown to help businesspeople negotiate better, improve decision-making, boost creativity and drive high-performance behavior.

"Positive emotions expand awareness and attention," Fredrickson says, which is critical for anyone looking for an opportunity or trying to solve a problem. "When you're able to take in more information, the peripheral vision field is expanded. You're able to connect the dots to the bigger picture. Instead of remembering just the most central event, you remember that and the peripheral aspects, too."

Working with mathematician Marcial Losada, Fredrickson has discovered a tipping point of positive-to-negative emotions that spells the difference between flourishing and floundering. "It seems like we need at least three positive emotions to open and lift us up to counter every single negative emotion that drags us down," she says. "The good news is that the positive emotions don't need to be intense or profound. They can be rather mild. They just need to be frequent."

One of the easiest ways to combat the negative tide is through appreciation or gratitude. Fredrickson advises asking yourself what in your current situation you could be treasuring that you're not. Connecting with someone over a shared interest or amusement is another superb way to shift out of the negative frame. Or step back when you've hit a wall and take a break. Bring some music into your day.

The three-to-one ratio isn't something you need to meet every hour or day, but over time, if you're making deposits to your positivity bank, you get a big dividend. "There's really solid evidence that the positive emotions you feel today predict tomorrow's and next week's and next month's success, health and quality relationships," Fredrickson says, "because they build your resources and resilience."

Tags: positive thinking, positive thinking and stress, work life balance tools, work life balance programs, work life balance, positive emotions, stress management

The Secret of True Productivity: Employee Engagement

Posted by Joe Robinson

The look of employee engagement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Road to Work-Life Balance in Colombia

Posted by Joe Robinson

Colombians in traditional dress

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

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

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

Central cathedral in Bogota

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe Robinson speaks at work-life balance conference in Bogota

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

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

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

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

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

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.


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.

 Click for "The 7 Signs of Burnout"

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.


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.


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

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