Reduce on-the-Job Stress at your Workplace
By: Roberta Lee, M.D.
Job stress seems to be an accepted given in today's workplace– either you're stressed about keeping the job you have or stressed about finding one, or you're managing escalating emotions in the workplace or simply trying to maintain a drama-free workplace. If any of these scenarios is protracted, you might become more than stressed and tip the balance over into "super stress," a syndrome in which the constant pressure and pace of our modern, frenetic lifestyle dangerously manifests as post-traumatic stress disorder in the body.
You see, our bodies have been hardwired to cope with stress since prehistoric times, but we are biologically ill-equipped to handle the kind of stress that accumulates in our lives today. Unfortunately, our brains can't distinguish between true physical emergencies (which trigger the cascade of stress hormones that help propel us out of harm's way) and more mundane "crises" like daily hassles, deadlines, information and technology overload, difficult decisions, guilt, and worries. The physiological reaction is the same: the hormonal surge of adrenaline and cortisol born of our instinctive fight or flight response.
Because we don't give our bodies time to reset to a default state of relaxation in between perceived crises these days, these powerful hormones build up in the body and, in essence, keep the body switched to "high alert," diverting energy and nourishment away from healthy system maintenance like proper digestion and nutrient absorption, hormone balance, and energy management. The result is a cluster of troubling symptoms that too few people associate with the root cause of stress: immune deficiencies, high blood pressure, chronic headaches, weight gain, digestive distress, low sex drive, insomnia and "brain fog."
In addition to the physical ailments that can accumulate with the stress in your life, the top four telltale day-to-day signs that you've reached a super stress state might ring a more distinct bell for you:
- You can't really feel calm without reaching for a pill or glass of wine or other distraction (shopping, eating for example) to gain control.
- You have a sense that you've lost luster in your life or have difficulty tapping in to the joy in your life.
- You seem to have lost your ability to "bounce back" from disappointments or setbacks.
- Anxious has become the new "normal."
And if you're an employer or a manager, you might recognize the variety of clues that excessive stress is present in your work environment:
- Employee productivity is sliding downward despite long hours logged in.
- Absenteeism is rising; your employees are taking more sick days than they used to.
- Tolerance for each others' shortcomings is thinner and tempers are flaring more easily; humor is hard to muster in meetings.
Let's face it: even the average modern pace is now more like warp-speed and multitasking has taken on a whole new meaning. So it's no wonder that we're losing our collective patience and sense of humor. But super stress is a condition you can control and there are number of things you can do to help your body have a less dramatic reaction to the stress in your life, and to help your nervous system return to a default state of rest and calm in between perceived emergencies. In the workplace, take back control of your own job stress level and help your employees do the same by keeping the following in mind:
- Hit the proverbial deck walking instead of running. You'll get more out of your day (and more work done) if you take the start of your work day just a little more slowly. Plan to arrive a little earlier than has been your norm so when you start the day it can be with a sense of calm instead of frenetic activity.
- Exert just a little more control over your schedule. Overloading your day with meetings and commitments will only fuel your sense of panic. Don't overbook your staff with meetings, either; stay cognizant of other meetings and deadlines that they have in their schedule.
- Routinely push back from your desk and walk around your office floor or around the block. Your mind needs even just this little mental rest to maintain its highest level of productivity. Building in a small break between appointments or meetings will allow you to be more present and refreshed for the tasks at hand. Encourage your employees to do the same. This will also make for a more pleasant office atmosphere.
- Identify your stress type in order to begin the process of stopping your self-defeating patterns. Take the Superstress Solution quiz (in the book The SuperStress Solution) to gain insight on your resilience and coping style. Have your staff take it as well and then discuss the results.
- Laugh. When deadlines are looming and work is necessarily serious, a sense of humor is one of the first things to go. But it's one of the best ways to maintain perspective and to calm the body too. Make time to laugh, to giggle, to see the lighter side of life. Share your humor with employees — and encourage them to do so with each other.
- Lose the perfectionism and negative self talk. Perfectionists are often the least efficient and beating yourself up for things not accomplished won't help you accomplish them any faster or better! Communicate the same with your staff by giving them positive feedback, even when things go wrong.
- Use "quality fuel" — eating processed foods and throwing back too much caffeine taxes the body. At office events, branch out from the usual bagels and donuts and serve fruit, nuts, or veggies and yogurt dip. Consider organizing an employee walking group or fitness challenge among staff.
Notice I'm not suggesting that you should necessarily look for another job or move to a cabin in the woods to avoid the stress in your life! Do what you do, live your life. But remember this: your body has naturally built-in measures to rebalance you back to calm. The short list above provides you with ways to help your nervous system "remember" how to access that healing state of mind. And remember to share and promote these practices with your employees — they'll ultimately be more productive and you'll have created a more pleasant work environment, too.
Try this breathing exercise a few times a day to quickly access help to recalibrate your nervous system to calm:
- When anxiety strikes or you find yourself focusing on negative thoughts, immediately exhale through your mouth.
- Now, relax your chest muscles to increase taking in air and breathe in through your nose, drawing in.
- Exhale again, slowly letting the breath out through your mouth as you count to five.
- Repeat four times.
Roberta Lee, M.D., author of The SuperStress Solution, is vice chair of the Department of Integrative Medicine, director of Continuing Medical Education and co-director of the Fellowship in Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel's Continuum Center for Health and Healing at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. Dr. Lee attended George Washington University Medical School and is one of the four graduates in the first class from the Program of Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona conducted by Andrew Weil, M.D.