It is no surprise that when asked to name the one thing they would most like to change in their workplace, employees almost always put stress levels at the top of the list. What with downsizing, rightsizing, and endless budget cuts, the mantra for so many companies these days is “do more with less”. One of the phrases I often heard in management meetings during my corporate time was “suck it up and get over it.” Unfortunately, this places an added burden on employees that remain after layoffs which only increases individual stress levels. With so much economic uncertainty, not only in the workplace but at home as well, it is no small wonder that most employees are looking for ways to minimize the effects of stress from their jobs.
The interesting thing is that everyone has a different idea of what stress is. What bothers one person may not affect another at all. Staff members at the Mayo Clinic define stress as a situation”when the demands placed upon a person exceed his or her capabilities.” It is actually a good definition of stress since it place the responsibility on both the situation and the individual, not just the individual as do so many other definitions. Reactions to stress are connected to a myriad of factors. What bothers someone one day may not be an issue the next. Lack of sleep, hunger, the amount of exercise in a day–these are just a few things that can play a part in a person’s reaction to stress.
The effects of stress are a problem not only for the employee, but the organization as well. It is estimated that 75 to 90 percent of all doctor visits are for stress-related conditions. If stress levels are not addressed, chronic health conditions can develop such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. Frequent colds are not uncommon for people suffering from chronic stress. This all plays into a person’s productivity at work, increasing absenteeism and decreasing productivity. These chronic health conditions have a direct impact on the healthcare costs of an organization and thus the overall profitability of that organization is reduced. Therefore it seems like it would be in everyone’s best interest to address the stress levels in the workplace and explore ways to minimize the harmful effects of those conditions.
One of the most important things we can do is to set healthy personal boundaries. With all the technology flooding the market, we can no longer leave the office at the office. People are now expected to be available 24/7, especially when the boss seems to live and breathe for their blackberry or iPhone. Instead of making life easier, the information age has actually had the opposite effect. We expect results more quickly and judge ourselves and others if there is a lag time in response to an email or voice mail, even during the weekend. The new term for this is cerebral burnout, and is a very real condition.
Personal boundaries are one way to combat the possibility of cerebral burnout. In today’s world it may not be realistic to think that not responding to emails or texts after the traditional end of the workday is acceptable. But you can set a boundary as to when you will stop responding. Let colleagues know that you put your phone away at 8:00 pm and don’t look at again until you start work the next day. Starting work may be at the breakfast table and not when you hit the office, but at least your coworkers or bosses will have a clear idea of when they will hear from you. Not only does this allow you to have downtime without guilt, but you can also begin to ween yourself off electronic devices in the evenings which will have a positive impact on the quality of sleep. Better sleep patterns contributes to a stronger ability to combat stress, so this is really a two-for-one win.
Another great way to combat stress is to begin a program of mental training. Used by athletes to focus on performance, mental training is a type of meditation. Before you start each day, give yourself five or ten minutes and turn your attention to your breathing. Think only of your breath as you inhale and exhale. This will calm the mind, and slow down all that information zinging back and forth in your brain. When your brain is quieter, it becomes easier to focus during the day, and the result is greater productivity. Greater productivity naturally means less stress.
My favorite stress release is exercise. Thirty minutes of cardio on a daily basis will have an unbelievable impact on the ability to cope in stressful situations. Other types of exercise such as yoga or tai chi show equally impressive results. The benefits of exercise include improved brain function, neuron growth, the release of beta-endorphins, and lower muscle tension. It can also increase weight loss, a fact that most people would look at as the number one health benefit.
Speaking of lowering muscle tension–regularly scheduled massages can play a huge role in stress management. Although many people still consider massage to be a luxury, muscle tension is perhaps the number one symptom of stress. In addition to being painful, it can even compromise organ function over time. Regular massage counteracts the effects of stress by decreasing muscle tension and increasing lymphatic drainage. This helps to remove toxins from the body and allows better functionality. Aside from that, a massage just feels good. One note of caution–do not order a deep tissue massage if you are going for your first experience. Although it may sound great, your muscles may not appreciate that much manipulation. Try a swedish massage or a Hawaiian Lomi Lomi massage for your first few treatments.
Make time to socialize–in person. Social support is crucial in stressful situations, but not if the only support you receive is virtual. Face time ( and not on an iPhone) can help to put things in perspective and give the support you need to get through rough times. It is so easy to let social connections slide when you are feeling overwhelmed, but that is precisely when real friendship matters the most. So make it a point to get together with friends on a regular basis. Schedule lunches, potlucks, or just a coffee date. Better yet, make it a celebration and visit a spa with friends for an afternoon of bonding and massage. Stress levels won’t stand a chance!
These are just five ways to combat stress. When we think of stress, most of us focus on the workplace, but it is important to remember that stress can occur anywhere. I know retirees with no financial worries who are more stressed-out than my executive friends. It really is a matter of how you perceive situations and how your body reacts to them. Of course, you can’t reduce stress levels without trying to increase levels of overall well being, but focusing on stress reduction is a good step in the right direction.
So what do you do to fight stress in the workplace or home front? I would love to hear the unique ways people have found to help them cope with our increasingly demanding world.
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