Posted April 27, 2009on:
The American Institute of Stress estimates stress costs American businesses $300 billion annually. Maynard Brusman, Ph.D., said we can’t run from it: It’s the one statistic that consistently turns up in his research as a consulting psychologist, executive coach and founder of Working Resources, a strategic talent management consulting firm.
And he doesn’t buy it for a second.
“It’s been out there for a while. To be honest, I’d say given the economy and God knows what else, it’s probably higher,” he said.
Certainly the public relations world has stresses: Clients are demanding, it’s difficult to track value, and employees are on a never-ending parade to prove themselves. This often means having ideas shot down. But when Serge Gurin, president and COO of Pierce Mattie Public Relations, joins his employees during breaks, their talk centers around fears about the recession. “You can see that it’s adding to their stress,” he said.
The National Institutes of Health doesn’t need economic hard times to push its normal stress loads higher. The 30,000 employees in this federal agency charged with protecting the nation’s health are facing changing politics, stagnant internal job openings and a deskbound environment. Dr. Rachel Permuth-Levine said, in her experience as the deputy director in the NIH’s Office of Strategic and Innovative Programs, that’s a recipe for trouble.
Further, researchers such as Bruce S. McEwen, Ph.D., of Rockefeller University have spent years in the lab detailing how stress shows up in the body. “During episodes of acute stress, stress hormones provide a protective function by activating the body’s defenses,” he wrote in a New England Journal of Medicine paper on the topic. “[B]ut when these same protective hormones are produced repeatedly, or in excess, because of chronic stress they create a gradual and steady cascade of harmful physiological changes.”
These changes include everything from bone loss, muscular weakening, memory loss, atherosclerosis and increased insulin levels that cause higher levels of fat deposits in the body. At the office, the changes create more personal conflicts between employees, increase “acting out” episodes, dysfunctional teams are more easily overwhelmed by workloads, and there are lots of sick days, said Brusman. And stress often is solely an employees’ burden to hear.
“A greater proportion of our stress today comes from the workplace because that’s where we spend so much of our lives. We’re a culture that works to live,” Brusman said. “A business is in business to make money, and to be productive and do that, you have to take care of your people.”
The first step is to realize employees are hypersensitive today. Most people fall into two camps: safety seekers or opportunity seekers. “And whenever there is fear in the system like there is with the economy now, people start moving into that safety-seeking camp like refugees,” said Bill Treasurer, founder of Giant Leap Consulting and author of Courage Goes to Work.
Second, this isn’t a matter of company policy, but of company culture, said Scott Halford, president of Complete Intelligence, a business solutions provider. Talent managers must give employees tacit permission to take care of themselves on a daily basis, or all the gourmet cafeterias, exercise rooms and day cares in the world won’t help.
Let’s Get Physical
Michele Risa said she has no doubt the $300 billion cost statistic is accurate. As the founder and CEO of Collaborative Solutions, she has used her psychology degrees to customize yoga and mediation strategies for clients such as the New York Stock Exchange, to combat digestive upsets, headaches, neck and back pain, and inability to concentrate – all symptoms that stem from stress.
She assists employees with chair yoga exercises – a short break that combines movement, diaphragmatic breathing and relaxation for more energy and better attitude control – and demonstrates better nutrition choices that help fuel the body properly. The necessary discipline takes practice, so she forms teams among employees for better accountability.
Program costs depend on the number of months offered, the number of face-to-face exercise sessions and support materials chosen. However, she said the ROI is off the charts since the program decreases the number of sick days, increases productivity, decreases error rates and enhances morale as people practice exercises together at their desks during the day.
Gurin also brought yoga into the office, using his licensed therapist training to lead sessions on Fridays before noon. The president then treats participants to lunch. Those who aren’t into yoga might be tempted by the acupuncture sessions he plans to implement in 2009, or choose to take advantage of 30-minute massage sessions when they’re offered in the company’s media oasis. There also are monthly group outings to the movies.
“It’s crucial to get people out of the office,” he said. “We want our employees to have a good quality of life, and that’s why we pretty much kick people out the door at 6 p.m. here, which is uncommon in this field. Most people in PR work until 11 at night.
“Even if we’re spending $500 a month on these perks, it’s worth it. We are one of the PR companies with the longest retention rates.”
Handling stress is a large part of the emotional intelligence classes Halford presents at companies such as Medtronic, where his audience consists of salespeople whose jobs require that they produce the right pacemaker or defilibrator model for the operating table. Sales staff must execute split-second decision making and problem solving, which is why Halford encourages employees to take 15-minute breaks in the morning, at noon and in the afternoon to reflect on the days’ events. It’s fine to listen to music, read a novel, walk or stretch, as long as cell phones, computers and BlackBerrys are turned off.
“Most people run throughout their day without ever taking a break, so they’re simply acting on old behaviors without learning anything. It becomes stressful because old behaviors aren’t always adequate to deal with new things,” he said.
A dedicated quiet room is high on Permuth-Levine’
s wish list, to go with the exercise classes, walking groups and wellness lecture series the NIH currently uses to promote stress reduction. But even something as simple as compiling a list of resources for health and wellness in the area, or promoting the use of a company’s existing employee assistance program, is a positive step, she said. She intends to establish an employee advocacy team of 100 staff volunteers in 2009 to help get this message out and brainstorm ways to make sure colleagues take care of themselves physically and mentally.
“We operate in a systematic atmosphere, so the goal is to create happier, relaxed individuals that produce a more relaxed environment,” Permuth-Levine said.
Have Fun, Fun, Fun
Sometimes, it takes a little extra push to make people happy at the office. “Every company in the world tells its salespeople the same thing: Deliver service with a smile. But most forget the question that precedes that: Are we giving them anything to smile about?” said Matt Weinstein, founder of Playfair, a management consulting firm.
Ways to lighten the mood are plentiful. When motivational speaker Tom Bay served as senior vice president of Great American Federal Savings and Loan early in his corporate career, employees called him Mighty Mouse behind his back, because of his big ears. Bay rolled with it and started leaving mementos of the cartoon character – stickers, erasers, figurines, key chains – tucked in hidden places after visiting a branch.
Some of his other ideas to keep things upbeat include passing around a vase of flowers every 30 minutes with a note attached explaining why that person deserves recognition, drawing a name to award the winner a ride to and from work in a limo or holding an early meeting at a nearby restaurant and asking attendees to wear pajamas.
His most powerful pick-me-up tool is cheap and easy to get: Bay handed staff members a box of eight basic crayons with the message, “Each day is a new color – you choose it.” He recognized title promotions with a bigger box. Salespeople strove to earn the grand-daddy prize: a 104-count box of crayons with a pencil sharpener built in. Bay reinforced the theme by occasionally writing memos in crayon. The branch became the fastest-growing one in the organization’s history, hitting its six-year goal in less than 16 months.
“I’m always amazed when people proudly proclaim, ‘I never mix business with pleasure.’ I want to ask, ‘What’s wrong with you?'” Weinstein said. “Playfulness is a language everybody speaks in childhood but adults rarely access with each other. Yet, it’s just as powerful.”
Once talent managers commit to stress reduction, there are myriad vendors and consultants eager to help. To identify which ones actually reduce stress and produce an acceptable return on investment, Permuth-Levine asks for proof of measurable results at other organizations. “We want to maintain any program as an ongoing commitment,” she said.
Brusman said that’s wise because, while workshops fire up the troops, two days later they’re operating in the work environment as if nothing happened. “That’s why coaching has become so hot,” he said. “One-on-one helps because you can customize the message and activity for individuals.”
Talent managers will need proof the program is working. Anecdotal evidence likely will be prevalent, which is why Brusman relies on 360-degree feedback surveys focused on individuals’ job performance to gauge his clients’ ROI.
“If you just want to focus on the bottom line, given this economy, businesses would be really smart to have happy employees who can deal with stress and reach their goals,” Brusman said. “If they don’t, they’ll have to deal with all kinds of counterproductive behavior.”