In Part 1 of this series, we talked about the chronic stress experienced by many people in today’s organizations. Much of that stress may be accounted for by tremendous workloads and pressures to produce in today’s organizations.
In Part 2, we talked about one organization, Zappos, an online shoe store, whose CEO seeks to reverse that trend by focusing on employee happiness. In his business model, happy employees provide better service and better service brings and keeps customers.
Meanwhile, though, if our organization doesn’t seem to do enough to help us alleviate our stress, much less promote our happiness, what do the rest of us do?
How might we consciously use ourselves to cope more effectively with our own stress?
You already know the standard prescriptions: take care of your body through exercise and healthy foods, keep a gratitude journal, use time management strategies that work for you, find and use an emotional clearing technique, and so forth. We discuss the gratitude journal and emotional clearing in Reframing Change.
But what if we are so stressed out and so busy we just can’t make time to do those things?
That’s the irony, isn’t it? Many of us are so time-poor and stressed out that we don’t believe we can take the time to follow these standard prescriptions.
Here’s where an understanding of what causes unhealthy stress is helpful. Some stress is good. Competing in a sport, or learning a new task, for example, can be stressful, but can also energize us and spur our learning.
Chronic stress, though, is unhealthy. Chronic stress is what occurs when we keep going and going and going without allowing time for recovery. With no let-up, our bodies and our minds give out. We become physically tired, emotionally depleted, and mentally unable to focus. Studies have repeatedly shown that under the high demands of chronic stress, people become less innovative, less supportive of one another, and more likely to stereotype and demean one another.
Rather than having a natural fluctuation of stress followed by relaxation, we experience stress and more stress and still more stress. High workloads, high-pressure deadlines, and frequent interruptions make it hard for most of us to give ourselves permission to relax.
Now add to this a work culture in which those who work the longest and the hardest are the most rewarded and become organizational heroes. In many work settings, taking time for self-care is anathema — a sign of laziness, selfishness, or indifference to “getting ahead.”
The other day, I ran into an acquaintance at the supermarket. “Staying busy?” she asked me with a smile. This is a typical greeting. But why not ask me, “Are you finding time to relax?” What’s with our work culture that we are encouraged by acquaintances to “stay busy”?
So how do we schedule in periods of recovery?
Instead of waiting for that golden opportunity for the two week vacation that never comes, schedule in some short (even tiny) periods of recovery every day.
In our home office, my husband and I have accidentally stumbled upon a solution that definitely helps. For health reasons, we moved the printer into another room. This means that whenever I print, I have to get out of my chair to get the document. I had thought this would be annoying.
Instead, that tiny change that has made a surprising difference for me. No more three-hour stints in front of the computer. When I get up to go get a document, I often find myself taking a moment to do something else — tidying up, stretching a bit, or finding something to munch on.
That small break is enough to sustain me for another period of writing and work. By the time I sit down, my mental batteries are just recharged enough so that I can focus anew on what I was doing.
Why does that work? Jim Loeher and Tony Schwartz, authors of the “Corporate Athlete,” noticed that the best tennis competitors engaged in “precise recovery rituals” in between points. They would concentrate on the strings on their rackets, assume a confident posture, or visualize the next play.
These rituals allowed players to avoid succumbing to frustrations and instead to focus on what was happening in the moment, and prepare for the next point. Athletes who didn’t have good recovery rituals in between matches were more likely to choke under pressure and scored less points.
What does this mean for you and me?
Here’s the recommendation:
Establish a pattern of oscillation between focused work and mental relaxation — that is, between stress and recovery — throughout the day.
Loeher and Schwartz recommend doing this every 90 to 120 minutes. I have found that shorter periods work better for me. The point is, to systematically seek to establish your own rhythm. You’ll know it when you find it. Once you find it, you won’t want to do without it.
Why is it worth doing? This blog is written for people who want to make positive changes in their sphere of influence. If you are the instrument that you will use to make that difference, then you are worth taking care of.
- What techniques do you use to manage your stress? Do they work?
- Do you have a ritual for recovery that you use throughout the day? Does it work?
Kimberly, D. E., & Andrew, B. H. (2006). Enhancing creativity through “mindless” work: A framework of workday design. Organization Science, 17(4), 470.
Loehr, J., & Schwartz, T. (2001). The making of a corporate athlete. Harvard Business Review, 79(1), 120-128.
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