January 2004 Insight Newsletter

New Year’s Resolutions?

“He who laughs, lasts.” – Mary Pettibone Poole

Reducing stress must be among the most common New Year’s Resolutions. Not so obvious is that it impacts organizations as much or more than individuals. One person’s stress can burden many others, certainly when it’s the boss, but even when co-workers’ problems spill over. At my speeches, people question whether the origins of this will ever change. No – but we can all learn to manage better, much more easily than we think.

The loss of productivity and morale from stress should be a concern for organizations, but often they act as if we should just be “adult” and tough it out. They can help greatly by making it clear stress needs to be addressed. Unfortunately we often see subtle signals encouraging people to say and feel they’re constantly “busy.” There are better alternatives.

1. Managing Stress Effectively

Effective leaders know how to help manage and reduce stress for themselves and others. Key techniques include prioritising well and focusing clearly to get key issues done and not sweat small stuff. So far so good. There’s lots more.

Reasonable “stress” is actually a positive part of life. Without it we wouldn’t be motivated. Too much excitement creates negative stress, but too little and we’re stressed by boredom. What’s exciting for one person today may be stressful for them another time or for others at different times and vice versa.

The most important art of dealing with stress is to encourage people to find the right balance between too much and not enough. Getting them into the right roles in organizations, ones that challenge, but don’t overwhelm, is critical. Mark Twain said, “The secret of success is making your vocation your vacation.” Great if you can. Even so, the pressure to do more with less is constant in our society. We can all succumb to feeling we can’t keep up some days. When this extends to weeks or months we start to burn out physically just like a rubber band that can’t stay stretched forever.

The purpose of holidays, vacations and changes of pace or schedule is to rest us between dashing. Today more people work more continuously, especially with email access and work at home. No company can or should dictate how people schedule themselves, but to maintain productivity if nothing else they should be encouraging people to balance their lives. Besides, it’s the right thing to do and nearly everyone prefers to do right in spite of ethical lapses we hear about.

The hidden problem seems to be that no one wants to be the first to take a stand. It’s up to every one of us to do so. Individually we’re the best judges. If we’re happy working at 11::30 pm on a few emails and we balance our lives in other ways, that’s great freedom. If we never balance, we’ll pay, so will those around us at home and the office and so will the organization. Leaders have a key role in helping people understand and feel OK about this.

2. Manage Stress Ourselves, Or….

The UK Health and Safety Executive (their national safety board) is running a pilot on a program that may well become law. It would require companies to survey staff periodically on six topics and institute special programs “with the assistance of government” if the results don’t meet certain standards. In three areas 85% of staff would have to agree that – 1. they can cope with job demands, 2. have a meaningful say in their work and 3. get adequate information and support. At least 65% would have to agree that – 1. they’re not exposed to unacceptable behaviour, 2. they understand their responsibilities and 3. they’re consulted about change. To read more click… UK Stress Pilot.

Can you say for sure staff in your organization would meet these percentages? If not there’s work to be done or ‘hello, government is around the corner.’

3. Leadership Beats Personal Stress

One clear finding from stress research is that leaders, those who decide to take control, set goals for themselves and build their skills, cope best with stress at every level of any organization. Part of effective leadership is knowing that one has limits and approximately where they are.

By learning to keep in balance, we ourselves can prevent overload and eventual burnout. It takes courage to put limits on ourselves, never knowing if that also limits our careers or if we’re doing enough. Sometimes the person responsible for our greatest stress is ourselves and the demands we make – we can be our own hardest taskmasters by far. Still, every organization has a responsibility to support individuals in taking on this challenge.

If leaders, both individually and on behalf of the organization, learn these balancing skills, everyone, including shareholders, benefit.