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Learn to Manage Stress, Before it Manages You
- and Your Company

by Joe Piscatella


Stress….. it permeates our lives. Even if we take away the tragic events of September 11, the economic decline and the troubles in the Middle East ---- we still would be leading very stressful lives.

And, this stress is taking its toll on workers at all levels of an organization. Consider these statistics:

  • In a 2002 poll conducted by Robert Half International Inc., executives reported that they work an average of 51 hours each week. Nearly half (46 percent) said their time spent on the job has increased compared to five years ago.

  • In a survey conducted in 2002, 77% of executives polled by OfficeTeam said that the average employee is at least somewhat overburdened. One in 10 said that the workload was significantly too heavy.

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 60% to 70% of all disease and illness is stress-related.

  • An estimated 75% to 90% of visits to physicians are stress related.

  • According to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Women's Association, 60% of women surveyed said work stress was their biggest problem.

  • Job pressures cause more health complaints than any other stressor, says the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

  • The CCH 2002 Unscheduled Absence Survey found that while illness (32 percent) is still the leading cause of absences from work, stress (12 percent) was a key factor as well. (In a 1995 survey, stress was cited as the cause of absence by only 6 percent of employees.)

These statistics are telling us that Corporate America --- employees and executives alike --- are feeling stressed and overworked. Just think about the 60-hour work weeks, long commutes, chirping cell phones, late night emails, single parent households, increased organized activities for kids, and an uncertain economy. But, is all this stress really that bad?

Not all stress (which is defined as nothing more than the reaction to change) is bad. In fact, some stress is good. Positive stress, or eustress, is often reflected in a confident attitude and superior performance. Athletes, for instance, use it to "get up" for a big game, but all of us feel its effect; when we're under pressure, we experience heightened energy and motivation levels that enable use to function at our optimum. A certain amount of stress also makes life interesting. With too little stimulation, we tend to become bored and frustrated.

On the other hand, too much stress pushes us into overdrive. It's not unlike the strings on a violin; when they're too loose, the sound they make is poor; too tight, and the string breaks. "Stress can be the spice of life," says Dr. Mark Ketterer, a clinical psychologist at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, "or the kiss of death." It's the latter that we need to be worried about.

And, making sure it's not the kiss of death is why employers need to take proactive measures to help employees manage their stress. Doing so is the compassionate thing to do ---- and helping employees handle stress well is also a business leadership issue.

  • It helps to decrease direct costs. Research shows that employees who cope with stress effectively cost firms $3400 a year less in health care expenses than do highly-stressed employees. This is particularly important in light of the predicted 13% to 20% increase in annual health care insurance rates next year. Chronic stress influences health costs directly (by triggering a heart attack) and indirectly (by causing people to smoke, eat poorly and remain sedentary).

  • It helps increase productivity & competitiveness. Studies show employees who cope with stress well are more productive, have higher morale, participate more effectively as team players, make better decisions, and are absent less often than highly-stressed individuals. Productivity is lost when highly-stressed workers are absent from work (absenteeism), but it is also lost when stressed-out workers are physically at work but not mentally present (presenteeism).

  • It helps with employee retention. When an organization creates an environment in which stress becomes an ally instead of the enemy, it is better able to attract and retain top-quality employees. According to the Kepner-Tregoe Report, "Highly-stressed employees are prone to leave. Losing an employee can cost more than $100,000. The connection between stress, employee loyalty and profitability is unassailable."

It's Stress Management --- Not Stress Reduction

I work with many companies on their employee wellness efforts. One thing I've learned is that we cannot avoid stress, but we can manage it. We should not react to stress, but to respond to it.

It is not possible to remove the stressors from modern life and business because stress is a natural by-product of change, and change is constant. That is why smart companies and leaders provide workers with the tools they need --- not to eliminate change and stress --- but to handle stress effectively.

A good example of how this works comes from a wellness program I did for a large bank in Washington State. Surveys at the beginning of the program told us that 96% of employees had too much stress in their lives and 88% said they had difficulty coping with it. Surveys at the end of the program found that 96% said they still had too much stress in their lives. But only 21% said they had difficulty coping with it. This illustrates a win for the workers and one for the company as well.

To help your employees (and yourself) manage their stress levels, offer them these suggestions:

  • Take time out for a walk: The key to handling stress lies in learning how to produce a relaxation response to offset the stress response. Anything you can do to relax your mind and body on a regular basis will enhance your chances of managing stress in your life. Take a walk, read a book, listen to music… the list of ideas goes on and on.

  • Focus on concerns not worries: While a worry is immune to direct action, a concern is a problem that can be addressed or a situation that can be changed. For example, if an employee is habitually late for work it can be a concern. It's a problem, but it can be addressed with a simple action such as encouraging the employee to set the alarm clock for 15 minutes earlier.

  • Expect the unexpected: Build a cushion into your day for the unexpected. Instead of cramming your schedule, fill it 80%, leaving 20% for traffic jams, family illness and other surprises.

  • Tranquilize with exercise: Frequent exercisers have more positive moods and less anxiety than those who exercise little or not at all. In one study, researchers found that after 30 minutes on a treadmill, people scored 25% lower on anxiety tests and exhibited favorable changes in brain activity. "The relationship is clear across the board," says psychologist Thomas Stephen, "The more you exercise, the better your mood is and the less likely you are to be anxious or depressed."

  • Laugh: According to Dr. William F. Fry, Jr., of the Stanford School of Medicine, a good laugh --- like a good workout --- produces an overall sense of well-being. Laughter flexes the muscles of the chest and abdomen and causes deep breathing to take place. By exercising the shoulder, neck and face, it releases tension in the muscles.

  • Breathe deeply: Deep breathing can be used as a calming technique in response to a stressful situation, or it can be practiced regularly as a stress preventive, done once or twice a day to break tension's hold.

  • Get enough sleep: A nationwide survey by the National Sleep Foundation found that 44% of Americans reported trouble falling asleep, 48% said they wake in the night too often, and 50% said they wake up feeling unrefreshed.

Sure, stress will always be a part of our lives. But, those who learn how to take a deep breath, who get out and exercise, or who just laugh at a good joke every now and then will be well on their way managing the stresses they face …. and to healthy living.


The Author


Joe Piscatella is the author of Take a Load Off Your Heart: 109 Things you can do to Prevent, Halt, or Reverse Heart Disease (Workman Publishing, January 2003). Unlike other programs that prioritize diet and exercise, Take a Load Off Your Heart places managing stress as the most important part of the healthy-living program --- followed by introducing more physical activity to your life and balancing your diet comes next. Take a Load Off Your Heart shows how to take the steps that will allow you to take control of your cardiac health once and for all. The book helps health professionals, patients and others recognize the deleterious impact of chronic stress on health habits, and provides a methodology (the Piscatella Protocol) for handling stress better in order to improve lifestyle habits to prevent, halt and even reverse heart disease.

Many more articles in Health & Lifestyle in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2003 by Joe Piscatella. All rights reserved.

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