Menu

The Financial Upside of Being an Optimist

Under the weight of chronic stress at work, optimists are winning.

It’s hard to escape the fact that chronic stress is one of the greatest threats to well-being in modern times. In a report published by The National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health, 75% of workers say they are more stressed than the previous generation, and 40% place themselves on the high end of the stress spectrum. In a large-scale study of more than 11,000 people, researcher Shawn Achorand I found that 91% of people had maladaptive responses to stress that exacerbated circumstances and decreased well-being. In the face of this mounting reality, some argue that chronic stress is a “modern day birthright.” It is not. Chronic stress is a trap we’ve fallen into — one that we can get out of with intentionality.

An antidote to chronic stress is cultivating an optimistic mindset — and it serves us well over the course of our careers. In a new study I conducted in partnership with Frost Bank, we found that when it comes to money, optimists are more likely to make smart moves and reap the benefits.

We surveyed more than 2,000 Americans, testing for optimism, financial health, and attitudes and behaviors around money, using scientifically validated measures such as the Life Orientation Test and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Well-Being Scale.

After controlling for wealth, income, skills, and other demographics to level the playing field, the data clearly showed that optimists were significantly more likely to experience better financial health than pessimists, and engage in healthier habits with their money. For instance, we found that 90% of optimists have put money aside for a major purchase, compared to 70% of pessimists. Nearly two thirds of optimists have started an emergency fund, while less than half of pessimists have. Additionally, optimists are more likely to seek out and follow advice from someone they trust. In my opinion, the most compelling finding was how optimists felt, reporting that they stressed about finances 145 fewer days each year as compared to pessimists.

Optimism is a lucrative investment beyond one’s finances. Optimists do better over the course of their careers as well. They make more money and are more likely to be promoted. Achor and I developed a scientifically-validated optimism scale to test professionals at hundreds of companies across industries, and we found that “Visionary Work Optimists” — those that are in the top quartile for optimism as compared to their peers — are 40% more likely to get a promotion over the next year, not to mention six times more likely to be highly engaged at work, and five times less likely to burnout than pessimists.

A landmark study by my former research partner Dr. Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania found that optimistic sales professionals outsell their pessimistic counterparts by 56%. As a result of this study done at MetLife, the insurance giant changed its hiring practices to include a screening for optimism, which improved retention and saved the company tens of millions of dollars.

But thinking like an optimist isn’t all rosy. One study found that while most successful entrepreneurs will call themselves optimists, optimistic entrepreneurs earn 30% less than pessimistic ones on average. That might be because they are taking greater risks and failing more often. (That same study found that optimistic employees do earn more than pessimistic colleagues.) But studies highlighting the negative side of a more positive mindset are few.

Optimism sometimes gets a bad rap because people often connect it with Pollyanna and her rose-colored glasses ignoring reality. One time a manager told me during an upcoming restructuring at his company that the best way to help his team stay positive was to not talk about what was going on. You can imagine it was no surprise when a few months later I received word from his boss that he had been let go for mismanaging his department. Optimism does not mean ignoring reality. In our work, we define optimism as the expectation of good things to happen, and the belief that behavior matters, especially in the face of challenges. A rational optimist is able to see reality for what it is, while maintaining the belief that actions can improve the situation. This solution-focused mindset propels positive action. Rational pessimists also see what’s really happening; they just don’t believe there is much they can do about it. For pessimists, circumstances overwhelm. For optimists, mindset wins.

Optimism is a lucrative investment for professionals, which is why I’m on the road more than 120 days a year (with my family, including two kids under 5-years-old in tow — yes, I am an optimist!) to help employees assess and strengthen their optimism. It’s just like a muscle, and you can build it.  Here are some of the same positive habits I share during my keynotes at organizations to help build optimism:

Focus on what’s working: Start the day by practicing gratitude. Instead of grabbing your phone first thing to check the headlines or your email, create a “media moat” and start your day by listing three things you’re grateful for, and why. This two-minute daily practice rewired elderly pessimists to become more optimistic after just two weeks.

 

Seek progress, not perfection: Don’t wait until you’ve perfected the plan. Whether you’re trying to switch roles at work or launch a new idea, waiting for perfection can be your greatest enemy. Set a meaningful goal, and take the smallest measurable step towards achieving that goal. That win will propel continued positive action as your brain gets a boost from perceiving progress.

Meaningfully connect with others: Send a two-minute email each day to someone new and different, praising or thanking them. This habit is my all-time favorite, because these notes often brighten the day of family members, colleagues, or friends, but they are also good for you. Your brain starts to more deeply recognize all the people who care about you. Social connection is the greatest predictor of happiness, and it is strongly correlated with optimism.

Consider testing your optimism before and after adopting these habits using the Success Scale. These small habits could help you take back 145 stress-free days each year, not to mention fuel your happiness and work success as well.


Michelle Gielan, a national CBS News anchor turned UPenn positive psychology researcher, is now the bestselling author of Broadcasting Happiness. She is partnered with Arianna Huffington to research how transformative stories fuel success.

Read more...

Want to Get That One Project Off Your Plate? Try This

Want to Get That One Project Off Your Plate? Try This

All of us have tasks we don’t want to do. Maybe they’re boring or time-consuming or stressful — but we’ve still got to get them done. One way to push yourself is to involve other people. Delegate part of the task, complete the project with someone else, or simply be around others who are working (in a library or a coffee shop, say) — the positive social pressure can create accountability. If looping in other people doesn’t do the trick, pair that approach with another one, such as not letting yourself check email or social media until you’ve finished the project. Or you can plan your time around the task: Block off a few minutes every day, or a few hours every week, to make some progress. No matter what, don’t let the unpleasant task keep lingering. The longer you put it off, the more it will wear on you, and the more unpleasant it will seem.

Adapted from “How to Motivate Yourself to Do Things You Don’t Want to Do,” by Elizabeth Grace Saunders

Read more...

How to Get Through an Extremely Busy Time at Work

You’re an accountant deep in tax season, a junior doctor in residency, or an entrepreneur juggling a startup and an actual baby. Many of us go through seasons of life when we have very little personal time. Others may be committed to jobs that regularly involve intense and long hours, creating a long-term lack of rest.

While this kind of overwork is not ideal, there are undoubtedly situations in which it becomes a necessity or makes personal sense. I’ve certainly done it for periods of my life, for instance, in the lead-up to exams or to put final polishes on my books. At times like this, when having full weekend off seems like a distant dream, advice on the importance of maintaining work-life balance, reducing the stress, and getting enough sleep can feel like a slap in the face. You don’t need to be scolded to work less. You need practical tips for surviving and thriving when you have to be fully committed. Here are some strategies that can help:

Use Premack’s principle.
Premack’s principle (as it applies here) is to use an easier behavior as a reward for a harder behavior. For instance, you can reward yourself for finishing a cognitively demanding task (like writing a complex report) by completing a low-key but necessary task, like running an errand that helps you stay organized. This approach can help you pace yourself during your work day, ensuring that you get regular breaks during which your mind can shift into a more relaxed gear, while still being productive. Think of it like recovering from bursts of running by walking instead of stopping.

Compartmentalize.
Tasks you actually enjoy can become tense, unpleasant experiences if, while you’re doing them, you’re mentally elsewhere, feeling stressed and anxious about the other hundred things on your list. What’s quite pleasurable or satisfying for you, even though it’s time-consuming? Perhaps it’s nutting out how best to present an intricate data visualization. Maybe it’s rehearsing speeches in front of friends or family.

You and Your Team Series

Stress

If you know the task is important and you’re approaching it efficiently, allow yourself to enjoy it. For recurrent hard assignments, think about the parts of it you like best at the beginning, middle, and end stages. For instance, I like listening to my Mac auto-read aloud drafts of my blog posts when doing my final edits. It’s satisfying to find those last few instances where I’ve repeated a word, made a typo, or the melody of a sentence is wrong. I also like the beginning stages of projects in which I get to top up my brain with broad searches on Google Scholar, and the middle stages when I’m wrestling with parts of what I’m writing that aren’t working but when my overall structure is in place and sound. By articulating distinct, enjoyable aspects of tasks, you can be more mindful and savor them.

Save small scraps of time for mental rest.
When you’re very busy, it’s tempting to try to cram productive activity, like responding to email or thinking through decisions, into any small crack of time. This could be when you’re standing in line at the supermarket, waiting for a presentation to start, or in the five minutes between finishing one thing and joining a meeting. When you’re slammed, it can seem essential to work during these moments. However, you don’t have to. Instead, consider using brief waiting times for true mental breaks. Take some slow breaths, drop your shoulders, and just chill.

You don’t need to take an all-or-nothing approach to this tip, of course. If using small scraps of time to keep work moving sometimes suits you, keep doing it Monday to Friday, but, on the weekend, consider giving yourself those little breaks. Find the balance that works for you.

Add physical decompression rituals to your day.
When we’re overloaded, we can hold a lot of physical tension. This is partly due to our in-built fight/flight/freeze response to fear or stress. For instance, the evolutionary basis of balled fists is your cave-person self preparing to run or punch. Some people breathe faster when they’re stressed. Some adopt an aggressive, dominant tone of voice or body language. Since these reactions are often unconscious, you’ll need prompts to correct them.

Try using context triggers — deciding which moments in the day you’ll use to physically decompress. For instance, maybe you can take some slow breaths whenever you go to the bathroom, or just after you wake up or just before you get into bed.  You can also use emotions as triggers, like “When I notice I feel stressed, I’ll scan my body for tension and soften and release any spots I find.” If you’re not sure how to do this, just try opening and closing your fists a few times, clenching and unclenching your jaw, or scrunching and dropping your shoulders. Our thoughts, emotions, and bodily reactions are a feedback loop. When you mimic the physiology of someone who is relaxed, you’ll find that your thinking becomes less closed, and psychologically challenging activities in which you need to think openly, like taking in feedback, will seem easier.

Pair pleasure experiences with other activities.
In my book, The Healthy Mind Toolkit, I wrote about how people often put off pleasure, especially when they feel too busy or undeserving because they haven’t gotten enough done. You can buffer yourself against the stress of feeling rushed and overloaded if you recurrently pair simple sources of pleasure with particular activities you’re not as excited to do. For instance, I pack peanut butter sandwiches whenever I fly, which is about the only time I ever eat them, and now the two experiences are mentally linked. No matter how stressed I am about my trip or all the work I need to do before, during and after it, I feel just a little bit more relaxed because I’ve packed that treat for myself. Or, if you love podcasts, perhaps you have a routine of listening to specific shows on your commute home each day of the week. If what you love isn’t as simple as sandwiches or podcasts, set aside just a bit of consistent time to indulge in your interest, so you’ve removed decision-making as a barrier. For instance, if cooking is your passion, perhaps you whip up a big batch of something on Sundays that you can then take as lunch for the week.

Just to be clear: I’m not saying that you can life-hack your way through being a permanent workaholic. But, during those times when, on balance, overworking makes short- or long-term sense (or is a necessity), you need some harm minimization strategies. It’s important to pace yourself and not let your obligations consume you.


Alice Boyes, PhD is a former clinical psychologist turned writer and is author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit and The Anxiety Toolkit.


 
Read more...

How Busy Working Parents Can Make Time for Mindfulness

It seems everywhere you look these days someone is touting the benefits of mindfulness — a practice that Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, describes simply as “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” Research shows that people who practice mindfulness are less stressed, more focused and better able to regulate their emotions.

But, if you’re a busy working parent, how do you build mindfulness into an already-packed day? Those of us with kids and jobs often feel tired and rushed. We’re constantly multi-tasking, juggling personal and professional responsibilities, and feeling stressed about all we can’t get done. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, 56 percent of working parents say they find it difficult to balance their time between work and family. Though I now counsel others on how to break this cycle, I can certainly relate to it.

Years ago, I worked as Twitter’s head of learning and development when the company was growing 350% year after year. It was like being on a rocket ship, and I loved the work. But I found myself struggling to stay connected to my family. I can remember the afternoon my son’s school called to make me aware that no one had come to pick him up. He was in first grade at the time, and I burst into tears.

Although I was already committed to a mindfulness practice (I would sometimes sneak away to the meditation and yoga room we had in the office), I was still having trouble figuring out a way to weave presence and awareness into my day. Here’s the solution that I came up with and now recommend to others:

Start by spending a few minutes writing down what you do each day. It might look something like this: wake, coffee, family breakfast, pack lunches, prep for school day, walk dog, shower for work, drive car, train ride, walk to office, work all day, walk to train, car ride home, dinner, bath time, family reading or games, bedtime.

Now consider where mindfulness practice can fit in. For example:

Coffee: Make sure to pause before the first sip. Smell the aroma, feel the heat of the mug on your hand, and take three intentional breaths. Now enjoy.

Train ride: Once you’re settled into your seat, set a timer for five to ten minutes and practice mediation. Sit in silence and focus on your breathing or use a mindfulness app on your phone to listen to a guided meditation. Your eyes can be open or closed depending on the situation and what feels safe or comfortable.

Work: Each time you sit down to your computer, take a pause. Close your eyes, notice the sensation of your feet on the floor, your body in your chair, feel your breath come in and out of your body. Continue with your day.

Dinner: As you are preparing the meal, spend a moment reflecting on where the food came from. Imagine who planted it, picked it, or drove it to the store where you purchased it. On occasions when your entire family is sitting around the table at the same time, take a moment to feel grateful.

Bedtime: Decide on a ritual that cultivates mindful awareness. For younger children, consider having them put a stuffed animal on their belly as each of you count how many times the animal rides up and down with their breath. If your children are older try a head, heart, gut check-in at bedtime. Is the mind busy or calm in this moment? Are any emotions present or lingering from the day? Is there anything that needs to be shared or said that has not been already?

Does mindfulness seem a little more doable now? Research indicates that it takes just eight weeks of relatively regular practice to make positive changes to the brain. But if we wait until we have enough “bandwidth” to devote big blocks of time to it, we may never start. For working parents, my advice is to instead insert just a few small moments of mindfulness into your day, even — and especially — when life seems too busy, hectic and out of control.

Michelle Gale is a mindful parenting educator and a former head of learning and leadership development for Twitter. She is the author of the new book Mindful Parenting in a Messy World (Motivational Press, 2017.

 
Read more...

4 Ways Busy People Sabotage Themselves

You’ve left an important task undone for weeks. It’s hanging over you, causing daily anxiety. And yet instead of actually doing it, you do a hundred other tasks instead.

Or you’ve been feeling guilty about not replying to an email, even though replying would only take 10 minutes.

Or maybe the last time you needed stamps, you went to the post office to buy a single stamp because you couldn’t find the 100-pack you purchased a few months ago. You know it’s around… somewhere. But you just don’t have the time to clean your desk to find it.

These self-sabotaging patterns maintain a cycle of always having too much to do (or at least feeling like that’s the case). If you’re chronically tapped out of the immense amount of mental energy required for planning, decision making, and coping, it’s easy to get lured into these traps.  Let’s unpack the problems in more detail and discuss solutions.

1. You keep ploughing away without stepping back and prioritizing.

When we’re busy and stressed, we often default to working on whatever has the most imminent deadline, even if it’s not particularly important. Stress causes our focus to narrow to the point where we’re just keeping going, like a hamster on a wheel. We respond to emails and go through the motions of getting things done, without actually stepping back and considering what’s most important to work on. You might find yourself spending several hours on a task that wasn’t that important to begin with, even though you have a mountain of other things to be doing.

The solution is to step back and work on tasks that are important but not urgent. Use the “pay yourself first” principle to do items that are on your priority list first, before you jump to responding to other people’s needs. You might not be able to follow this principle every day, but aim to follow it for several days of the week.

2. You completely overlook easy solutions for getting things done.

When we’re stressed, we don’t think of easy solutions that are staring us in the face. Again, this happens because we’re in tunnel vision mode, doing what we usually do and not thinking flexibly. Especially if you’re a perfectionist, when you’re overloaded it’s likely that you’ll find yourself overcomplicating solutions to problems. For example, lots of busy people don’t keep enough food in the house. This leads to a cycle of stopping in at the grocery store on an almost daily basis to pick up one or two things, or a restaurant habit that ends up being expensive, time consuming, fattening, or all of the above. The solution seems horribly complicated: hours of meal planning, shopping, and cooking.

To get out of the trap of overlooking easy solutions, take a step back and question your assumptions. If you tend to think in extremes, is there an option between the two extremes you could consider? (To solve my no-food conundrum, I bought a $150 freezer and now keep at least a dozen or so healthyish frozen meals in there, as well as frozen bread and other staples. I’m not Martha Stewart, but neither am I grabbing takeout for every meal.)

On a broader level, breaks in which you allow your mind to wander are the main solution to the problem of tunnel vision. Even short breaks can allow you to break out of too narrow thinking. Sometimes, a bathroom break can be enough. Try anything that allows you to get up out of your seat and walk around. This can be a reason not to outsource some errands. They give an opportunity to allow your mind to wander while you’re physically on the move, an ideal background for producing insights and epiphanies.

3. You “kick the can down the road” instead of creating better systems for solving recurring problems.

 

When our mental energy is tapped out, we’ll tend to keep doing something ourselves that we could delegate or outsource, because we don’t have the upfront cognitive oomph we need to engage a helper and set up a system. For example, say you could really benefit from some help cleaning your house, but finding someone trustworthy, agreeing on a schedule, and training them on how you like things done feels more taxing than you can deal with right now (or ever). And so you put it off, week after week, doing the work yourself — even though even reallocating the time spent on one cleaning session would realistically be enough to hire someone else to do it.

Remedies for recurring problems are often simple if you can step back enough to get perspective. Always forgetting to charge your phone? Keep an extra power cord at the office. Always correcting the same mistakes? Ask your team to come up with a checklist so they can catch their own errors. Travel for work a lot? Create a “master packing list” so that trying to decide what to bring doesn’t require so much mental effort. Carve out time to create and tweak these kinds of systems. You might take a personal day from work to get started, and then spend an hour once a week on it to keep up; author Gretchen Rubin calls this her once-a-week “power hour.” When you start improving your systems, it creates a virtuous cycle in which you have more energy and confidence available for doing this further. By gradually accumulating winning strategies over time, you can significantly erode your problem, bit by bit.

4. You use avoid or escape methods for coping with anxiety.

People who are overloaded will have a strong impulse to avoid or escape anxiety. Avoidance could be putting off a discussion with your boss or avoiding telling a friend you can’t make it to her wedding. Escape could be rushing into an important decision, because you want to escape needing to think about it further. This can lead to a pattern of excessively delaying some decisions and making others impulsively. Avoidance and escape can also take other forms — an extra glass of wine (or three) after work, binge-watching TV, or mindlessly scrolling through Facebook. It might even be ticking less-important things off your to-do list to avoid the urgent task that’s making you anxious.

If you want to deal constructively with situations that trigger anxiety for you, you’ll need to engineer some flexibility and space into your life so that you can work through your emotions and thoughts when your anxiety is set off. With practice, you’ll start to notice when you’re just doing something to avoid doing something else.

If you can relate to the patterns described, you’re not alone.  These issues aren’t personal flaws in your character or deficits in your self-control. They’re patterns that are very relatable to many people. You may be highly conscientious and self-disciplined by nature but still struggle with these habits. If you’re in this category you’re probably particularly frustrated by your patterns and self-critical. Be compassionate with yourself and aim to chip away at your patterns rather than expecting to give your habits a complete makeover or eradicate all self-sabotaging behaviors from your life.


Alice Boyes, PhD is a former clinical psychologist turned writer and is author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit and The Anxiety Toolkit.


This article is about PRODUCTIVITY
Read more...

How to Manage an Employee Who’s Having a Personal Crisis

We all have life events that distract us from work from time to time — an ailing family member, a divorce, the death of a friend. You can’t expect someone to be at their best at such times. But as a manager what can you expect? How can you support the person to take care of themselves emotionally while also making sure they are doing their work (or as much of it as they are able to)?

What the Experts Say
Managing an employee who is going through a stressful period is “one of the real challenges all bosses face,” says Linda Hill, professor at Harvard Business School and author of Being the Boss. Most of us try to keep work and home separate, but “we all have situations in which our personal and professional lives collide,” and how you handle these situations with your employees is often a test of your leadership. You need to be empathetic and compassionate while also being professional and keeping your team productive. It’s a fine line to maintain, says Annie McKee, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and author of How to Be Happy at Work.Here’s how to manage an employee going through a personal crisis.

Make yourself available
“People don’t always feel comfortable telling their boss” that a parent is gravely ill or that they feel stressed out in the wake of a crumbling relationship, says McKee. They may be too overwhelmed, or embarrassed that it is causing them to be late repeatedly or to miss deadlines. Often a manager’s first challenge is simply recognizing the warning signs that an employee is going through a difficult time. Invest time in building good relationships with employees so you’ll be able to detect any problems early on. If you maintain an atmosphere of compassion in the office, people are more likely to proactively come to you when they’re going through a tough period.

Don’t pry
As a leader, you need to be able to show empathy and care, but you also must avoid becoming an employee’s personal confidante. After all, your job as manager is not to be the office shrink. So don’t ask a bunch of questions about the employee’s problems. As the person with more power in the relationship, the employee may feel compelled to tell you more than they’re comfortable with. “You want to build a caring relationship with employees, not a friendly relationship,” says Hill. Many managers make the mistake of confusing being liked with being trusted or respected. A good manager “has the ability to read and understand other people’s needs and concerns,” says McKee, while still keeping everyone focused on the major task at hand: accomplishing work.

Listen first, suggest second
When you speak to an employee about their current struggles, “listen first instead of immediately advocating for some particular course of action,” says Hill. They may just want a sounding board about the difficulties of caring for a sick relative or an opportunity to explain why a divorce has affected their attention span. If you immediately suggest they take a leave of absence or adjust their schedule, they may be put off if that’s not what they were thinking. Instead, ask what both of you can do together to address the issue of performance during the difficult period. “Try to use the word ‘we,’” advises Hill, as in “How can we support you?” The employee may have an idea for a temporary arrangement — some time off, handing off a project to a colleague, or a more flexible schedule for a few weeks — that is amenable to you. 

Know what you can offer
You may be more than willing to give a grieving employee several weeks of leave, or to offer a woman with a high-risk pregnancy the ability to work from home. But the decision isn’t always yours to make. “You may be very compassionate but you may be in a company where that’s not the way it works,” says Hill. Of course, if you have the leeway to get creative with a flexible schedule, an adjusted workload, or a temporary work-from-home arrangement, do what you think is best. But also be sure you understand your company’s restrictions on short- and long-term leave, and what, if any, bureaucratic hurdles exist before promising anything to your employee. Explain that you need to check what’s possible before you both commit to an arrangement.

If the employee needs counseling or drug or alcohol services, there may be resources provided by your company’s medical insurance that you can recommend. But investigate the quality of those resources first. “The last thing you want to do is send a suffering employee to avail themselves of a program or supposedly helpful people who then fall short,” says McKee.

Check in regularly to make sure they’re doing ok  
Whether you’ve settled on a solution yet or not, check in with your employee occasionally by dropping by their desk (keeping their privacy in mind) or sending a brief email. Not only will your employee appreciate that you care, you’ll get a better sense of how they are coping. “You can simply ask, ‘Do you feel like you’ve got a handle on it?,’” says Hill. “And if they do, you can say, ‘Let’s just keep in touch so neither one of us has too many surprises. Or if you get a little over your head, I hope you’ll feel free to come to me and we can do some more problem solving and make further adjustments if necessary.’”

Consider workload
You also have to consider whether prolonged absences will adversely affect clients or team members. If so, mitigate those risks by easing the person’s workload. If there are people who are willing and able to take on some of the individual’s projects, you can do that temporarily. Just be sure to reward the people who are stepping in. And then set timelines for any adjustments you make. If the person knows that their situation will last for 6-8 weeks, set a deadline for you to meet and discuss what will happen next. Of course, many situations will be open-ended and in those cases, you can set interim deadlines when you get together to check in on how things are going and make adjustments as necessary. Whatever arrangements you make, be crystal clear about your expectations during this time period. Be realistic about what they can accomplish and set goals they can meet. “For this to be useful,” says McKee, “it’s got to be specific and it has be grounded in reality.”

Be transparent and consistent
Be conscious of the fact that other employees will take note of how you treat the struggling colleague and will likely expect similar consideration if they too run into difficult times in the future. “If you want to get productive work out of people, they need to trust you and believe that you’ll treat them fairly,” says Hill. Remember that policies may be precedent-setting. Every situation will be unique, but you want to be comfortable with policies in case you are called to apply them again. Keep in mind that solutions could apply to “the next person and the next and the next after that,” says McKee.

Principles to Remember

Do:

 
  • Set a tone of compassion in the office. It will not only give your employees confidence to approach you with struggles, but also give you the ability to spot warnings signs.
  • Be creative with solutions. A flexible schedule may allow a person to maintain their output without much disruption.
  • Check in from time to time, both to reassure the employee and to make sure that further adjustments or accommodations aren’t needed.

Don’t:

  • Act more like a therapist than a manager. Your heart may be in the right place, but don’t get involved in your employee’s personal problems.
  • Make promises you can’t keep. Research your company’s policies before you offer time off or alternative work arrangements.
  • Treat similar situations among employees differently. Employees will note — and resent — the inconsistency.

Case Study #1: Set realistic work goals with the employee and delegate some of their work
Alicia Shankland, a senior HR executive with more than 20 years of experience, managed two different women through the intensely stressful, emotional months of fertility treatment. In both cases, the treatments continued for nearly a year, so the women were away from work frequently for medical appointments and procedures. They also experienced severe ups and downs from the hormone drugs and the emotional devastation of miscarriages.

What’s more, the schedule of fertility treatments didn’t fit neatly into any of the existing standard HR leave policies. “There was no way to make a 30-60-90 day plan to accommodate all the unknowns,” Shankland said.

In each case, she endeavored to make as many allowances as possible, and the women used sick time, flex time, and personal days. She worked with each of them to set concrete, realistic work goals that allowed them to focus on the most critical deliverables while delegating other duties, and teammates pitched in to make sure duties weren’t neglected or dropped. “We managed through it as a tight-knit team,” she says.

A happy outcome was that the team was well prepared to cover for the maternity leaves that were eventually taken by each woman. “It actually showed us all that we could play multiple roles,” Shankland says. When the women returned from their respective maternity leaves, they were both at “110 percent.” Each had “exceptionally successful years at the company that more than made up for the time when they needed extra hands to make it through.”

Case Study #2: Act with compassion and offer flexibility if possible
When David*, a professional at a financial services firm, heard that the husband of one of his team members had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, he knew it was going to be a long and emotional roller coaster for her. Within weeks of the initial, grave diagnosis, doctors suggested that the cancer may not be spreading as fast as initially thought, and that the husband may have months to live, rather than mere weeks. That did little to lessen the emotional devastation. “It was so difficult to predict,” he said. It’s such an emotional time, and “you can’t ask for a timeframe. She wants to have a diagnosis and she wants to be able to maintain a regular work schedule. But she just doesn’t know.” From a manager’s standpoint, he said, “you have to take that burden off the employee.”

David recognized that it would be better to offer the woman more flexibility, a shift she happily embraced. The management team restructured her job away from her responsibilities in client services, which demanded high close rates and availability, to duties that weren’t as time sensitive. “This provided our team with less reliance on her and also gave her the freedom to focus on her important family matters that were the priority,” he said. She also agreed to switch her compensation from salaried to hourly, which allowed the firm the flexibility to carry on the arrangement indefinitely.

Ten months after the diagnosis, she was still with the company in the modified arrangement. “You have to act with compassion,” said David, “while also being responsible to clients and other employees.” Critical to the firm’s success? Making sure they could continue to be flexible. “Sometimes you just don’t know how a situation will end,” David said. “You need to keep an open mind.”

*Not his real name.


Carolyn O’Hara is a writer and editor based in New York City. She’s worked at The Week, PBS NewsHour, and Foreign Policy. Follow her on Twitter at @carolynohara1.

 

Read more...

How to Work with Someone Who’s Always Stressed Out

We all know people who seem to be constantly stressed out — who claim to be buried in work, overloaded with projects, and without a minute to spare. Colleagues like that can be difficult to work with, but you probably don’t have a choice. How do you deal with coworkers who can’t handle stress? Should you address the issue directly? Or try other tactics to help them calm down and focus? And how can you protect yourself from their toxic emotions?

What the Experts Say
Stress is part of everyday life. “We all go through periods when we are dealing with a lot of stress,” says Caroline Webb, author of How to Have a Good Day. “Those periods might last 10 minutes, 10 days, or 10 months.” But for certain people, “stress is a habitual pattern.” These folks always “feel overwhelmed, constantly stretched, and always out of their depth.” Working closely with a person like this can be a real challenge. “But you mustn’t make them the villain,” says Holly Weeks, author of Failure to Communicate. “Don’t think, What can I do to change this person? Think about how to neutralize the situation and what you do for yourself.” Whether you regard your colleague with annoyance or sympathy, here are some tips on how to collaborate more effectively.

Don’t judge
First things first: Check that you’re not being too judgmental. “There’s an enormous range in people’s tolerance level for stress, and stress that may feel toxic to you is stimulating to someone else,” Weeks explains. “So unless you’re a psychologist, judging someone’s way of handling stress as inappropriate is fraught.” Try to think of your colleague’s disposition “as not a character flaw but a characteristic.” Webb notes that your coworker may just be responding to the “always-on nature of work” nowadays. “There was a time when we could go home and forget about work until the next day,” but the modern era’s “pressure to stay connected” weighs on some more than others.

Acknowledge the stress
It’s important to make the stressed-out person feel “seen and heard,” Webb says. “Say something like, ‘I notice you were working late last night, and it wasn’t the first time. How are things going?’” Then, after your colleague recites the usual catalog of pressures, “say, ‘That must be hard.’ It doesn’t matter if you believe it or not. That’s how this person is feeling. Acknowledging it gives you both a chance to move beyond.” At the same time, Weeks says, you mustn’t “enable” or agitate your colleague by making comments like, “I don’t know how you can you stand it! This company is working you to death!” That’s not helpful. Instead, she says, say something more neutral: “You have a lot of balls in the air.”

 Offer praise
One of the best ways to “get a stressed person out of fight-or-flight mode” is to “pay a compliment,” Webb says. “This person is feeling out of control, incompetent, and disrespected. A compliment is your easy way to help them get back to their better self,” she says. Praising someone’s performance in the workplace gives the person an alternative “self-image of being a competent, positive professional,” Weeks adds. Cite something specific. For instance, you could say, “The way you handled that presentation last week was admirable. You were so calm and collected and the clients were impressed.” Appreciation can be a powerful intervention. “When you tell people how you see them, they step into that role.”

Offer your assistance
Another strategy is to offer your support. “Say, ‘Is there anything that I, or anyone on my team, can do to help to you?’” Webb suggests. “Chances are that you can’t do anything,” but your offer will “give the other person a chance to think about solutions” and “feel that he’s not out on his own.” Be clear, however, that this isn’t “a blanket invitation” to be used anytime, anywhere,” Weeks says. “Give caveats about what you’re able to do,” she adds. The message should be, “I’m a limited resource, but I want to help you if you are in a pickle.”

Break down your requests
When dealing with stressed-out colleagues, you should think about ways to “reduce their cognitive load,” Webb says. “Don’t add to their sense of being overwhelmed.” You might, for instance, shorten your emails to the person, split your larger requests into several smaller steps, or encourage the idea of dividing work into manageable chunks. “Be smart about how you break down your ask,” she adds. But don’t go too far. You’ll have to “reconcile” your colleague’s deficiencies with your own desire and need to complete tasks. After all, “your job is to get done what you need to get done.”

Ask for a read
If your coworkers’ anxieties seem to be having an impact on their ability to focus — and you’re genuinely worried about their health — Weeks recommends asking them to provide more detail. “Say, ‘On a scale of one to 10, how worried should I be about your level of stress?’ Signal that you can’t read how bad it is for them.” The answers may surprise you. “They may tell you, ‘Oh, this is a five,’ in which case you don’t need to call an ambulance. Or they may reveal that their wife has cancer and they’re going through something very hard.” To a large degree, the roots of the tension “are none of your business.”

Get some distance
Stress can be contagious, so “have the self-awareness to know the effect it’s having on you,” Webb says. “When someone is toxic and draining your energy, you sometimes have to figure out how you can get distance from that person or limit your interactions with them.” Of course, this isn’t always easy — particularly if you work in the same department and are assigned to the same projects. In that case, Weeks recommends, look at the bright side of the situation. “When it comes to office characters, the laconic, laid-back, doesn’t-carry-their-weight type is the person who’s going to leave you in a jam,” she explains. “While you may not prefer the stress case’s temperament, it’s less of a problem.”

Principles to Remember 

Do:

  • Offer support by asking if there’s anything you can do to help. This will help your stressed-out colleague feel less alone.
  • Improve your colleague’s self-image by offering praise.
  • Think about ways to reduce the person’s cognitive load by, for instance, breaking work up into more-manageable chunks.

Don’t:

  • Judge. Your colleague may express stress differently than you, but that’s not necessarily a character flaw.
  • Enable the person. Simply acknowledge the stress, then try to help your colleague move beyond it.
  • Get sucked in. Figure out ways to get distance from your colleague.

Case Study #1: Offer your help and perspective
Karoli Hindriks, founder and CEO of Jobbatical, the international job placement firm, previously worked at a company where she supervised a highly anxious marketing executive. The colleague — we’ll call her Jenny — “was so overwhelmed and stressed out by her work that her overall performance was really beginning to suffer,” recalls Karoli.“Everyone could see how hard she was working. But I also saw the dark circles under her eyes, her jumpy mood, and her irritability.”

Karoli knew that it wasn’t her place to judge; Jenny just seemed to be wired that way. Instead, she offered support and talked about the work that Jenny had to do in terms of small steps, rather than a single large, daunting task. “I asked her to imagine a messy room that she needed to clean up. I told her to think of stepping into that room and seeing the clothes scattered all over the floor, the mountain of candy wrappers under the bed, and the layer of dust covering every surface.”

“I told her she had two options: You can give up, fall apart, and surrender to the mess, or you can pick up the first pair of socks you see and feel good about being one step closer to cleaning up that mess. Step by step, inch by inch, item by item, you will create order.”

Karoli says that message got through to Jenny. “I started to see her sharing more of her small victories and how happy that was making her,” she says. “Her performance improved drastically, and her team members felt comfortable communicating with her again.”

Case Study #2: Be empathetic and praise your stressed-out colleague’s strengths
Earlier in her career, Jan Bruce worked as a publisher and editor at a consumer health and wellness magazine. “It was a high-stress environment in a pressure-cooker industry,” she recalls. “There were a lot of big personalities strutting around the office. The culture was toxic, and people were inclined to be disparaging.”

One of her closest colleagues — we’ll call her Abby — became consumed by the strain of her job. “She had been very successful in the organization and had gotten many promotions, so she was under extreme pressure,” Jan explains. At a certain point, she started “working so hard that she was unable to focus. The stress was making her sick.”

Jan remembers approaching Abby with a “spirit of empathy” and concern. “I said, ‘I know that you’re under a lot of pressure. How are you coping?’ which made Abby want to talk to me and confide in me.”

Through subsequent conversations, Jan saw that Abby was determined “to achieve and be successful,” but she also “needed to give herself a break” and let some of the stress go. “She had an attitude of, ‘I will overcome this. If I just work longer and harder, everything will be okay.’”

Jan responded by complimenting her skills and abilities. “I said, ‘You are doing all of this great work, and you’ve been put in charge of a whole new division, plus you have four small children at home. No matter what you’re feeling today, you are enormously smart and competent. You have to remember that. If you ever forget, I’m here to remind you.’”

Abby appreciated the support, and the two ultimately developed a strong working relationship.

Today Jan is the cofounder and CEO of MeQuilibrium, a software platform that helps companies and workers better manage their productivity, health, and well-being.

Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist in Boston and a lecturer at Wesleyan University.  Her work has been published in The New York Times, USA Today, and The Financial Times.

 

HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW: https://hbr.org/2017/08/how-to-work-with-someone-whos-always-stressed-out?utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter_daily&utm_campaign=mtod&referral=00203&spMailingID=18878487&spUserID=OTA1Njk1ODMwMAS2&spJobID=1181523917&spReportId=MTE4MTUyMzkxNwS2

Read more...

Are You Outsourcing Your Stress Management?

Are you stressed?

Given that the World Health Organisation has called stress “the health epidemic of the 21st Century” your answer could well be in the affirmative.

What do you do to manage down your stress? Asking clients yields: I go for a long weekend away to get my head straight; I numb out on Netflix; I go to gym and pound the treadmill; I go for a sail to take my mind off work; I drink red wine; I go for a massage; I go for a run / bike ride; I head for the spa; etc. And there are plenty of other new options coming up, for example: oxygen therapy / bars that provide relief from stress.

What’s common in the list above? They are all options that outsource your stress management.

There is a good chance you’ve never thought of it like this … but I urge you to do so. Why?

Because I think these activities are palliative.  Sure, you are less stressed once you’ve done any of them but – and this is my point – the same you then returns to the same environment which caused your stress in the first place. Are you going to get stressed again? You betcha.

(Just to clear something up before I continue. I’m not saying don’t do any of the above activities; just do them for the pure enjoyment of them. If you love sailing then go sailing and enjoy yourself fully rather than using some of the time to destress.)

True stress management is an inside job (insourcing) and this, I believe, is accomplished by adopting the latest neuroscience practices. I’ve done this myself and can attest to the quite dramatic change that has occurred in me. Neuroscience practices literally alter the brain for a better outcome.

For any new practice to be effective they have to become habits but once they do you can “armour up” your stress defences 24/7. In my research, and personal experience, you will: have greater confidence; become more influential; be more productive; have better relationships; obtain greater resilience; and become more self-aware. I have!

I’ve identified 24 practices to bring about the above. You don’t have to embrace all of them from the get-go and neither do you have to practice everything within them. Life is a marathon. The practices I’ve identified are:

If you would like to know more about why you should be insourcing your stress management, please contact me:

021-674-3820  |  083-414-5756  

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  |  www.PeterMoss.co.za

 

Peter Moss holds a Diploma in Practitioner Coaching. He is further qualified in The Hay Group’s Emotional & Social Competency Inventory (ESCI) and Gary Norton & Associates’ Emotional Maturity Inventory, both EQ/EI Assessment models and is a Certified Level 1 Qualified Strengths Deployment Inventory Facilitator from Personal Strengths South Africa (SDI is the cornerstone tool of Relationship Awareness Theory). Peter has extensive experience in executive and business coaching, across a variety of companies and industries.

 

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/you-outsourcing-your-stress-management-peter-moss?published=t

Read more...

Pressure Doesn’t Have to Turn into Stress

When I was in my late twenties, I was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Doctors operated and told me to hope for the best. I returned to Japan, where I was working, and tried to forget about it. The tumors returned a year later, this time in my liver. After a long search, the surgeons found a new procedure to remove them, but I knew this was, again, perhaps only a temporary fix. I was a mess for the next six months. The hardest part of my illness was my constant anxiety about it coming back.

Then I met a man who changed my outlook. Dr. Derek Roger had spent 30 years researching why some people in difficult situations become overwhelmed, while others persevere. He taught me everything he’d learned, and as I started applying it, my anxiety subsided, even though my situation didn’t change. In fact, the cancer came back about five years ago and remains relatively stable in my liver. But I no longer worry about it. Derek became my mentor, and over the past 10 years we have trained thousands of leaders to overcome their stress.

The process starts with understanding that stress is caused not by other people or external events, but by your reactions to them. In the workplace, many people blame their high anxiety levels on a boss, job, deadlines, or competing commitments for their time. But peers who face the same challenges do so without stress. Derek and I often meet executives who have high levels of pressure but low levels of stress, and vice versa.

Pressure is not stress. But the former is converted to the latter when you add one ingredient: rumination, the tendency to keep rethinking past or future events, while attaching negative emotion to those thoughts. Of course, leaders must practice reflection — planning for the future or reviewing past lessons — but this is an analytical, short-term process, with positive fallout. Rumination is ongoing and destructive, diminishing your health, productivity, and well-being. Chronic worriers show increased incidence of coronary problems and suppressed immune functioning. Dwelling on the past or the future also takes us away from the present, rendering us unable to complete the work currently on our plates. If you ask ruminators how they are feeling, none will say “happy.” Most feel miserable.

To break this stress-inducing habit, Derek and I recommend four steps:

Wake up. People spend most of their day in a state called “waking sleep.” This is when you pull into the office parking lot but can’t remember the drive there, or when someone in a meeting asks for your opinion but you’ve missed the last few minutes of conversation. Since all rumination happens during this state, the first step is to break out of it. You can do this physically: Stand or sit up, clap your hands, and move your body. Or you can do it mentally: Connect with your senses by noticing what you can hear, see, smell, taste, and feel. The idea is to reconnect with the world.

Control your attention. When you ruminate, your attention gets caught in an unproductive loop, like a hamster on a wheel. You need to redirect yourself to areas in which you can take useful action. Here’s one exercise we encourage executives to use: Draw a circle on a page, and write down all of the things you can control or influence inside of it and all of the things you cannot outside of it. Remind yourself that you can care about externalities — your work, your team, your family — without worrying about them.

Put things in perspective. Ruminators tend to catastrophize, but resilient leaders keep things in perspective for themselves and their teams. We tell people to try three techniques: contrasting (comparing a past stress to the current one, i.e., a major illness versus a missed sale), questioning (asking yourself “How much will this matter in three years’ time?” and “What’s the worst that could happen?” and “How would I survive it?”) and reframing (looking at your challenge from a new angle: “What’s an opportunity in this situation I haven’t yet seen?” or even “What’s funny about this situation?”)

Let go. The final step is often the hardest. If it was easy to let it go, we would have done it already. We find that three techniques help. The first is acceptance: Acknowledge that whether you like the situation or not, it is the way it is. The second is learning the lesson. Your brain will review events until it feels you’ve gained something from them, so ask yourself, “What have I learned from this experience?” The third is action. Sometimes the real solution is not to relax, but to do something about your situation. Ask yourself, “What action is required here?

While struggling with cancer, it took me a couple of years to train myself to follow these steps. But ultimately it worked. My stress levels went down, my health improved, and my career took off. More heartening, I discovered that everything Derek had taught me could be taught to others, with similar results.

Nicholas Petrie is a senior faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership and the lead researcher and creator of its Change Equation, which shows leaders how to change in ways that minmize stress and maximize results. He works with CEOs and their teams to create resilience strategies for organization.

 

Read more...

Beating Burnout

Heavy workloads and deadline pressures are a fact of managerial life. Who doesn’t feel overwhelmed or stretched thin sometimes? But when relentless work stress pushes you into the debilitating state we call burnout, it is a serious problem, affecting not just your own performance and well-being, both on the job and off, but also that of your team and your organization.

Hard data on the prevalence of burnout is elusive since it’s not yet a clinical term separate from stress. Some researchers say that as few as 7% of professionals have been seriously impacted by burnout. But others have documented rates as high as 50% among medical residents and 85% among financial professionals. A 2013 ComPsych survey of more than 5,100 North American workers found that 62% felt high levels of stress, loss of control, and extreme fatigue. Research has also linked burnout to many negative physical and mental health outcomes, including coronary artery disease, hypertension, sleep disturbances, depression, and anxiety, as well as to increased alcohol and drug use. Moreover, burnout has been shown to produce feelings of futility and alienation, undermine the quality of relationships, and diminish long-term career prospects.

Consider the case of Barbara (last name withheld), the CEO of a PR firm that serves technology industry clients. During the 2001 collapse of the dot-com bubble, the challenge of keeping her business afloat added extra stress to an already intense workload. Focused on this “unrelenting hustle,” she neglected her health, lost perspective, and began to doubt her own abilities. Cheryl (not her real name), a partner in the Philadelphia office of a global law firm, hit the same sort of wall after she agreed to take on multiple leadership roles there in addition to managing her full-time legal practice. “I felt like my body was running on adrenaline—trying to do a marathon at a sprint pace—all the time,” she recalls. And yet she couldn’t step back mentally from work. Another executive I know—let’s call him Ari—felt trapped in his role as a consultant at a boutique firm. Toxic internal dynamics and client relationship practices that clashed with his values had eroded his sense of self to the point where he didn’t know how to go on—or get out.

Over the past 15 years as a coach, researcher, and educator, I’ve helped thousands of clients, students, and executive-development program participants in similar predicaments learn to manage the stress that can cause burnout and to ultimately achieve more-sustainable career success. The process involves noticing and acknowledging the symptoms, examining the underlying causes, and developing preventive strategies to counteract your particular pattern of burnout.

Three Components

Thanks to the pioneering research of psychologist Christina Maslach and several collaborators, we know that burnout is a three-component syndrome that arises in response to chronic stressors on the job. Let’s examine each symptom—exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy—in turn.

Exhaustion is the central symptom of burnout. It comprises profound physical, cognitive, and emotional fatigue that undermines people’s ability to work effectively and feel positive about what they’re doing. This can stem from the demands of an always-on, 24/7 organizational culture, intense time pressure, or simply having too much to do, especially when you lack control over your work, dislike it, or don’t have the necessary skills to accomplish it. In a state of exhaustion, you find that you’re unable to concentrate or see the big picture; even routine and previously enjoyable tasks seem arduous, and it becomes difficult to drag yourself both into and out of the office. This is how burnout started for Cheryl. Her fuel tank was low, and it wasn’t being adequately replenished.

Changes at the job, team, or organizational level are often required.

Cynicism, also called depersonalization, represents an erosion of engagement. It is essentially a way of distancing yourself psychologically from your work. Instead of feeling invested in your assignments, projects, colleagues, customers, and other collaborators, you feel detached, negative, even callous. Cynicism can be the result of work overload, but it is also likely to occur in the presence of high conflict, unfairness, and lack of participation in decision making. For example, after ignoring repeated directives to push solutions that didn’t solve clients’ problems, Ari realized that the constant battle with his bosses was affecting his own behavior. “I was talking trash and shading the truth more often than I was being respectful and honest,” he explains. Persistent cynicism is a signal that you have lost your connection to, enjoyment of, and pride in your work.

Inefficacy refers to feelings of incompetence and a lack of achievement and productivity. People with this symptom of burnout feel their skills slipping and worry that they won’t be able to succeed in certain situations or accomplish certain tasks. It often develops in tandem with exhaustion and cynicism because people can’t perform at their peak when they’re out of fuel and have lost their connection to work. For example, although Barbara was a seasoned PR professional, the stress of the dot-com crisis and her resulting fatigue caused her to question her ability to serve clients and keep the business thriving. But burnout can also start with inefficacy if you lack the resources and support to do your job well, including adequate time, information, clear expectations, autonomy, and good relationships with those whose involvement you need to succeed. The absence of feedback and meaningful recognition, which leaves you wondering about the quality of your work and feeling that it’s unappreciated, can also activate this component. This was the situation for Ari, who felt that he was forced to function at a subpar level because his organization didn’t care enough to support good performance.

While each component is correlated with the other two and one often leads to another, individuals also have distinct burnout profiles. Michael Leiter, a longtime collaborator with Maslach, is examining this in his current research. He has found, for example, that some people are mainly exhausted but haven’t yet developed cynicism or begun to doubt their performance. Others are primarily cynical or suffer most from feelings of reduced efficacy. People can also be high on two components and low on one. Although most of the prevention and recovery strategies we’ll discuss are designed to address all three symptoms, it’s a good idea to diagnose your specific burnout profile so that you know where you need the most help.

Recovery and Prevention

Situational factors are the biggest contributors to burnout, so changes at the job, team, or organizational level are often required to address all the underlying issues. However, there are steps you can take on your own once you’re aware of the symptoms and of what might be causing them. Here are some strategies I have found to be successful with my clients.

Prioritize self-care.

It’s essential to replenish your physical and emotional energy, along with your capacity to focus, by prioritizing good sleep habits, nutrition, exercise, social connection, and practices that promote equanimity and well-being, like meditating, journaling, and enjoying nature. If you’re having troubling squeezing such activities into your packed schedule, give yourself a week to assess exactly how you’re spending your time. (You can do this on paper, in a spreadsheet, or on one of the many relevant apps now available.) For each block of time, record what you’re doing, whom you’re with, how you feel (for example, on a scale of 1 to 10, where 0 equals angry or drained and 10 is joyful or energized), and how valuable the activity is. This will help you find opportunities to limit your exposure to tasks, people, and situations that aren’t essential and put you in a negative mood; increase your investment in those that boost your energy; and make space for restful, positive time away from work.

Barbara says she bounced back from her bout of burnout by “learning to do things that fill me up.” Nowadays, when she notices that she’s feeling overly tired or starting to doubt herself, she changes her behavior immediately, making use of flexible work options, hosting walking meetings to get out of the office, and setting limits on the amount of time she spends reading e-mails and taking calls from colleagues and clients.

After her crisis, Cheryl also became much more intentional about her time off. “I find that going away, getting a change of scenery, and ‘taking it down a notch’ allows my body and mind to rejuvenate,” she says. “And my creativity benefits: I have more ‘aha’ moments, and I’m better able to connect the dots.”

Shift your perspective.

While rest, relaxation, and replenishment can ease exhaustion, curb cynicism, and enhance efficacy, they don’t fully address the root causes of burnout. Back at the office, you may still face the same impossible workload, untenable conflicts, or paltry resources. So now you must take a close look at your mindset and assumptions. What aspects of your situation are truly fixed, and which can you change? Altering your perspective can buffer the negative impact of even the inflexible aspects. If exhaustion is a key problem, ask yourself which tasks—including critical ones—you could delegate to free up meaningful time and energy for other important work. Are there ways to reshape your job in order to gain more control or to focus on the most fulfilling tasks? If cynicism is a major issue, can you shield yourself from the parts of the organization that frustrate you, while reengaging in your specific role and the whole enterprise? Or could you build some positive, supportive relationships to counteract the ones that drain you? And if you’re feeling ineffective, what assistance or development might you seek out? If recognition is lacking, could you engage in some personal branding to showcase your work?

Cheryl worked with an executive coach to evaluate and reset her priorities. “I work in a competitive field and I’m a competitive person, which can skew the way you see reality,” she explains. “In the past I didn’t dare say no to leadership opportunities because I was afraid that if I did, everything might disappear.” She says she’s now replaced that “scarcity” mentality with one that instead presumes abundance. “Now if I feel overextended, I’ll ask myself, Is there a way to inject joy back into this role, or is it time to give it up? And I understand that when I want to take something on, I need to decide what to give up to make space.”

Ari did the same sort of deep thinking. Although he had previously felt tethered to his job—the firm was prestigious, the pay was good—he realized that values and ethics meant more to him than any perk, so he eventually quit and started his own business. “After I pushed back a couple of times and said that what we were recommending wasn’t right for the clients, my boss cranked up the pressure on me and assigned me to only the most difficult clients. At one point I said to my wife, ‘It might be good if I got hit by a bus. I don’t want to die, but I’d like to be injured enough that I’d have to stop working for a while.’ She said, ‘That’s it; you’re getting out of there.’” He took a few months to line up some independent consulting assignments and then made the move.

Reduce exposure to job stressors.

You’ll also need to target high-value activities and relationships that still trigger unhealthy stress. This involves resetting the expectations of colleagues, clients, and even family members for what and how much you’re willing to take on, as well as ground rules for working together. You may get pushback. But doubters must know that you’re making these changes to improve your long-term productivity and protect your health.

Barbara, for example, is keenly aware of the aspects of PR work that put people in her field at risk of burnout, so now she actively manages them. “There’s constant pressure, from both clients and the media,” she explains. “But a lot of times, what clients label a crisis is not actually one. Part of the job is helping them put things in perspective. And being a good service professional doesn’t mean you have to be a servant. You shouldn’t be e-mailing at 11 at night on a regular basis.”

Cheryl, too, says she’s learned “not to get carried along in the current” of overwhelming demands. She adds, “You have to know when saying no is the right answer. And it takes courage and conviction to stick to your guns and not feel guilty.” If you find that there are few or no opportunities to shift things in a more positive direction, you might want to contemplate a bigger change, as Ari did.

Seek out connections.

The best antidote to burnout, particularly when it’s driven by cynicism and inefficacy, is seeking out rich interpersonal interactions and continual personal and professional development. Find coaches and mentors who can help you identify and activate positive relationships and learning opportunities. Volunteering to advise others is another particularly effective way of breaking out of a negative cycle.

Given the influence of situational factors on burnout, it’s likely that others in your organization are suffering too. If you band together to offer mutual support, identify problems, and brainstorm and advocate for solutions, you will all increase your sense of control and connection. Barbara participates in a CEO mentoring and advisory program called Vistage. “We’re a small group of CEOs in noncompetitive businesses, so we can share ideas,” she explains. “We spend one day per month together, have great speakers, and serve as advisory boards for each other.” Ari, now a successful solo entrepreneur, has built a network of technical partners who share the same vision, collaborate, and funnel work to one another. He says that running a “client centered” business he believes in and working with people he respects have boosted his engagement tremendously.

CONCLUSION

Burnout can often feel insurmountable. But the sense of being overwhelmed is a signal, not a long-term sentence. By understanding the symptoms and causes and implementing these four strategies, you can recover and build a road map for prevention. Your brutal experience can serve as a turning point that launches you into a more sustainable career and a happier, healthier life.

A version of this article appeared in the November 2016 issue (pp.98–101) of Harvard Business Review.
 
Read more...