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More Stress, Skipped Lunches & Temp Jobs

In the 2011 survey, What’s Keeping HR Leaders Up at Night?, Human Resource Executive® reports that 74% of Human Resources executives say their level of job stress has increased in the past 18 months. Almost one third (32%) blame that on the difficulty they encounter in retaining key talent. “And it absolutely should keep them up at night,” says Wayne Cascio, senior editor of the Journal of World Business and a professor at The Business School at the University of Colorado in Denver. “I would be worried, too, and I’d be especially concerned about replacing high performers.”

This latest survey on the insights and perspectives of 782 senior-level HR executives at organizations nationwide finds that the top two challenges identified in last year’s survey – ensuring employees remain engaged and productive (41%), and retaining key talent as the economy recovers – also remain top of mind for this year’s respondents.

No Lunch For Most Workers

Two thirds of employees either eat lunch at their desk or take no lunch at all, according to a survey by Right Management, a division of global temporary staffing and consulting giant Manpower Inc.  One third of employees, or 34%, said they take a break for lunch, but eat it at their desks. Fifteen percent said they take a break from time to time, while another 16% said they seldom do. Only 35% said they regularly take a break for lunch.

Temporary Jobs Often the Only Game in Town

Staffing employment increased 5.4% from the first to the second quarter of this year, according to data released by the American Staffing Association (ASA). This is the sixth straight quarter of temporary and contract employment growth since the industry began its recovery from the 2007–2009 recession.

The U.S. staffing industry had a healthy second quarter as businesses continued to turn to flexible workforce solutions to meet increases in demand for their products and services—Richard Wahlquist, ASA President and CEO.

“For job seekers the news is also encouraging, as staffing and recruiting firms added more than 200,000 new jobs in the past 12 months.” U.S. staffing firms employed an average of 2.8 million temporary and contract workers from May through June — 8.6% more workers than in the second quarter of 2010.

Type A and Hi-Tech: A Dangerous Mix

Tower of Babel by Bruegel at Stresshacker.comWhat does the relentless push of technology into our lives do to our ability to manage stress and to our health in general? It depends on the personality. For individuals who have a type A personality, multiple e-mail addresses available from any platform, high-speed anywhere Internet access, smart mobile phones, tablets, and e-readers have enabled even greater flexibility and mobility in teleworking and telecommuting. In effect, traditional boundaries between the different roles at work, in the family, at leisure have been blurred or even removed.

In addition to the advancing technology, economic conditions have made short-term employment, work on time-limited projects, and working two or even three part-time jobs simultaneously increasingly more common.

Type A individuals claim that this new rhythm of life has produced beneficial effects in terms of greater task variety and flexibility. Thanks to these ubiquitous and always-on hardware devices and the software tools they provide, there often is no break of continuity between work and non-work states, between being somewhere dedicated to work activities and being somewhere else, where relationships or relaxation are possible. Again, for the type A personality, this is just fine–at least in theory and by their own admission.

Type A Individuals Thrive…At Their Own Peril?

Type A personality is characterized by an extreme sense of time urgency, frequent impatience with one’s self and others, high competitiveness, and more frequent aggression and/or hostility (either in the form of overt outbursts, or constricted and internalized through tight behavioral control). Clinical evidence indicates that there is at least an increased risk of stress in these individuals due to their proneness to work overload, disruption of natural circadian patterns, role conflicts, lack of time for relationships, for sufficient rest and energy replenishment through sleep or relaxation activities.

This particular personality type, given the current availability of communication and connection devices, appears to thrive in this environment that promotes maximum efficiency, high productivity, a faster pace of work output, and competitiveness.

Is this a competitive advantage for individuals who happen to possess these personality traits, or is this a potential problem? Apparently, higher productivity and efficiency are desirable outcomes. From a business efficiency point of view, they most definitely are. This may explain why significant technological resources are being devoted by an increasing number of companies toward making this always-on-the-job state of affairs a reality for their employees. It is seen as a competitive advantage over other companies (which are fewer and fewer) that shut down at a reasonable hour and do not work on weekends.

Most type A individuals proclaim to “love” this uninterrupted access to the marketplace and the instantaneous availability that is demanded of them.

There are however potentially serious health consequences, unless the individual can set and maintain reasonable and appropriate boundaries.

Type A personality have long been known to be at risk in terms of elevated blood pressure, increased heart rate, higher blood lipids, and near-continuous catecholamine (stress hormone) output. Intensive, frequent, and sustained activation of these physiological stress responses can contribute to the atherosclerotic process and to blood clotting. This prolonged state of arousal can cause, with type A behavior, an elevated risk of myocardial infarction. A longitudinal study by Barefoot et al., found that medical students with high scores on the Cook-Medley hostility scale of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI)–which would indicate type A personalities– had a six fold increase in mortality when followed up 25 years later, mainly due to coronary heart disease.

The negative psychosocial and socioeconomic factors in which type A behavior appears to thrive is associated with increased risk of serious illness and mortality because of the elevated activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) system and the increased secretion of the stress hormone cortisol. A very high workload, such as regularly working more than 10 hours of overtime per week, is also associated with markedly elevated cortisol levels. Prolonged and sustained activity of the HPA system is related to a series of endocrine and metabolic effects, causing, among other things, increased storage of fat in the abdominal region.

It is a mixed blessing, to say the least, for type A personality to see modern technology facilitate and indeed augment their relentless rhythm of activity. Is the risk really worth the reward?

Mild to Deadly: Stress At Work

CloudToGround_EN-US2741696585 Stress at work can take many forms and range in severity from mild annoyance to burnout. It may be relatively easy to tell if co-workers appear to be under severe stress by observing the appearance and persistence of certain characteristic behaviors. It may not be so easy to diagnose dangerous levels of stress in ourselves, however, especially when other considerations of self-esteem, personal ambition to succeed, economic pressure, deadline requirements, and career goals may interfere with a sound and unbiased self-diagnosis.

Mild vs. Severe Stressors: It’s About Control

The first consideration is the severity of the stressors. Are they mild and can they be addressed by making appropriate adjustments? Stressors such as a noisy environment, not knowing one’s job objectives, and skipping meals can be (although not always) addressed by closing the door, asking for clarification, and committing to take lunch and snack breaks as needed.

The second consideration is whether or not the stressors are under our control. The presence or lack of control creates an internal vs. external locus of control situation, with important psychological consequences (see this post on the difference between internal and external locus of control).

Stressors that are beyond our control are far more difficult to address, as for example when there are too many things to do and not enough resources to get them done. Its opposite, the situation when there is hardly anything to do at all, is also stressful and may not have an easy solution.

Other relatively difficult stressors that may not have a solution within our control is not enjoying the job, and not knowing what else one could be doing or being in a situation where a change of job is just about impossible. In the current job market, this may not be an uncommon situation, as jobs that used to be good have become more stressful and jobs that were bad to begin with have not gotten any better.

Another difficult stressor where external control may be an issue is the experience of being caught between conflicting demands, often with insufficient information or resources to address them appropriately. Not feeling appreciated or under-appreciated while putting in long hours and hard work can also create a considerable level of stress.

On the other hand, many stressors can be successfully addressed because they do fall within our control. The most common are interruptions and how they are handled (the well-known inability to say “no”). Another is poor delegation skills, or not sharing work responsibilities with others. These are two examples of stressors that, although not easily eliminated, at least can be controlled and limited in their impact by making changes that are well within our possibilities.  

When Stress at Work Is too Much: Burnout

There are times when the symptoms of stress are just too severe, too persistent and too intractable to be dismissed. They interfere not only with productivity and efficiency on the job, but they also have important negative health consequence in addition to being detrimental to interpersonal relationships at work and at home. The resulting complex cluster of psychological, physical and behavioral symptoms is defined as occupational stress or, for short, burnout.

The emotional exhaustion of burnout can result in diminished interest in work, fatigue, and detachment. Hopelessness is common: we "give in," "numb out," and "march like robots through the day."

The depersonalization of burnout, or the defensive distancing from the surrounding world, can result in diminished contact with coworkers and the public, withdrawal of psychological investment, self-absorption, and an overall negative attitude toward others.

The dissatisfaction of burnout, or the perception of unsatisfactory personal accomplishment, can result in feelings of failure, fatalism, diminished competence, and incapacity to respond to further job, personal and environmental demands.

Early Warning Signs of Work Stress

One of the first noticeable signs that stress is beginning to have a behavioral impact is irritability. Fellow workers will notice this first. They may or may not be able to point it out, but if they do, it is worth paying attention to their feedback and asking ourselves a few questions.

The second sign is fatigue. Even though it is hard to miss, fatigue very often goes unchecked not because it isn’t visibly affecting us but because we may refuse to acknowledge it. Pushing harder can become a mantra, a repetitive “principle-driven” set of behaviors that pushes rest and relaxation aside, with potentially serious health consequences.

Difficulty concentrating and forgetfulness are also early signs of severe stress. Sometimes, stress affects memory in such a severe manner that, by evening time, we can’t remember what we did all day, or what we ate for breakfast.

Sleep ceases to be a safe haven for regenerating and recharging and becomes a place of torture. Lack of sleep is linked to so many health consequences, and to stress itself, in a circular causality pattern. Less sleep means more vulnerability to stress, which leads to more stress by the time we get to bed, with even less chances of getting a good night’s sleep. A potentially deadly vicious cycle!

The body complains about stress, too. Its messages take the form of bowel irritation, chronic fatigue, asthma and other respiratory ailments, headaches, rashes, tics, cramps, and many more pains and problems that appear to come out of nowhere and stubbornly refuse to go away.

Finally, withdrawal and depression may raise their ugly head. Burnout has arrived. It may take a few years to get here, or maybe just a few months of severe stress. In any case, burnout may be the end game of one very simple losing strategy: ignoring the obvious, steaming through the warning signs and hoping that stress will just go away by itself.

6 Worst and 6 Better Ways to Manage Time

How much can time management cost in terms of stress and health risk? It depends on how we choose to manage it. Some choices appear more effective but have short-term benefits and high cost. Others appear lower in stress and health cost but do not seem to use time efficiently. What’s the right answer?

Let’s look at some of the most popular time management approaches, their costs and benefits in terms of allostatic load and stress-related health risk, and an estimate of their long-term effectiveness in getting things done.

  1. Manage time resources allowing for ample relaxation time and with the goal of avoiding all stress.
    couchpotatoAllostatic Load: Probably low to very low.
    Stress-related Health Risk: Probably low. There may be other health risks connected with low physical activity levels.
    Long-term Effectiveness: Probably not great at getting things done in a timely manner.
    Not all stress is bad and to be avoided. We experience the stress reaction not only in terms of frustration and anxiety, but also as excitement, thrill, energy and useful motivation. The attempt to eliminate all stress from our life would run counter to our biopsychosocial nature, which requires stimulation, interaction and activity.
    The Better Way: Achieve balance between work and relaxation, family and job demands, personal time and social time, activity and rest.
  2. Manage time resources on a moment-to-moment basis with little or no planning ahead because planning itself just takes more time. frantic-harrison-ford1
    Allostatic Load:
    Probably high.
    Stress-related Health Risk: Probably high, as stress symptoms may be ignored.
    Long-term Effectiveness: Probably very good at getting some things done in the short term, giving the illusion of long-term efficiency.
    Frantically going from crisis to crisis, handling each new task as it comes up, without assigning priorities or allocating resources is a reactive approach to time management. It can appear chaotic to the observer. Each new challenge is met head-on and is always “new” because there is little or no provision made in advance.
    The Better Way: Plan ahead for demands and challenges that can be predicted, anticipated and prepared for. Planning indicates self-care, not weakness.
  3. Manage time resources and get more done in less time by using caffeine, sugar, alcohol, nicotine, “energy” drinks or other chemical enhancers. crash
    Allostatic Load:
    Probably high, but masked by chemical “fixes.” Chronic stress.
    Stress-related Health Risk: Probably high, as useful stress signals for rest may be ignored, sleep suppressed, nutrition casual and expedient.
    Long-term Effectiveness: Probably very good at getting many things done in the short term.
    When using chemical means to increase energy and output over what the body can safely handle before needing to rest and replenish depleted resources, quality of output is likely to suffer and efficiency to diminish. The illusion of strength that can be derived from these forms of self-medicating fatigue may be merely postponing a crash,  intoxication, tolerance and, in some cases, addiction.
    The Better Way: Listen to the body’s signals. View natural sleep as vitally important, wisely use times of pause and relaxation to recharge depleted resources. Avoid becoming dependent on chemical substances to function.
  4. Take stress and inefficiencies to mean that there isn’t enough time to get done what needs to get done, and that just having more time would “easily” fix it.
    lastminuteAllostatic Load: Probably high.
    Stress-related Health Risk: Probably high, as stress symptoms may be ignored.
    Long-term Effectiveness: Probably okay to get some things done in the short term, but poor long-term efficiency.
    Actually, a time management problem is not using time to the fullest advantage, and to get done what needs to be done with just the right amount of energy expenditure, no more no less. Simply adding more time slots to the schedule, cramming a full to-do list, and shortchanging quality is a short-term strategy.
    The Better Way: Find an optimal schedule that fits available energy and mental resources levels, and stick to it. Say “no” to some demands as a key to preserving balance between rest and activity.
  5. View being always very busy, and generally busier than others, as a badge of honor and a sure pathway to success.
    workaholic Allostatic Load: Probably very high, chronic stress.
    Stress-related Health Risk: Probably high, as the need for balance may be dismissed.
    Long-term Effectiveness: Can lead to some success in the short term, but may take the highest toll on physical, mental and social health.
    Although this approach is by far the preferred one by type A individuals who take pride in being productive and getting a lot of things done, it has significant drawbacks. There is an an adjective that describes its devotees: workaholic. Being always extremely busy can result in poor allocation of resources, i.e. doing mostly what is considered urgent and too seldom what is truly important.
    The Better Way: Work is a means and not an end unto itself. Success is also measured by other yardsticks besides those of wealth and power. Balance is valued as a smart, resource-efficient strategy for long-term success in all facets of life.
  6. Pursuing time management strategies that ignore the truth: I feel pretty good, I am getting things done, so I must not be too stressed.
    IBS Allostatic Load: Probably very high.
    Stress-related Health Risk: Probably high, symptoms of stress go unnoticed.
    Long-term Effectiveness: Can lead to some success in the short term, but may take a high toll on physical, mental and social health.
    In reality, many adults don’t even know when they are at dangerously high stress levels until their bodies tell them so in a dramatic way, e.g. when sudden chest pains lead them to the nearest emergency room. It is easy to miss the early warning signs of chronic stress, as long as coping still works, more or less. Many psychosomatic illnesses are directly related to stress and overwork but are attributed to other causes or even ignored altogether.
    The Better Way: Listen to the body’s signals. View pain as a precious ally that alerts us to something in our system that requires immediate attention, and self-care as more than just a quick fix that kills the signal without addressing the cause.

Women’s Heavy Burden of Stress-Gets Heavier

Lake Wanaka at Stresshacker.comThe most recent survey of stress in America indicates that women continue to bear the heavier burden of stress, particularly due to financial concerns and worries over their family’s health and family responsibilities. Women consistently report more physical and emotional stress than men, and are more likely to lack the willpower to make changes recommended by health care providers, the survey results also show. What is causing this unhealthy gender bias? Allostasis, or more precisely allostatic load, is the key to understanding gender differences in stress. Let’s first understand allostasis, its benefits, and potential dangers.

Allostasis: Too Much of a Good Thing

Allostasis defines the processes that attempt to maintain the body’s internal stability in the face of physical or psychological challenges. Physiological and behavioral changes are initiated automatically during the stress reaction to external environmental and developmental threats, such as danger, conflict, financial worries, interpersonal difficulties, family and job demands, and other life stressors. Allostasis as a process is a very good thing and aids in survival and coping. It can work well at restoring the body’s equilibrium and ensure an adequate response to the threat. However, allostatic processes can cause physical and psychological damage when they extend beyond their intended short-term activation. This prolonged state of activation creates a burden on the system, known as the allostatic load.

Four factors can contribute to the formation of a heavy allostatic load:

  1. Repeated physical or psychological challenges (e.g., prolonged financial stress, a stressful job, multiple and conflicting demands of time and resources, a serious illness, childhood trauma, adult abuse or violence)
  2. Inability to adapt to these repeated challenges (the feeling of being at the end of one’s rope)
  3. Inability to produce an adequate response to the stressor (such as the phenomenon of learned helplessness, depression or anxiety)
  4. Inability to end the stress reaction even after the stressor has been removed (chronic stress)

Allostatic load accumulates over time. The continuation of multiple small changes in physiological and psychological functioning (which are meant to be only short-term), due to a persisting state of alert against perceived threats (the classic stress syndrome), creates the potential for illness.

What Happens to the Body During Allostasis

During the normal stress response and the body’s process of allostasis, the stress hormones serum dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), cortisol, norepinephrine and epinephrine are secreted into the blood stream. The immune system and neurological responses are activated, along with muscular, cardiovascular and pulmonary system. Alongside these physical reactions, psychological changes take place in response to anxious, fearful, hostile or aggressive states produced by the stressor. Behavioral changes also occur in trying to cope with the stressor, sometimes consisting of alcohol abuse and other substances,  working too many hours, or exercising compulsively. Sleep disturbances, depression and other psychological symptoms are usually the first evidence of an increasing allostatic load.

At the physiological level, allostatic load can cause atrophy of the hippocampus and structural changes in the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, resulting in a more or less severe impairment in spatial learning and memory. Certain tell-tale physical responses are also indicative of a heavier allostatic load: higher blood pressure, changes in waist-hip ratio, higher serum high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and cholesterol, and glycosylated hemoglobin levels.

These psychophysical changes, though helpful in the short run, can cause damage. This damage is the cost of maintaining an allostatic state longer than is optimal for health. Numerous studies of allostasis show the risk of stress-induced illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, atherosclerosis, metabolic syndrome, Type 2 diabetes, depression, anxiety, and immune/auto-immune disorders.

What about the effects of allostatic load on women?  Details after the jump.

Read more

eClass 4: Best and Worst Food For Stress

Italy_Tuscany2 How, when, and what we eat tells a lot about who we are. It also says a lot about how well we handle our stress reaction. Food can help or hurt our coping abilities and thus make a difference in how well we respond to stressors.

Food intake is one of the critical factors ensuring adequate growth and development in all species. Just ask my puppy dog where food ranks on his daily list of priorities! In particular, brain development is sensitive to specific nutrient intake such as proteins and fats, which are important for cell membrane formation and myelinization.

A surprising amount of the stress we may experience on a daily basis can be caused by the chemicals we consume in our food. By eating, drinking or inhaling certain substances we can put our bodies under elevated chemical stress. Similarly, if we are eating an unbalanced diet we may be stressing our bodies by depriving them of essential nutrients.

Eating too much of certain high-calorie foods for a long period is a leading cause of obesity. How much food is consumed as a stress reliever? Gaining too much weight puts our heart and lungs under stress, overloads our organs and reduces stamina. It may also significantly shorten our lives.

Stress reactions are a pervasive factor in everyday life that can critically affect our development and functioning. Severe and prolonged exposure to stressors can have a negative effect on our balance mechanisms.

Let’s look at some of the most important effects of food on our psychological state right after the jump.

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Stresshack #7: Just Enough Anxiety

K2fromBroadPeak Too much anxiety forces impulsive action. When the choice between fight or flight is invariably fight, personal power and sheer determination can make things happen. Hastily taking charge of the situation however can also be a sign of anxiety brought on by low self esteem, insecurity and fear of failure. Emotional decision making prompted by anxiety, anger, or fear often has the result of producing change but also fostering unpredictability and chaos.

Too much anxiety often sabotages a person’s achievements. There is no balance in the approach to problem-solving and either too much energy is devoted to the task, or inadequate resources are mustered. The drive toward success generates a pathological focus that can quickly lead to exhaustion. In some cases, the organism simply shuts down, in other cases it is maintained in operation through artificial means such as drugs or alcohol.

Too little anxiety creates an avoidance of challenges and a drive toward comfort.  Often these individuals are quite comfortable in true and tried approaches to problem-solving and are loath to try anything new. In many cases, a short and quick fix is applied to challenges, without much thought or conviction. Far from being healthy, too little anxiety lowers an individual’s guard against potential threats, physical or psychological, by instilling a false sense of security and of foolish invulnerability.

Just enough anxiety and we feel the right level of motivation toward change, while not losing sight of the need for adequate preparation, adequate rest, and balance. We accept the incontrovertible fact that too much or too little of anything, including anxiety, can impede learning, stunt growth, endanger health.  Striving for success is important, as are solving problems and facing challenges as they arise. The right dose of anxiety (the good stress that mobilizes our resources) is just what it takes to not only meet these demands, but to thrive.

Successful Leadership: What Does It Take?

David_NapoleonSt-Bernard In reporting the results of a global survey, Michael Haid discusses the factors that contribute most to exceptional leadership performance. It turns out that it is not what leaders know, i.e. their skill set, but it is how they fit in their company’s culture, how they are motivated by opportunities within the organization, and how they interact with those around them that result in high performance. Read more

Coaching Insights: Stretched or Stressed

Vermeer_1662_Art_of_painting Whether work demands stress or simply stretch is a subjective assessment and is often a matter of degree or accumulation. Subjectively, what may be stressful for one individual may be stimulating or productive in another.

I’ve been an air traffic controller at Kennedy International Airport for 20 years. Most people would call this job high-stress, but I thrive on it. You either love this type of job or you quit, or you never get into it in the first place. You’d think I was the type of kid who loved excitement or always took chances. I wasn’t. I could never be a firefighter and go into a burning house. That would be stressful. It’s just not in my makeup. (…) While we’re working, we’re “in the zone.” We work for two hours and then take a break. It’s mandatory. I don’t care how good someone is, after directing busy traffic for awhile, you need to decompress. At the end of those two hours, you know you’ve done a good job if the planes assigned to you were within the limits. I like that instant feedback.
Stephen Abraham

Degrees of stress or its accumulation also matter in determining stress vs. stretch. One may be able to manage stressful situations quite well at work (where specific motivation, competencies, skills and experience may come into play) but not in other aspects of life such as relationships, parenting, nutrition, fitness (where different skills may be required).

One way to determine whether work demands constitute simple stretch or even stimulating arousal that leads to more productive results, or instead cross over into the harmful stress category is by assessing balance. See a simple how-to after the jump. Read more