Stress Is More Contagious Than Flu
Chances are good you're probably in the vicinity of a rash of flu cases right around now. Late winter weather tends to bring on outbreaks, and you and your staff members may be succumbing one by one, having passed the germs around. There may even be measures in place to keep the flu at bay, such as hand sanitizers or flu shots.
That's great, but what are you doing to stop the spread of stress around your workplace? "Stress is more contagious than flu, but we don't take the same precautions," says Heidi Hanna, Ph.D., author of Stressaholic: 5 Steps to Transform Your Relationship With Stress.
Here's how to stop the stress flu from making the rounds:
1. Create a place to think undisturbed.
"I hate open-plan offices," Hanna declares. "I did an office tour at Zappos, and there was so much going on--music, decorations--it was too much for my brain to handle. It was great for collaboration, but there's a point of overstimulation. Today's workplaces are burning through our mental resources."
There's a reason many people get their best ideas in the shower, she says. It's a time when they can let their minds wander undisturbed. "So if you need or want an open-plan office, create a space for closed reflection time, somewhere people can get away from the noise."
2. Give people your full attention.
"If you're talking to me, and I'm having a side conversation or checking my email, then I'm sending the message that you're not important," Hanna says. Unfortunately, because people are connected to so many devices, they wind up sending that message all the time.
That's a good way to pass along stress. Instead, set aside your smartphone and focus all your attention on the person you're talking with, even if that means you can only speak for a few minutes. "You could talk for two hours while multitasking and not get as much done," Hanna says.
3. Watch out for mirroring.
Studies show that people unconsciously mirror the biomechanical rhythms of others around them. That means standing near a stressed-out person can make you feel the same way, even if you don't say a word to each other.
So, when you start feeling stressed, "ask yourself if it's truly yours or if you've picked up someone else's stress," Hanna advises. If it does turn out the stress is coming from someone else, you have a choice: Either help that person or limit your time together.
4. Build your relaxation muscle.
You've probably read by now that meditation can bring dramatic antistress benefits. It's not as hard as you may think. "A lot of people are turned off because they think it needs to be spiritual or 20 minutes long," Hanna says. Neither assumption is true. "It's just giving your brain a chance to get out of work mode."
All you need to do is focus on your breathing, perhaps counting your breaths and saying an uplifting mantra or even putting on headphones and listening to soothing music for a few minutes, she says. "When I started, my goal was to do three minutes three times a day," she says. Over time, she appreciated the benefits and began lengthening her sessions. "I've noticed in myself and others that, just like a muscle, the ability to relax can atrophy," she says.
5. Get out of that chair!
Once every hour, make sure to get up from your desk and walk around or stretch, Hanna says. And once or twice a day, climb some stairs or do something else to get your heart rate up and your circulation moving. "When you sit for a long time, blood starts to pool in your extremities," she explains. "You're getting less oxygen to the brain and that triggers a stress response. This is why people get more tired the longer they sit."
6. Keep your blood sugar stable.
"If you go too long without eating, that sends a message to the brain that there's a shortage of food, which is one of the quickest ways to trigger the stress response," Hanna says. On the other hand, too much food, especially the wrong food, can be almost as much of a problem. "You'll ramp up insulin production, which is taxing," she says. "Also sugar, when you consume too much, triggers a response in the brain as though it were a foreign substance."
7. Don't schedule every minute.
Going straight from one meeting or conference call to the next is a sure way to amp up stress. Instead, Hanna recommends 50-minute meetings, ensuring at least a 10-minute break between them. Adding time between meetings allows people to check their email and messages, decreasing the likelihood they'll do so during the meeting itself. That will reduce their stress as well.
8. Practice gratitude.
Humans are hard-wired to focus on the negative--a survival mechanism from our days as hunter-gatherers. So fight that tendency by redirecting your focus. "I recommend people write down three things they're grateful for at the start of every day," Hanna says.
9. Redefine stresses as challenges.
Reframing the way you look at a stressful situation can substantially decrease your stress level, Hanna says. "See whatever's stressing you as a stimulus for growth," she says. "If you think of it as a challenge, you know you have the resources to meet it head-on." That approach generates adrenaline which, if it isn't constantly elevated, can be pleasant and help your performance. "When we worry, we produce primarily cortisone, the inflammatory stress hormone, which is a lot more toxic," she says.
10. Set a good example.
Your employees will notice and likely model how you deal with stress. So show them how to do it right. "The better you take care of yourself, the more you can be an example," Hanna says. If you tell employees to take care of themselves but don't do so yourself, they're more likely to follow your actions than your words. "It's common sense," she says. "But unfortunately, it's not common practice."
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MINDA ZETLIN | Columnist | Co-author, The Geek Gap
Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.