Cut the Stress

By May 1, 2003
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HR Magazine, May 2003With HR-provided training, employees can learn how to avoid what makes them tense.

Stress is everyone’s problem. It can be triggered by war talk, terrorism fears, family problems, personal debt, or any of the common tensions on the job—50-hour weeks, demanding bosses or concerns about workplace violence.

Stress can cause some health conditions and worsen others, experts say. It can decrease an employee’s productivity and increase absenteeism. But it can be managed, particularly with the help of employee training provided by HR, and there’s credible evidence that such training works.

A study conducted by researchers from the Nevada Stress Center in Reno showed that employees who participated in a stress management program took fewer sick days than the employees who did not take part. In addition, those who received stress management assistance visited doctors 34 percent less often than did their nonparticipating counterparts.

The conclusion, according to the abstract of the article, published in the March/April issue of Psychosomatic Medicine: “A work-site program that focuses on stress, anxiety and coping measurement along with small-group educational intervention can significantly reduce illness and health care utilization.”

Stress management training also can cut workplace accidents. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the frequency of medication errors dropped by 50 percent at a particular hospital after it introduced a stress management program, and medical malpractice claims decreased by 70 percent. There were no such reductions at the 22 hospitals that did not implement such a program.

Stress the Facts

In offering stress management training, HR should make sure it is quantifiable and grounded in science, and that it doesn’t appear “touchy-feely,” some experts advise. Give employees a mountain of scientific evidence showing what stress is, what causes it and how it can affect one’s health and job performance.

“Stress is the internal, physiological reaction to external events,” says Bruce Cryer, CEO of HeartMath, a stress research, training and technology company in Boulder Creek, Calif. Dozens of times a day, he says, stress-triggering events cause the body to produce hundreds of biochemical changes. “We are consistently flooding our system with biochemicals—mainly the hormones adrenaline and cortisol.”

Stress can lead to headaches, fatigue, anxiety, muscle tension, insomnia, depression and other problems, according to experts. It can even cause or exacerbate ulcers, strokes, heart problems, back pain, diabetes, hypertension and dozens of other conditions.

The costs of stress to the economy can be seen in the nation’s fast-rising health care costs. The American Institute of Stress, a nonprofit educational organization based in Yonkers, N.Y., estimates that up to 90 percent of all doctor visits are stress-related. In the workplace, the effects of stress can include irritability, fuzzy thinking and a decline in creativity. “Productivity and morale go down,” says Cryer. “Teamwork fractures, absenteeism and safety issues increase, [and] retention becomes a problem.” Citing the latest available statistics, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says: “The median absence from work for cases of occupational stress was 23 days in 1997. This was more than four times the median absence for all occupational injuries and illnesses.”

“Workers are more stressed now than ever in history,” says L. John Mason, president of the Stress Education Center in Cotati, Calif. “The pace of change has accelerated. We have pagers, cell phones, e-mail and the Internet. We’re plugged in and connected all the time.” A 1999 study by NIOSH refers to a Northwestern National Life Insurance Co. survey finding that about four of every 10 workers say their job is “very or extremely stressful.”

Of course, a circumstance can be stressful for some people and not others. For example, an experienced TV news director may not find a fast-approaching 6 p.m. deadline a source of stress, but a new intern might be very stressed about it. “The deadline is not the stress,” Cryer explains. “A person’s reaction to the deadline is the stress. An organization that eliminates the external factors without addressing the people will not make headway” in training employees to manage stress, he says.

In many instances, “stress is about needs not being met,” says David Bowman, chairman of TTG Consultants, an HR consulting firm in Los Angeles. For instance, he says, an employee who likes to work independently may become stressed when a micromanaging supervisor is on the scene.

If employees are taught the dangers and harmful effects of stress, the information can be a powerful incentive for them to change their reactions to stress triggers. “Emphasize education and practical tools to use before, during and after stressful events,” Cryer recommends. “Emotion and perception are key factors in getting leverage over stress.” He says employees feel empowered when they learn that “all this is going on under the surface of my skin and I can control it.”

How and When to Tackle Tension

Many stress management programs focus on alleviating stress long after the stressful event has occurred. For instance, a number of experts recommend long walks, hot baths and regular vacations. Others say that such activities, soothing as they may be, are generally too late—too long after the stress-triggering events—to relieve stress.

It is crucial to convince employees that to minimize the physiological effects of a stressful situation, they must learn how to mentally step out of themselves during or soon after the situation. The best stress management programs, some experts say, are those that teach employees techniques they can use on the job, such as deep-breathing exercises, guided imagery and music therapy.

Consider a common stress inducer such as rush-hour commuting. “People come to work jangled,” says Steve Stephenson, senior manager in organization and team development at the Boeing Commercial Airplane Co. in Greenbank, Wash. “A 15-second episode can cause hormonal changes that last for six hours. That infects the whole day.” But if employees can’t avoid rush hour, at least they can be trained to detour around the stresses it can cause, perhaps by listening to relaxing music while driving and concentrating on positive imagery.

Jack L. Peterson, vice president of performance improvement and organizational development at Sierra Providence Health Network, a 1,000-bed hospital system in the El Paso, Texas, area, says nurses dealing with stressful situations involving doctors and patients are taught to “take time out for a moment—truly, it only takes seconds—to disengage from a situation, go do a breathing exercise, and then come to a new perspective on where you are and what you have to accomplish.”

The company’s stress training consists of an initial all-day event and a follow-up three-hour class a few weeks later. As a result of suggestions from nurses, Peterson adds, the hospital will designate some chapel space “where people can listen to relaxing music and seclude themselves for a moment.”

Adds Mason: “If people can be trained to use a 10-minute break for stretching, breathing and relaxation, they can increase productivity.”

It can be important to provide stress training when employees appear most tense. For instance, the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit system—BART, based in Oakland—provided a one-day stress management workshop for 300 front-line workers “when our system was stressed by the increase in the number of passengers,” says Terry Adelman, manager of performance and learning at BART. “We had some aging equipment that periodically broke down,” according to Adelman, and incidents of workplace violence went up.

The training was well received, Adelman says, adding that many said “it was the best thing they had ever experienced at BART.”

The city government in Santa Rosa, Calif., has provided stress management training at various times over the past 10 years.

“When a ‘change wave’ is occurring, all of our 1,200 employees are invited to the training,” says Ricia L. Maxie, organizational development consultant for Santa Rosa. “The training includes change management, physical symptoms of stress, stress triggers, fight-or-flight syndrome...and relaxation techniques” as well as efforts to persuade employees to develop multiple solutions for problems.

Marketing and Measuring

Stress management training can be one of the most consequential courses you offer—if it’s marketed properly and employees are receptive to it. “Don’t position it as a ‘stress course,’ ” Cryer sug..gests. “There’s still a stigma attached to that”—a presumption, which experts are trying to counter, that a person interested in a stress course must be overly sensitive and emotional or must have a problem of some sort. Rather, they maintain, stress should be viewed as a challenge for everyone.

When offering stress management training, Cryer says, “position it as ‘performance enhancement.’ And require it for all employees.” Make sure the training is viewed not as “a trivial thing” but as “essential to business success.”

Track productivity, absenteeism, turnover and other metrics, Cryer adds. “Anytime you address stress in an organization, you have to link it to business outcomes or it will still be viewed as soft. Link it to business performance: Reduce stress in sales, increase sales.”

Anecdotal evidence of stress training’s effectiveness also can be convincing. For example, Stephenson tells of an engineer who attended one of his seminars. “He was grumpy, red-faced [and] tense. When asked about why he came, he said, ‘My supervisor sent me here.’ I thought the program would be a total failure for him. Two months later, I ran by his workstation and asked him what he thought of the training. He pulled out this notebook full of numbers. ‘Here’s my blood pressure before I took your classes and here it is now,’ he says.” The improvement, Stephenson says, “was amazing.”

In addition, it can be helpful to use an external measurement tool to help employees gauge their progress. One such tool is a computer program called Freeze-Framer, marketed by HeartMath, Cryer’s firm. The device is designed to enable the user to watch heart rate variability (HRV) on a computer screen. HRV is a measurement of heart rhythms and the time that elapses between heartbeats. Similar to biofeedback, the program enables employees to see how stressed they are at the moment and how they can control their physical response to stress by using relaxation techniques. The system retails for about $300.

Diane Bauer, a senior solutions consultant at Cisco Systems, a business technology giant based in San Jose, Calif., uses the Freeze-Framer regularly, not only for herself but also when training her staff. “It introduces technology into the equation,” she says. “When you plug yourself up to a monitor, it’s compelling. [You can see] the connection between the noises in your head and your personal health.”

Kathryn Tyler is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich.

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