UPfront: Reining in the stress express

There is no such thing as stress-free workplace according to the ‘guru of calm’.

Sydney-based businessman, researcher and best-selling author Paul Wilson says we all have to live with rising levels of environmental stress.”The answer to most stress in life lies in how you deal with it.”

Next month’s enactment of changes to health and safety legislation that incorporate stress and fatigue as workplace hazards has prompted plenty of debate about the nature of ‘stress’ and how to reduce it.

Apart from the legal stick, it’s been estimated New Zealand employers lose some five million work-days year to stress or stress-related ailments, now regarded as the biggest single cause of workplace absenteeism.

On the other hand, life without stress would be tad dull. Some people positively thrive on its stimulation, and Kiwis are renowned for seeking out fun new ways (bungy jump from the Sky Tower, anyone?) to create it.

It becomes problem when it’s persistent to the point of being unmanageable.

Most of us know that out-of-control feeling that comes with realising you have more (work, physical strain, sensory input, emotional pressure) than you can handle.

Stress buzz becomes stress burden; productivity, focus, and creativity dive. Worst-case scenario; you fall apart – physically, emotionally, or both.

So, how to keep stress to manageable levels?
Wilson’s approach is to face reality, take personal control and tackle what’s achievable.

Conditions, leading to what the World Health Organisation has described as stress epidemic, are not going to ease up soon. The quest to boost productivity in both public and private sector organisations will, he says, continue. Employees will still have to juggle family/work commitments, fight through heavier traffic and ingest diet of the world’s woes delivered daily by speedier media.

Even if not personally affected, it’s hard not to feel sense of involvement in distant wars, earthquakes or cyclones. The trick is not to take it all too personally, says Wilson.

While eradicating such stresses is impossible, you can learn to control your responses to them. It is possible, he says, to feel compassion but remain detached, to find your own centre of calm in more chaotic world – which is pretty much his area of speciality.

“I think the biggest barometer of how stressed we are is how much we feel other events or people are controlling our lives… Most of my work is in that area of personal control – how to change the way you feel and respond to events in physical and psychological way.”

Thing is, it’s pretty natural when you’re in the thick of things, to take it all on board, feel responsible and just keep thrashing from one crisis to the next – probably grabbing quick cups of coffee between to stay in hyperdrive, says Wilson.

People get hooked on “fight-or-flight” stimulation levels and don’t allow their nervous system to settle naturally back into neutral. However, there are various techniques to help you hop off the stress express before it starts going too fast for personal comfort.

Most of us are at least vaguely aware of our own work/rest cycles. Generally speaking, they’re about 90 minutes long, Wilson says. “Say, if you work really hard for about 80 minutes, you know your concentration and effectiveness starts tapering off and you can plot this decline in efficiency.

“We advocate that about every 80 minutes, you take 10 minute breather to switch your focus away from whatever you doing. Just daydream, doodle or look out the window and allow your equilibrium to restore. It’s good business practice and is now being used by number of organisations.”

In his books, Wilson cites various techniques which, if regularly practised, help create sense of inner calm that is both powerful and pleasurable. It’s also more productive, he says, than fruitless focus on stress.

“It’s impossible to remove all the stressors in the workplace. The solution is to teach individuals to empower themselves to handle [stressful] situations rather than try to remove the situations.”

That includes having the confidence and self-awareness to know when enough is enough and to negotiate workload that is manageable.

Paul Wilson is in Auckland this month to provide “taste of calm” at seminar presented by Peak Performance. More information at www.calm-at-work.com.

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