Rescue from the recession

October 8, 2009
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You would have to be living in a cave to not see the trends toward an increase in responsibilities,” says Dr. James Leemann, clinical assistant professor in Tulane University’s Center for Applied Environmental Public Health, and president of The Leemann Group LLC, Scottsdale, Ariz.

“Many folks I have talked to, in not small organizations, are doing safety, health, environmental, security, product stewardship, sustainability. Sometimes the list of things we all have responsibility for is endless. This approach is NOT sustainable,” says a corporate industrial hygienist.

Welcome to the realities of the deepest and longest recession since World War II.

It can be dangerous to your health as well as your income. “When so many people are out of work in this nation there are a lot of hot dogs and bologna being eaten and that’s nothing but fat calories. That’s why we’re so fat with or without exercise,” a safety coordinator recently emailed us.

“I am usually the optimist. I used to wear sunglasses because the future looked so bright. Now I am looking for nuclear suits,” says a safety products marketer in California.

So how do you cope, aside from cutting down on hot dogs and clamping on a pair of heavy-duty earmuffs to block out the drumbeat of bad news? Here are ten tips to deal with too much work and not enough time.

1 Realize you’re not alone, and in all probability not being picked on.
“If you feel that your role has widened, your responsibilities have increased and your results are more difficult to achieve than last year, you are not alone!” writes Richard Maybury, owner of Priority Practice in the United Kingdom, on his website.

Check out these findings from the latest UK Labour Market Outlook (Winter 2008/2009), compiled by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and KPMG: Almost half (48 percent) of employers have reported that individual staff workloads have increased. A similar number, 46 percent of employers, say that their employee stress levels have risen among those workers who have survived any redundancy culls (that’s British diplomacy for headcount reductions).

2 Practice good housekeeping.
Books have been written on this, “Unclutter Your Life,” and so on. A cottage industry has emerged of personal organizers or “clutter coaches,” for people too busy to clear out their closets. Studies show that people who work in disorganized spaces spend up to eight hours a week looking for things or being distracted by them. Efficiency drops and stress levels rise, according to Katherine Gibson, author of, yes, “Unclutter Your Life.”

3 Manage your attention.
In our “always on” lifestyle, we are constantly scanning — channel clicking, scrolling through emails, flipping through magazines, glancing over reports. This scanning is called “continuous partial attention.” And as Gibson writes, “We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention. WE DON’T WANT TO MISS ANYTHING. And we create an artificial sense of constant crisis.”

Managing your attention requires making conscious decisions. Stop the mindless scanning. Make intentional choices about what gets done and what does not.

4 Don’t micro-manage your time.
Do you have a never-ending to-do list? Find yourself cycling through appointments and report writing, projects and meetings, conference calls and deadlines, always with an eye on time and efficiency? According to Maybury, this can be exhausting and unfulfilling, leading to burn-out. He suggests each evening or morning before you start your day, make a short list of your intentions; try to limit it to five items. Keep a different list of what you will review for inclusion on other days.

5 The unexamined life can be dangerous to your health.
Here’s advice from the Mayo Clinic: Keep a diary of everything you do for three days to determine how you’re spending your time. OK, maybe you don’t have time for that. Pick any Wednesday, hump day, and jot down what happens during work hours. It needn’t be a neat list. But awareness is the first step toward sanity.

6 Put your foot down.
This is more than just saying “no.” According to the Mayo Clinic: “Being assertive means you express yourself effectively and stand up for your point of view. It’s the sweet spot between being too aggressive and too passive.”

In these cold, hard economic times, hitting that “sweet spot” is a delicate but significant achievement. Come on too strong and you can be out the door. Be too timid and you can become every department’s favorite dumping ground.

7 Listen to yourself talk.
What kind of running dialog is occurring in that brain of yours? Damaging self-talk includes: magnifying negative aspects of a situation and filtering out the positive ones; personalizing events and blaming yourself; automatically anticipating the worst; categorizing all people, tasks, and events as good or bad, win-lose, absolutely one or the other. During the workday, stop and peek inside, evaluate what you’re thinking, advises the Mayo Clinic. If you find that your thoughts are mainly negative, try to find a way to put a positive spin on them. Here’s an idea from the Mayo experts: Don't say anything to yourself that you wouldn't say to anyone else.

8 Reinforce your resilience.
How well can you take a punch? According to the Mayo folks, resilience doesn’t equate to “toughening it out” or “grinning and bearing it.” This isn’t about machismo. Nor stoicism and going it alone. Safety and health pros often adapt a go-it-alone, chip-on-the-shoulder attitude because many either work alone as independent consultants or in organizational “silos” where they can feel isolated. What’s needed is a sort of safety net, the old support gang, peers you can phone or email or lunch with. Stay connected. Try not to sacrifice networking time, even if travel cutbacks prevent you from attending professional conferences. Technology today allows for all kinds of networking possibilities. Stay linked in.

9 Are you churning and burning?
The Mayo Clinic offers these objective burn-out barometers: Do you find yourself being more cynical, critical and sarcastic at work? Do you feel that you lack the energy to be consistently productive? Are you self-medicating — using food, drugs or alcohol — to feel better or to simply not feel? Have your sleep habits or appetite changed? Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, neck pain or lower back pain?

If you answer “yes” to these queries, get to the root of the distress. Does your job demand constant energy to remain focused? Especially in safety and health work, there can be a clash of values between HQ’s vision or goals for safety and your own. That can wear you down. Also, safety and health pros, being classic middle manager types, can suffer from the dreaded lack of control. You have the responsibility, but not the authority. Unclear job expectations are another common source of distress. Here again, safety and health pros are vulnerable. Any number of execs understand too little about workplace safety and health to be able to set clear expectations for those given the task.

Says the Mayo Clinic: Try tracking your reactions to stress over the next week. Once you identify how you cope with stressful situations, you can begin to think about alternative strategies.

10 Don’t push it.
“If I feel myself starting to slip at the end of a day, I stop,” writes Trent Hamm in his blog, “The Simple Dollar,” a blog for people who “need both cents and sense.” “Time and time again, I’ve found that pushing myself to get just a little bit more done at the end of the day has long-term negative ramifications.”

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