The office has the potential to be one of the most stressful places a person will ever encounter. Staff must handle looming deadlines as well as contend with office politics, technology meltdowns and the shifting moods of their colleagues. Add to that the personal doubts and fears of failure that individuals can experience. It’s no wonder that job stress is a risk factor for heart disease and many other health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, according to a study by the British Medical Journal.
Luckily, as the CEO, you’re in a unique position to reduce the level of stress that effects the office environment. Inc.com Senior Editor Nicole Marie Richardson talked with Elizabeth Scott, a wellness coach and About.com stress management expert about ways to minimize job stress. Here’s how to create a Zen office without calling in the yoga masters.
How a CEO can Reduce Office Stress: Beautify the Surroundings
A dark, disheveled office can ruin an employee’s mood the second he or she walks through the door. Similarly, harsh overhead lighting and sterile cubicles with stark furniture can have the same effect. Bare offices allow noise to bounce around the walls and noise pollution is a huge stressor in the workplace, says Scott. Making adjustments to lighting, temperature, noise level and other controllable factors can go along way toward lightening the mood, says Scott. “I know it sounds New Age, but hiring a Feng Shui expert can bring in lots of positive energy,” she says. If Feng Shui isn’t your cup of tea, the simple step of adding living plants to your environment cleans the air and makes the office feel more like home.
Office clutter, such as boxes stacked against the walls and desks with papers or files stacked to ceiling, can also affect mood and productivity. It’s important to get your office organized whether that means purchasing extra storage or encouraging employees to clear their desks. Keeping bathrooms clean and smelling fresh is another factor and it sure doesn’t hurt to use air fresheners to administer a little aroma therapy. “Studies have found that the smell of peppermint wakes up the brain and makes the brain more alert,” Scott points out. “It’s a great natural way to wake people up.”
How a CEO can Reduce Office Stress: Encourage Frequent Breaks
Many employees consumed by looming deadlines may unwittingly skip lunch or even defer bathroom breaks to get the job done. This behavior may seem like it’s great for productivity, but in fact, it can increase the chances of burnout, not to mention bad health. As the CEO, it’s important that you take small steps to avoid mental meltdowns. “Ordering lunch for employees every once in awhile or providing snacks can go along way in stress management,” says Scott.
Take it a step further by hosting lunch-break programs on communication skills, time management and stress management. “These lunchtime workshops promote healthy behaviors and have been proven to make people healthier,” insist Scott. It’s also important, she says, to put the message out there that it’s okay to get up and walk around the office or take a walk outside when you need a break from work. “It might be helpful to start a company newsletter that advertises these programs as well as promote these ideas for stress management,” say Scott. “A less stressed workforce is a healthier workforce.”
How a CEO can Reduce Office Stress: Put on a Smile
Studies have shown that the social environment is the No. 6 contributor to workforce burnout, says Scott. The CEO may think that his or her demeanor doesn’t directly affect staff, but it’s been shown that workers read the mood of the boss for clues about performance or job security. CEOs can assuage those fears by being more open with employees – often that means simply smiling more often, chatting up employees about family or hobbies, or having a laugh and cracking jokes. In turn, these simple steps will boost morale, bring people closer, and perhaps even warding off burnout, says Scott.
However, it’s important not immolate Steve Carell’s character on The Office. Avoid jokes about co-worker’s accents, hygiene, and workplace behavior. Too often workplace jokes border on offensive and can actually induce stress, found a recent study by Christopher LeGrow, a psychology professor at Marshall University, which is based in Huntington, West Virginia. The study reported that around 70 percent of workplace jokes made fun of co-workers’ age, sexual orientation, and weight. Forty percent of those polled admitted that they themselves had made fun of a co-worker. “Stick with light-hearted, fun jokes,” Scott advises.
How a CEO can Reduce Office Stress: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
“The CEO should definitely discourage perfectionism in the workplace,” says Scott, referring to the belief that perfection can and should be attained. It may seem counter intuitive, but workers need to know that it’s okay to make mistakes. About.com offers a quiz to test your level of perfectionism. “When the staff is trying to keep up with an overwhelming requirement or trying to keep the pace, those are leading factors of burnout,” Scott says. Don’t give people more than they can handle and make sure assignments are as clear as possible and that the employee understands the task.
“Be sure that workers strengths are utilized,” says Scott, who suggest having managers administer a test that accesses signature strengths and weaknesses, such as focus, extroversion, and detail orientation. The VIA Survey of Character Strengths, or the Brief Strengths Test can both identify employee strengths that can be utilized by CEOs and managers, and is a test that’s often used by therapists, coaches and educators, says Scott. Once you know an employee’s strengths,he or she should be given jobs that cater to those strengths, such as a sales job for a very social and charismatic person.
How a CEO can Reduce Office Stress: Listen to Staff and Offer a Meaningful Response
Scott suggests that having face-to-face meetings to discuss concerns or conflicts are much better than discussing issues over e-mail. “Meeting face-to-face really conveys the fact that you care about what the person has to say,” says Scott. “Another key to good communication is reflecting back to people what they have said so they see that you listened and that you understand. Validate the feeling behind the request even if you don’t have an immediate solution. In some cases, it may be good to ask the employee for suggestions of a solution.”
CEOs of bigger companies may not be able to personally handle the complaints or concerns of every staff member, so Scott suggests asking someone to field these requests, such as a human resources executive. “If nothing else put out a suggestion box for employees because that’s better than doing nothing,” Scott says.
How a CEO can Reduce Office Stress: Focus on Time Management
Employees that struggle with time management don’t only stress themselves out but they stress out their colleagues when they miss their deadlines and hold-up projects. Scott points to an organizational method designed by David Allen, called Getting Things Done. “Employing his time management techniques can increase productivity and focus, but more important, reduce stress,” says Scott.
Another suggestion: Don’t forget those workshops. Bringing in an expert to look at what areas people need to change and where systems can be improved can make a big difference. “It’s not one size fits all. Different companies may have different needs and an expert can identify those needs,” Scott says. “Particularly experts can help you identify what part of the day you’re most productive and suggest that you tackle big task during that time and leave lighter tasks for when your focus is low.” She also points to an iPhone and iPad app called Toodledo. The app allows one to create simple to-do lists but also organize tasks and reminders into priority, folders, context, and status. It’s possible to use the app to sync up with co-workers to manage a project, says Scott.
How a CEO can Reduce Office Stress: Minimize Tech Meltdowns
Anybody who has owned a computer knows how frustrating it can be when it’s not working properly, causing you to lose data and slow your work pace. Making sure your office computers are up to date, armed with the latest firewalls and security software, data recovery systems, and peripherals, is one way to zap office stress before it even starts. Employees should never have to deal with a computer meltdown themselves. With the exception of perhaps the smallest tech start-ups, staff should be tasked to handle problems quickly and effectively, and should make themselves readily available for questions or concerns.
How a CEO can Reduce Office Stress: Provide Ample Vacation Time
It’s not enough to provide employees with ample vacation time but you must also encourage them to actually take the time off. “Employees actually think that they are helping the company by not taking vacation time but actually they are hurting the company,” says Scott. Studies have show that workers that take vacation are healthier, more productive human beings. “It doesn’t really count when people take vacations and bring work with them. That’s not really a break,” Scott says. She suggests that bosses not infringe on worker’s vacation time by calling them, e-mailing them, or sending them work. Today’s technologies make it so hard to leave work at work, but it’s necessary for maintaining sanity.
Scott suggests that workers that can’t get away on a real vacation plan staycations or playcations. Staycations are when you plan to stay at home and just relax; a playcation is when you plan fun events and outings in and around your city. Another suggestion: have vacation days rollover, says Scott, and consider flexible hours that allow workers to start work anytime between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. as long as they work eight hours. “People are happier when they feel more in control of their schedule,” Scott says.
How a CEO can Reduce Office Stress: Recognize Achievements
As CEO you’ve probably heard it a million times, but recognizing achievements actually does make the entire office happier. People not only like to know that they’ve done well but they want their colleagues to know it too. Likewise, they want to show support and gratitude when their colleagues succeed. Scott says beyond recognizing employees individually for their successes, it’s a good idea to create an office newsletter where achievements can be announced on a weekly or monthly basis. The newsletter can be used to highlight the best ideas and announce when goals have been met. “I keep bringing up this newsletter,” Scott jokes, “but really, they are a great ways to build communication and bring people together.”
How a CEO can Reduce Office Stress: Make Room for Fun
Last, but certainly not least, don’t leave out the fun stuff that builds connections and bonds between you and the staff. Office parties, sponsored lunches, sports pools, and athletic leagues: these are all the types of things that make work more than just a duty. “Social groups, such as book clubs, make everyone friendlier, social and relaxed,” says Scott. “They help build friendships and promote sharing.” Another suggestion: Invest in programs that build community, such as a volunteer program that takes place once a quarter.
Scott suggests that CEO plan surprises for the staff, such as an unexpected day off or sponsored lunch, as well as plan events that employees can look forward to. “I’m an advocate of hosting events on Monday,” says Scott. “Sometimes you need to bring a little bit of Friday into your Monday.”