When commodities broker Bill O'Donnell starts singing on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, you know its nail-biting time. The price of Eurodollars is plummeting. Panicky traders are screaming sell orders. O'Donnell seems oblivious to the frenzy. With his arms outstretched and his back to the Big Board, he's belting out an off-key verse from "O Solo Mio!" Has the 32-year-old broker finally gone bonkers from the pressure of making million-dollar trades?
Not quite. O'Donnell is taking preventive measures to avoid stress. He knows from experience that it's far more effective to head off that stress-induced surge of adrenaline right now, while he's still in control, than it is to fight it when he's already wired.
That's the problem with conventional stress-reduction techniques, such as deep-breathing exercises or visualizing yourself on a Caribbean island: people try them out, quickly discover that they're at best a short-term fix, and dump them.
The irony is that people are more in need of help than ever before. The struggle to accomplish more with fewer resources, the battle to balance job and family, the fevered scramble to keep up with email and voice mail, FedEx deliveries and faxes, the stomach-churning realization that events are spiraling out of control — these and dozens of other demands are leaving people emotionally spent at work. In her new book, "How to Manage Stress for Success" (American Management Association, 1996), Sara Zeff Geber reports that stress has surpassed the common cold as the most prevalent health problem in the United States.
What is stress? The answer could fill a chapter in a medical text. The late Hans Selye, founder of Montreal's International Institute of Stress, summed it up with one-sentence: "Stress is the neurological and hormonal response of the human body to any of the demands placed upon it." The symptoms? You know them when you feel them: irritability, listlessness, rapid heartbeat, rapid breathing, perspiration, and tensed muscles are just a few. Left untreated, constant stress can become chronic burnout, "characterized by feelings of hopelessness" and thoughts of quitting, says Richard Price, professor of psychology at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. "Burned out workers feel demoralized, and work loses meaning for them."
The key to avoiding burnout is to follow a regular routine for managing stress — before it really builds up. So we've gathered the best tips, tactics, and road-tested remedies for attacking the root sources of stress, not just the symptoms. If none of these formulas works for you, there remains one other surefire cure-all for busting the day-to-day pressures of the workplace. All together now: "O solo mio, o mi amo ..."
Turn It On, Tune It Out
Stress Manager Bill O'Donnell, 32, a commodities broker on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange for Panorama Brokerage, buys and sells multimillion dollar orders of Eurodollar options for large banks.
Frazzle Factor: Extreme conflict at work.
The pit is packed with a couple hundred people. I've got brokers pressed right up against my chest. When people are that close to each other and have little time to make big decisions, tempers flare. I'm dishing out trades, and somebody always swears that I gave him shares when I didn't. They scream. I scream. There's nothing we can do about it.
Solution #1: Leave your work at work.
When the day ends, I go from completely on to completely off. I consciously separate my work mode from home mode. I leave the Exchange after 2 PM, and for the rest of the day I don't even think about the Market. At work everybody calls me Woody (the initials I use for my email address), and if people don't listen to Woody, Woody starts pushing and shoving. Or hell tell them that he's going to trade elsewhere - but not in such pleasant terms. I would never act that way at home. If I hear someone call out "Woody" outside work, I duck.
Solution #2: Keep busy when you're home.
To keep my mind off work, I stay busy doing mundane, physical chores. When I'm finished mowing my lawn, I mow my elderly neighbor's lawn. It's got to be outside, though. There aren't any windows in the Exchange, so whatever I do after work is not going to be indoors.
Solution #3: Allow time to reboot.
I get up at 5:30 AM so I can be on the floor by 6:30. I need an hour or so before the markets open to prepare myself mentally for the crunch, to switch into that all-day-yelling-in-the-pit mode. When the bell rings, I'm ready to do battle.
Solution #4: Use levity to lighten things up.
When the market gets crazy, I get goofy. I start singing "O Solo Mio!" as loud as I can. It brings everyone back to reality — whatever that is.
What Doesn't Work: Taking a time-out.
There have been times when I've gotten so stressed that I have stalked out of the pit, convinced that I'm never going back. But five minutes later, I realize that running away wont work, so I swallow my pride and do what I have to do. In this business, you can't run and you can't hide.
Coordinates: Bill O'Donnell, (email@example.com).
Merge Your Family and Your Work
Stress Manager Kailash Narayan, 51, who lives in Agoura Hills, California. In 1995 he launched LIFELINE International, which advises clients like ARCO, Allied Signal, and Owens Corning on employee health and productivity. He worked at ARCO for 27 years, enduring company-wide reorganizations.
Frazzle Factor: Balancing work and family.
When I set my company up back in January 95, I worked out of my home. One day when the business line rang with an important call, my son, who was 14 at the time, picked it up. After I took the call, I yelled at him — he made me look unprofessional. He yelled back, accusing me of hogging all the phone lines. A few months later, I leased office space away from home, but that just changed the problem from annoying my family to ignoring them. And my temper wasn't getting any better.
Solution #5: Get your family involved in your work.
Soon after the argument with my son, I held an off-site "board of directors" meeting with my entire family. I put them up in a posh LA hotel for a weekend. I gave them a formal business presentation — I charted my new company's goals and explained how we were going to achieve them. They gave me some great feedback, and we all started sharing the same vision.
Frazzle Factor: Getting reorganized — twice.
When I was working at ARCO, we had a major downsizing in 1986, I had to move from engineering to business analysis. I suffered quite a bit — it was like dying and being reborn again in a completely new career. I was so overcome with worry that I found it increasingly difficult to concentrate.
Solution #6: In times of turmoil, know your goals.
Many people who leave corporate jobs are still stressed out years later, because they never decided what they really wanted to do with the rest of their lives. After the first reorganization, I realized how critical it is to have a clearly defined personal mission. So I wrote it down. Every time I get stressed out, I look at my mission statement and ask myself why I'm tense. Whatever the reason, it's never the end of the world.
Solution #7: Build skills to increase your sense of control.
Too many employees have blinders on and ignore the resources that are available to them. I try to learn and stretch myself in other areas — for example, I work on improving my computer and public speaking skills, and I think of myself as a one-man business. Reading has been critical for me : Stephen Covey's "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" (Fireside, 1990) encouraged me to write down my personal mission statement.
Solution #7: Take control.
If you do something on a daily basis, a hobby or an exercise program, you'll gain a sense of control. For me, it's walking and reading. Nobody can prevent me from doing them. They've given me the confidence to take control of my career. And when you feel like you're in control, you're far less likely to get stressed.
What Doesn't Work: Short-term fixes.
I've tried meditation, deep breathing, and listening to classical music and relaxation tapes. They seemed to work at the time. But when stress symptoms reappeared later on, its clear that they weren't treating the cause.
Coordinates: Kailash Narayan, (firstname.lastname@example.org); http://www.lifelines.com
Lighten Your Load with Levity
Stress Manager Laura Kelly, 40, assistant vice president for risk management at USAA, is responsible for insuring the $22 billion in assets of this diversified financial-services company.
Frazzle Factor: Making big decisions when uncertainty is a constant.
We purchase property insurance policies several times each year, and a bad decision could easily cost the company $20 million. But there's never enough information. I wake up in the middle of the night, worrying whether I'm doing the right Thing.
Solution #8: Keep a sense of humor and perspective.
When I'm negotiating price with insurers, I'll always say something like, 'We're a great company, so why don't you insure us for free?' It lets them know that I'm not going to take their price and it releases tension. You don't have to say something that's knee-slapping funny — you just want to keep people from becoming too testy.
Solution #9: Work out.
I exercise three to four mornings per week — two miles of running and 30 minutes of weight training. I get out of bed with my gym clothes on, go directly to the gym, and then get dressed for work — it cuts down on the hassle of dressing twice. Running helps me clear my head, work the bad things out of my system, and brainstorm about the day's problems.
What Doesn't Work: Relaxing and doing nothing.
Some people think that doing nothing is relaxing. That doesn't work: doing nothing is stressful because I'm hyperactive. It's not the lack of activity that helps relieve stress, but the variety of activities. For me, juggling gardening, running, horseback riding, painting, skiing, and swimming keeps my mind off my work worries.
Coordinates: Laura Kelly, (email@example.com)
Eric Matson is a member of the Fast Company editorial staff.
A version of this article appeared in the Dec 1996/Jan 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.