Giving workers a break helps their self-worth, productivity

RUBBING OUT STRESS IN THE OFFICE

November 11, 1991|By Adriane Miller | Adriane Miller,Special to The Sun

As Gene Oaksmith arrives at work in the morning, he may have 50 calls in his message system, an upset employee pacing in his office and a crisis waiting just inside his door. How does he handle the onslaught of problems? He has a massage, right at his desk.

The director of community affairs at Citibank Maryland knows that once a masseuse starts to work on his neck and shoulders, he'll relax and be able to handle daily crises with calm authority.

Social workers, corporate wellness directors and others say workers feel stress in response to circumstances they can't control: workload, the economy or the financial status of the organization. And as the recession forces companies to trim their work forces -- and puts more pressure on remaining employees -- stress levels are likely to increase.

But even the most frazzled employees can be calmed by making pleasant changes to things they can control in their daily routines.

So it isn't chutzpah that allows Mr. Oaksmith to order up an xTC in-office massage like a tuna on rye. His company encourages it. And as part of Citibank Maryland's Wellness Week, Dec. 8-14, the company plans to give employees at all levels of the organization seated massages in their offices.

Massage practitioner Brion Weintzweig and a masseuse from Lifestyle Fitness Center in Randallstown will work on four to five Citibank employees an hour during Wellness Week, giving each a 10-minute deep neck and shoulder massage. He charges the company about $50 an hour. Employees sit in their chairs, don't have to take off any clothing, and no oil is used.

Mr. Weintzweig's philosophy is simple: "If they feel better, they get more done."

Seated massage may be a delightful way to relieve work stress on the job, but it certainly is not the only way. A simple change in routine can be a powerful stress inhibitor, helping employees stay productive, healthy and somewhat calm while handling problems.

Corporate health specialists recommend a daily dose of these in-office stress reducers:

* Take frequent breaks. "It's not just sitting at your desk and stopping," says Michael Powichroski, a certified professional counselor and manager of mental health programs with the Sheppard Pratt Employee Assistance Program. "It's getting away from your work, getting outside, listening to a nice piece of music, stretching a little.

"In the workplace you have to look for real brief stress management techniques," he continues. "A lot of us have trouble making that choice, so we make none. But that's a mistake. By the afternoon, you're less effective, and what you might do in one hour will take two hours."

* Make a conscious decision to exercise, even if it is only a five-minute walk around the office or outside.

"Physical exercise has an impact on your body: your heart is pumping faster, your muscles are moving. Your body can't help but have a good reaction to it," Mr. Powichroski says.

Plus, he says, by making the choice conscious, you've improved your self-worth. "It's part of a plan you made, it gives you a sense of control."

One example: Employees who usually park as close as possible to the office might park farther away. They can use the longer walk as a two-minute gift to themselves, one that still will be making them feel good 15 minutes later.

* Laugh. Malcolm Kushner, author of "The Light Touch: How to Use Humor For Business Success," writes that humor is essential when dealing with corporate calamities. Stress interferes with objectivity and clouds business judgment. But by seeing the funny side of a problem, you can find momentary calm and keep the perspective needed for successful decision-making.

"The major advantage of directing humor inward is that you need only amuse yourself," Mr. Kushner writes. "You don't have to explain why you're smiling. It's your stress, and you can reduce it by thinking about things that you find humorous."

Like imagining adversaries in their underwear, or seeing an adversary getting doused by a bucket of water.

Mr. Kushner also suggests that people who can see a stressful situation coming think of ways to defuse it ahead of time with a sense of humor. Smiling through the difficulty probably will make it better.

* Meditate. Many books describe this simple technique, which can produce profound physical and mental relaxation, even in the confines of an office chair. It begins with deep breathing, then progressive relaxation -- alternately tensing and relaxing muscles, starting with the feet and moving up to the neck and head. When the body is thoroughly relaxed, the mind can focus on onecalming image -- becoming liquid, for instance, or floating on a cloud.

Maintaining that focus for 10 minutes to an hour can push away stress for the rest of the day, if not longer.

* Think positive. Mr. Powichroski recommends that stressed-out people listen closely to the messages they are giving themselves.

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