To reduce job stress, keep the workplace in its place, psychologist urges

August 31, 1992|By Barbara Presley Noble | Barbara Presley Noble,New York Times News Service

You know who you are, and you are not alone. You stay mentally Velcro-ed to the office long after you leave. You obsess and stew on the trip home and then replay the day minutia-by-minutia to your spouse or partner.

"Sometimes, I put too many details in. I can see my husband's eyes glaze over," said Gretchen Park, the director of compensation and benefits at Residential Services Corp., the holding company for Prudential Home Mortgage. "I know he doesn't want to hear about the office for two hours."

Caught up in downsizing, streamlining and, in the case of Residential Services, the crush of work brought on by an expanding business, millions of Americans are working more, enjoying it less and experiencing firsthand the stern conclusion that Harvard economist Juliet Schor comes to in her recent book, "The Overworked American." She wrote: "Excessive hours are unhealthy and antisocial, and ultimately erode the quality of life."

Because companies know that, stress reduction on the job has become a cottage industry with proliferating numbers of gurus du jour. But when Residential Services wanted advice, it chose Barbara Mackoff, a Seattle-based management psychologist who holds the contrarian view that employees suffer most not from stress at work but from an inability to detach themselves from work long enough to become refreshed and recharged.

When she takes the stage in front of an audience of clients, she preaches a doctrine of renewal as a bottom-line, strategic skill.

"Companies are struggling to define what makes people productive," Ms. Mackoff said. "Some take the 'boiled-frog approach,' " in which managers turn up the productivity heat. "People get used to hotter and hotter water."

But employees can only keep up for so long. One way or another, they will take time off, and it will cost the company as well as the employee. "Through mistakes, lack of creativity, illness, lack of follow-through with clients," Ms. Mackoff said. "You'll take time off, but not in a productive way."

Ms. Mackoff makes this observation on the basis of a decade of experience in organizations. A psychologist with training in anthropology, she does a cultural study of the company before she actually arrives for workshops or lectures.

Once on site, her first job usually is to convince her audience that they will survive if they briefly turn off the treadmill. She may start with a simple story: Told that he is working with a dull saw, a workman replies that he is too busy to stop and sharpen the blade. "I get a lot of 'I'm too busy sawing to sharpen the saw,' " she said.

When she begins to spin out her list of symptoms, she can see the looks of recognition -- and, often, relief -- on the faces in front of her.

* It's literally impossible to leave work. "You take your briefcase home and work," she said. "Or you take your briefcase home and don't touch it -- and feel guilty. You can't resist calling the office while you're on vacation."

* It's impossible to protect private time from work-related worries. "You can't fall asleep. You spend the whole night talking about work."

* Time away from work becomes an excuse for more work. "Every social occasion becomes a business-card occasion."

Managers may notice that employees come in on Monday looking more tired than they did on Friday. And they will surely notice a productivity decline.

One useful diagnostic is the first post-work encounter at home. "It takes about 40 seconds to ruin an entire evening," Ms. Mackoff said, just by continuing in the mode of the woes of the day. "Standing back from pressures of the day really is an accomplishment."

Like a good anthropologist, she advises developing some exit rituals to manage the work-to-home transition. One of her clients locks her appointment book in a drawer and backs out of her office shaking her finger, saying, "stay, stay."

Another compliments a subordinate as he leaves each evening. Once home, she says, it is crucial to greet everyone before launching into a recitation of the day's horrors.

The trick over the long term is to use time away from work to get experience the job doesn't provide. Gretchen Park, who heard Ms. Mackoff's talk during a January sales meeting in Florida, said much of the message has stayed with her.

Probably, she said a little ruefully, she should take up a hobby, but at least she tries to sit down and listen to music once a week. She really appreciated, she says, the message Residential Services delivered by bringing in Ms. Mackoff: "It was a recognition that this is a hard life we live."

Put leisure time to good use

In her seminars and in a recent book, "The Art of Self-Renewal" (Lowell House), Barbara Mackoff suggests pursuing leisure activities that offer a sense of purpose, of self and of time completely different than anything available at work.

* Purpose: Stop thinking about having something to show for every activity. At the movies, don't think about how much the film grossed or how the popcorn stand is doing. Don't apply high strategic demands of jobs to the home -- i.e. lower your housework standards. Leave lists, and the inclination to make lists, at the office. Do non-professional reading. Don't think about any bottom line.

PTC * Self: Participate in activities that express a dimension of personality or ability that doesn't come out on the job. It could be playing music, seeing friends or getting active in the community. Stop using a work vocabulary to describe non-work experience.

* Time: Resist the urge to overschedule, and stop rushing. "One chief executive would take off his watch on Friday and put it back on Monday," Ms. Mackoff said. Do projects with a beginning, middle and end.

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