Richard El­lis shares some ad­vice on how to man­age work­place stress go­ing into and out of the silly sea­son.

As the end of the year ap­proaches the speed of ac­tiv­i­ties seems to in­crease. We worry about the lack of time be­fore we stop for the Christ­mas break. This added pres­sure we put on our­selves is a per­ceived lack of time rather than a real one, but one our brain nonethe­less sees as real. Per­cep­tion is the key here. If we al­low the per­cep­tion of a lack of time to be­come a prob­lem it may very well be­come one. If we don’t then we set our brains up for a bet­ter out­come. In terms of our per­cep­tion of stress, let me para­phrase from the TED talk by health psy­chol­o­gist Kelly McGonigal of Stan­ford Univer­sity (look her up on YouTube): “It is only our per­cep­tion of stress that is the killer.” If we be­lieve stress will af­fect our health it could well do just that. If our per­cep­tion of stress is some­thing to be har­nessed and used to our ad­van­tage or at worst, just man­aged, then our health out­comes could be far bet­ter. In McGonigal’s study the out­come for those that saw stress as a bad thing for their health was a higher early death rate than for those that did not. Per­cep­tion is all very well but I think there are many more prac­ti­cal things we can do as busi­ness own­ers to man­age the stress of the pend­ing end-ofyear break which in­cludes plan­ning ahead. Dur­ing my days in the re­tail trade – one par­tic­u­lar sec­tor which goes ab­so­lutely crazy in the last few days of the year – plan­ning was the only way we got through the silly sea­son un­scathed. The plan­ning of busi­ness ac­tiv­i­ties re­quired for De­cem­ber and Jan­uary are cru­cial and a busi­ness im­per­a­tive. This way a lot of the guess­work and long hours

in­volved can be done be­fore the work needs to be com­pleted. Plan­ning, re­sources, stock, over­time, cash­flow/re­serves, sup­plier de­liv­ery sched­ules and lots more can be set in place so that the op­er­a­tion runs as close to clock­work as pos­si­ble on busy days.

Ev­ery­one in each team or depart­ment can see what’s hap­pen­ing on a daily ba­sis.

So what can be done to mit­i­gate stress? Here are my top five tips from years on the shop floor: • Cre­ate a trad­ing diary and ac­tu­ally fill it in, lots of de­tail. • Hold a short ‘ac­tion fo­cused’ team meet­ing daily if

nec­es­sary. • Ros­ters should be doc­u­mented at least four weeks ahead. • To­tally clar­ify peo­ples’ roles – if ex­tra du­ties are re­quired. • Any ‘out of rou­tine’ ac­tiv­i­ties must be as­signed to a per­son, e.g. late de­liv­ery un­load­ing, ex­tra cash col­lec­tions. Trad­ing di­aries help take the guess­work away. Your plan­ning is half done for you when you come to plan for the silly sea­son as the diary will con­tain all the things that went well or not-so-well the pre­vi­ous year. Sales re­ports must ac­com­pany the diary. That way the Kaizen ap­proach of con­tin­u­ous im­prove­ment is wo­ven into the fab­ric of the busi­ness.


Dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties deal with stress in dif­fer­ent ways. The lead­ers of busi­nesses need to be aware of the dif­fer­ent ways in which in­di­vid­u­als han­dle stress. Some will coast along and never miss a beat. Oth­ers will wa­ver and need some sup­port in, ei­ther, sys­tems like the diary (use­ful if peo­ple change roles) or talk­ing through sit­u­a­tions so they can ver­balise the is­sue and process it in their own way.

Then there are the silent types who ver­balise noth­ing and don’t ask for help. They need to be asked what help they need, and of­ten need to be led through the dif­fi­cul­ties of the silly sea­son as they may not see a way through.

As Christ­mas ap­proaches some busi­nesses get busier and oth­ers ac­tu­ally qui­eten down. The busy busi­nesses that know the pres­sure may need to con­sider ways in which they can sup­port their team. Mind­ful­ness is im­por­tant. By that I mean hav­ing the abil­ity to con­cen­trate on the task at hand with­out in­ter­rup­tion, which in a busy workspace can be hard to achieve.

I re­cently vis­ited a shared workspace on Auck­land’s North Shore where you can rent a desk by the hour – a hot desk!

There were cu­bi­cles through­out this space and var­i­ous peo­ple, head­phones plugged into their com­put­ers, were beaver­ing away at their var­i­ous tasks. I re­flected that this was a form of mind­ful­ness which al­lows the brain to fo­cus on the job in front of it while lis­ten­ing to, I’m guess­ing, mu­sic.

The ben­e­fit of this is that the out­side world is drowned out and the brain has less stim­u­la­tion. As a re­sult pro­duc­tiv­ity im­proves and stress is low­ered.


The more we bom­bard the brain the more the ner­vous sys­tem has to deal with and we over­load our sys­tem to the point of, po­ten­tially, ill health. When the hy­po­thal­a­mus (the part of our brain that’s on guard) senses dan­ger, which can be a form of stress (let’s say a dead­line or in­creased work­load), it sends a mes­sage to the pi­tu­itary gland which then sig­nals our adrenal glands to pump, among other things, adren­a­line and cor­ti­sol into our blood stream. Voila – you have fight or flight! Re­peat this process over a longer pe­riod of time and the stress starts to be­come chronic. This is when health be­comes truly af­fected. Hor­mones be­come un­bal­anced. Clever backup sys­tems kick in, steal­ing sources of other hor­mones to pick up the slack when we be­come de­pleted of our orig­i­nal stress hor­mones.

This has to be iden­ti­fied in the work­place. If peo­ple are be­ing af­fected to this de­gree then their health is be­ing chal­lenged. They need help.

Hav­ing pro­cesses in place to deal with these sce­nar­ios is im­por­tant to the on­go­ing care of em­ploy­ees and busi­ness con­ti­nu­ity.

Hav­ing pro­grammes in place that help em­ploy­ees un­der­stand these bod­ily func­tions (so they can iden­tify where their stres­sors lie and man­age the symp­toms) equips them with the tools to be a bet­ter em­ployee and, in turn, the busi­ness ben­e­fits from this im­proved state of health.

This is a ‘ top down’ is­sue to be em­braced by all se­nior lead­ers if they are at­tempt­ing to strike a healthy bal­ance. If they put pro­cesses in place to deal with stress and are seen to be liv­ing the val­ues of these day-to-day, then it will fil­ter down to staff more suc­cess­fully.

Bot­tom line – the cul­ture has to be right for these things to suc­ceed. I’ve worked with com­pa­nies that have set up well­ness com­mit­tees that are quite sep­a­rate from health and safety. That is the um­brella un­der which all this sits, but the well­ness of em­ploy­ees should be a fo­cus all year round – not just for Christ­mas!

I strongly urge busi­ness own­ers to look at their cul­ture. Their own health and the health of their team. What can you do to op­ti­mise these key el­e­ments?

En­joy the end of year fes­tiv­i­ties. Cel­e­brate suc­cess and cel­e­brate health – both men­tal and phys­i­cal. You never know who you may have helped to­day by hav­ing the right pro­grammes or pro­cesses in place.

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