Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Stressed at work?
Try hall hockey
Stacey Hirsh

When Donny Allison arrives for work each morning, he takes the first hour to check e-mails and voice mails and to plan his day — and his boss knows not to talk to him until after 10 am.

When he goes home at night, Allison always takes about 30 minutes to unwind before jumping into family life.

"When I go home, my wife knows just to give me time so I can read and just calm down," says Allison, who works in sales for a telephone company.

It’s Allison’s way of dealing with stress, which experts say has been increasing as employees put in longer hours to make up for a decline in resources and added competition. The increasing stress can affect worker productivity, boost absenteeism and increase healthcare costs for employers, experts say.

It’s all in the game

That’s why companies and workers are trying traditional and innovative solutions to combat the problem. From providing employee assistance programmes with counselling to allowing games of one-on-one hockey in office hallways, reducing stress remains a priority in many workplaces.

Though experts say exercise, good nutrition and relaxation techniques can help relieve stress, some workers deal with it simply by scheduling days off, taking breaks to talk with colleagues or working even harder.

One company began a 90-day fitness challenge to help employees get healthy and reduce stress. The company is paying for three-month memberships for workers at a nearby gym and three personal training sessions for each worker, says Pat Cooley, the company’s chief executive officer.

When Cooley started the health programme, he bought toys, including footballs and table tennis equipment. Most of the toys sit in a bin in the office, but hall hockey has stuck. Several afternoons a week, employees (and employer) take a break from the grind of work for one-on-one hockey matches.

Employees also are permitted to leave the office early or arrive late to squeeze in workouts and may make up the time another day during the week. About half of the company’s15 workers take part in the programme

"It’s unbelievable for me,’’ says Cooley, who began his personal training sessions last month. "You go home completely decompressed from work."

Weight of work

A lot of workers say they have an "overly heavy" workload, according to a recent survey of more than 2,500 workers in six countries conducted for office supplies manufacturer Pendaflex. The survey, which was released this month, found that 49 per cent of workers work late at least two to three times a week.

"In many companies that’s almost part of being a team player," says David Lewis, a research psychologist.

Many workers have found ways to reduce the stress of late nights and growing workloads. Sixtysix per cent of workers say they often take "stress breaks" to talk with colleagues at work, according to a survey conducted in September of 762 workers. The survey also found that 24 per cent of workers cope with stress by working harder and that 10 per cent cope by taking a day off.

De-stressing tips

John M. Ruffini, an area manager for an accounting and finance professional placement firm, tries to reduce his stress by taking the train when he travels to his office. He also manages his stress by breaking up tasks into one-hour increments.

Ruffini, like many workers, feels most stressed when he doesn’t have control over his day.

Experts say that’s a common ingredient of stress. Workers who are better trained for their jobs are likely to be more confident and experience less job stress, says David Harrison, a professor of management.

Employers should share information with workers before a crisis ensues, says Reginald Bruce, an associate professor of management who studies stress in the workplace.

If a factory is in trouble, the plant manager should let workers know about productivity and profit targets long before the problem becomes a crisis. That not only allows workers to come up with suggestions to help the factory, but it also avoids shocking employees if the plant closes, Bruce says.

Shawn Cronk, a salesman who often plays hall hockey as part of an office health programme, says the games are a stress reliever and an energiser.

Oh, and there’s one more benefit.

"I just do it so I can hit our boss," Cronk jokes. "When he starts giving us a hard time, we just say, ‘Hey, would you like to play a game?’ Then we can slam him against the wall a couple of times."

— LA Times-Washington Post