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How to Reduce Stress at Work

Imagine working only four hours a day, nine months a year and earning all the money you need to do exactly what you want with all your free time. Does that sound like your life?

That's the life a futurist of the early 20th Century predicted the average worker would be living by the 21st century. 

Yet despite the introduction of many labour-saving devices in the workplace and home, Harvard University Economist Juliet Schor found by the 1990s people were working the equivalent of one month a year more than they did at the end of World War II. 

As an example, Schor explained in her book Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure how the introduction of automatic washers and dryers resulted in an increase in time spent doing laundry. Laundry that had previously been sent out now stayed home, and standards of cleanliness went up. 

Laundry isn't the only task that has grown over the last century. It seems that whenever a significant new "labour saving" product or service is developed we use it so much our workload actually increases.

After all, wasn't our work supposed to be made easier by voice mail, fax machines, cell phones and email? On the contrary, many of us find we are constantly on-call, frequently interrupted, and overwhelmed with communications that people expect to receive immediate responses to. 

That's on top of the already heavy workload existing in most organizations. For an employee, the consequences of this overload can be stress, burnout, and illness. For an employer, it can result in high turnover and poor performance.

Addressing the problem of overwork can help companies keep good employees. A recent study by AON Consulting found that management recognition of an employee's need to balance work with personal life is one of the top five drivers of employee commitment to a company.

To help overworked employees, managers should be trained to notice signs that employees are overburdened. Such signs include consistently working late, working through lunch, coming to work even when sick, taking work home, rushing to meet very tight deadlines, expressing frustration, and not taking vacations.

Employees who are overwhelmed with work may not always tell you how they feel so make the effort to ask how they are doing. For some employees, having the opportunity to express their concerns and hearing appreciation for their extra effort may help alleviate stress during a temporarily busy period.

If an employee's heavy workload is more than temporary, you can assist them in brainstorming solutions to relieve their situation. And if you are the one who is overworked, you can try some of these solutions yourself. Here are some steps you can take to get your workload under control:

Spend your time working on things that are important. This may sound obvious, but many of us are tempted to work on easy tasks first so we can have a sense of accomplishment. Time spent on those "easy" tasks can quickly add up, creating even more stress when there does not appear to be enough time left for the important work.

To find out what your time is being spent on, start keeping an "activity log". Every time you start and end a new activity, including taking a break, make note of the time. Most workers who charge by the hour have learned to do this automatically. If you are not used to tracking your time it may be a bit of an adjustment, but within a few days you should be able to notice any time-wasters you might not have been aware of. 

Set daily goals. When scheduling your time, assume that something unexpected will come up and build in a cushion of time to deal with it. To minimize the stress of meeting self-imposed deadlines, avoid making promises about when tasks will be completed. If you must commit to a date, be conservative. If you consistently underpromise and overdeliver you could earn a great reputation while reducing your stress.

Aim to meet or even exceed expectations, but don't try to achieve perfection. Wherever possible, delegate routine tasks even if you think you can do them better than someone else.

Unless you are expected to be on call, work on eliminating interruptions. Select a time of day when you will return phone calls and emails. During other times, let your voice mail take messages for you. You can also create an autoreply for your email to let people know their message has been received. If your email says you will respond within 24 hours if a reply is required, it may deter someone from repeatedly trying to contact you in the meantime.

Avoid letting other people's problems become yours. As Richard Carlson, author of Don't Sweat the Small Stuff at Work, says "If someone throws you the ball you don't have to catch it." Some managers find themselves solving their employees' problems instead of empowering employees to find solutions themselves. When someone comes to you with a problem that isn't yours, try limiting your contribution to advice instead of taking on the task yourself.

When you are feeling overwhelmed, say so. Companies want to keep good employees so most bosses will want to know when you are having difficulty. However, instead of saying "I can't do it," offer some possible solutions. 

For example, if you won't be able to get a major report completed by a particular deadline, perhaps you could tell the boss you can either complete a condensed version of the report by the deadline, complete the entire report by a later date, or meet the deadline if you get some help from co-workers or temporary staff.

These techniques probably won't help you enjoy the life of leisure envisioned by those early futurists. But they can cut down on your stress and may make your work both more manageable and more enjoyable.

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