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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 27, 2006

Help prevent burnout: turn off cell phone, e-mail occasionally

By ANITA BRUZZESE
Gannett News Service

From grocery store clerks to high-powered Wall Street types, the same malady is hitting workplaces nationwide: burnout.

Cell phones, pagers and e-mails are partly responsible. The ability to be available to bosses and co-workers 24/7 is a strain on nearly everyone. But the other big culprit of workplace stress is boundaries and our unwillingness to set them, says Mike Staver, an executive coach.

"You're the one who has to turn off the cell phone, who has to turn off the pager," Staver says. "But you can't seem to do it because it's like a needle to an addict. So instead of being a human being, you're a human doing."

That's why Staver advocates that workers set boundaries in a way that makes more sense one day a week, the cell phone and pager and e-mails are turned off at a certain time.

Staver, who often advises executives on ways to reduce their stress and avoid burnout, says that he sees the same problems reflected in every segment of the American workplace. Burnout, he says, "happens when the investment of energy exceeds the return on investment."

So instead of feeling like time flies as you put your energies into a task, you feel a decreasing sense of energy in tasks or relationships, finding that you get less fulfillment out of things you used to enjoy. You either work at a frantic and distracted pace, getting less and less done, or you just generally slow down your pace.

"It shifts from something you pursue to it pursuing you," Staver says.

Still, Staver says, there are ways that workers can get a better handle on their stress and avoid burnout. He says that everyone should begin each day by investing in one "high-gain activity."

"This is what a person decides would supply them with fuel and energy," he says. "For some, it may be yoga or jogging, but I know one woman who begins her day by reading. That's what she really enjoys, and that's what gets her started."

Staver suggests that listening to music that "pumps you up" is also a good idea, because research has shown that people who use this strategy before they face challenging situations increase their productivity by as much as 200 percent.

Some other ideas to avoid burnout:

  • Block it. Multitasking often leads to inefficiency and poorer-quality work. Instead, use blocks of time to do certain tasks and refuse to be interrupted with other things. For example, from 2-3 p.m., respond to e-mails or read correspondence, but don't get caught up in filing expense reports or proofreading a report.

  • Move on. Dwelling on mistakes can cost you valuable time and energy and doesn't change what happened. While you want to do everything you can to fix a problem for a customer or associate and make them happy, you have to be willing to then move on and not look back.

  • Provide answers. Ask someone you trust (other than a significant other) to meet with you once a week to discuss your goals, progress, setbacks and thoughts on your professional and personal life. "Your accountability partner keeps you on track and moving forward in all aspects of your development," Staver says.

  • Take a break. When you're feeling stressed, go out to lunch with friends or associates - but don't talk about work. Talk about things you enjoy, like hobbies or sports. Even eating lunch by yourself can give you a chance just to get away from the pressures of the job.

  • Sleep on it. Often a 15- or 20-minute nap will increase your ability to concentrate and keep stress under control. If you're worried you won't wake up, hold onto a pen or set of keys over your lap or the floor. When you doze off, you'll drop them and wake yourself up. Make sure you raise your feet while resting to increase oxygen and blood flow to the brain.

  • Just say "no." When you're already booked with personal commitments and work, say "no" to anyone who asks you to take on more. Staver says that if you think saying "no" could cost you your job or a friendship, then it might be time to rethink a career or friends.