“Try Not to Ruminate When Stressed at Work”: Q&A with Sharon McDowell-Larsen

June 22, 20168:31 am1096 views

We at HR in ASIA caught up on an interesting conversation with Sharon McDowell-Larsen, Associate and Exercise Physiologist, Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) to understand how executives can beat job stress, stay mentally agile and nurture brain health for enhanced performance and efficiency at work.

We further sought enumeration on the approaches, HR managers and business leaders could follow to create stress-free environment at work, a place wherein employees are allowed to vent out and speak up their concerns to get prompt resolution to their problems. Explore more here…

  1. With accelerated pace of change in today’s business environment, how do you think executives can stay mentally agile and combat stressful situations at work?

Given the increased pace and rate of change, it becomes important paradoxically to take good care of themselves, exercise, eat well and sleep well. However, it sometimes becomes difficult to create precise routines like an athlete around sleep management, exercise, eating well and this involves maintaining discipline.

I had an executive who had enrolled for one of our programs at CCL and adopted some of the fitness and nutrition recommendations that I made. She told me later that, “The more stress I was under, the bigger the pressures. I realised it was important to exercise, to eat well and sleep, because I noticed a significant difference in my ability to handle my job and work pressure.”

  1. How important is it for women especially those who come back to work after maternity leaves, to maintain work-life balance primarily and take care of their health to handle pressured situations at work?

Work-life balance is all about managing your energy, so as a coach who works for athletes as well, I tell my athletes, “If you train too hard on your easy days, then you can’t train too hard on your hard days.” So when work is going to be really long hours, and hard, you need to follow that with periods of recovery.

The recovery piece would be into realising – what is my energy level? What is my fatigue level? Can I take time to recover from the intense work, such that I can recharge and refresh to work hard again? I think it’s about the rhythm and stress recovery – to eat well and get sufficient rest for your body to recover and feel renewed with energies.

Sharon McDowell-Larsen, Senior Associate & Exercise Physiologist, Center for Creative Leadership (CCL)

Sharon McDowell-Larsen,
Senior Associate & Exercise Physiologist, Center for Creative Leadership (CCL)

  1. Why is brain health important as much as physical wellness for enhanced efficiency and productivity at work?

Brain is the seed of intelligence, emotions and memories. People get hired for their brain power and not for their muscle power. So when people realise the impact, exercise has on their brain function, cognitive performance, and the profound impact that nutrition has, then you soon realise that things such as lack of sleep, and more stress can erode brain performance over time.

However, unfortunately if you look at today’s business environment, many of the executives that I work with are breeding in an environment that is very unhealthy for brain performance, and long-term brain health.

Typically, people in an organisation not at the leadership level report that their cause of stress is they are underutilised, they have lots of pressure but lack of control. This means they do not have a say in creative problem solving or sometimes they do not get the career development they seek. They also do not have a sense of purpose or alignment in terms of a valued contributor to the company and this disengages workforce.

From a physical health and wellness perspective, organisations with a culture of employees not being able to leave the office until manager does, working 12hours a day or 70 hours a week as a badge of honour impacts employees’ physical well being.

Employees should be given some personal time to work out in the mornings. It’s all about creating safe environments – to take time out at the end of the day to go out for a walk, to take time for lunch, to take some down time, create safe healthy food environments etc.

See: Powerful Stress Relievers You Can Do Right From Your Desk

  1. What are work and lifestyle changes that business leaders should inculcate in their habits to keep themselves mentally alert, fit and healthy and also ensure that all members of the team are fit and healthy as well?

It always goes back to the foundation. The foundation is sleep, exercise, good food and good nutrition. If you take away this foundation, everything on top is not going to work or be strong to work. Creating enough safe space, helping to educate employees, developing people, scheduling control mechanism are some of the habits business leaders should inculcate in themselves.

They should lead by example for the team to follow healthy eating habits and workout to maintain physical wellbeing and cope effectively with stress impact of hectic work life.

  1. How can managers avoid productivity burnouts at work and ensure performance efficiency of staffers at all times?

There are times when hours are going to be long and hard, but you will have to allow time for recovery and allow people to take some down time and recover from stress. If a leader is all frantic and stressed, then the team is going to be pick up on that. It is important to be calm and gain perspective, allow strong working relationships wherein team can vent out helps reduce stress levels at work.

  1. How can HR managers act as an intermediary communication link to talk to employees and understand their stress levels at work and help promote a culture of employee fitness and wellbeing at work?

One of the mediators of stress is the social support systems. Sometimes just by listening and being non-judgemental, creating a safe environment wherein people can talk about issues, provide feedback and have a say in situations, share autonomy in amount of work load, and provide creative solutions. I think all of these would be really helpful.

From a physical health perspective, the HR managers play a pivotal role to influence both the leadership at the top as well as the workforce. This further means they have to get the leadership on board to buy into health promotion policies, such that the lower rung of executives soon follow suit.

The role of a HR manager is more like being in a tough spot. I have met couple of HR managers, who are concerned about taking care of employee wellbeing, but often neglect their personal health and fitness in the process.

It is very important to differentiate between stress and pressure. Pressure comes from the external environment and stress is how we react to it. By definition, stress is more about choice and how you react to the pressure.

One of the hallmarks of stress is something called “rumination.” Rumination simply means replaying the tape over and over in your head to attach negative emotions to it. So you can do this with things that have happened in the past or with things that haven’t happened yet but will happen in the future.

So the challenge of course is how do you manage the rumination? Those who are under lots of stress and ruminate, tend to focus a lot of attention on things that they have no control about. The key strategy here is to let go, maybe you can ruminate about it for 10 minutes but then you have to let it go because there is nothing that you can do about it now.

Another strategy is to be more present and live in the moment, because we cannot live in future nor brood on the past, so we need to retake control of our attention and refocus on where you want to be, how do you want to make it count and control the controllable. Most often we end up spending time, thinking about stuffs we cannot control.

Also reframing and adding perspective will help mitigate the negative response to pressure – which is where we get into physical problems, such as lack of sleep and so on. You need to break these habits and bring positivity to deal with problems.

  1. Do you think technology that helps measure stress levels of employees, for managers to better decide on the job role and work load assigned to an employee, depending on their capacity to manage stress and work pressures would help?

If technology creates awareness and helps people understand the responses and reactions to situations at work, then you can implement people strategies to mitigate any negative responses to stress and work pressure. Also negative physiological outcomes associated with the response can also be mitigated promptly.

  1. Suggest some tips for top level executives to stay emotionally and physically stress-free during crisis times in an organisation?

Most leaders make decisions based on logic and finances but not on how this decision is going to impact people. While leaders tend to be higher on some of the judging and thinking preferences, it’s always good to have someone who understands how decisions impact people. For example, during layoff situations, provision of social support and options for people to guide the workforce to a job agency, supporting and empathising with them, helps cope with stress during times of crisis.

  1. How can team leads contribute towards stress control and stress management of members in the team, especially when deadlines are demanding and stress levels are extremely high?

Learning how not to ruminate, focusing on what they can control, and to cite a bridge analogy – “There is only so much pressure you can put on the bridge, before the supports will fail.” While you can manage the pressure and stress, but you also need to strengthen the supports.

Strengthening supports is all about being physically fit, having daily routines that incorporate physical activity, adequate nutritious food, when you start off the day. You need a whole lot of nutrition such as nuts and fresh vegetables, whole cooked grains, pulses before you start your day on a nutritious note. This will make a significant difference in how your brain functions as reflects on your mood.

Start your day with some exercise, and most people who exercise in the morning are more likely to be consistent because it’s done as a priority.

Recognise stress when it happens. When you have negative response to a situation – such as negative emotions, thoughts and feelings, only those who are self aware can easily pick up on when this happens and learn to cope with the situation. Furthermore, reflection is good to understand things that you can actually control in a situation that happens during the beginning of the day such as a bad day at work, irritated boss and manager etc.

Also read: 56% Employers in Singapore Cite Workforce Stress as the No.1 Health Risk Concern

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