With the nation’s recession-related unemployment numbers in the double-digit range and many employers holding off on adding new staff, many of those men and women fortunate enough to have jobs are working harder and longer hours to help sustain their organization’s level of productivity. While a predictable byproduct of difficult economic times, working longer and harder adds real physiological and emotional stress to many jobs already inherently stressful by their very nature. In turn, these realities challenge managers in some very important ways.

Several years ago, a friend and colleague pointed out that what makes almost all work inherently stressful is that it is: “timed” — we have deadlines; “competitive” — others may do our work faster and better; and “ego engaging” — how we perform affects how we feel about ourselves. Having to work extra hard or for longer periods of time only adds to that stress.

What we know from basic physiology is that prolonged stress has an observable, measurable, dysfunctional impact both on our performance at work and on our physical health as well. In my management experience, the first signs of excessive stress were often manifest in a loss of emotional control, irritability, the capacity for logical thinking, and perhaps worst of all, in impaired judgment. In combination, these diminished capacities do not equate to solid performance or sound decision-making.

So in these high stress times in many workplaces, what is the good manager to do? Start by paying extra attention and with reminding yourself that “everybody needs a break”.

High stress work environments require managers who are highly attuned to the human behavior around them. Signs of stress-related emotional fragility, irrational thinking, and impaired decision-making are generally not hard to detect when you are looking for them. More importantly, they can often be mitigated or headed off by the skilful employment of the proverbial “break”.

Pats on the back for hard work and jobs well done are always appreciated. But in the face of exhausting hard effort and 10-12 hour days, they are generally not enough. Humans need some down time away from their phones, computers, equipment, tools, lunches at their desk, on the fly, or skipped entirely, whatever, just to unwind and take a relaxing deep breath. Down time allows us to regain perspective on things, reevaluate our job priorities, relax our muscles, lower our blood pressures, and gain renewed energy.

There are countless creative ways to meet these basic human work place needs on a daily basis, although every manager faces constraints dictated by his or her business requirements and organizational work flow. But the very best managers care a great deal about making some regular down time happen for their subordinates — and seem to have a sixth sense about which subordinates need it the most and when — because they understand the fundamental link between fresh minds and bodies, and high quality thinking, judgment and performance from those entrusted to their management skills.

Categories: Managing & Leading, Managing People

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